How to compose a Christmas carol, with Anastasia Pahos

The Song Company will present An Orthodox Christmas

BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE

 

Rudolph’s shiny nose, jingling bells, and dashing through the snow are all themes we associate with the spirit of Christmas.

But Australian composer Anastasia Pahos is expanding our festive setlist to include a brand new carol of her own. The composer was approached by The Song Company’s Antony Pitts, and her newsly commissioned Behold! explores the seasonal narrative as it’s toured by the vocal ensemble in An Orthodox Christmas from November 3-16.

So, with so much Christmas music out there, what does it mean to breathe fresh life into the genre and craft a new work? We chat with the composer ahead of the performance of Behold! in a program of carols by Arvo Part, John Tavener, John Sheppard, Antony Pitts, and more.

 

What’s been your personal connection to the music of Christmas so far? 

Funny story – my parents actually took a particular sadistic enjoyment on occasion in playing Bing Crosby’s White Christmas to me as an infant and watching me cry every time. It must have left some sort of impression on me, albeit contradictory to my childhood association, as I still enjoy the tones of that carol. Perhaps it’s Crosby’s crooning, though. Generally speaking, I turn on Christmas carols as early as I can – especially those sung by King’s College Choir, Cambridge. It’s a very magical time for me. However, travelling in Austria and Russia during the lead-up to Christmas on my honeymoon last year has completely ruined my enjoyment of Christmas in summer down here in Oz. The preparations all the towns do – communal festivals, food stalls, lights everywhere – it really moves and uplifts you.

Tell us about your new work Behold!. Is this the first Christmas-related piece of music you’ve composed?

In 2013, I wrote a piece called A Byzantine Carol for children’s voices, SATB and chamber orchestra, which had been commissioned by The Leichhardt Espresso Chorus and performed at their end of year Christmas concerts. It definitely had more of a ‘carol’ feel and was very celebratory in nature, using elements of Arabic Orthodox chant, Byzantine melismas, and Eastern European additive rhythms, however it has a predominantly Western sound.

The Song Company’s concert explores music from right across Europe – how would you describe the sound and influences of Behold!?

From a musical perspective, Behold! draws upon the various nuances of Byzantine chant, including the eight-tone system and four scales used within those tones, alternating syllabic tempi and rhythm, as well as the different forms of drone. Combined with Western harmonisation and specific combinations of voices from The Song Company, extreme care has been taken to best bring out aurally the underlying meanings of the seven “Behold” Bible passages concerning the Nativity of Christ.

What advice would you give to composers looking to write a Christmas-themed piece of music?

Firstly, pick what element or aspect of Christmas you’d like to focus on in your music. Secondly – as with all new music – make sure it’s performable (or have specific performers in mind). Finally, think about your motivation and your piece’s aesthetic quality – whether you’d like your piece to become a standard work performed at Christmas time or a one-off cause for contemplation. I think it’s always important to give some thought to what is going to make your music stand out from the crowd – especially with the plethora of Christmas-related music out there.

How does Behold! share what you feel to be the spirit of Christmas?

The ‘spirit of Christmas’. That’s a tough one. Behold! certainly shares the facts surrounding Christ’s Nativity, and with it an evolving atmosphere of awe, humility, exultation, sorrow, otherworldliness, mystery, and drama – depending on the movement. I think these are all part of the true spirit of Christmas, rather than highlighting the more generic themes of kindness, hope, thanksgiving, and love. There is a certain respect for the divine essence of the Nativity that I have very much tried to portray in Behold!.

Behold! begins at the Incarnation and then goes through Elizabeth praising the Virgin Mary, the Magnificat, Joseph’s dream, Isaiah’s prophecy of Christ’s birth, the witness of the shepherds, the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s prophecy of the Second Coming, the wise men, and finally we end up rather dramatically in Revelation.

Any parting words?

You can find out more about my music and projects on my website. There may be a slight break in activity, as I’m due to give birth on November 10, but you can be sure that it will resume in due course!

the song company ensemble-2015-high-res-2_credit-simon-gorges

See The Song Company perform Behold! as part of its tour, An Orthodox Christmas. See where they’ll present the work near you by visiting the website.

CutCommon subscribers will receive discounts to these concerts.


Images supplied. The Song Company credit: Simon Gorges.

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