Thought Catalog
March 17, 2016

Matthew Guard’s Skylark Ascending: Music To Die To

Report This Article
What is the issue?

Crossing Over full

‘End Of Life Visions And Meditations’

As our colleague Doyle Armbrust is writing over at New York Public Radio’s and WQXR Q2 Music, it’s just too bad that when your time comes to leave this Earth, you don’t get to hear the music of Crossing Over.

Then again, what do we know? Maybe when the moment comes, this is what you hear. So much grace, so much dread, so much intelligent composure and so much terrified beauty are gathered here. If not to die for, this is music to die to. And what a way to go.

Skylark is the vocal ensemble you hear on this album. You may be reminded of Stephen Layton’s magnificent UK-based ensemble Polyphony. Skylark comprises singers whose voices can sway you softly into calm and then all but throw you across the room with sheer harmonic force, radiant, trembling torrents of sound weaving vast sonic environments around you. Try it with good headphones. You’ll be a little different when Skylark is done with you.

Of the 17 tracks here — the album is out on the 25th of March — the one I think illustrates this musical muscularity best is the sixth section of Butterfly Dreams by the late John Tavener. This is stark, desperate fear gone gorgeous, the sopranos vaulting over a foreboding drone in the bass voices. And at 45 seconds in? The entire choir couldn’t sound more angelic, dropping into a cradling, sweet space before the stabbing, furious stare of something dark returns.

“This is a little embarrassing, but I think it has been fun for singers in Skylark to see someone approach something from a totally different perspective than what they’re used to. Having spent a lot of time as a management consultant, I love analyzing data and presenting things in charts. I’m a bit of a powerpoint junky, and I sometimes apply this same type of analysis to structural or harmonic analysis of scores.”
Matthew Guard

What writers find in music like this is grounding, centering, vast ranges of emotion made coherent. Composition of this kind stands among our best efforts to bring order out of the chaos of life, let alone death. Crossing Over studies, in music, our ideas of that peculiar middle ground — walk into the light! — a nether-region few of us are eager to reach but so many of us are curious about.

Not for nothing has Q2 Music made this glistening collection of a cappella choral works its Album of the Week. And our interview is with Skylark’s artistic director, Matthew Guard. You get that he’s straddling life and death here in this release from the label Sono Luminus, right? Well, he’s also straddling the worlds of art and finance. Guard is a former manager with the management consulting firm Bain & Company and co-founder and partner in Babiators, a children’s sunglasses and accessories company.

Hit play as you read our exchange. Authors who read Music for Writers regularly here will be struck to find Guard speaks right up about “things that are difficult to capture in verbal or written communication.” Sound familiar? You’re in good hands. This is a Guard-ian of many things creative minds grapple with daily.

‘Shimmery Beauty With A Direct Connection To The Heart’

Thought Catalog: Matthew, when I hear the Skylark sopranos go into “Taps” in Daniel Elder’s Elegy on this album, I have to say I’m wondering how you’ve come to the idea behind Crossing Over. Is the concept of music about “crossing over” from life into death something you’d had with you a long time or only recently? And is there a personal connection of some kind to this rarely defined genre of work?

Matthew Guard. Image: Molly Dwyer
Matthew Guard. Image: Molly Dwyer

Matthew Guard: Great question. It’s incredibly important to me that our concerts and recordings communicate something unique. I believe that music has the potential to illuminate and reveal things that are difficult to capture in verbal or written communication.

When we started talking about the first collaboration between Skylark and Sono Luminus, we were all drawn by the desire capture the unique beauty of Skylark’s sound, and to create an album that was truly an artistic concept as opposed to just an assembly of pieces. We started our list with a few pieces that we thought capture Skylark’s sound, which one might describe as “shimmery beauty, with a direct connection to the heart.”

After agreeing on John Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams, Nicolai Kedrov’s Our Father, and Jon Leifs’ Requiem, the album concept essentially emerged naturally. Here were three pieces that all seemed to embody a state that one might call “end of life visions and meditations.”

