When most congregants attend Sunday services, they are probably not expending a lot of thought on all the work that goes into the preparation of the music, or the broader creative lives of those who compose and arrange it.
Tim Keyes has been the pastoral assistant of music and liturgy at the Catholic Community of St. Charles Borromeo in Skillman for 18 years. His latest symphony is in rehearsals — with his own ensemble, the Tim Keyes Consort — in preparation for the work’s world premiere at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium on Saturday, June 15.
The concert will be made up of new works by New Jersey composers, including Keyes’ Symphony in G, “Christus: The Ascendance of Light.” The 56-minute, five-movement composition, scored for chorus and orchestra, caps the program.
There are a good many symphonies that attempt to convey a trajectory from dark to light. Keyes has gone to great pains so that his does not simply glide along a well-worn path from minor to major. “I would say that throughout the piece there’s a harmonic ambiguity,” he says. “It’s more of a process of transformation to light. You have arrival points, but harmonically you’re not really back at home base until the last measure of the piece.”
He draws a comparison to the kind of harmonic instability one experiences when listening to Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” but the effect of the coda is more like something out of a Ralph Vaughan Williams symphony. “It’s like a final prayer at the end, this repeated phrase that gets spun out musically. I usually end with a big, grandiose finish, but this piece ends in a whisper.”
The texts are taken from the Old and New Testaments, poetry of Ernestine Northover, and the Irish prayer “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” The Latin prayer “Et lux perpetua luceat nobis” (“May perpetual light shine upon us”) forms the basis of a seven-minute fugue. In a world full of conflict the music addresses concerns that are both timely and timeless.
The program will also feature works by two of Keyes’ composition and theory students. “I asked them if they would also like to play with the idea of dark to light,” Keyes says. “So Andrew Gavin wrote a piece called ‘The Darkness Surrounds Me.’ He’s a Rowan University graduate (and East Brunswick resident). He’s been studying with me for a couple of years.
“Then one of my young students, Kathryn Dauer, she wrote a piece called ‘Parva Lux,’ which means ‘little light.’ She’s a student at Montgomery. She got accepted into the Ithaca composition program, which is quite a coup because they only accept four students per year.
“I’m really impressed with their enthusiasm and their talent. Writing an orchestral piece is a very huge challenge. It’s a different skill set. And then you add the choir to it, and it’s another one. It’s a huge chunk to bite off. They’ve really embraced the challenge.”
As a professional musician Keyes writes a lot of music, and he does so fairly quickly. In this sense, his duties at St. Charles are good discipline. For his creative work he relishes writing against deadline since it forces him to produce. In the case of the symphony plans for the concert were already in place well before the work was completed. “Having a group there, and the musicians hired to do it, it’s a heck of a motivator,” he says.
“It usually doesn’t take me a long time to compose, but this one was challenging on account of the theme. I was trying to make a statement musically, and I didn’t want it to come off as a cliche. I wrote about 600 or 700 measures of music and then tore it all up and started over a couple of times until I figured out how to do it. It’s a process. I think I started in July of last year, and I didn’t really have anything until December. From the middle of December I began to figure it out, and I finished it in March. So once I got going, it took about three months.”
He does everything the old-fashioned way, long-hand, with pencil and paper, before loading it into the computer. “I have a pile of pencils and I have these large orchestrating pads that I use to write, and I have a pad and a stack of pencils at the pianos and I just wander around writing it down.”
Born in Baytown, Texas, Keyes exhibited his musical aptitude early. He began taking piano lessons at the age of 5. Within weeks he had memorized the book, and he started to make up his own music. His father was a geologist who worked for what is now Exxon. Both he and Keyes’ mother were very supportive all throughout their son’s musical development. But he credits his mother in particular for her endurance.
“She would sit in the rocker in the living room and crochet while I practiced,” he recalls. “My dad was supportive, too, but she would actually listen to me, which is a pretty painful thing when someone’s learning.”
By high school Keyes was studying theory and composition with David Carter of the Houston Symphony. He continued his education at the University of Notre Dame with composers Paul Johnson and Ethan Haimo and musicologist Calvin Bower. A scholarship enabled him to attend the Aspen Music Festival for further studies with Charles Jones, Bright Sheng, and Leonard Bernstein.
Keyes arrived in New York in 1986, where he found employment with a number of the major record companies. He labored in the publication department of Warner Brothers, transcribing popular hits for sheet music sales, and he did production work for Epic and Geffen Records, among others.
Though his aims as a musician have been fairly straightforward, having to make a living at doing what he loves has taken him in some unexpected directions.
“Because of the way the music business has changed, I had to become a jack of all trades, as it were, able to do all these different kinds of things, in order to stay relevant and make a living doing it,” he says. “That’s what I encourage my students to do, too. You learn to arrange, you learn to write, you learn to record, you learn all the different software packages. You learn all of these things because it’s going to change, and with the next stage of what happens, you need to be able to embrace that and learn it.”
Keyes also held church music jobs almost since he graduated from Notre Dame. “The music department at Notre Dame was connected to the basilica there, so there was a lot of cross-pollination. All the music students had to do one of the ensembles with the church. You know, play in the basilica choir or do something, so I was involved with the church throughout. So when I came to New York on the weekends I always had a church position.
“The thing that drew me to St. Charles was just the community, really. I mean, it’s a very special place. The facility is beautiful, and the people are wonderful. I’ve been there for 18 years now. That’s a pretty long time. The longest I was at any of my other church positions was about six years. I’ve been at a lot of really great communities, too, but this was the best fit.”
The church is about a 40-minute commute from North Plainfield, where he makes his home with the designer Meg Poltorak Keyes. The couple has been married for 26 years.
“For the last few years she’s been designing churches,” Keyes says. “Right now she’s building the chapel at Caldwell University. It’s quite spectacular. She also helped to design the interiors at St. Charles.”
The two met when Keyes held an analogous position, his first in New Jersey, at North Plainfield’s St. Joseph’s.
From his dad, Keyes also inherited a love of carpentry, and he spends as much of his downtime as he can working with wood in a shop he keeps in his home. “It’s kind of my respite from the musical world,” he says. “It used to be just 24/7 music, but a few years ago I decided I needed to do something else for a little bit just to get some space.”
Clearly he can’t stay away from the music for long. The Tim Keyes Consort, now in its 24th year, grew out of all the connections he has made working with musicians throughout the state. “I’ve basically recruited all of these colleagues of mine and their students,” he says. “We perform four, sometimes five concerts a year now. There was a time that we were doing eight or ten, but that’s just a lot to do. We do concerts at other church communities. We tend to travel around.”
He thinks of the annual Richardson concert as a showcase for new and unusual music. It’s quite a different outlet for a working church musician who estimates he has arranged some 1,500 hymns for orchestra on top of countless settings of psalms and masses.
But it’s not just his latest symphony that has Keyes looking toward the light. He also finds plenty to be optimistic about in working with his younger colleagues.
“All the young people that are part of the consort, I’d say they’re probably the hope for the future — not just for music, but for everything. These young people that we work with are really a cut above, intellectually, socially. They’re very polite, just good kids. A lot of times, because of what we’re shown in the media, we don’t see that there are people like this around. All of the older folks in the consort feel it’s our responsibility to support them. Because they’re the future.”
Tim Keyes Consort, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Saturday, June 15, 8 p.m. $15 to $35. 609-258-5000.
For more on the Tim Keyes Consort: www.timkeyesconsort.org.