Recordings: The Magic Music Makes

The Magic Music Makes
John-Michael Albert: vocals, recorders
Kathy Biehl: vocals, guitar

01. “Amara’s Dance” (Albert)
02. “The Magic Music Makes” (Albert/Albert, Yelton Rhodes Music)
03. “Beauty Is Its Own Excuse” (Albert/Emerson)
04. “A Season for Lovers” (Albert/Albert, Yelton Rhodes Music)
05. “Mystic Lullaby” (Albert/text based on a 15th century English/Latin fragment)
06. “Peace” (Albert/Henry Vaughan, Yelton Rhodes Music)
07. “My Heart Leaps Up” (Albert/Wordsworth, Yelton Rhodes Music)

08. “Lost Emotions” (Romanovsky, Bodacious Music)
09. “Guilt Trip” (Romanovsky and Philips, Bodacious Music)
10. “Paint by Numbers (Song for Frances)” (Romanovsky, Bodacious Music)
11. “Living with AIDS” (Romanovsky and Phillips, Bodacious Music)

12. “Dennis Dunwoody (Les Nuits d’Été, “Standing there Immured”) (Albert/Albert, Yelton Rhodes Music)
13. “Survivors” (Albert/Albert, Yelton Rhodes Music)

From 1985-1994 John-Michael Albert and Kathy Biehl were “The Mike and Kathy Show,” a Houston-based collaboration with overlapping vocal ranges and musical tastes, a bent for invention and a repertoire that pushed the definition of eclectic. This recording, their only studio production, capures them in “modern medieval folk cabaret” mode.

Production assistance by Philip Brandt, Noel Eskew and Rock Romano.
Cover art by Kelley Loftus. DAT to CD transfer: Mark Platí.
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(c) 1992 Mantic Door Music; 2003 John-Michael Albert



Notes on My Songs, by John-Michael Albert

No. 1 “Amara’s Dance,” June 7, 1989
An extraordinary week’s activities saw the creation of both “Amara’s Dance” and “My Heart Leaps Up” on the same day.  On Tuesday, June 6, 1989, Kathy called me at work, saying that there was no music that week for the services at First Unitarian Universalist Church.  The Rev. Bob Schaibly had called her and asked if we couldn’t put something together.  He felt that it was especially necessary since a baby girl was to be dedicated that Sunday and it needed to be a festive occasion.  I had a rehearsal with the Bach Vespers Society that evening, so we planned to get together Wednesday evening to see what could be done.  As I waited for the bus on my way home on Wednesday, “Amara’s Dance,” named for the child to be dedicated, came to me and I rushed home to write it down.  When Kathy came to the rehearsal, part of our problem was solved.  Incidentally, the most memorable thing about the premiere (besides the fact that the tenor recorder and guitar were perfectly in tune) was that the audience gasped at the end of the performance (a moment captured on tape) before they began to applaud. [Continued at “My Heart Leaps Up”]

No. 2 “The Magic Music Makes,” January 28, 1990
On Saturday evening, January 27, 1990, Kathy came over to my house with a tape that had been made for her by Sandra Mussey, a California parapsychologist.  Skipping all the personal material, she played a section dealing with our past life relationship.  The woman stated that we knew each other in 13th century Italy.  I had had a high position in a court but, through various political intrigues, had become a wandering troubador. We then met and lived out our lives as traveling jugglers, singers, and performers.  Again and again, before playing the tape and afterward, Kathy kept saying, “I think there’s a song in this.”  Next morning, as I was walking back from breakfast at my favorite coffee house, Charlie’s, the song came to me and I spent the remainder of the day writing it down.  It became my birthday present to Kathy that year, albeit a day late. In the spring of the following year, while listening to a concert by Houston’s women’s chorus, HeartSong, I became totally enchanted with their sound and their message.  I decided that I would try to arrange “The Magic Music Makes” with its essentially New Age message for them.  They not only honored me with acceptance of my proposal but used the title of the work as the theme for the 6th National Women’s Choral Festival which they hosted in Houston in November 1991 and premiered the choral version at that Festival (which, ironically, Kathy produced).  Later, I entered this arrangement in the women’s chorus category of the first Gay and Lesbian Choral Association (GALA) Choral Competition (1991).

