Seeing “Stars” on a Christmas Eve

By: Patricia Kusumaningtyas |

The first rendition I’ve heard of Ēriks Ešenvalds’s “Stars” was in a Christmas classical choral concert in New York City. The room was filled with people familiar with the classical music scene in the city; I was there with a friend, and I’ve never been surrounded by this community before. They all seem to know their choral pieces, my friend included; I felt like I was the only one in the room who can’t tell my Handels apart from my Verdis. However, I felt excited to experience something new. This excitement is epitomized when the chorus sang “Stars”—an acapella composition that transfixed the whole room.

The choir director mentioned that the voices in the chorus are like different colored paints; a composition and a choir leader’s job is to paint a picture with the different colors in the chorus. Ešenvalds definitely painted a beautiful picture with “Stars.” A defining element of the composition is the use of “singing glasses.” Some members of the chorus would hold a wine glass filled partly with water and circle their finger through the rim of the glass. What it produces is an ethereal sound, close to how a shimmer would sound like. All of the wine glasses in the chorus produces a harmony, setting up the song before it even begins. That alone is a very innovative move, emphasized by how the “singing glasses” are the only musical instruments utilized during the concert. The vocal part itself is very well put, with a combination of solos and group sections. There are some parts sung with dissonant tones that work well together, creating an effect of the wonder you feel when you look at the vastly expansive night sky. Once the song gets to the chorus part, the “singing glasses” are not overpowered—Ešenvalds creates a dynamic between silence and sound, even in the composition’s most intense parts. The piece gradually increases in intensity, reaching to a final, amplified harmony, with the chorus singers being in sync after a long build-up. It finally ends gradually quietly, leading its listeners back to where the composition started with an emphasis on the sound of the glasses.

When we walked home, my friend told me something he thought was silly. “You know, I think I saw stars when they performed ‘Stars.’ Literal stars, above where the chorus was standing,” he said. “It’s either I’m going insane or they’re just that good.” I didn’t believe him, but thinking about it, the composition’s ethereal atmosphere has the power to make its listeners see stars. And as I’m typing this on a Christmas Eve, seeing the sky up above just reminds me to this very special composition.

Happy Holidays from the Speed of Sound team!

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