Choral Arts Initiative: How to Go On: The Choral Works of Dale Trumbore
Choral Arts Initiative

In the first movement of Dale Trumbore's eight-part How to Go On, a magnificent, thirty-five-minute ‘secular requiem' performed a cappella by the Choral Arts Initiative, contemporary poet Barbara Crooker wonders, “How can we go on / knowing the end of the story?” In asking what meaning existence can hold when the inevitable outcome is death, Crooker's question is certainly one of the most fundamental. It might be instructive to digress for a moment to consider the answer Albert Camus proposed in the case of Sisyphus, that familiar, modern-day symbol of absurdity who was condemned by the gods to repeatedly push a rock to the top of a mountain to see it roll back down again. The key line in the short chapter recounting the myth arrives at its end in Camus' assertion, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” There's dignity, in other words, in his struggle, and so too does Trumbore's How to Go On exude the same in its wry acceptance of mortality and the wise forbearance with which it's confronted. We go on, it implies, by embracing the short time granted to us and humbly appreciating it as the wondrous gift that it is. In short, the work rejects despair, opting instead to celebrate the human spirit with quiet affirmation.

A Los Angeles-based writer and composer, Trumbore graduated with a dual degree in Music Composition and English from the University of Maryland before earning her Master's in Composition at the University of Southern California. Many of her works set poems and prose by living writers to music and have been recorded by Choral Arts Northwest, New York Virtuoso Singers, and soprano Gillian Hollis, among others. Trumbore composed How to Go On specifically for Choral Arts Initiative, which on its debut album features twenty-two singers conducted by Artistic Director Brandon Elliott. The texts, themselves as central to the work as Trumbore's writing, are by three living poets, Crooker, Amy Fleury, and Laura Foley, and explore a broad emotional spectrum whilst sharing a common theme. Foley's “However Difficult” promotes acceptance of life, no matter how messy or marked by failure it might be, whereas Crooker's “Requiescat” promotes the cathartic value release brings to both the departed and those left behind (“let go of the world, its sweetness and sorrow ... fly away from this prison of bone, let go”).

On this forty-five-minute release, the title piece is complemented by three short settings, one of which, In the Middle, also features sparkling piano accompaniment by the composer. Though separate from the title work, Crooker's text perpetuates its thematic character in accentuating life's fleeting quality (“... sometimes we take off our watches, sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up in love, running out of time”). Throughout this remarkable collection, which features in all cases but one world premiere recordings, the relationship between the texts and music is symbiotic, Trumbore's music so deeply sympathetic to the words' meanings it seems to grow from it naturally. In allowing the musical material to develop in accordance with the seven texts (one set twice), a fusion between the two is achieved that resonates powerfully. The settings weave seamlessly between solo and ensemble passages, and though each piece is different they're connected by a lyrical five-note motif that surfaces at appropriate moments (at the end of “Requiescat” and throughout Fleury's “When at Last,” for example).

There's no attempt on Trumbore's part to be self-consciously ‘modern'; instead, compositional techniques are deployed to serve the texts. During the haunting “How,” for example, the ensemble's vocal lines swoop and pitch-shift not for mere effect but to amplify Crooker's meditative musing on mortality, while the velocity of the vocal lines increases at the end of In the Middle to mirror the words “running out of time.” Trumbore's lyrical writing is well served by Choral Arts Initiative's triumphant performances, which are without exception glorious whether the voices are swelling rapturously in unison or providing delicate support to a particular soloist (consider, for instance, the sublime turn by Lorraine Joy Welling in Lodestar), and the pristine clarity of the group's singing is a constant source of joy. How to Go On offers succor and solace to anyone—all of us, more like—who at one moment or another has grown conscious of life's passing and its inevitable end. Confronted with such hard truths, one might not be “happy” in that Sisyphus-like sense but nevertheless draw considerable strength and comfort from this exceptional recording.

April 2017