Even though my career has included a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 14 albums of my compositions, many commissions, and performances throughout the United States and Europe in settings as diverse as The Berlin Jazz Festival and MTV, it is only in the last fifteen years that I have discovered the instrument that I am drawn to compose for above all others: the human voice. Specifically I have concentrated on the ability of the natural singing voice to produce two pitches at once through the use of harmonics.
How did I come to composing harmonic pieces for vocal ensembles? How did such a varied and multifaceted career bring me to a place of such intense and singular focus?
I have always been fascinated by sound. Even as a small child sound was a constant source of excitement, joy, and mystery.
Richard Rodgers, a friend of my Father’s, gave me my first “music lesson” when I was six. He sat with me at the piano and had me pick out three notes. I was absolutely awestruck as he took the three notes I had tentatively chosen and instantly made them into a song. He then told my father he thought I had musical talent. We all knew where the talent truly lay.
As a child and teen I played clarinet, saxophone, piano, guitar and string bass. At 15 I started playing in concerts and in clubs. In high school I was fortunate to have a music teacher, Jerry Bidlack, who recognized in me a talent for composition. He gave me my first commission, which was to compose the music for my high school graduation.
I went to Wesleyan University for two years. The music department at that time offered little opportunity to pursue my main interest, composition. The emphasis was on World Music, which I immersed myself in even though it wasn’t my main pursuit. In retrospect that exposure had a major impact on my career. My musical experience was also broadened by studying with Alvin Lucier, David McAllister, and Ken McIntrye. I then took a year off and made a record of my compositions for Buhdda Records, released in 1971.
I returned to college at Bennington for two years. I chose it because of the importance placed on composition as one of the teaching foundations of the Music Department. I also studied orchestration, conducting, improvisation, and voice with Henry Brant, Bill Dixon, Jimmy Garrison, Louis Calabro, and Frank Baker. In 1973, I composed the music for the graduation ceremony for my class.
Immediately after college I performed with an improvisation collective and a dance troop. One of the dancers was Steve Paxton, a founder of the Contact Improvisation dance movement.
Shortly thereafter I formed The Year of the Ear, a 12 to 14 piece jazz ensemble. We recorded three albums of my compositions (two for Arista Novus Records). The group performed at the Berlin Jazz Festival, The Boston Jazz Fest, and most major Jazz clubs in both Boston and New York. John Rockwell, of the New York Times, said of one of our performances at the Public Theater, “What makes Mr. Hersey interesting is the originality of his writing for the various color combinations in his aural palette.”
During that same period I composed instrument study pieces that worked with choirs of a specific instruments: twenty-five saxophones (1977), sixteen trombones (1977), four string basses (1978), and twelve trumpets (1979). The purpose of these pieces was to investigate all the tone, color, and textural possibilities for each of these instruments.
Thanks to the people who thought that my music was worthy of support, I received a number of commissions. Among them: Harvard University, “From the Tower,” for Jazz Orchestra (1977); New Mexico Arts Division, “New Mexico Visions / Angels and Warriors / Earth Above the Sky,” for Jazz Orchestra (1979); N.E.A. Music Fellowship, “Island,” for Jazz Orchestra (1980); The City of New York, “The Eighth Wonder,” Brooklyn Bridge Centennial Celebration, for mixed ensemble (1983); The Public Theater, “The Horse’s Ass,” score for a play by Jeff Wanshell for voice. (1984); The New York Council for the Arts, “Bluestone,” sound installation (1985); The Hudson Valley Philharmonic, “The Question,” for electric guitar and orchestra (1993); The Woodstock Cycle “Witness, Four Vocal Mediations on September 11th,” for mixed choir (2002).
Although I was having some success, I had not yet found the depth of musical expression I was seeking. Wanting to explore new sounds and sound production technology, I composed for synthesizer and other electronic music devices from 1980 to 1991. I recorded four albums that combined electronics with voice, acoustic instruments, found sound, and percussion. Although this too was informative and enriching, I had not yet found my true compositional voice.
Then things began to change. In 1988 I began to explore harmonic singing. There was an immediacy and purity of sound that I had not experienced through playing any other instrument. No matter what other project I was working on, I was drawn back to that sound again and again.
Between 1988 and 1995 I worked for WABC television. I composed music for Eye Witness News Magazine, Election Coverage Music, and more than two dozen 30-second spots. One of these later became the theme for WAMC’s Capitol Connection, which is still running today. During this period I also did an arrangement for string quartet for Graham Parker’s Long Stem Rose. The piece premiered on the Tonight Show in 1993.
In 1996 and 1997 I recorded arrangements of multiple guitars playing orchestral pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Orff, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky. Because I played and recorded all of the orchestral parts individually on solo guitar, it took two years to record this album. This recording, at long last, will be released in 2014.
