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Listen: North Texas composer adds new arrangements to the holiday canon

Taylor Scott Davis arranged carols for a special event in the UK. Now, they are also on a new album.
Courtesy of Taylor Davis
Taylor Scott Davis arranged carols for a special event in the UK. Now, they are also on a new album.

It’s that time of year: hustle and bustle, holiday planning, the stores playing those same 15 to 20 songs over and over.

But a North Texas-based music writer and conductor is also discovering something new in the music we’ve known for decades on end.

Taylor Davis spoke with the Texas Standard about his new album and a special performance of the carols he’s arranged for this weekend at St. Andrew Methodist Church in Plano.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below. This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about this assignment you had to rearrange carols.

Taylor Davis: So I’ve been long friends with the artistic director of VOCES8, which is this British a cappella group, and they are world-renowned. And in the pandemic, they were sort of retooling so that they could continue to work. And, all of a sudden, he had this idea of doing these arrangements for a broadcast that would be somewhat distanced and whatnot.

And we had no idea that the recording would go so well and turn into something larger. We just thought we were doing something good in the Christmas of ‘21. Then Decca [Classics] got a hold of it, and all of a sudden we’ve got an album on our hands.

Courtesy of St. Andrew Methodist

Did you get to choose which carols you worked on? 

I did not. I’m the lowest person on the food chain here. But they did give me just sort of carte blanche once the carols were chosen. I had kind of a blank slate and just ran with it.

Let’s talk about how you take something like “Joy to the World” and make it new. That’s got to be quite a challenge. 

It is a challenge. And yet, there’s a very long history of great choral tradition in the UK and Europe in general, which is where a lot of our carols come from. And so, if I was having to acknowledge the fact that I was sort of going to home base for a lot of these, so it was it was daunting.

I felt like I needed to keep true to my sound, the sounds that swirl in my head, and also kind of weigh them against sounds that have come before me. You know, am I replicating something or am I acknowledging something that has already happened?

So I tinkered a little bit and tried some things on and hopefully didn’t steal from anybody. There are a few tips of the hat along the way, just acknowledging the greats that wrote arrangements before me. But it was a fun challenge.

What was the most challenging part of this assignment? 

Not necessarily knowing what I was getting into when I flew over. The reality was we were still masking, we were still distancing. People were having to test before the recording sessions. And some singers went down, a couple of instrumentalists went down, and we were just having to sort of keep our heads on a swivel.

And it doesn’t sound like much now, but it felt like a lot then. And so the fact that these things were created for this one moment – and then inside that one moment, anything might happen – was just sort of a bizarre feeling.

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I think that a lot of folks think of Christmas music as largely celebratory. But then you come across a song like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” What was it like rearranging that? 

So on that one specifically, I put in a key change toward the very beginning. And it has garnered all this attention on social media. And that really caught me by surprise, because I truly was just thinking, “Here’s this ancient chant. How can I bring it into the modern era, and how can I acknowledge that we’re singing a song about darkness in the darkness of the pandemic?”

So I put this little twist in there, and I just thought I was doing something unique – almost was worried that it was kitschy, even, a little. And then lo and behold, we put it out on social media for the first time, and people sort of lost their minds that this one key change.

The St. Andrew Methodist choir and orchestra at the 2019 Christmas Festival.
Courtesy of St. Andrew Methodist
The St. Andrew Methodist choir and orchestra at the 2019 Christmas Festival.

You have other work on albums, but I understand you’ve said this one is something of a high watermark for your career.

Well, you know, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is a Decca Classic, and it just is very humbling to have a Christmas album on the Decca Classics record label when people like Bing Crosby or Ella Fitzgerald contributed so mightily to the sounds that we listen to each holiday season.

And there will be more things, I’m sure, in my career that I’ll eventually say, “Oh no, this is a high watermark,” but I’m just very humbled to be in the presence of those in the last century that have created this incredible record label.

Tell us about what’s happening on Sunday at the Plano church, St. Andrew Methodist, where you serve as music director. 

So this will be the first time these carols are done live. We did them for the recording session in the UK, but they’ve never been done as a collection. So when the orchestra shows up, which is a bunch of professionals, sort of a hodgepodge group, to make music with my choir, this will be the first time that that I’ve gotten to conduct them.

This will be the first time they’re heard by a congregation or an audience that’s not on the other side of a screen. So it’s just a real treat for me to get to be a part of it.

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Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.