No. 3 “Beauty Is Its Own Excuse,” March 28, 1992
On Saturday, March 28, 1992, Kathy and I invited our friends, Steven and Philip, to bring their critical ears to a rehearsal of two songs we were going to perform for the “Special Music” segment of the Service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church the next day.  At coffee afterward, P&S asked us both when we were going to make a recording (a suggestion we had heard often enough).  They even offered to engineer it, making the temptation even more irresistable.  If we started immediately, they argued, we might have one ready to sell before performing with them on April 24. Such madness always both attracts and panics me, so Kathy and I agreed to take up the challenge.  I had much to do that evening, so my lover Julio and I left the coffee shop before the others: Julio was to be in the final performance of La Pergola de las Flores and I to memorize the words to the songs I was to perform on Sunday before rejoining him for the cast party. I got home and felt that I needed to relax, so I picked up a book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (1803-1882) essays, sermons, and poems.  I began reading “The Rhodora,” and immediately realized that music was simultaneously going through my head as I read the words on the page.  Having learned not to ignore such communications, I immediately sat down and wrote the draft and the fair copy before leaving for the cast party.  Next morning, the lyrics to the songs we performed were still rusty, but I had traded the desired precision for a song written especially for the album, a good trade by any measure.  We recorded it at the beginning of the sessions to capture the freshness of the work.

No. 4 “A Season for Lovers,” July 22, 1990
While directing the Montrose Singers (later, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Houston), I frequently had the opportunity to write new works for them.  After leaving the chorus it was my intention to write a large piece for them but nothing appropriate was forthcoming.  Then, at a June concert, it came to me that gay choruses have very few works addressing their specific needs during the Holidays.  With the suggestion by one of the singers that I make it religiously inclusive (I even considered setting the section of the Koran dealing with the birth of Jesus) I had only to wait for the music to happen.  As has happened so often in the past, I was walking to Charlie’s one Saturday morning in July 1990, and the music and lyrics came to me almost complete.  I spent my breakfast and a friendly though distracted conversation with a friend scribbling lyrics and music on napkins in green felt tipped pen so that I could get it home in good enough condition to make a fair copy before the day was out.  I sent the copy off to the chorus, changing the title at the last minute to “Together” in an unnecessary attempt to make the title memorable.  When they called to let me know they accepted it, they told me the title of the concert was “A Season for Us All,” not far from my original title for the song.  I have since changed the title back.  This was the first work I have written in which I was involved as neither the conductor or a singer in the premiere.  The lyrics are “genderless” and, as Kathy has pointed out, are not so much specifically gay as nearly universal. Later, when I found out about the GALA Competition in 1991, I decided to enter all three categories: for men’s chorus, women’s chorus (“The Magic Music Makes”), and mixed chorus (“Survivors”).  Of the total of 265 entries from all over the world, “A Season for Lovers” was chosen one of the four winners for men’s chorus.

No. 5 “Mystic Lullaby,” September 3, 1983
“Mystic Lullaby” was my response to a challenge from my friend and fellow student at the University of Houston, S. J. Vinecour, the accompanist for both the University Chorus and Chamber Chorus.  While rehearsing some Christmas music, I despaired that most classical choral works were settings of the same recycled Latin texts over and over again, as if, for some reason, there was a paucity of great Latin texts and potent poetical conceits surrounding this most extraordinary of ordinary events.  He said that if I didn’t like it, I should find a different text and set it for the Chamber Chorus.  That sent me scrounging through my poetry anthologies.  I landed on this text in the Penguin Book of Medieval English Verse.  Though the melody is rather lyric and simple, my setting deliberately evokes an angular, medieval harmony as a memento of my many conversations with S. J. on medieval music theory. This two-voiced version was arranged for Kathy and me to perform at the Montrose Singers’ Holiday Concert in December 1990.  I retained the original melody in verses 1, 3, and 6 and harmonized its mirror image (the inversion) in verses 2 and 5.  Solely to satisfy my passion for symmetry, verse 4 was omitted in the two-voice arrangement, so the final verse arrangement is 1:2:3:5:6.

