Vocalise CD Review by Matthew Warnock – January 2011

The human voice is a magnificent instrument, one that can scream to the rafters, sending chills down one’s spine, and immediately after deliver a performance so heart wrenching that it leaves not a dry eye in the house.  American composer Brian J. Nelson is an artist that fully grasps the immense range and texture of vocal music, and how powerful the medium of songs can be in developing an emotional connection with his audience.  His latest recording, Vocalise, is a celebration of vocal works and song, full of stellar musicianship, intense emotional turns and world-class composing and arranging.

One of the most interesting and compelling aspects of the album is that it is named after a work written not for the voice, but for the cello. “Vocalise for Solo Cello” starts off the album with a performance that is so fluid and organic that it sounds as if the cellist is simply improvising the melodies for each section of the piece, an accomplishment of the highest merit in the compositional world.  Using vibrato, careful phrasing and sustained notes, the cello takes on the character of a vocalist during the piece, bringing the instrument to life as it weaves and flows through each line and phrase of the work.  It may seem like an odd choice to begin an album titled Vocalise with a piece for cello, but upon hearing the work it becomes apparent that the album is a statement on the universal character of song, that song can be expressed clearly and effectively with lyrics just as well as it can in an instrumental piece.

The vocal pieces on the album are just as compelling as the opening work for cello.  It is quite apparent that Nelson feels a strong connection to the voice and to vocalists, and his writing portrays this connection.  Works such as “Three Motets” are masterfully written for multiple voices.  With a strong focus on melody and melodic development, these works showcase many different vocal writing techniques, all done with the utmost attention to detail and musicianship.   There are moments where the voices swell in and out of the forefront, passing the listener’s attention from one singer to the next, while at other moments the group sings as a whole and in others the men and women sing separately.  This kind of compositional diversity speaks highly of the creative nature of Nelson’s work, and in his ability to draw the listener in with the variety of textures and melodic combinations he uses in his works.

Vocalise is an enjoyable album that appeals to both fans of the genre and musical scholars at the same time.  Casual listeners will be able to become lost in each piece as melody and harmony come together in exciting and captivating ways.  It is a testament to Nelson’s writing style that he can maintain the highest musical integrity of his pieces, while allowing his works to be enjoyed by non-musicians, and even newcomers to the genre, at the same time.

As well, fellow composers and students of vocal works and song will find plenty of inspiration in Nelson’s writing, especially the fact that he is able to write works that are emotional, entertaining and musically interesting at the same time.  It is a rarity it seems in today’s classical music world to find a composer that can keep things interesting and listenable at the same time, while avoiding being an imitation of eras gone by, two things that Nelson accomplishes on this record.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Matthew Warnock is a professional guitarist and pedagogue.
He is the editor of Guitar International Magazine
he can be reached through his website at


Fanfare Magazine Review — January 2011

Review by William Zagorski

If you can make your way through the arcane intricacies of this headnote with any understanding of its content whatsoever, you’re a far more adept person than I. The headnote may be forbidding, but Brian J. Nelson’s music most decidedly is not. His harmonic language can be complex and nontraditional, but the result is, more often than not, stunningly beautiful. He reflects the influences of his teachers—William Bolcom, William Albright, and Nick Thorne—but they are subsumed into his uniquely personal musical imagination and profound religiosity. I found the Three Motets, op. 7, most compelling. In them he deploys his choir of eight virtuoso singers masterfully. The music’s voice-leading and resultant harmonic structure can be described as Renaissance composer John Taverner meets György Ligeti. What emerges is a sound that is at once ultramodern and ancient—one that makes a strong case for its being timeless. I highly recommend this music to choral directors in search of new and strikingly satisfying repertoire, ditto Nelson’s setting of the 100th Psalm. Special praise is in order for tenor Jason Parr, who also sings Of Spiritual Joy and Sorrow. Here the realm of plainchant is evoked, but with Nelson’s customary and revealing twists and turns. His exploitation of the pieces’ asymmetrical metrical structure proves both illuminating and aesthetically satisfying.

In the instrumental music, one of Nelson’s underlying devices is more clearly apparent than in the choral pieces—at expected cadence points, he often throws a harmonic curve that makes what preceded it, in retrospect, more beautiful than it seemed at first hearing, and similarly enriches that which follows.

This music can prove, to both the singers and instrumentalists, an intonational minefield, but here everyone acquits themselves admirably. The recording, given the variety of sonic demands, is at once vivid and spacious.

