Choir Director Tim Newton
Develops Unusual Approach
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – For Tim Newton, music is a way to travel the world without paying for a plane ticket.
One minute, his SUNY Oneonta students are in Ghana, singing about the walk to Soweto. Another, they’re in Bali, singing a song that calls to the winds.
“It needs to sound authentic,” he encourages the 60 person choir at a break in the music. “You can’t sound like a bunch of white people from Oneonta.
“Especially because we’re not all white!”
Newton, a 12-year veteran of SUNY Oneonta’s Music Department, took over the European Concert Choir in 2015, and changed the name to the World Chorus.
“We’re a much more diverse place than we used to be,” he said. “Our students are representing more and more parts of the world, so to just talk about Mozart and Bach is historically and culturally far away.”
The name change also invokes less religious music. “Right now we’re about 60 a semester,” he said. “We would like to grow, but so many students want to be soloists, rather than sing in a chorus.”
A few years ago, Newton was moved by a photo from Aleppo of a “shell-shocked” 5-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, covered in ash. “That semester, I had us do a 19th century love song from Aleppo in Arabic,” he said. “If I could have, I would have done a slideshow of images like that. For me, it’s about finding hot spots in the world and singing their music. Where is Ghana? Where is Bali? We can sing these songs and raise that awareness.”
And as the campus aims to increase diversity – Newton credits both former president Nancy Kleniewski and Morris for their commitment to diversity on campus – he seeks to widen the chorus’ range. “Our students are representing more and more part of the world,” he said. “We want to build a community from all over the world to sing.”
And though often times students come from parts of the world rife with political, cultural and social clashes. “And yet despite these conflicts, we’re all able to sing together. Being in a world chorus means being a citizen of the world.”
In 2010, he and Julie Licata, a Music Department colleague, produced the “African Sanctus,” a piece written by David Fanshawe, a composer and ethnomusicologist. “It took years to mount,” he said. “We recorded sounds from tribes across Africa to play as part of the program, and as a chorus, we recreated those sounds as well.”
Both nights of the program sold out, and money from the show was donated to Darfur relief efforts.
It was also Licata who brought “Soweto” to his attention, and, most recently, it was performed by the World Chorus for the installation of college president Barbara Jean Morris. “We were able to stop right in the place where the dancers came in, and we nailed it every time,” he said. “Because if we didn’t, we would have looked silly.”
He pulls music from a wide variety of sources, and often seeks out new pieces that he hears at concerts he attends. “I heard a chamber choir in Pennsylvania doing this song, ‘Musa,’ a Kenyan pop song from the 70s, was written about domestic violence,” he said. “The lyrics translate to ‘Please don’t beat me when you’re drunk,’ and it was a very popular song.”
So popular, in fact, that when the World Chorus performed it, Betty Wambui, a professor in the Africana and Latino Studies department, ran up to him after the show. “She said, ‘You are singing ‘Musa!’ I was thrilled that I was able to bring that music here.”
But world music, occasionally, means right here at home. The chorus is working on a piece titled “Crickets” by Andris Balins, a lecturer in the music department and a student at the Cooperstown Graduate Program.
In addition to bringing world music to the campus, Newton also wants to show students how vital choral singing is to a healthy life. “The students want to come and have a great time,” he said. “But choral also helps them emotionally and physically too. It’s great exercise for the body and brain.”