I have always been fascinated to hear that people who have had near-death experiences describe vivid images of what they saw and felt as they approached what could have been the end of mortal life. We may go through a similar experience as we prepare to leave this world for what, if anything, lies beyond. The pieces we have assembled on this album are a musical narrative on what that experience could be for each of us.

TC: Certainly, there’s no end of fascination in film and television for the “walk into the light’ narratives of the end of mortal existence. But isn’t this rather ballsy programming? Aren’t there some who would say that you’re risking “disturbing” people with a focus on the end of life as we know it?

MG: I suppose I could have worried about that, but honestly, I didn’t really – perhaps I should have more!

Crossing Over is not meant to be super morbid or terrifying – in fact, some of the pieces are profoundly calm and beautiful. The overall experience of the album is a varied journey that attempts to capture the extremes of emotion that we might feel in a suspended dream state near the end of this part of our journey. Ssome pieces recall memories from the past, some offer visions of what may be to come. There are moments of denial and angst set against moments of simple prayer. The album ends with an ethereal psalm that represents ascension followed by a moment of reverent remembrance and celebration.

I think the words of William Schuman, one of the composers we feature on the album (with his Carols of Death on Whitman Poetry) are very appropriate and similar to how I feel about the concept:

“The words of Carols of Death haunted me for years, because I think they are absolutely beautiful words, and I could never find the music that I felt was right to go with them. The “Carols” of course is my own title..I don’t mean in it in an ironical sense at all…I think they are songs about death. I am not and have never been morbid about death. I always think that death is one branch of life, just to make up a thought no one’s ever mentioned or said before. There’s nothing very special about it. But I thought the Whitman texts were absolutely special.”

‘Rather Sudden Sobs’

TC: Along those lines, is it possible that you had any initial pushback at all from within the ensemble? Did anybody say, “Boy, that sounds like a morbid idea”? If so, I’m glad they didn’t win out!

MG: Sure, there was a little of that J As I just said, one of the of titles of the pieces is called Carols of Death, which to someone who does not know the pieces or the concept might sound like something incredibly creepy or from a horror film. But I think once everyone got to know the music, started to live with the way the album fits together as a whole, and began to understand the journey, they bought in completely.

I think this really sank in on the second day of recording. In the church where we made the album, we actually recorded much of the album in a circle standing around the microphones (As the album is being released in surround sound on blu-ray audio). This meant that the group was looking at each other a lot during the recording, which created an intimate sense of collaboration and chamber music that you don’t always get during a live performance.

That day, we started by recording Nicolai Kedrov’s Otche Nash (“Our Father”), perhaps the most simple piece on the album. I think of as a heartfelt prayer longing for home: Kedrov fled Russia shortly before the revolution of 1917, and wrote the piece for his own vocal quartet, which performed Russian folk and liturgical music in exile in Western Europe. In the context of the album, we think of it a clear moment of prayer for someone nearing the end of this life.

For one of our later takes, rather than conduct the piece, I just sat on the floor in the middle of the circle with my eyes closed and listened, allowing everyone to communicate with their own eyes and ears, and to live with the piece. After the group finished the piece, I think there were at least half a dozen Skylarks who broke into rather sudden sobs, myself included. I think a lot of the music on this album can have that very raw emotional impact, especially in the way the journey unfolds.

“I just sat on the floor in the middle of the circle with my eyes closed and listened…I think there were at least half a dozen Skylarks who broke into rather sudden sobs, myself included. I think a lot of the music on this album can have that very raw emotional impact, especially in the way the journey unfolds.”
Matthew Guard

TC: Your selections are as outstanding as the interpretations. It’s actually perfect material for writers, too, because while much of it is based in literary inspiration and source, the author isn’t pulled away by a lot of text delivery — much more “pure” sound. In terms of choral work, is there a common challenge to this type of music? Anything in particular that the Skylark ensemble had to really work on repeatedly?

