Musical Inspiration in Times of Trouble
An Interview with HMC Member and Composer, Dennis Clements
HMC's final virtual performance for the 2020-2021 season, composed by member Dennis Clements, contains both a plea to God to extend peace to us and an exhortation to extend our peace to other. Dona Nobis Pacem Tuam (Give Us Your Peace) beautifully captures the idea that despite our current times of trouble, peace is always worth seeking and always worth giving.
Clements originally conceived the inspiration for this piece in 2018 after hearing the music of composer Morten Lauridsen. Having always wanted to compose a choral piece at the collegiate level, he began seeking a text that would best reflect the sound he wanted to achieve.
“I chose Latin as the language because the purity of the vowels and the beauty of the tones lend themselves to the style of music I wanted for this piece,” Clements says.
His growing concern about tribalism and lack of unity within our society planted the seed for what would become the text. “I found myself desiring peace at a greater level and I wanted others to desire it too.”
After sketching out some concepts in English, Clements began searching online translation tools, but the results weren’t consistent. He knew he would never feel confident with the text using only these methods. He reached out to classics and Latin experts in the area and settled upon a translation provided to him by Catherine Dunar, a Latin teacher at Randolph School.
The composition process for “Dona Nobis” differed from his usual process in that the text came before the music to provide the structure. He wanted the melody line to reflect the words of the text. For example, in the beginning, Clements uses a descending melody line to reflect God’s peace coming down to us. In the middle, the rhythms and harmonies punch and clash, portraying a strident tone when peace is absent. At the end, the melody line ascends to reflect our worship and our extension of peace to others rising up to God.
“At the beginning of the piece, I was experimenting with just vowels, almost as if the choir is warming up to sing. Even though each vocal part is singing a different vowel, the sound eventually becomes more unified – a sort of unity in the midst of diversity.”
Clements singularly produced the virtual recording, a time intensive project that took well over 100 hours to complete. First, he created a computerized audio version of the music and a scrolling video of the music using computer software. Realizing the need for demo and rehearsal tracks, he hired Matt Curtis, formerly a member of Chanticleer, to produce these, which were uploaded to YouTube for the singers. Once the singers submitted their individual recordings, Clements separated the audio from the video in order to mix the audio and correct rhythm and pitch discrepancies. While he uses professional mixing software, he leans toward limiting the use of it as much as possible.
Clements explains, “Too much correction starts to not sound human. There is a fine line to allow for unique vocal contributions while correcting what we can.”
Once the audio was mixed to his satisfaction, Clements laid it into the video software and loaded in all the videos submitted by the singers. As with the music, the video was structured to highlight the theme of the piece.
“I did want to have in the opening the fading in and out of the voice parts, building up the theme, with the parts in and out until everyone is in, all singing together - this idea of individuals coming together and forming a whole.”
One important concept stood out to Clements throughout this editing process.
Clements reflects, “The more submissions I have, the less editing I have to do. Because we blend. We fill in for one another’s weaknesses, even when we aren’t singing together physically. It’s a very powerful image of how choral singing is a great example of this.”
Despite the struggles for choirs during Covid, Clements agrees that many lessons were learned. As the choir director for a local church congregation, Clements and his choir performed over 50 virtual recordings. Aside from the steep learning curve of using technology, singers had to hear themselves on the individual recordings and were able to make realistic assessments of their vocal weaknesses and strategies to improve. Once his choir was able to sing together again, Clements noted great improvement in their sound and technique.
Another lesson learned is that we can never underestimate the value of choir for building our communities.
“Before Covid, I was always a believer of the idea that when a choir sings, their hearts become synchronous. This powerful thing, this sense of belonging, has been missing during the pandemic,” advocates Clements. “When choirs do get back together, they will have such a joyous time.”
Clements is grateful to HMC and Dr. Patricia Hacker for giving him the opportunity to have his piece performed. He is also grateful to our patrons and supporters for listening.
