Our Material World: Three Madonna Ballads for Choir, Flute, and Harp


commissioned and arranged
for Choral Chameleon

for SATB Choir (divisi),
flute, and harp


Our Material World was composed and arranged for Choral Chameleon, exploring some of the ballads by pop icon Madonna.  This arrangement features three of her notable songs: Frozen, Live to Tell/Oh Father, and Beautiful Stranger.  Vince Peterson and I had spoken for months of doing this type of collaboration and I was so honored that Choral Chameleon premiered a performance of this trilogy, with the inclusion of flute and harp.  I attempted to depict the mystical nature of Frozen as harmonies and textures are expanded from its simpler diatonic form.  Live to Tell/Oh Father, a combination of ballads, is mostly based on her arrangement from the renowned 1990 Blond Ambition Tour, questioning faith and seeking answers to uncertainty.  Our Material World closes with the well-known folky and upbeat Beautiful Stranger from the Austin Powers film franchise, including the flute arrangement heard in the 1998 recording, provided with the help from the actual performer on the soundtrack, UK flutist Emma Fowler. Our Material World was premiered on Choral Chamleon’s Lyre Book Lush concert at John Street United Methodist Church in New York City on 1 April, 2012.

1. Frozen (Ciccone/Leonard, 1998)
2. Live to Tell/Oh Father (Ciccone, Leonard, 1986, 1989)
3. Beautiful Stranger (Ciccone/Orbit, 1999; Flute Solo based on Emma Fowler’s improvisation)

“Challenging the distinction between arrangement and a cover, Brian Mark’s Our Material World, three arrangements of Madonna songs that, while thoroughly invested in their own aesthetic identities yet remained faithful to the originals and their essence, elucidating their content or, to use a word repeated several times by Mr. Peterson in his concert remarks, “Dilate” them. Notably, this was not Mr. Mark’s first encounter with Madonna, his “Material Girl” arrangement having been premiered by Seth Bedford’s Huxley Vertical Cabaret Nouveau and Juli Borst in 2009. He deviates from the standard single and album versions of these songs, preferring to base his own arrangements on the more conceptually adventurous arrangements of Madonna’s live shows, with a particular affinity for the 1990 Blond Ambition Tour.  The basic techniques and harmonic language used by Mr. Mark in this set were traditionally classical, though the performance methodology for the singers was typically acoustic pop. Well crafted, naturalistic counterpoint decorated the chord progressions and dense, lush choral harmonies vied with quarter tones masquerading as blue notes, all brought to life by warm, straight, rhythmically incisive sound from the chorus replete with the appropriate scoops, portamenti, and attacks that distinguish the style, despite occasional reversions to neutral, literal deliveries and wayward intonation from the men. Meanwhile, Ms. Gott and Ms. Fossati offered a highly musical and sympathetic accompaniment, well attuned to word and phrase. Following a captivating “Frozen,” a “Live to Tell/Oh Father” medley felt correct and tasteful, but less interesting: more a conventional pop-choral arrangement, though surprising harmonic twists still managed to grab the listener’s attention. “Beautiful Stranger” was marked by a charming whimsy, with witty exchanges of the text between parts. Between the harmonic language and repeating chordal cells and the preferred timbre to highlight these, one could hear both the influence of, and that exerted upon, minimalism of the late 1970s through the ‘80s. Ms. Fossati deserves special mention here. Mr. Mark transcribed Emma Fowler’s improvised flute solo from the recording with the help of Ms. Fowler herself and added it verbatim to the score. Fossati then took this a step further by using Mark’s score as a basis for her own improvisation in response to the chorus, using her experience in jazz to anticipate the changes. Score one more for the elevation of stylistic syncretism and synthesis preserving the vibrancy and relevance of contemporary art music! Again, Choral Chameleon provided warmth without muddying the textures with excess vibrato. Fellow concertgoer Charlie Byrd praised their “purity of sound, tweaked however they want.” The statement was accurate, the exercise of such flexibility of tone no small feat.

-Seth Gilman, New York Examiner

Madonna’s Like a Virgin

(Steinberg/Kelly 1984)


Arranged for Huxley Vertical Cabaret Nouveau

soprano, accordion, flute, clarinet, piano,
percussion, 2 violins, viola, violoncello,

Arranged for Huxley Vertical Cabaret Nouveau
Juli Borst, Vocalist
Seth Bedford, Conductor