Artist Reflection: Composing for Cantus

We asked Cantus Bass and Staff Composer Chris Foss a few questions about his new piece, Beyond, which will be featured on “One Giant Leap,” and what it’s like to write music for Cantus. 

What is the most challenging thing about composing for Cantus?

I think creative people always fret over what their audience takes away from a work… but in this case, the first audience is the ensemble while we’re rehearsing. They are the most discerning critics you’ll ever meet, because they have to be in order to craft the best show possible. But when the the ensemble likes something, especially in the first few rehearsals, you know the audience will love it as well!

Tell us about your new composition Beyond.

Katharine Lee Bates (of America the Beautiful fame) wrote an absolutely stunning poem around 100 years ago that perfectly addressed the depth of wonder, awe, questioning and triumph that humanity has demonstrated in our long steady journey upward. 

What’s particularly exciting about the poem—at least for me—is that it asks more questions than it answers. It also explores many different ways to understand space, including science, religion, and philosophy… so really, the poem becomes more an internal picture of humanity, rather than an external view of the cosmos.

Do you consider each individual voice as you write parts?

That’s the best part of this! After spending years living with these singers and getting to know not only their voices, but also their personalities, it makes it easier to write something that will not only sound good, but bring out what makes them truly unique. 

How do you choose your texts?

Cantus is a collaborative organization, and, in my composing for the ensemble, choosing texts is also highly collaborative. Often in the programming process, we end up with gaps in the story or narrative, because it’s next to impossible to find an a cappella piece written for TTBB that addresses, for example, the depth of isolation felt by a tower crane operator or deep sea diver.  

After we identify a story segment or plot point that needs to be addressed, I’ll do a deep-dive and find 20-25 poems that are candidates to fill that narrative moment. I’ll highlight my favorite five, and then the whole group will discuss and choose one from there. Certain poems set more easily than others, but I tend to consider a difficult poem an exciting challenge from a compositional standpoint.

Which composers give you inspiration?

Of course, I’d never have the courage to do anything like this without the amazing inspiration of my friends and colleagues Paul Rudoi and Tim Takach. But also the lifetimes of work put forth by folks like Gabriela Lena Frank, Carol Barnett, and Ysaye Barnwell bring a staggering perspective on how much of a difference one can make by committing to a life of creating.

What makes you most proud about a composition?

I love the moment just after a piece is performed. We work so hard in Cantus to craft a story or a narrative with our programs that finding the right piece to further the plot can sometimes be quite difficult. But when you perform something that perfectly addresses the emotional touchstone of the journey you’re creating, you can tell by the nature of the applause that it was a special moment for the audience. Any time I can be a part of that, it makes it all worthwhile.

Chris Foss’ newest composition, Beyond, will be featured on the show “One Giant Leap” with performances throughout the Twin Cities and across the United States.

Click here for more information.