Angel Band: A Christmas Cantata

From composers Tim Sharp and Timothy Michael Powell, ANGEL BAND uses songs and carols from the Appalachian shape-note tradition. This collection stands as a full Christmas cantata in a truly American style.

“Thanks to Timothy Michael Powell and Tim Sharp, Christmas can be a reality for choirs and instrumentalists this holiday season. While there are elements of bluegrass, they have woven more classical and folk sounds to make “Angel Band” a pleasure for every palate.”

Brandon Boyd, Ph.D.
Choral Editor, Gentry Publications

The orchestration adds more beautiful colors including bluegrass instruments. The extensive program notes include programming options for various services of worship as well as concert performance. It uniquely offers a rewarding experience from high school through adult in both sacred and secular venues.

For SATB Choirs & Orchestras.

Angel Band

“Angel Band tells the Christmas story through 10 traditional songs and original compositions. We use Appalachian sounds and early hymn tunes to give it a distinctive American flavor.”

—Tim Sharp, Composer

Captured By An Idea

Tim Sharp and Timothy Powel discuss their inspiration and collaboration in creating the choral and instumental compositions of Angel Band.

How did Angel Band get started? Who approached who?

Tim Sharp:
I approached Timothy Powell about this project, after we had performed a concert of my “High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass” and Timothy Powell’s set of three Appalachian inspired songs “Dear Appalachia.” We agreed that we wanted a work that was suitable for the Christmas season, but again based upon Appalachian themes and songs. This resulted in several early meetings to outline the project and discuss the work load. We then met face to face to start the arranging, and followed up these meetings online and sharing documents for each other to push back against and tweak. It was a very natural and organic process for both of us.

Timothy Michael Powell:
We also lucked out with a perfectly timed commission, while we were brainstorming, from a great friend of ours who specifically wanted a Christmas work. The choir asked us for three movements, and of course, we just ran with it and gave the choir more!

Tim Sharp Blurb

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Have the two of you worked together before?

Tim Sharp:
Timothy Powell was my student in his Master’s degree program at Belmont University. He went on to get his doctorate at the University of South Carolina when I was teaching at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. I knew I had a sabbatical leave coming when I would travel and study at Cambridge University in England, so I worked it so that Timothy could be my sabbatical replacement at Rhodes, teaching my classes and conducting my choirs. He was one of the finest students I had ever had the chance to work with, so I knew my program would be in excellent hands and that the school would love him. He even lived in my house for the year I was gone. After my return, we collaborated on a regular basis. We had written a commissioned piece together before the major undertaking of “Angel Band”, so we felt very comfortable with the process.

Timothy Michael Powell:
Ah, shucks, Tim. Who would have thought a banjo-playing university choral professor would have a student in choral conducting that played the mandolin? We just needed three more to go on the road! Twenty plus years now of working together, I think, has produced a pretty seamless and intuitive process of collaboration. We both have a really good sense of how each other “ticks” and can often anticipate thoughts and reactions.

Creating Christmas Mystery, Familiarity and Nostalgia

What was the process like for selecting the songs to be included in Angel Band? Was there a criteria that a song or a carol had to meet to make the cut?

Tim Sharp:
This may be the most interesting aspect of the entire project for us. We looked at dozens of songs that would convey the message of angels telling the nativity story. We looked for images of angels singing, and of angels playing. This became the larger list of potential texts and songs, and we started narrowing from that list. All of the easier parameters of length, the telling of different parts of the story, and our own interest in certain texts helped us at first, and then issues such as mood changes, mystery versus familiarity, and a host of other considerations were set in motion. When we found a text we loved, but did not find the tune as interesting, we sought out new marriages for text and tune. In the case of the “Magnificat” setting, I wrote a new song altogether. At every turn, we used the collaboration as a way to create checks and balances on our thought process, and as a way to avoid falling into personal traps had we worked alone. And as usual, we left a lot on the “cutting room floor”, as we self-edited a lot of material out. We are thrilled with the final outcome.

