When Karen Thomas, director of Seattle Pro Music choir, was camping near the Canadian border once, she happened to see the Northern Lights. Entranced, she and her friends watched the shimmering play of colored light for hours.
Sunday at St. John’s Episcopal in Olympia, Thomas gets to recreate those Northern Lights in sound, in a Latvian piece that’s part of an entire concert of music from Scandinavian and Baltic lands.
“That part of the world has such an amazing choral tradition,” Thomas explains, of the idea behind “Northern Lights: Music of Scandinavia and the Baltics.”
“Both culturally and the way it played into independence movements, it’s incredibly rich. And the tone colors of Northern and Baltic choirs are one of the most gorgeous choral sounds in the world.”
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In Norse mythology, the Northern Lights are caused by Valkyries galloping across the sky in shimmering armor. In Finnish mythology, they are caused by a magical fox sweeping his tail across the snow and sending up sparks. In Norwegian folklore, they are the spirits of old maids dancing in the sky. For the Saami, they are the energies of departed souls.
It’s from that choral tradition that “Northern Lights” hails, a piece written in 2013 by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds for Pacific Lutheran University’s Choir of the West. Since then it’s been sung by many other choirs, and for good reason. The piece emulates the uncanny shimmer of the aurora borealis in music, using long choir note-clusters, soloists singing a story of two 19th century Latvian explorers, pealing chimes held by choir singers and — weirdest of all — tuned water glasses. Played with a wet finger around the rim and tuned to the same modal scale as the singing, the glasses (one played by each choir member) give a ghostly, ethereal sound to the music.
“It’s such an aural representation of the aurora borealis, those fluctuating, shimmering sounds,” says Thomas, who still remembers her camping experience as “magical.”
1621 The Northern Lights are named by French astronomer Pierre Gassendi, after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek god of the Northern wind
But it’s been tricky to achieve. Playing pitched music on water glasses goes back to the 18th century at least. Mozart wrote two pieces for the glass armonica, an instrument comprising several octaves of rotating glass bowls played with the fingertips, and Benjamin Franklin invented some technical improvements. But for amateurs, sourcing regular glasses that play the pitches you want is challenging.
“We thought we’d just buy a set of wine glasses and fill them to different levels with water,” says Wes Kim, the Pro Musica baritone who was in charge of finding the glasses. “But we found that you can only tune a glass to within one whole-tone of its original pitch. And glasses at the pitch (indicated by the composer) are rather small.”
Kim also found that not all glasses “speak” equally readily — an important factor in a piece that requires whole chords of glass tones to suddenly appear, just like those greenish lights in the northern sky.
Eventually, Kim and a fellow choir member just went to Value Village, took some water and starting experimenting on all the glasses in the shelf. Now each rehearsal begins with a ritual of filling, tuning and testing.
“It definitely takes practice,” Kim says. “But it’s a lot of fun, and a great effect too. It makes the piece very unique.”
As well as “Northern Lights,” the program covers a range of Scandinavian and Baltic pieces from medieval Icelandic tunes to contemporary music from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Estonia.
“It’s gorgeous music,” says Thomas.
NORTHERN LIGHTS: MUSIC OF SCANDANAVIA AND THE BALTICS
Who: Seattle Pro Musica, for St. John’s Concert Series.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Where: St. John’s Episcopal, 19th Avenue Southeast and Capitol Way, Olympia.
Cost: Admission by donation. Free babysitting.
Also: More concerts 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 at First Baptist, Seattle; 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19 at Chapel at Bastyr University, Seattle