Women’s Choir and the women of Concert Choir will be combining to sing Ola Gjeilo’s “Tundra” on the final concert of the semester–my final concert at UConn. It turns out I’m going to get to conduct it, which is fabulous because I really dig it.
The Baylor University recording is, in my opinion, the best on YouTube by far:
So, I’ve already been leading sectional rehearsals in Women’s Choir and begun preparing it with the women of Concert Choir, but I was preparing it for someone else to conduct it. Now I actually get to prepare it for myself, which requires rather more decisions.
Now that I’m looking at it like a conductor, I’m looking at the structure to see how it really works. The primary structural axis seems to be the big key change in the middle (m. 29 of 57), which sinks from A minor to G minor. That’s not a typical, common-practice-era-style key change, so what’s it for?
First of all, stepwise descent is a thing throughout the whole song. The modulation is a large-scale reflection of the stepwise descending lines of the introduction’s vocal lines and of the piano’s left hand half notes in mm. 28-35 and again at mm. 40-47.
More subjectively, I think it evokes grounding. It has a feeling of settling lower down. Ka-chunk. And that fits the text and the affect of the music overall, which is expansive and broad of girth, oceanic. But in the midst of all that wide, vast, expanse, we also have a sense of weight, of gravity.
Then there’s another key change right at the very end to E-flat major–nothing surprising there: chromatic mediants have been our friends since Haydn. But after the modern, down-one-step modulation, why would a composer to go down another third and change mode?
I think the answer comes from the main theme. “Of green and white and granite grey,” in the first section, starting on A. “Snowy patches strewn, Anchored to the craggy earth” in the second section, starting on G. Beginning on tonic, in both cases. But the third time, “While clouds dance Across the vast eternal sky,” begins on G–the third of E-flat major. Same pitch, different mode. So, while avoiding the stark obviousness of just modulating to the parallel major, it also avoids any overall effect of sinking. It’s a mildly exotic shift into major. And, looking backwards, it appears that this relationship is an echo of the very first statement of something like the first theme: the solo descant on the words “sacred expanse,” which begins on C, the third of A minor. It’s not quite a real statement of the theme, but it foreshadows it. And, apparently, it foreshadows the third relationship that will end the song.
More subjectively, this modulation in the last eight measures feels like the theme has been sort of set free. It doesn’t go any lower, it just twists into a new version that lacks the big downward leaps “anchored to the craggy earth.” This one is about the clouds dancing “across the vast, eternal sky.” Eternity, colored with the unresolving added second by the first sopranos. Like a hot air balloon that floats into the distance, and we watch it until it’s so far away we can’t see it anymore.
Of course, this is not meant to imply that Ola himself had exactly all of this in mind when he composed it. But it’s not my job to read his mind; it’s my job to read his music. And here’s what that looks like to me:
mm. 1-6 Introduction of long, sustained, generally descending lines. [Three attempts to get the accompaniment right]
mm. 7-18: opening text, foreshadowing of theme starts on the third by soloist. [A1 succeeds in moving us forward finally, so we can start for real!]
mm. 19-27: first real statement of the theme beginning on the tonic in S1, other voices as accompaniment similar to intro. [This is were we were trying to get.]
mm. 28-39: G minor, double bar (and there’s another double bar at m. 36, before “unmoving,” which sounds briefly B-flat majorish, but I don’t think the section is large enough to justify its own category here; it’s part of the beginning of the second half). Theme begins on tonic in octaves with A1 echo built in. [Grounded, a more solid, fully-fleshed version of what came before.]
mm. 40-49: S2 and A2 sing theme again, S1 and A1 accompany loudly but similar to intro. [Ecstatic restatement!]
mm. 50-57: E-flat major, theme starts on the third by soloist (bookend) while other voices accompany. [A contented sigh, the theme set free.]