Timothy Michael Powell:
Yes, I agree. My favorite part of the process was brainstorming out a model of a soundscape, that was much more about the forest than the trees. What does winter “sound” like? What do we remember about childhood Christmas? It was only after we crafted the feel of the piece that we began asking ourselves, “What texts or tunes contain that certain mystery?” We wanted to tell a story as well, with the intent that the overall architecture of text, story, and music would take the listener on a journey. So we gave a great deal of attention to the dramatic arc of the work, and the result is that Angel Band can be a concert piece, but also functions really well liturgically as an Evensong.

A Memorable Christmas Cantata in a truly American style.

Suitable for various choirs such as High School, Church and University.

The title song, “Angel Band”, has been covered by everyone from the Stanley Brothers to the Monkees. What made the two of you decide to create a choral version?

Tim Sharp:
The image of angels being the ones to tell the story of the birth of Jesus Christ is quite a dramatic thought. We were captured by this idea, and wanted to place this in the context of an early American story. That offered a primitive image for this narrative, and we want to stay with that through the use of Appalachian instruments and other folk expressions. It was the Ralph Stanley version of “Angel Band” that formed our mental model for what we wanted to sound like throughout the work. There is a nostalgic and primitive sound in his singing of this hymn that we wanted to capture throughout the work.

Timothy Michael Powell:
It was a perfect way to both open and close the piece. We’ve found that by the end of the work, the audience can barely contain their desire to sing along on the final chorus. It is my favorite part of our performances, and the BEST possible benediction. It just works.

Tim Sharp and Timothy Michael Powell Have Composed a Memorable and Intuitive Christmas Cantata in a Truly American style.

Angel Band seems so uniquely American in spirit. Why do you think this is?

Tim Sharp:
It was our intent to gather images of a nativity narrative unique to mountain life. It is not unusual for artists throughout the ages to personalize the nativity story by placing it in their own local context, and this is what we wanted to do toward the theme of Appalachian life. With the Native American themes of ’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, to the bluegrass style used in the Magnificat, this mountain theme permeates the work. Pentatonic scales and modal writing enhance this style and mood.

Timothy Michael Powell:
Some of it is intentional as well. For me, folks like Williiam Billings (our most famous Colonial composer) provided clear inspiration. He was self-taught, and rough around the edges, which is a polite way to say that he didn’t follow the “rules” of music composition. But his music, as well as that of many of his peers, certainly formed the core of what we think of as an “American” sound. This may be more in the weeds that you want, but imagine wide and open intervals, parallelism, exciting rhythms and folk dances. In spots, we went back and deliberately (and liberally!) used the eraser in order to harken back to that more primitive and rustic sound. So there are certainly moments of high art, but also moments when we also enthusiastically break some of the “rules”.

Angel Band uses songs and carols from the Appalachian Shape Note tradition. Can you briefly explain what this means? Will this be difficult for choirs to learn and perform?

Tim Sharp:
The fact is, the shape-note tradition was created to make music learning simple. Most of the tunes are based on pentatonic scales, which are the easiest to learn. Further, there is an intentional familiarity and nostalgic tone built into the entire week so that the performer has the feeling they already know these songs. We have found it very intuitive to learn, and the songs are meant to stick in the ears and the minds of singer and listener.

Where do you see Angel Band performed? Is it suitable for church choirs, high school choirs, university choirs?

Tim Sharp:
We wrote the piece so that it could be performed by a good high school choir, but would be interesting and challenging to a church and university choir. In our workshopping of the piece, we performed it very successfully with all three of these types of choirs—High School, Church, and University—to great results.

Timothy Michael Powell:
I’ll briefly add that we tailored the instrumentation to be as flexible as possible for all those scenarios.

Rejuvenating a Christmas Story That Has Been Told Hundreds of Times Using New Exciting Rhythms and Thrilling Melodies

What type of reaction have you been getting from people about Angel Band?

