Music from the Field

Hi Everyone!

Today I’m writing from University of California Los Angeles, where I’m visiting as a prospective student in the ethnomusicology graduate department. Aside from savoring the sunshine, I’ve met with professors, observed a graduate seminar on current issues in ethnomusicology, and talked with current students about their experiences. As members of the Society for Ethnomusicology Student Union, we would love to feature posts about student life, including selecting programs of study. We’re still looking for guest contributors, so drop us a comment if you’re interested!

Because I’m just a few months away from beginning graduate school, this seems like a great time to continue reflecting on my undergraduate fieldwork. Today particularly, I’d like to tell you about the musical elements of the Bahá’í Choral Music Festival.

Numerous aspects of the repertoire Van Gilmer chose for his annual spring choral festival highlight his ingenuity as a musician and conductor. For example, Gilmer chose Dona Nobis Pacem from Bach’s mass in b minor for his ensemble, which the choir sang as an a cappella piece. While the selection stands as an honored example of sacred music in the Western classical tradition, choosing to perform it without accompaniment strikes me as novel. Van Gilmer also composed three pieces on the program, drawing from the gospel traditions. However, the lyrics of his choral works feature the holy writings of the Bahá’í Faith, rather than following a Christian message. In this effect, Gilmer is redefining gospel as a genre. In contrast from the Western selections, I heard the nearly 200 voice choir rehearse and perform a haunting Arabic chant, sung by early members of the Bahá’í Faith in prison for their beliefs. This moment, a living link to history, still lingers in my memory.

I hope you enjoyed the video I linked above, “Cause Me To Taste,” composed by Van Gilmer. It’s one of the examples of a gospel inspired piece on the program. There’s also a wonderful family moment midway through, where Van solos, accompanied by his son, while his daughter conducts the choir. What do you think of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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