The Voice: Summer 2002

The Voice

Kornelis and concert choir perform his original composition Time Pieces

By Sally Jongsma

Something special happened at the last choral concert of the year. The concert choir, a violinist, and a cellist performed an original composition written by their director that put to music the words of poems by two of their professors and a Dordt alum. The warm applause following the performance demon-strated the sense of pride and appreciation the audience felt at being part of the event.

“Time Pieces” by Benjamin Kornelis is made up of four movements that deal with aspects of God’s time: Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and the New Creation. The work is the result of a year’s work marking the completion of Kornelis’s eighth year at Dordt College.

Faculty at Dordt are required to write a paper or, if approved, present a creative piece that demonstrates how their biblical perspective shapes their work in their discipline.

“I’ve written papers and am still revising my dissertation, so I decided to do something more creative,” says Kornelis. He actually credits the idea to colleagues who encouraged him to write a composition for his eight-year faculty development assignment.

“I made a proposal, and it was accepted,” says Kornelis. “That’s when it got scary. I actually had to do it.”

Kornelis originally thought he would draw on his Dutch heritage and use Genevan psalm tunes as a basis for the work. The more he thought about it, though, the more he wanted to use contemporary texts. He also wanted to compose a piece that used the instruments his children play—cello and violin.

So he set out to find texts from which to work, e-mailing members of the English department last spring to ask for suggestions of poems that might fit his theme.

“I received many good suggestions, most of which were by well-known poets,” Kornelis says. But he also received original poems from English professors David Schelhaas and Mike Vanden Bosch. He decided quickly that he would use Schelhaas’s poem for the first movement on Creation and Vanden Bosch’s for the hymn-like fourth movement on the New Creation. Another suggestion from Schelhaas put him on to poems by Luke Schelhaas (’96) who is currently a writer for the television program Touched by an Angel.

The first and fourth movements came relatively fast, Kornelis says. In “Sky Dance” he tried to capture the graceful elegance of the starlings’ flight as well as the gargling raucous sound of their chatter. In “Give Us Love” he composed a prayerful hymn to God’s redemptive work. And then the third movement came, recalling slower melodic ideas from the first movement and moving into a celebrative dance with violin and cello with a hint of “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” But the second movement “gave him fits,” he says. The fact that the poem rhymes but does not have a regular rhythm made it difficult to compose for. He thought about using a chant to bring a historical element to the piece—“but four verses of chant—that would be exciting,” he says.

Eventually he settled on an updated chant style framed by more traditional Kyrie and Agnus Dei sections, contrasting the two styles to indicate the experience of countless generations of believers.

“Many of the ideas for the piece came in fits and spurts while I ran,” says Kornelis who averages about twenty miles a week. “You need to live with a poem for a while to sense how to put it to music.”

But having the musical idea in your head is only the beginning. After he wrote down the notes, his work study assistant, Rachel Persenaire, put them into the computer.

“Even after it was written down, I’d find I didn’t like parts so I had to redo them,” he says. And he found that he didn’t know as much about strings as he’d like. Sections that sounded good on the piano didn’t always play as well on the strings the first time through because of the different tone colors of the instruments. Rehearsing with the choir added another opportunity for revision.

“Sometimes the choir would sing a section wrong, but I’d realize that it was a better way because it came more naturally,” he says. So he’d change it.

Although Kornelis enjoyed the opportunity to take a work from concept to final performance and thinks it was a valuable experience for his students, aspects of it gave him pause. “I was a bit hesitant to have my students spend that much time with the work,” he says, knowing the wealth of literature available to sing and learn during their short time in college.

Kornelis is still putting the finishing touches on the score—in fact his students rehearsed from unfinished manuscripts for movements two and three—but he says the work accomplished what he hoped it would.

“It’s a very public thing,” he says. “You perform within a community.” That requires that you consider the audience. For that reason even though he wanted to use contemporary poems and some contemporary sounds, he also was conscious of what people could listen to. “It needs to be accessible but challenging,” he believes. The response to the whole work was positive, but many did comment particularly on the hymn-like fourth movement chorale.