“Throughout history, the arts have required patrons. In an age where we no longer have nobility, the organizations have become these patrons. I am sure I would not be doing what I am doing if there weren’t people willing to give me the chance to write for them,” Clements acknowledges.
As HMC moves forward with a live and in-person 2021-2022 season, we are grateful to you, our audience, for sticking with us through the drought of Covid, and giving us the chance to sing for you again.
The Huntsville Master Chorale performs Dennis Clements' Dona Nobis Pacem.
Dona nobis pacem tuam
Cum hic mundus scinditur,
Adjuva nos ut illa pax vera simus
Vera pax tua
Dona, Domine, pacem tuam nobis.
Give us your peace
During times of trouble.
When this world is torn apart,
Help us to be that true peace
Which is yours.
Give us, O Lord, your peace.
Patricia Ramirez Hacker, Artistic Director
Was appointed as Artistic Director of the Huntsville Master Chorale in 2012. In 2010, Dr. Hacker moved to Huntsville to serve as Director of Music at First Presbyterian Church where she directs the Chancel Choir, Youth choir and Youth and Adult handbell choirs. Since then she has gained recognition not only as conductor, but also as a vocal coach and singer. In 2011, she was invited to be the clinician for the Middle and High School mixed choir for the Huntsville All City Choral Festival. For the past three consecutive years, her students have won the Outstanding Choral Student for the city, regional and state choral competitions in Alabama.
Dr. Hacker has served as Adjunct Professor of Voice at Alabama A&M University and the University of Mobile where she taught diction, vocal literature, and choral conducting. At the University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. Hacker received full assistantship and scholarships in voice and choral conducting. During her tenure at Southern Miss, she taught voice and conducted operas for the outreach program. She also served as conductor and assistant conductor of the prestigious Southern Chorale, University Singers, Chamber Singers, and Gulf Coast Civic Chorale. Furthermore, she had the opportunity to conduct the Southeastern Louisiana University Concert Choir and served as assistant conductor for the University Singers and Women's Ensemble.
As a singer she has appeared as soloist in major choral works, with professional opera companies, and as recitalist in Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Washington D.C., México, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. In 2010, she appeared as soloist at Carnegie Hall for the world premiere of "An American Requiem" by Edwin Penhorwood. For five consecutive years, Dr. Hacker won first place in state and regional NATS competitions. She is also winner of the William T. Gower concerto competition.
Along with her work in the academic field, Dr. Hacker has been a successful church choral conductor in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Dr. Patricia Ramirez Hacker obtained her Doctorate in Choral Conducting and Master's degree in Choral Conducting and Vocal Performance and Pedagogy from the University of Southern Mississippi. She also received her Bachelor's of Music degree in Vocal Performances and Pedagogy from Southeastern Louisiana University.
Sharon Keffer, Accompanist
Sharon Keffer is Worship Arts Pastor at Huntsville First Church of the Nazarene where she has served for nearly 20 years. In addition to her work as a minister, she enjoys accompanying various groups in the community and is in her 11th season as the accompanist for the Huntsville Master Chorale.
Ms. Keffer accompanies several schools in the area for festivals and competitions, including Mountain Gap Middle School, The Academy for Academics and Arts, Hazel Green High School, Buckhorn High School, Sparkman Ninth, and Sparkman High School. She has had the privilege of accompanying the Madison County Honor Choirs for 4 years.
She enjoys interacting with and supporting teens in the school music programs and served for 5 years as an administrative assistant for the bands at Mountain Gap Middle School. For the past 8 years she has also been the announcer for The Brass Band of Huntsville.
Sharon is married to Dr. Charles Keffer, a senior research scientist, and they have three children. She has undergraduate degrees in Biology, Chemistry, and Secondary Education. As an ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene, Sharon stays busy serving on the pastoral staff of her church, but she also finds time for reading, bicycling, mentoring young people and trying to be a good long-distance “Grammy” to 3-year-old Emma in Minnesota.