The Music of Kelly Van Shaar

Birth Is But A Sleep

~ Religious, choral, modern (Solo or SATB) ~ 2017-08-13

A choral setting of selected lines from Ode: Intimations of Immortality by William Woodsworth, first published in 1807


Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,
Not in entire forgetfulness,
Not in entire forgetfulness.

And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.

Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we may be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
And can in moments travel thither,
To see His children standing on the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling
Evermore, evermore.

Notes / Back story

If you want the sheet music, send me an email!

I'm a member of a Facebook group for composers, and as I was browsing the other week I ran across a post where someone asked if anyone knew of a good choral arrangement of the famed lines from this poem, or if anyone felt like writing one. He had posted that he needed it by a certain date to use with his choir, and that date was already past so I meant to pass it by. But, out of curiosity I read the lines and wouldn't you know it, a melody came to me. And if you're into composing then you know the rest. I had to write it.

The original post only contained two stanzas from the poem. I began writing out my musical idea for those lines, but in order to make a full song out of just those lines I would have had to repeat a lot of phrases or have long instrumental sections or something. I wanted more material, so I looked up the original poem and found out that it was very long. Like, way more than I could use. And it wandered from one topic to another. Anyway, I read the whole thing. You can look it up if you want to. But the original lines requested are specifically on the topic of pre-existence, the concept that we lived before this Earth life. This principle has long been taught in the LDS religion, but is not embraced or understood by Christianity at large. However, the guy who wrote this was not a Mormon. In fact, this poem was originally written several years before Joseph Smith was born and was first published when he was only two years old, and when he first published it, the Catholic church asked him to remove the lines about the pre-existence but he refused.

Anyway... the point is, I found several other stanzas that (while more veiled in metaphor) I believe could still be applied to the pre-existence. I just changed one or two words from the original, and I believe it works quite well. I also realized during this research that Lex De Azvedo drew much of his inspiration for the LDS-genre musical "Saturday's Warrior" from these lines. In fact, the phrase "trailing clouds of glory" was taken directly from here, as well as the metaphor of God's children arriving on Earth like travelers landing on the ocean shore. In addtion, the title of this poem, "Intimations of Immortality" surely is the basis for the title of one of Lex De Azvedo's songs, "Feelings of Forever." After reading my original post, my mom told me that some of these lines were also quoted in the Film Man's Search for Happiness that the LDS Church produced for the 1964 World Fair in New York. So, that's definitely something Lex De Azvedo would have become familiar with it, growing up in the church in that generation.

I originally wrote this for SATB, but being short one free choir and being anxious to get this out where people could hear it, I recorded it as a solo, with a fake choir singing their parts on 'ah' very softly in the background. The primary accompaniment is piano, but for the solo version I decided to try messing around with adding some electronic instrument sounds to the second verse to add to the mysterious tone. I kept them subtle, but if you listen closely you can hear a kindof whooshing sound (like wind or a distant ocean), a low, sustained swelling sound, a high sustained string-like sound, and some fast arpeggiated beepy things in the high range.

I also added some pretty heavy delay/reverb to the vocal in certain places.

Unique this about this arrangement musically: It features big fat ritards and fermatas (slow-downs and long pauses) at the end of a lot of phrases. It also frequently switches between 4/4 and 6/8 time, especially in the instrumental sections between stanzas, until the last half, where it lands in 6/8 and stays there. Also, I usually write either for real instruments or electronic instruments. I don't often combine the two, but that's becoming more of an accepted thing (even among those who do serious big-budget film scoring) so I thought I'd give it a try.

Warning - Super Geeky Technical Stuff Below

I just want to put this in for future reference. I really wanted a soft piano sound but it had to be quite loud, so... I get my piano sounds usually from Garritan Personal Orchestra and they have three velocity layers. One from 0 to 49, ane 49 significantly softer than 50. In fact, the harsh break at 50 has been the bane of my existence in many piano things I've written. So, I did a little research online, and what do you know... there's a plugin for that. I used this awesome little deal that comes bundled with Reaper (yes, the answer was there all along!) That lets you scale your note velocities any way you like. You can add or subtract any amount from the velocity, multiply it by a given amount, and/or set min and max values. So, I was able to smoosh my piano part into the range it needed to be without having to go through the whole song and make adjustments to all my dynamics. And I don't have to worry about ever getting a really LOUD, BAM note sticking out in the middle of a passage. In case you're interested, it's called JS: MIDI Velocity Control.

Another thing I did here for the first time: I wanted to have a delay/reverb on the voice, but only on certain passages. In the past, I've created a separate track with extra reverb and then just copied the vocal to that track whenever I wanted the effect. But I found a more elegant solution: First, I created a send from the vocal track to the reverb track and added a volume envelope to that track, so I could just turn the reverb up and down whenever I wanted and easily adjust it. But the problem I discovered was that, even when the volume was down, that track was still receiving audio signal and delaying it, so when I turned up the reverb track I'd hear the end of the previous phrase being echoed, instead of just what I wanted. Sooo... instead, I moved the volume envelope to the send volume instead of the track volume, and wahoo. Now I'm only sending the stuff I want to get modified. Much cleaner.

Visitor Comments

drcrae from United States ~ 2017-08-14 15:17:10 ~ Thanks for your tremendous talent. I enjoyed the song very much. I see this in a musical and I am sure whatever you do this will be a success.

LE from United States ~ 2017-08-14 10:54:29 ~ I think it is beautiful. The words are reflective.

Diana from United States ~ 2017-08-14 10:43:07 ~ This was beautiful! I wouldn't change a thing! So good to hear your voice again❣️

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