In 1997 I was again drawn back to the sound that engaged me on the deepest of levels. I began recording Waking the Cobra, my first album of harmonic singing. This was the real beginning of my discovery of the sound that my entire musical life had been directed toward. After the recording’s release in 1998, I toured doing performances of pieces from the recording. I soon realized I needed to form a vocal ensemble to support further development of the sound that was beginning to unfold in my compositions.
I started Prana, a nine-voice ensemble, in 2000. As well as a strong emphasis on vocal harmonics my compositions combine traditional western vocal straight tone with the music of India, Tibet, Tuva, Mongolia, Bulgaria and Georgia. This blend of sounds is expressed stylistically as Concinnitism.
Concinnitism is the shaping of parts into a harmonious whole to the greatest effect with the least effort. The ever present question is “What is not necessary?” By using the simplicity of: vocal harmonics, slow tempos, drones, non-pulsative time, textures created by multiple voices repeating the same phrase out of sync, and extended time frames between melodic phrases, the listener’s expectation is suspended, inducing in them a meditative state.
Prana has recorded 3 albums in this style. The first, The Eternal Embrace, was released in 2004. The second in 2007 was a collaboration with Bhakti practitioner Krisha Das, entitled Gathering in the Light. Our third album, Sadhana, has been recorded and will be released early next year.
Over the last twelve years Prana has performed regularly at a variety of performance spaces, concert halls and universities throughout the United States. We haver shared a bill with Philip Glass. We appeared at “The International Festival of the Voice,” Tibet House, and Menla and many, many benefits including two for the Dalai Lama foundation. Prana had the honor of giving a personal performance for Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Waking the Cobra was used at a performance for BKS Iyengar at City Center in New York. We rehearse every Monday night regardless of our performance schedule.
I continue to compose for larger vocal ensembles and choirs. Requiem, a version of the 2002 commission “Witness,” was expanded to twelve pieces and recorded in 2011 with a twenty-four voice mixed chorus. It will be released in the summer of 2013. It is a musical narrative that recounts my experiences on September 11th, 2001, from Chambers Street in lower Manhattan.
As well as studying traditional western vocal technique I have continued to study the vocal lineages of other cultures: Tibetan Buddhist Chant with the Gyoto Monks; Mongolian throat singing Master Odsuren Baatar; Raga with Bansuri flute master Steve Gorn; and Tuvan Throat singing with Ayan Shirizhik, Badydorzhu Ondar, Ayanool Sam, all members Alash. In addition, I was one of twelve participants in a week long master class with Bobby McFerrin.
I have been a featured guest harmonic vocalist on several recordings: Savasana, Wah! (2005); Celtic Lamentations, Aine Minogue (2005); The Best of Wah!, Wha! (2007); Celtic Pilgrimage, Aine Minogue (2008); At Ease 2, David Nichtern (2008); Sacred OM, Nadine Risha (2009); Bury the Dead, Richard McGraw (2010); and as yet Untitled, Anjani (2012).
A recent result of my work on refining vocal sound to its purest form has been a publishing contract with Inner Traditions for The Practice of Nada Yoga, my book on sound meditation that will be released in 2013.
I have had a long career. I have studied, composed, performed, and recorded classical music for orchestra and chorus, jazz for big bands, songs for rock bands, avant-guard for improvising collectives and dance ensembles, electronic music for synthesizers, and theme and promotional music for television. Music of other cultures has continued to influence my composing and performing since the 1970s.
This diverse and eclectic career has given me tools from each of these genres that have been omnipresent in my composing for vocal ensemble for the last fifteen years. My classical studies and composing have given me arranging skills and an understanding of form and theory. My body of work with big bands influenced my use of voicing and color tones. My rock experience honed a simplicity of arrangement and vocal harmony. My delving into the avant-garde immersed me in the use of texture, pure sound, and minimalism. My exploration of synthesizers showed me that even in the acoustic world, there are always other sounds to be discovered. My labor in the world of television showed me the power in focused brevity. My love of vocal music of other cultures revealed to me the universal emotional power of the human voice. When a singer expresses the emotional essence of a song, you need not understand the language to understand the sound’s deeper meaning.
In the last fifteen years I have come into the most prolific period of my career. I have finally arrived at the sound I have been seeking to make my entire life. I hope through my work to extend vocal technique and add to the vocabulary of vocal sounds by the refinement of harmonic singing. That goal is tempered by the understanding that once technique has been mastered, the sound must come from the heart.
My intent is to make music so beautiful that it will change people’s lives. Falling short of the that, I try and give them a moment of peaceful contemplation.
Whatever small musical gift I have been given is not mine. It belongs to those teachers who I studied with. It belongs to those musicians and composers who I have listened to and been moved by. It belongs to those who have brought my music to life as performers. Mainly it belongs to those who have supported me in my life long love and pursuit of the perfection of sound. -Baird Hersey