I wholeheartedly enjoyed this release on first hearing, and, many hearings later, the power of this composer’s voice becomes increasingly compelling. Available from nelsonmusic.com. William Zagorski

This article originally appeared in Issue 34:3 (Jan/Feb 2011) of Fanfare Magazine


Fanfare Magazine Interview — January 2011

A Devout Composer Breaks His Silence


Brian Nelson doesn’t aspire to be famous; he just wants to be a craftsman who instills transcendence in his music. His music is the language of the divine and thus he might be viewed as the musical equivalent of a Jesuit. There is a serene monasticism to his music and his life, which he fashions after Christ—not that he aspires to be divine, but that he aspires to follow the path of Christ. Nelson exists in two worlds: the world of the mundane and the world of the divine, the world of secular music and the world of specifically liturgical music. When I spoke to him recently, I felt that here was a composer at peace with himself and the divergent worlds he straddles.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your new CD, Vocalise . How did you come up with the title?

A: It’s the name of the first piece, which is for solo cello and is my opus 1. It sets the tone for the whole album, which is really about song —whether instrumental or vocal. Another example is my Ballade for violin and piano (track 9). It has an intensely vocal quality even though it’s an instrumental piece. And then there are the vocal pieces themselves: the motets, art songs, and solo vocal pieces on the disc. At a deeper level, though, the title refers to the somewhat ineffable quality that makes a piece of music sing: a kind of inner dynamism without which music cannot reach the heart.

Q: This is very exciting—opus 1—but you had a CD that preceded this, right?

A: Yes, that’s right. There are basically two branches of my work as a composer. One is sacred music, especially service music for the Mass. The previous CD you mentioned— Responsorial Psalms for Advent and Christmas (November 2009, Nelson Music)—is an example of that. The other branch is more geared toward concert music, which is represented by the current Vocalise release. There is certainly a lot of overlap and cross-influence. I think you can hear that especially in the melodic writing and colorful harmonies common to both discs.

Q: How did you get started in music? Were your parents musicians?

A: Actually no. I don’t have any professional musicians in my family history that I am aware of. However, both my parents were very creative and educated. My dad was a Protestant pastor and my mother an English teacher and amateur poet. My dad, who passed away in 2004, wrote a great deal, especially in his sermons, but also many beautiful haiku . Certainly my faith is very important to me—I am a convert to Catholicism. And that basic connection with things of ultimate importance in our family goes right along with an artistic vocation.

Q: Do you play an instrument?

A: I grew up playing the tuba, and went to the University of Michigan on a scholarship for that, applying and being accepted to the composition department during my sophomore year. My first teachers there were Nicholas Thorne, William Bolcom, and William Albright, all of whom helped me to get off to a good start as a young composer. I continued to play tuba and also to sing in choral groups throughout college. I still sing publicly on a regular basis and do choral conducting intermittently throughout the year, either as part of the Liturgy or in recording sessions of my music for projects like Vocalise.

As I reflect back on my musical experiences, I see that both my brass playing and my singing were pretty close to ideal in terms of honing my compositional gifts. On the one hand, playing tuba helped develop my sense of harmonic progression, without which it is nearly impossible to create an effective musical composition. Singing, on the other hand, taught me the importance of melodic lines and counterpoint. The voice is the real primordial instrument and every instrumental family taps into that at some level. Hence the need for composers to make their lines “sing” in order to be effective. Players sense the presence or absence of this quality immediately, and it deeply affects how they approach the music they perform.

Q: Why did you decide to become a composer?

A: I began to compose when I was about 12 years old, writing piano pieces, vocal music, and also arrangements of Christmas carols for brass. When I got to college, I found that I couldn’t put the full force of my personality into performing. I felt I had something of my own to say musically, and could put my whole person behind [composing].

Q: When you set about writing a piece of sacred music, how do you go about deciding how to make it fit into the repertoire?

A: For me, writing a piece of sacred music is a very organic experience. It really begins with the text. The text contains the seed from which the piece grows. From there, it’s a matter of being faithful to the inner necessity of the musical material flowing from the sacred text. Also as a Catholic person, I hope my faith informs the purpose I bring to writing the piece. Indeed, one thing that I hope characterizes my sacred music is a certain transparency. That is, I don’t want to simply direct the listener’s attention to the piece itself. Rather, my intent is for the music to act as a kind of window to the Divine, much like the tradition of iconography does in the visual arts.

As far as process is concerned, there’s no room for faking as a composer, no place for wrong notes or sloppiness of any kind. I work through my pieces very carefully, and try to remain faithful to my beliefs. The rest tends to take care of itself.

Q: If we can put aside for a moment the text, I am wondering what makes you tick musically. When you sit down to write a piece, do you consciously think about whether you want to stylistically head in the direction of 12-tone or Minimalist or neoromantic?

A: So, you’re asking me what my relationship is to these various kinds of music when I am composing?

Q: Yes. You said you were trying to deal with such things as the Divine, but you are also using a language that is earthly.

A: Yes, absolutely.

Q: To what extent do you categorize yourself stylistically in view of your religiosity?

