In the early months of 2017, I’d just finished writing a new song and I needed to record a demo of that new song to pitch it to choir directors. I knew my friend Daisy Press would be the perfect singer to record that demo. She’d taught herself how to produce multitrack recordings of herself singing multiple parts at her home studio in NYC. Why just the demo and not the “official” debut recording? That new song was A Canadian Christmas, so its first recording had to be by a Canadian singer. Daisy sent me her first draft of the demo for A Canadian Christmas a couple weeks after I asked her for that demo recording. It was just up to the end of the second verse, but it was so beautiful, I asked her to stop recording because it would be heartbreaking to have a full recording of this beautiful singing that I couldn’t release.
I found a great Canadian singer to record A Canadian Christmas (thank you Joanna Majoko!) and everything worked out well with that release, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Daisy’s demo recording. I was on the train one Sunday afternoon in early 2018, and as I looked out the window, I noticed some wintry imagery that I hadn’t noticed before while I was driving. I took a note on my phone. For the next few weeks, during my morning practice sessions, I would continue taking notes about wintry scenes whenever something inspiring caught my eye. I'd decided that I would compose a new vocal work about winter that I could hire Daisy Press to record.
That spring, after I’d finished and reviewed my random notes about wintry scenes, I gradually compiled those notes into a poem of more cohesive thoughts. After composing a melody to set that poetry to, I finishing writing the other two accompanying voices. Daisy sent me her first draft of her recording of A Winter’s Day a few weeks later. After hearing that first draft, I instantly knew I was obligated to compose three more movements to complete the song cycle for the seasons. Daisy’s artistry required nothing less. So, I set out to continue the work.
For the next year, I would take notes about my surroundings whenever I was out in parks or passing through other natural scenes and noticed something that caught my senses. On walks, I would stop and pull out my phone to take notes. On drives, I would pull over and park to take notes. By late autumn 2018, it was time to repeat the process of reviewing those notes and compiling them into three new poems.
I didn’t want to repeat myself in the lyrics through the different seasons’ poems unless that repetition was deliberate and in service of the overall story, so I would have working drafts of all three poems on the screen (along with the lyrics for A Winter’s Day) as I worked. I was also trying to avoid repeating any lyrics from Spring for All But Me (a song I’d written in 2003). It took a while, but I finished first drafts of those three new poems in spring 2019. Fortunately, writing the music took much less time. The process for the three new movements of the song cycle was the same as it was for A Winter’s Day: Write a melody for each poem, then compose the accompanying voices for those new melodies.
When I had complete drafts of all three movements, I knew I had to find a way to raise the funds to hire Daisy to record this new music. I only had the MIDI recordings (computer generated instrumental recordings) to listen to, but I knew Daisy’s voice well enough to hear it in my mind’s ear when I listened to those MIDI recordings.
As the pandemic hit the world in early 2020, I thought I might have a better chance at a Canada Council for the Arts grant to fund this recording since Daisy would be recording these tracks at her home studio and we would be creating something beautiful in the middle of a global pandemic and in spite of all the challenges that situation created. I wasn’t eligible for any of the grant funding myself (because the music had already been composed), but I knew an amazing illustrator in Toronto, so I asked Alana McCarthy if she’d be interested in providing the artwork for this recording. She agreed, but then I also noticed her posting time-lapse videos of her illustrations on her social media channels, so I asked if she could include those for each of the illustrations too. My hope was for the time-lapse animations and artwork to be a vehicle for this music to reach a wider audience. I knew my good friend Marc Koecher would be the audio engineer to mix this, so I asked him if he was also on board for a little more work, and he was.
