Story Telling in a Song: “Rise Anon”

Written by Janet Hock

Every year, the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir (ISC) commissions a new Christmas Carol by holding a competition for composers, 35 years old or younger). The winning carol is performed at the annual ISC Festival of Carols concerts in December. A panel of experts reviews the submissions, ranking them on the merits of the music and musicianship, without knowing the composer’s name or background. These new carols have always been fun to learn and sing, and we are warmed with the pleasure it gives the composers to hear their music performed by the choir. This year’s winning carol, “Rise Anon” by Sean A Kisch, evoked an unusual emotional response from the choir. Singers fell in love with it from the first read-through, and sang it with great empathy. I talked with the composer, Sean, to try to understand why his composition had such unique appeal to the performers.

Sean is from Indiana and a graduate student at the Butler University School of Music, studying with Professor Michael Schelle. In his spare time, he composes music for movies, plays piano for his church, accompanies the Hancock Children’s Choir and teaches piano. He fell in love with the piano after his mother sent him to lessons when he was 6. He began to compose around age 12, and discovered early on the pleasure of telling stories through music. Aha, I thought – here is the kernel of the appeal of his carol; a good story, well told, will capture the listener’s imagination every time!  It was the mother of one of his piano students who told him about the ISC Christmas Carol competition, and encouraged him to submit a song in the summer before he started his graduate program at Butler. He wanted something upbeat and joyful. He remembered a fragment of a phrase from Ephesians about telling people to wake up from their spiritual sleep, and walk from discouragement and darkness towards the light. Then he sat down to compose.

The words are old, and are found in Ephesians 5:8-14, and even earlier in Isaiah 9:2, attesting to their power and effectiveness. From the unknown writer of Ephesians: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light(for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) ….. This is why it is said:  Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

The letter-writer in Ephesians was advising communities in the early church to establish ethics and boundaries. At the time, Christianity was a revolutionary set of beliefs that was changing cultures, and displacing paganism with its beliefs in many gods and the culture of dominance within the Roman Empire. Christianity held that all humans were equal; that justice was for all; and that communities should care for the poor, homeless, oppressed and sick. These were words of revolution. A master was no more significant than a slave; wives were equal to their husbands; the powerful had the same value as the weak. Truth should be valued. Communities should push for justice and fairness, and above all, cultivate goodness and care for the less fortunate. The early communities of the Christian churches, known as “children of the light” were fragile. The letter-writer encourages these “children of the light” to turn away from falsehoods (“darkness and death”), and live a life of honesty, goodness, truth and justice. Maybe the power of “Rise Anon” is that these words resonate with our times, and provide hope that our deep divisions in society can be overcome.

I asked Sean what he likes best about composing. “All the little details” he said. I look at the words and the rhythm of the poetry – should this note be a quarter note or a half note? I look at the dynamics? I agonize: should I make this phrase mezzo piano or pianissimo?” My thoughts flew to our conductor Eric Stark’s direction, his heavy sighs in reminding the choir to pay attention to dynamics, and the endless hours we spend count-singing. After we sight-sang “Rise Anon” for the first time, M. Stark said to us, with great emphasis, pointing at the sheet music, “The music is not here, the music is you – you bring these words to life through music”. Sean beamed – here was a conductor he could trust to bring this new carol to life in the way he had dreamed in composing it. I thought of Michele McConnell, our soprano soloist for the ISC Festival of Carols concerts. In a recent conversation with a small group of us, she told of her experiences with singing Carlotta in “Phantom of the Opera” in NYC. There was the challenge of singing with a rotating group of 5-6 conductors each week. “We all know the phrase ends exactly on beat 3”, she said “but what makes the music come alive is how you get to that third beat! That depends on the style of the conductor, and how the singers respond.”

Singers in ISC share a deep love of music, and the discipline and desire to bring songs alive in the way the composer intended. I asked Sean what he felt as he heard his carol being sung for the first time in rehearsal. He said “Really happy!” He replied that the choir seemed to instinctively know what he wanted, bouncing off each last word, and making the word “light” sparkle. The men had sung the opening line exactly as he intended. The beginning of the carol is somber and lyrical – people are battling with the forces of darkness. As the song moves towards day, the music and singing lighten and become upbeat – “do not give way to sorrow but continue to rejoice”. The carol ends with hope and resilience – “come to see the hope of the nations and the promise of God.”

“Wake up, O sleeper, it’s Christmas morn” indeed. Come to our concerts on December 9, 20, 21, 22 and 23, and allow to this lovely carol to inspire and fill you with hope for the year ahead.