Interview: Dr. Thomas Strode and Boychoir of Ann Arbor

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Boychoir of Ann Arbor

A past edition of the Boychoir of Ann Arbor chilling in their vestments.

It’s a haunting sound when a group of boys’ voices in the treble range convene.

I’m not talking about performances by boychoirs, which feature the unchanged voices of prepubescent boys, who together make a sound so lovely and pure that the effect is haunting.

I’m talking about the start of boychoir practices and the scary sound created when a gaggle of rambunctious dudes with short attention spans and constant jokes get together to learn the craft of choir singing.

But for 30 years, the ever-patient Dr. Thomas Strode has led the Boychoir of Ann Arbor through innumerable practices, and his ability to keep cool and impart high-quality musical education to a rather wiggly and easily distracted audience is remarkable.

In the common area of Ann Arbor’s St. Paul Lutheran Church, where Strode is the director of music, he teaches boys musical theory and gives singing lessons using a quiet, measured tone of voice. Under Strode's gentle guidance, the boys' constant hum of silliness at the start of practice soon becomes a gloriously soothing sound when they begin to sing.

Strode instructs a prep choir, for newer singers, as well as the performing choir, which features more experienced vocalists and expands the treble boychoir model to also include an SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) choir, with the older boys and their changing voices providing the lower notes.

Dr. Strode really understands how to teach children, which is why Boychoir of Ann Arbor has thrived for three decades. And the kids really do learn to sing beautifully, as listeners will be able to hear at the “A Boychoir Christmas” concerts on December 9 and 10.

These annual shows are highlights for many holiday concertgoers -- but they will also be Strode’s final ones as the choir’s director. He’s retiring at the end of the boychoir’s season, which wraps on June 4 with the “Spring Finale” concert.

With this being Strode’s final Christmas concert, we asked the good doctor to give us a preview of what we will hear and why.

Interview: U-M Professor Stephen Rush, author of “Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman”

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Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman, the least understood person in the room.

Ornette Coleman’s music can be inscrutable to unprepared ears. The jazz giant, who died in 2015 at 85, developed a music theory he called “harmolodics.” It’s a style that goes beyond the “free jazz” tag that frequently accompanies Coleman’s name -- even if the alto saxophonist/trumpeter/violinist did release a genre-defining record under that name in 1960 -- and relies as much on a philosophical idea as a musical one. Simply put: Harmolodics is about race.

Harmolodic theory can baffle experienced musicians, too. Even guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, who played with Coleman for 6 years, said, “I don’t get it!” in a new book called Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman by Stephen Rush, professor of performing arts technology at the University of Michigan.

But Professor Rush, who has taught at U-M for more than 30 years, breaks down Coleman’s complicated theories in a series of free-flowing interviews with the legendary composer that clarify harmolodics’ underlying philosophy. Plus, the book’s in-depth musical examinations will help students absorb the style into their own playing.

In addition to being a U-M prof, keyboardist Rush has a staggeringly wide body of work that includes everything from chamber jazz and opera to digital music and sound installations, and he explores harmolodics (and all sorts of other styles) in his Naked Dance quartet.

To celebrate the release of Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman, Rush is doing two area readings: Wednesday, December 7, at Literati (Ann Arbor) and Sunday, December 11, at Trinosophes (Detroit). Both are at 7 p.m. (For the Literati event, Rush is joined by Jason Corey, associate dean and associate professor of music at the University of Michigan, who just released a new edition of his book Audio Production and Critical Listening: Technical Ear Training.)

Rush answered questions over email about Coleman and the book, and he gave Pulp a list of recommended recordings that illustrate harmolodics at its finest.

Preview: December Documentaries

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Warren Miller’s Here, There & Everywhere

Warren Miller is Here, There & Everywhere. / Photo by Cam McLeod Photography.

Do you have a God complex? Then documentary filmmaking might not be for you.

“In feature films the director is God; in documentary films, God is the director,” said the deity Alfred Hitchcock.

But the seven documentaries being shown in Ann Arbor this December had directors who put aside any supernatural ambitions they may have to tell real stories.