MG:  I think the biggest challenge on this album for us was probably the Icelandic language, which is quite unique and not a language than any of us are accustomed to singing or speaking in. About 10 minutes of the album are in Icelandic (the piece by Anna Thorvaldsdottir and the Requiem by Jon Leifs). Luckily, one of our fantastic basses, Peter Walker, studied Old Norse, which is quite linguistically similar, and was able to help us transcribe the Icelandic into IPA, which allowed us to all have a frame of reference. I think the whispiness of the language is quite other-wordly, and lends a really special quality to the album that is hard to describe. I would say we spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to get this language to feel natural and effortless.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Image: Hrafn Asgeirsson
Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Image: Hrafn Asgeirsson

TC: I’m a huge fan of Anna’s work — had a lovely Music For Writers interview with her — and I imagine it must have been terrific to have her there. What I’m hearing of her Heyr pu oss himnum a has an almost stately quality to it, not unlike the kind of coldwater chords we can hear at times in American rural Protestant hymnody — my father was a Methodist minister. Do you get correlations there at all? Or am I just hallucinating that element?

MG: It was incredibly inspiring to have Anna with us. She flew in just for one night from Iceland to be there for the session. A big piece of having her there originally was to make sure we were doing the language justice. Thankfully, she was thrilled with the Icelandic already when she arrived — of course helping with a few subtleties here and there — so we didn’t spend a lot of time on that. Instead just were able to benefit from hearing her thoughts on her piece and on Jon Leifs, whose music was big inspiration for her.

And, honestly, just to benefit from being in her presence – she is an absolutely lovely person who brings such a sincerity and passion to her work, and is very present in the music. As a result, I think everyone really wanted to be in the music with her and make sure that we did it justice.

In terms of harmonies, I think you’re definitely onto something – the Icelandic folk tradition is full of a combination of open fifths and major chords, not unlike something you might hear in Sacred Harp shape-note singing.

TC: I wonder if the problem of selection wasn’t almost what to leave out? I’m thinking, for example, of the Morten Lauridsen Lux aeterna  — not a cappella, I realize. Is this the kind of project you could have done three more albums on, or did you find that the pieces you chose were easily distinguished from the rest for you?

MG: There are certainly many many pieces that could fit beautifully into this concept, especially when focusing just on the text. I personally am partial to Faire is the Heaven by William Harris, for example. But, a huge part of putting together a recording is thinking about what can be truly unique in the world of recorded music, and also what can fit into the same “sound world” that can make an album seem coherent as a whole.

While there is one piece on the album that has been recorded a lot (John Tavener’s Funeral Ikos, which we actually recorded at a very different tempo than most recordings), we shied away from pieces that have had a lot of exposure, as we feel that would be sort of redundant.

We also wanted pieces that fit together in a more abstract sense of “feel.” The Tavener pieces obviously have an Eastern Orthodox influence, which fits with the Kedrov. The Leifs has a bit of that feel harmonically, and ties very well to the Thorvaldsdottir in terms of language and heritage. The Vuichard and Schuman pieces have a very similar sense of angst. And the Daniel Elder, which starts the album, offers an American piece that is more ethereal and connects more with some of the other repertoire. Honestly, it kind of organically built itself – as we added a piece, the next piece to add became more obvious.

The Skylark singers. Image: Carolyn Guard
The Skylark singers. Image: Carolyn Guard

TC: I’m amused (right word?) to find you still at Babiators in Atlanta. How common is it that someone in charge of an ensemble as excellent as Skylark is working “a day job” (also an excellent one, to be sure)? One reason I ask, of course, is that a lot of authors — whom the lay public imagines spend their every waking hour musing at their writings — are actually working in other careers, as well. Are there things about the world of finance that inform you in special ways as an artistic director? — and vice-versa? I’m always shocked at how curiously relevant seemingly irrelevant aspects of life and work can be.