No. 6 “Peace,” October 19, 1986
“Peace” was in fulfillment of my desire to compose something for the choir of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston.The group was busy preparing a Bach motet for performance under its director Dr. Tom Benjamin.  A poorly-attended tenor sectional at my house turned into a long and personal conversation between me and Barbara Hilton, at the end of which we both came to the not-too-startling conclusion that the solution of everyone’s problems lies within themselves.  It was not long between that special moment and my discovery of this poem by the English mystic poet HenryVaughan (1621?-1695).  With the alteration of only a few words, it provided a text appropriate for use as an anthem in the Unitarian Universalist Church. This two-voiced version was also arranged for our performance in December 1990.

No. 7 “My Heart Leaps Up,” June 7, 1989
[Continued from No. 1″Amara’s Dance”]  Once “Amara” was chorded and rehearsed, we realized that we still needed a choral closing for the end of the service.  We started scrambling through the many books of poetry I had sitting next to my desk looking for an appropriate text.  Two facts suddenly fused themselves into one song: the enlightened U/U attitude toward the dedication of a young child and a spectacular rainbow that both Kathy and I witnessed from different vantages in the city on the preceeding Thursday, June 1.  William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) famous poem immediately suggested itself and I had only to find it, read it, and wait a few moments for the music to suggest itself. It is especially pleasing to me to hear how our voices weave in and out of each other so that neither is superior nor subordinate, and it is frequently difficult to hear “who’s on top.”  The premiere on Sunday, June 11, was greeted with applause, a highly irregular event for the choral closing and Kathy and I have used it ever since to end our concerts.

Nos. 8-11 are songs by our friends Ron Romanovsky and Paul Philips

 No. 12 “Dennis Dunwoody,” June 6, 1987
“Dennis Dunwoody” was written to commemorate a friend who died of AIDS.  Dennis was the most astounding graphic artist I have known.  He also had an outstanding tenor voice.  While a member of the Montrose Singers, he worked long, hard, and passionately on every aspect of each performance from music to lights to advertising.  One day, long after he had moved on from the group, I got a letter from him through the mail.  He said he had been sorting through his possessions in response to some bad news he had received, and thought I would appreciate receiving the enclosed, a photograph of me conducting the Singers at the Texas State Capitol Building.  It was the first time I conducted them in public.  “Bad news” in the mid-’80s meant only one thing and Dennis died on May 31, 1987.  The problem of how to memorialize this wonderful person became an obsession of mine and was resolved one day as I was reading Les nuits d’été, a book of love poems I had written during the summer of 1978.  “Standing There Immured,” No. 28 in the book and dated June 22, 1978, was set for three-part men’s chorus and premiered at an Interfaith Service during Gay Pride Week that year.  Is it my voice or Dennis’s which is speaking?  Who is the object and who is the subject; or are we both objects?  The loss we have experienced, in terms of beauty and art, creative people and their creations, is inexpressible. During the summer of 1989, several friends gathered at my house on several occasions to sing madrigals together.  It was for that group that I made the mixed chorus arrangement of “Dennis Dunwoody” on July 30 and dedicated to the other singers: Kathy, Lin Cramer, and Ben Hadad.

No. 13 “Survivors (For the Children),” June 27, 1991
Having written “A Season for Lovers” for the Montrose Singers and having arranged “The Magic Music Makes” for HeartSong, I decided that the next logical step would be to write a work for their combined forces.  I received additional impetus to write this work from my desire to enter all three categories in the GALA Competition in 1991, lacking only an appropriate work for mixed chorus.  The problem, as I saw it, was that the politics and audience of the men’s and women’s choruses are so different that I would have to be very careful in selecting a subject for the song. In the end, I realized that we all recognize the difficulties of our own childhoods, the debt we owe to those who came before us, and the responsibility we owe to those coming after us to make things a little easier.  After a long conversation with my friend Jon Bourgault on the epidemic of teen rejection and abandonment by their parents in the U.S., I sat on my couch and began writing the words in long, ungainly lines (a metaphor for adolescence itself).  As always in my experience, the words brought their music with them. “Survivors!” won the 1993 National Competition of the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco for a commemorative work to celebrate their 15th anniversary.


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