Tim Sharp:
The most satisfying reaction has been that choirs want to perform it over and over. They find the uniqueness of each movement, which leads to multiple movements that singers call their “favorite.” Our most satisfying reaction has been to the texts chosen. I would never want to say that the Advent and Christmas themes we are working with become routine for singers, but the fact is, this is a story that has been told hundreds of different ways. Our goal was to bring something unique to the telling of this story, and singers have proven through their comments that we succeeded in that goal.

Timothy Michael Powell:
At almost every performance, someone has remarked to us that Angel Band felt like the “official” start of their Christmas. We have been able to play along with other conductors a few times and it gives us a unique view of the congregation. My personal favorite moments are when I see one of the movements land on someone’s emotional center, and they grin, or close their eyes, or tear up. That is the best.

A Mutual Love of Nature Resonates and Inspires

Tim Sharp, we understand that you’re something of a gentleman farmer these days, complete with livestock, vineyards and donkeys.. Does any of your agricultural pursuits influence your music writing or vice versa?

Tim Sharp:
Indeed, the Appalachian and mountain ideas are very close to my own heart and lifestyle. I grew up in the mountains of Appalachia, and learned to play the banjo and guitar at an early age. These are themes that are very close to me, as are the themes of nature and the outdoors. Timothy Powell and I share this love for the natural, and this work gave us a chance to use this theme in an artistic way.

Timothy Michael Powell:
Right! I grew up on farms, and usually have grapes and my heirloom garden growing from seeds I got from my grandfather, though there just isn’t enough space in downtown Atlanta for me to spread out like Tim Sharp has. Luckily with his cows he now has a built-in audience for his banjo!

A Visual, Textural and Emotional Delight for Audiences

Tim Sharp, we understand that you’re something of a gentleman farmer these days, complete with livestock, vineyards and donkeys.. Does any of your agricultural pursuits influence your music writing or vice versa?

Tim Sharp:
Indeed, the Appalachian and mountain ideas are very close to my own heart and lifestyle. I grew up in the mountains of Appalachia, and learned to play the banjo and guitar at an early age. These are themes that are very close to me, as are the themes of nature and the outdoors. Timothy Powell and I share this love for the natural, and this work gave us a chance to use this theme in an artistic way.

Timothy Michael Powell:
Right! I grew up on farms, and usually have grapes and my heirloom garden growing from seeds I got from my grandfather, though there just isn’t enough space in downtown Atlanta for me to spread out like Tim Sharp has. Luckily with his cows he now has a built-in audience for his banjo!

Will choir directors find any surprises in Angel Band?

Tim Sharp:
We have hidden a couple of tunes within the orchestral or keyboard accompaniment that are just for the instrumentalists. This is part of the counterpoint that we enjoyed weaving into the orchestration. In addition, the bluegrass style is one that most singers don’t get a chance to experience, so our use of this style will be a fun experience for singers. Also, the orchestration that uses mountain instruments along with string quartet will be thrilling for the directors, singers, and audience.

Timothy Michael Powell:
Visually, Angel Band is a real treat for audiences. The dulcimer and harp, in particular, really add a visual beauty to the stage even before the music starts.

The rhythms are exciting, timbres are intoxicating, and melodies are thrilling to sing, creating a work that is equally touching and invigorating. My singers loved learning this work!”

Joel Scraper, DMA – University of South Carolina

It would have been easy not to have an orchestration for Angel Band but you gentlemen went ahead and did it anyway. Please share with us a little bit about creating a full orchestrational score and what makes it special?

Tim Sharp:
The use of mountain instruments, as well as the use of Celtic instruments offer a unique flavor to Angel Band. Further, we have added a full orchestral component with the constant contribution of the string quartet. This constitutes a chamber orchestra, with a few instruments having significant solo contributions. The incorporation of the banjo in three movements is an exciting bit of energy for any orchestration, as is the use of percussion in the faster movements. Our desire was to give the listener’s ear something to delight them at every turn.

