Performing “Song of the Earth” at
by Robert Engelman
Special to the Voice
On April 23, with a magical
half-circle from Kentucky to Ireland to Japan nearly their voices
lifted up a Song of the Earth to the rafters that vault over what is
arguably the East Coast’s most acoustically perfect concert hall, the
here’s the best part: the CarpeDiem choir really is a community (nearly
120 singers, most from Takoma Park, Silver Spring and elsewhere in
lower Montgomery County).
But it’s no easy task to sing nine
songs that include rounds and harmonies (up to six parts), fugues (the
vocal parts weaving among each other with distinct phrasings of text),
and mid-sentence shifts in time signature sentence. No cheat-sheet words
or music on stage. Just memorization and the collective confidence of a
large community of singers about what word and note come next.
music files of individual parts, the singing like a fool to computer
speakers–was much of the satisfaction. But nothing compared to
successfully performing the contemporary folk music of hammered
dulcimer maker and master, singer and composer Malcolm Dalglish.
I first met Dalglish, of Ohio and Indiana, in the early 1970s at a
University of Chicago folk festival. He was tapping thin wooden mallets
over metal strings stretched across a trapezoidal box known as a
dulcimer, an ancient precursor to the piano, and the sound mesmerized
In subsequent years I followed his recordings with fellow Midwestern
folk musician Grey Larsen and later Pete Sutherland (the trio was known
as Metamora) and attended one of the group’s concerts at Georgetown
Dalglish and his colleagues’ synthesis and updating of American and
British Isles musical traditions were consistently sophisticated,
creative and memorable
Then, in early 2003, I learned that Busy Graham– founder of the
non-profit Class Acts Arts and among Maryland’s premier musical
organizers–was drawing together a community choir to sing some of
Dalglish’s recent work. I attended the Carpe Diem Community Choir’s
standing-room-only performance at the Metropolitan Memorial United
The concert was unlike any I had ever attended. It included not just
soaring vocal music–all written by Malcolm, in one case based on a
Scottish air–but stories, instrumental music, percussion, dance and the
musical expression of work by one of America’s best living poets,
Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry.
The foot-taps, drumbeats, strings and voices echoed through every niche
in the church’s nave and brought the open-mouthed listeners into a kind
of harmonic convergence with Malcolm and the dozens of other
performers. A CD produced by Takoma Park’s master engineers Art Isaacs
and David Eisner captured some of the feel and much of the beauty and
remained among my most listened-to recordings afterwards.
“Boy,” I said to my wife as we mingled with friends after that
performance. “If this ever happens again, I’m going to be part of it.”
And so I was, thanks once more to Busy Graham’s always energetic
organizing. In rehearsal rooms at Strathmore, George Washington music
professor Gisele Becker cajoled and ultimately carried us amateurs
through the song cycle. She was fast-moving and could be tough, but she
was amazingly effective, most memorably with a millisecond gesture
resembling the flick of a wet hand that told us, “Okay, your sound is
gone now; stop your pipes.”
of Class Acts Arts.
Malcolm joined the group and and added a whole new element. We
had to move while we sang. Even the lowest-voiced males had to master a
little five-step shuffle on one round. And the women singers lifted
their arms on another song as if they were swimming an Australian crawl
into the sky. As Malcolm explained, when the body is moving with the
music, the mind knows better how to sing.
So it was, too, with the integration of song and nature, based not only
on Berry’s lyric celebration of the natural world, but Dalglish’s own
words and paraphrases gleaned from Native Americans and an 18th-century
English hymnist. The full rehearsals were just part of our connection
to his musical suite, just a part of his epic Hymnody of Earth. More
social were the “sectionals,” brief meetings of the members of each
vocal part–sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. The rehearsing became
more innovative. I had fun working out short music clips of the bass
part using a cheap notation software and e-mailing the clips to my
Fellow Takoma Parker Jim Baird organized impromptu
“Carpe Diem Lite” groupings to serenade shoppers at the town’s busy
Sunday Farmers Market. We felt a bit lost without Gisele to direct us,
but we gave it our best and gained the affirmation of applause.
Finally, dressed in black, draped with accent colors drawn mostly from
shredded tee-shirts, we gathered at Strathmore to go on live in front
of a thousand listeners.
While the Carpe Diem singers were two thirds of the performers, we were
just one element of a musical juggling act that featured the dancing of
the Silver Spring-based Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance, of
cloggers Matt Olwell and Emily Oleson, the a cappella singing of
Blair’s InToneNation, the George Washington University Singers (led
also by Gisele Becker), and the heartstring-tugging child dancers of
the Kodomo Dance Troupe led by Japanese dancer Shizumi Manale.
Shizumi’s solo dance with a giant fan to the music and words of Berry’s
poem “The Peace of Wild Things” was one of many highlights.
We listened as long-time Dalglish protégée Moira Smiley and her
ensemble VOCO sang Balkan-flavored harmonies and watched the lithe
movement of American Sign Language interpreter Rachel Schlafer-Parton.
Rachel was equal parts translator, mime and dancer and made language
not just visible but visibly beautiful. She taught a dozen or so
singers to sign “The Reach,” and their work, too, became a performance
of group dance.
Another Dalglish protégé, Joshua Stephen Kartes accomplished something
similar with choral direction that was a dervish-like mix of dance, a
flying forward-swept mane, and hands and fingers that darted to the
musical heartbeat of N. Scott Robinson on percussion box, bodhran,
tambourine and a one-stringed gourd-resonated stick, the Brazilian
Berimbau. And for a few too-short minutes near the end of the program
fiddler Andrea Hoag, bones master Rowan Corbett, and bagpiper Andrew
Donlon filled out the sound to yet further dimensions.
The diversity of sights and sounds was somehow stitched and held
together by the two-fisted mastery of the bell-like hammered dulcimer,
the singing, the spoon-slapping and sheer ebullience of Malcolm
Dalglish himself. Malcolm, clad in a trademark Turkish cap, whizzed and
whispered wordlessly in yet another unconventional accompaniment to the
George Washington University Singers on his new song “Violets.” The
song, based on a recently published poem by Berry, was fresh minted for
the Strathmore concert, commissioned by Beth Davis in Good Company, a
non-profit organization dedicated to the arts.
Somehow, in the middle of all that was swirling around in front of us,
we of the Carpe Diem Community Choir read our cues. We stepped
purposefully into the aisles of the wood-paneled auditorium to embrace
the audience with shifting chords built on the repeated refrain
“walking in the cradle of our land.” From the stage unearthly other
voices sang of the necessity of nature’s being, to the tune of a slow
The concert came to an end, but the songs live on. I’m sure I am among
many Carpe Diem choristers who continue to let loose with harmonic
lines singing in our heads by day and night: “Ho! You Sun, you Moon,
you Stars . . . I bid you hear me!”
Robert Engelman, of Takoma Park, is Vice President for Programs at the
Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. and author of the book “More:
Population, Nature, and What Women Want”.