With the assistance of a good friend who helped with proof-reading and editing (thanks Christie!) I submitted that grant application in April 2020 with the expectation that this would be an application that wouldn’t be approved, but that I could learn from. (It’s rare for someone’s first Canada Council application to be approved). I had mostly put this project out of mind to move on to other work, and then in December 2020, just days before the cross-Canada virtual choir+orchestra recording of A Canadian Christmas was to be released, I received an email from the Canada Council for the Arts. “The results of your application are now available”…
At first, I just assumed it was another polite rejection letter, so I opened it, clicked the link in the email, signed into my Canada Council for the Arts Portal account, and clicked the “View Results” link. I was briefly confused by why the screen for a rejection notification would have an “Accept” button, and list the exact amount I’d requested in funding for my recording project. Then I realised what I was actually looking at. I was thrilled, but also in the middle of trying to finish editing the video for the 2020 recording of A Canadian Christmas, so I knew I didn’t really have the time to celebrate this amazing news. I texted and called Daisy, Alana, Christie, and Marc to let them know, then got back to work on editing the video. We had to request an extension for the recording (because the results were sent out a couple months late), and that was granted, so in January 2021, Daisy and Alana started their work.
Alana would use Daisy’s original 2019 recording of A Winter’s Day as inspiration for her first illustration while Daisy started recording Thaw & Bloom (the spring movement of the song cycle). That first time-lapse video from Alana...before the lyrics animation was added, it just fit the music so perfectly. I knew we really had something special here and I was even more excited to complete this project.
As Daisy started recording, we realized this project would be more challenging than we had originally expected because her once quiet neighbourhood in Manhattan had suddenly become home to the constant sounds of sirens and helicopters during the pandemic. Imagine working hard to sing a perfectly in tune take of a track (with emotion, expression, and thoughtfully planned phrasing) and then having that take interrupted by a passing siren or helicopter. We needed another extension, and the Canada Council for the Arts generously granted it. A recording that was supposed to take a few weeks ended up taking months because of all this unexpected environmental background noise in Manhattan. It ended up being a lot more stressful for Daisy, and I will forever be grateful for her work on this project, because when you listen her performance of this music, none of that really comes through in the recordings. You just hear the beauty of her voice and the brilliance of her musicianship. The silver lining of these unexpected delays was giving Alana the opportunity to complete each of her illustrations in the seasons that they were meant to portray, as Daisy’s first drafts of the recordings were completed along a similar timeline. I am also grateful that I had the opportunity to experience those first drafts in their corresponding seasons so I could confirm everything did indeed match as I'd planned.
The opening phrase to A Winter’s Day sums up the respect and admiration I have for Daisy Press’ voice. Until the second last syllable of that line, she’s singing the same pitch. One voice, singing one note, with no accompaniment. But it sounds like so much more. When I starting writing this years ago, I knew the pristine beauty of her voice and her highly developed concept of phrasing would let her carry an entire song singing solo and a cappella. It was nice to hear that confirmed in the opening section of this movement (and again in the opening verse of Sunward Tilt).
Thaw & Bloom is Southern Ontario's Spring in its two parts. First in the key of A minor (Thaw) and then starting and ending in the key of A major (Bloom), I wanted the "background" voices of these two sections to musically convey the feelings of these stages of spring without the lyrics sung by the lead voice. Daisy makes the contrapuntal writing of the Bloom section sound effortless, but singers will appreciate how technically challenging those two minutes of singing are. I was trying to capture a Renaissance feel for the Thaw section before switching to a more Baroque sound for the Bloom section.
Sunward Tilt was written to be the most conventionally “song-like” of the four movements, both in form and melodic construction. Mostly in the key of C major, it is also a musical mirror for A Winter’s Day (which is mostly in the key of F# minor).