MG: Great question! I am one of the co-founders of Babiators, along with my wife and another couple, and I do still play a role in the finances and supply chain of the company. I am, however spending more and more of my time on Skylark. Two years ago, I would say I was doing much more work on Babiators than Skylark, now it is the opposite. We have a great team of partners and a phenomenal team in Atlanta working on Babiators that has made this possible, for which I am very thankful.

It’s been quite a remarkable evolution – both Babiators and Skylark started at a similar time. Skylark actually began as my first attempt at re-entering the world of music after nearly 10 years away. I had pursued conducting in college. I honestly spent more time rehearsing with my college a cappella group than I spent studying. But had taken a different route during the decade after. I had always dreamed of founding a group like Skylark, but I frankly was not sure if I’d be able to succeed in leading a group of such talented singers. So, I assembled some friends for a weekend of rehearsing and performing as a bit of an experiment. After the weekend, I spoke with everyone who had taken part, and it seemed they had all enjoyed themselves, which was a great relief!

We did another project six months later. The following year, we did three projects. And so on. The last two seasons have had six projects each that have allowed Skylark to perform in museums, concert halls, and churches in six states. We have this wonderful album being released with a Grammy-winning team, and we’re making our Spivey Hall (Clayton State University) debut in May. It’s all a bit of a whirlwind and somewhat hard to believe at times.

I do think being involved in another enterprise — and also having a business background in general — has proved very helpful. I don’t think many people come to artistic entrepreneurship with an MBA having already been an entrepreneur before. The organizational skills, the marketing experience, and managerial experience certainly all help a great deal, as does an understanding of a P&L and finances. I know many new organizations struggle with their 501(c)(3) paperwork and process because it can be quite daunting – that was relatively easy for us, as it is so similar to many things we had done before. Being able to have a conversation in more of a “business mode” is profoundly helpful when building a board for a non-profit and when working with collaborators and presenters.

Finally, and this is a little embarrassing, but I think it has been fun for singers in Skylark to see someone approach something from a totally different perspective than what they are used to. Having spent a lot of time as a management consultant, I love analyzing data and presenting things in charts. I’m a bit of a powerpoint junky, and I sometimes apply this same type of analysis to structural or harmonic analysis of scores. This is best shared after a few glasses of wine, but I think it is so radically different than what artists are used to seeing that it can be fun and have a real impact.

“I believe that the future of our artform rests in our hands, and we need to actively promote music education in all that we do..”
Matthew Guard

TC: What’s your hope for Skylark in five or 10 years? This is your second album, and you’re some 20 or so in the core group and another 10 or so “frequent fliers”? How tricky is it to get everyone together for rehearsal and recording? — do most of you live in the Atlanta area or is there a lot of traveling going on?

MG: The group is made of vocal soloists, chamber musicians, and music educators from across the country who come together to rehearse and perform concerts in a very intense project-based setting. We are currently coming together about six times a year for around a week to rehearse, record, and perform. Over the last three seasons, we have had an incredibly strong core group of singers with very little turnover. This has allowed everyone to learn each other’s voices and how we work together as an ensemble.

Our two main centers of activity are in Greater Boston, where many of our artists are based, and Atlanta where I live, but we also perform elsewhere as schedules and touring opportunities allow. Over the longer-term, we are planning to expand our “home” presence in the Greater Boston area to perform there more frequently, and to begin touring more as well. My dream is to one day evolve to have a core ensemble of men and women that could offer full-time employment and benefits, while also maintaining a broader group that can comes together for residencies and major projects.

On a national level, I hope we can help set the standard for innovative, engaging, well-researched, and dramatically presented programs that redefine the choral experience for audiences and singers alike. I hope that people can look to us for examples of programming ideas that can broaden the appeal of choral music to their own students, choir members, and audiences.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I believe that the future of our artform rests in our hands, and we need to actively promote music education in all that we do. We always admit music educators and students free to our home concerts, and we always send artists into local schools to do workshops with high school students during our residency weeks. Over time, I want to build that program more – one goal in the future is to have a structured workshop for students that is seen as a leading program for aspiring high school choral singers.TC mark