A: With regard to style, of course I’ve grown up in a particular musical milieu with many influences. But honestly, I don’t think about this very much when I’m composing. It is the integrity of the idea that matters most, not the style. Many years ago in conservatories and universities there was a strong emphasis on “finding your own voice,” and especially on avoiding references to traditional tonality. Alas, the result was a great deal of atonal music that sounds very much the same. This approach is counterproductive and actually stunts authentic creativity. For me, compositional craft is extremely important, and making the piece work within itself—that motive trumps style. So even if my piece resembles another composer at a particular moment, I am confident there is an organic wholeness to the work. As C. S. Lewis once said, “Tell the truth, and originality will take care of itself.” That’s my philosophy, too.

My aesthetic approach takes the Incarnation of Christ as its basis. The Catholic understanding is that Jesus is both fully human and fully Divine. These two natures do not commingle or mix, but they do touch, as it were, and come together in the one Person of Christ. The natures also correspond by way of analogy to the physical and spiritual aspects of the human person. That’s the model for my artistic endeavor—not that I’m another Christ or some kind of musical messiah, God forbid. But rather that I am trying to communicate something of the wonder and love of God in the shared musical language of our time.

Q: When you write for the Church, there are obviously some restrictions. In new music, there are elements of humor, wacky sounds, electronic sounds, and you can’t do those things during a high Catholic Mass. So when you are writing sacred music, do you think to yourself, “How can I make this suitable for church, but also interesting in the secular world?” When you think of the repertoire of sacred music, such as during the Baroque and Classical periods, the Church was so much a part of life, and there was very little separation of church and life. I don’t think Bach was thinking, “Gee, I’m writing for the church service, but I want to make certain these pieces are pleasant to listen to outside of church.” In fact, at a certain point, the only music that was happening was at the church. I think my question got lost, but what I am getting at is that when you are writing a piece of sacred music, that it has to be correct with the Liturgy, and of a certain style, but do you also want the piece to be original and compelling outside the context of the church?

A: Getting back to the two branches of my work, they do have overlapping but slightly different audiences. When you mention limitations, there is another limitation in writing for the Church. When I write music specifically for the Mass or for other religious services, it is often sung by people who have little formal musical training, so I have to write the parts in such a way that the ordinary congregant can sing them. And yes, I am certainly not going to bring in a clashing chord and loud cymbal into the middle of a responsorial psalm, or a snare drum for that matter. I really see myself in the end as a servant to the Liturgy. It is real music, but it is constricted, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t mind having a job to do as a composer, and sometimes it can be a real boom to creativity. Many of my pieces now are written for commissions, and they all have various restrictions and limitations. So, finally, I don’t see a contradiction between the limitations of a musical assignment and the beauty and the depth of the resulting work.

Q: Do you think you will primarily be a composer of sacred music or do you think you will wear two hats and write secular music as well?

A: I think it will probably be the latter. Again, I am constantly thinking about the life of Christ in the Gospels, and taking my cue from him. On the one hand, he was a man of the people, making his living as a carpenter prior to his public ministry. He wasn’t afraid to sit down and eat a meal with regular people, regardless of their social standing. On the other hand there is the Transfiguration, where his Divine nature is clearly revealed. Likewise, when I work on a piece, there is the regular, workaday craft of composing, but also the desire to express the Divine, and to personify that in some way in the music. An example at one end of the spectrum is my Vocalise for solo cello. The piece is deeply human, full of melodic beauty and richness, but also with a sense of longing that points to something beyond itself. At the other end of the spectrum is the third of my Three Motets, Therefore Are They Before the Throne of God, which is obviously and transparently a spiritual piece, setting as it does a text from the Revelation to St. John. Ultimately, I think these types of pieces cross-pollinate and support each other in my overall output as a composer.

Q: I don’t mean this facetiously, but is there a sense of your being a musical priest?

A: Well, certainly not in any sacramental sense like the actual priesthood of the Church. However, at the level of communication I don’t think that’s necessarily off the mark. I want in my music to be a servant of people for the good. I really care about my listeners, and I know that music has a unique power. I’m very much a believer in the doctrine of ethos , the ancient Greek notion that music can affect people emotionally and spiritually, for good or ill. Indeed, music can cause people to feel things involuntarily, because it largely bypasses the rational processes and goes straight to the heart. Therefore, I don’t want to do anything to jerk my listeners around, to show them who’s boss, to impose my vision on them. On the other hand, I do have something positive and life-giving to say in my work, and I’m not afraid to say it with clarity and strength. So, in those ways, there is kind of a pastoral aspect to my composing. And then, of course, there is the wide religious vision that I feel I can communicate.


Lawrence Magazine Profile (double-click for full screen)

Sun Prairie Star Profile – 11/2010

University Daily Kansan – 3/2010

The Grapevine Online – Review of Psalms CD

FaithArts – Review of Psalms CD


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