Full disclosure: …To Name a Season is my favourite of the four movements. It was the last movement I completed and after restraining myself harmonically for the previous three movements of this song cycle, this was my opportunity to more fully explore what was possible with the luxury of composing for six voices. I was still aiming for sounds that are consonant to most ears, but wanted to explore more extended harmonies in this movement and break free from some of the rules of more traditional choral composition (musicians might notice the phrase with parallel major 9th chords). As Sunward Tilt is a musical mirror to A Winter’s Day, this movement that starts in the key of Eb major is a musical mirror to Thaw & Bloom. Although not quite as pronounced in its division, this movement is also in two sections. As the leaves change and eventually fall while the air cools in Southern Ontario’s autumns, the tonal centre of this movement switches from Eb major to Eb minor and the harmonic language simplifies to return to that more Renaissance feel of the Thaw section of Thaw & Bloom. The vowels the accompanying voices sing under the lead voice also gradually change from oooo in the beginning of this movement to ahhh by its end. This is to mirror the change in the vowel sounds of the accompanying voices in Thaw & Bloom (from ahhh to oooo) and to sonically convey the gradual change in colours of autumn foliage. Ironically, my favourite moments of the entire song cycle are in the last minute of this movement, where the harmony is relatively simple. (From “Long drive through woodland corridors…” until the end). It is not hyperbole or an exaggeration when I tell you that listening to Daisy Press’ performance of this minute of music is now one of my favourite experiences in life. If you're a musician who's been keeping track of the key centres of the movements, you might have noticed they spell out an ascending diminished chord (F-sharp, A, C, E-flat). This was by design, to match the cycle of the seasons that continuously repeat from year to year.
When I first wrote this music, original artwork was not something I’d considered. It wasn’t until the grant application that I saw an opportunity to boost our chances of funding the recording by including the work of an accomplished Canadian visual artist in the grant request. I knew Alana McCarthy’s work was consistently amazing and any artwork she created for this would just add to Daisy’s work as a vocalist, but I was honestly not completely prepared for how much this project ended up being so much more than the sum of its parts. Each illustration captures the sights and feel of its corresponding season in Southern Ontario but also stands on its own artistic merits. When I see the crow against the bright blue sky in the artwork for Thaw & Bloom, I’m instantly transported to the memory of that brisk spring day in 2018 when I was driving through the country and had to pull over to type out some quick notes about my surroundings. The style of her illustrations for the artwork for A Winter’s Day and Sunward Tilt evokes memories of my first time seeing the work of the Group of Seven at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in 2015. Fittingly, her illustration for …To Name a Season is my favourite of her four beautiful works. I still remember the first time I saw it. I was driving and had just seen the new email notification on my phone after parking. When I opened the email to view the attachment of Alana’s first draft, I was a little choked up to see an image that matched Daisy’s recording so perfectly (Alana had also heard Daisy’s first draft just a few days before creating her illustration). Her time-lapse animations that were something I requested late in the application process, but they provided us with a wealth of visual material to create compelling lyric music videos that elevated this project to another level.
So, after four years of work, here we are with the first recording of Seasonal Songs for Southern Ontario. I’ve listened to these recordings so many times and I’m still not sick of hearing Daisy Press sing this music. I think singers and other musicians will appreciate the monumental accomplishment this is for her as a vocalist, but let’s all take a minute to appreciate how for almost 20 minutes, we can be captivated by nothing but the sound of one person’s voice with no instrumental accompaniment. Over the span of these four movements of vocal music, she'll cover a few hundred years of developments in vocal style and technique. Listening to these recordings by Daisy Press has undoubtedly made me a better musician. Seeing Alana McCarthy’s beautiful artwork has made me appreciate the sights of Southern Ontario and the beauty of nature even more. I'm so proud of (and grateful for) Daisy and Alana for creating something so timelessly beautiful in spite of all the logistical and personal challenges they've had to deal with in the middle of a global pandemic. Please take the time to listen to this music and watch these videos a few times (at least once in each of the four seasons, to appreciate how they fit with each season).
After all four music videos are released by March 22, 2022, the home page of this website will feature a compilation of the music videos for all four seasons. That compilation will automatically change every season to change the order of the individual music videos to end in the current season. I hope you enjoy this music as much I do.