Timothy Michael Powell:
Exactly! We spent a great deal of time thinking about what combination of instruments would give us the most exciting options and textures. Added together, the orchestration is meant to be lush and warm, with a sparkle that tugs at the Christmas heartstrings. But we wanted it to be unique too, like a fantastic fusion of styles.

I’ve had the privilege of listening to Angel Band several times and I find it inspiring in a uniquely patriotic way. Is that weird? Have you gotten feedback like this before? Why do you think this is?

Tim Sharp:
I would agree with the word “patriotic”, but not in a nationalistic sort of way. I see it more as an expression of a love for our unique American culture and how we connect with our mother land. There is a haunting nostalgic beauty to some of the tunes we have chosen to arrange for Angel Band, and these songs connect us to our homeland.

Angel Band was written before we had any idea of the pandemic but it really feels like it was created to be sung when we all return together in community. Do you have any thoughts of how songs in this collection of music can be used outside a Christmas concert?

Tim Sharp:
It is the collection of songs altogether that tell that nativity story. Taken on their own, each song expresses a different piece of the story and for that reason can be extracted. For example, the “Magnificat” is written In bluegrass style and is basically a song of praise. The title song “Angel Band” is of the same spirit. I think the individual movements of the work are appropriate in the church calendar from November until the end of the year, including the days after Christmas through Epiphany.

When I was looking through the notes I saw that Hammered Dulcimer was included but not Banjo? How do you explain this oversight? Is your publisher anti-banjo?

Tim Sharp:
We do intend for the banjo to be played on the faster movements, and possibly on “Slumber My Darling”. That song is by Stephen Foster and the banjo would be very appropriate. The banjo is exciting to use for the “Magnificat” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” We didn’t score it in, but have suggested that guitar and banjo can be used freely throughout the work. These instruments give that special flavor we are looking for to evoke an Appalachian sound.

Timothy Michael Powell:
Yes, flexibility was part of our mantra for each movement. We’ve included a “rhythm” part in the orchestration that could be played by anything: mandolin, lap guitar, lap dulcimer, banjo, acoustic guitar, etc. What is exciting is that every performance may be a unique experience depending on the performing forces.

The Best Gifts Bring Joy and Lasting Memories

What was the best Christmas gift you ever received? What was the best Christmas gift you ever gave someone else?

Tim Sharp:
The best gifts seem to be those that I use to cook something special, or prepare food or drink. They seem to be those gifts “that keep on giving the whole year” (Christmas Vacation), like the jelly-of-the-month club. They bring back thoughts and memories throughout the year. The best gift I gave was a kitten to my daughter, which also brought joy throughout the year.

Timothy Michael Powell:
Honestly, the best gift was a comment. A single friend of mine came by on Christmas Day a few years ago to drop off presents for my kids. We had just opened everything, and it was literally a minefield of flashing toys, wrapping paper, cinnamon rolls, coffee, egg nog, and screaming children. He said, “y’all have created the perfect memory.” That one has stuck with me. My kids would say, however, that giving them an XBox was my best gift. THEY certainly got OUR money’s worth.

Cake, Pie or Ice Cream?

Tim Sharp:
Pie, with ice cream. And, cake for desert.

Timothy Michael Powell:
Yes, please.

Angel Band

A Christmas Cantata

Angel Band is suitable for both live and virtual SATB Choirs & Orchestras.

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It’s time to play the music. It’s time to light the lights. It’s time to meet the Muppets on the Muppet Show tonight.

Angel Band

From composers Tim Sharp and Timothy Michael Powell, ANGEL BAND uses songs and carols from the Appalachian shape-note tradition. This collection stands as a full Christmas cantata in a truly American style.

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Believe it or not I’m walking on air. I never thought I could feel so free. No phone no lights no motor car not a single luxury. Like Robinson Crusoe it’s primitive as can be.