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The creative arc of Kile Smith: Do opportunities make the piece? Or does the piece create the opportunity?

Composer Kile Smith

The surprisingly large number of thriving Philadelphia composers is only partly about the city’s relatively low cost of living and great conservatories. It’s also about great opportunities that don’t depend on the Philadelphia Orchestra. Certainly, composers such as Jennifer Higdon have had that lucky break with the Fab Philadelphians. But no realistic composer can put their muse on hold until something like that comes their way.

Like Kile Smith (b. 1956). He worked for years overseeing the Fleisher Collection at the Philadelphia Free Library, is a radio presence on WRTI-FM, and composed with some visibility over the years. Maybe he would’ve continued that way, becoming another “Sunday composer,” were it not for his middle-age breakout: The 2008 Vespers, written for the unlikely combination of the Renaissance wind band Piffaro and the then-fledgling chamber choir The Crossing.

Would the succession of excellent pieces that he has written since – most recently, The Arc in the Sky, premiered on June 30 by The Crossing and maybe his best piece yet – have happened in some shape or form without somebody asking for them? Even God can’t answer that one. Nor could the audience at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill that gave him a rock-star ovation at the end, even more than what was awarded to Benjamin C.S. Boyle two weeks earlier in The Crossing’s Month of Moderns Festival. Meanwhile, Smith has recordings and performances by other organizations, such as Philadelphia’s LyricFest and the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati; he’s now starting on an opera based on The Book of Job. You might say he is a reclaimed talent.

But who gets reclaimed – and who does not?

The old romantic notion of geniuses like Schubert writing one misunderstood masterpiece after another that never went further than the desk drawer is, for the most part, a romantic notion. One exception is Philadelphia’s Michael Hersch. During a period of few commissions, he wrote amazing, epic-sized chamber works, not for the desk drawer but for his own ready fingers as a pianist.

Most often, desk-drawer pieces are too untested to allow a composer to develop. Philadelphia’s Harry Hewitt died in 2003 at age 82, having written some 32 symphonies; most of them were never performed, and they’ve been described as not entirely finished. And maybe that was because they were left unheard and had no prospects of being heard. He might be described as a still-born talent.

And not every Sunday composer has that drive to develop. Some have good connections that yield good performances – and with music of interest, but maybe only of passing interest.

Having a literary-minded collaborator like Crossing founder Donald Nally has pushed Smith into places he might not have gone on his own. The 2008 Vespers was the right piece at the right time for Smith to find his voice.  He has solid roots in church music, and so does Vespers. His daughter Priscilla, then a future member of Piffaro, was nearby for advice on what ancient instruments can do. The Crossing, which had formed only in 2005, was ready to show the world how good it is;. And, to an extent, Piffaro supplied the kind of audience that would hear outside the box.

But there’s also something to be said, – at a more evolved point in a composer’s creative confidence – for taking on what initially seems like the wrong piece, just to see what happens.  Where Flames a Word,  premiered in 2009, had a more abstract text by Paul Celan that seemed to open up much broader harmonic vistas for Smith.  Nally can take credit for that one; the piece was part of a larger project celebrating the poetry of Celan. Though Nally had little part in Smith’s discovery, for this new piece, of poet Robert Lax (1915-2000) – who traded New York City jazz clubs and the company of Thomas Merton for the semi-isolation of a Greek island – Smith loved the stuff and knew Nally would too.

The distinctive synergy these two guys enjoy is downright entertaining . Would any outside observer ever think to put this pair in the same room?  At Saturday’s pre-concert lecture, the freewheeling, quick-witted Nally was barefooted (typical) and wearing shorts; Smith looked like a brainy version of a 1950s suburban dad. Both were earnest and unfiltered in their own way, each focusing on different elements of Lax, a pioneer of minimalist poetry. Smith loved the be-here-now spirituality manifested in a Lax’s straightforward description of fishermen mending their nets. Nally was fascinated by the experimentation, in which words are spelled out, letter by letter, vertically down the side of the page just so we don’t take words for granted. I wasn’t always sure what they were talking about. That’s okay. What matters if the work that comes out of their process.

The unaccompanied, nine-movement Arc in the Sky is divided into three sections, “Jazz,” “Praise” and “Arc.” The first is an animated, borderline-bebop treatment of Lax’s verse, suggesting that, on a certain level, the poet was sometimes tossing words around, meaning being secondary. This is not jazz in the improvisational sense but more about the kind of chords that support improvisation. Smith admits to being influenced by the 1950s vocal quartet the Hi-Lo’s; here, he took that influence and ran with it. Serious music is often no longer serious when it becomes breezy. Not here, even if the balance of sophisticated counterpoint and vernacular aura wasn’t yet quite right. (Future performances are likely to be less meticulous and more swinging.)

The “Praise” section had passages that sounded like chant – whether real or newly composed – as well as the more unpredictable and more archaic-sounding “conductus” with two voices going separate but congruent ways. Both here and in the “Arc” section that ends the entire piece, there were passages that did something Smith has never done before: They seemed to go on a bit too long. But just when they were on the verge of outstaying their welcome, the composer would do something that gave the music a cumulative impact. (Maybe I can analyze that on future hearings, but not yet.)

Most significantly, that final movement brought together many previous elements, which tells me that individual movements shouldn’t be excerpted. Jazz chords returned to give the finale its strong harmonic bedrock and inner toughness, and those chords would mean much less without the “Jazz” section that began The Arc in the Sky. Smith’s music has never lacked conviction, but what previously seemed carved in wood now feels chiseled in stone. And who would ever think that jazz chords were his means to get there?

Reading this, you may wonder when the piece is going to be recorded. That has happened already, though where and when it comes out remain open to question. While the recording process is usually the end point of a piece’s evolution, Nally has moved that up a bit. Now, he and The Crossing record new works before the premiere performance, if only because he and his singers learn so much about the music from the kind of microscopic detail work that comes with recording. And maybe that’s a key underlying factor here: Audiences need not extrapolate about what the piece is trying to say. Composers have a clear idea of what they have done and, most important, where they want to go next, You can’t ask for a better opportunity than that.


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