The raw, bloodied energy of punk rock and studied, upbeat precision of a capella choirs might not seem to blend well in theory — but local composer Evan Sponseller, 31, has a vision.
“I grew up in Ventura playing guitar in punk rock and hardcore screamo bands. Then I went to college and studied music there and fell in love with classical music, specifically choral music,” he says.
After studying at Ventura College and California Lutheran University, he worked at a church for a few years, overseeing the music, but there was a concept always in the back of his head.
The idea became The Seas We Fear to Sail, an album of reimagined early-aughts-era punk rock songs of his youth, totally rearranged for an a capella choir. The Westmont Chamber Singers will perform these rearranged choral songs from the likes of Bad Religion, Circa Survive, Thrice, Underoath and AFI on Nov. 14 during a show, The Seas We Fear to Sail Live, at 1496 Tower Square in Ventura.
The venue may not be well-known now, but it’s long been a part of the Ventura punk scene. It went from indoor skate park Skate Street to a music venue called Alpine and most recently a gaming spot, The Armory. The back of the building has an intimate performance space that holds around 100 people, which is where Sponseller’s piece will be performed.
At the performance, the Westmont Chamber Singers will also be performing music by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, and Sponseller will be playing Bach’s first cello suite on electric guitar. But the bulk of the program will be rearranged punk songs.
The first song Sponseller arranged for The Seas We Fear to Sail was a Bad Religion track called “Sorrow.”
Sponseller explains, “A friend of mine died in a motorcycle accident in 2005 . . . and they played that song at his funeral. When I heard that song [I realized], even though it’s a punk song, it has almost an old hymnlike melody. A lot of punk and folk songs have that, but this in particular reminded me of that, so I set that one first and then it inspired the rest of the project.”
There are now five songs total, written for a four-part choir, though the Westmont Chamber Singers have nine in their group. This will be the first performance of The Seas We Fear to Sail. In addition, Sponseller will soon release, via his website, recordings he’s been gathering over the past year of friends performing the arrangements.
While the idea has been floating around in his head for years, he wrote the bulk of the composition and arrangements last summer and fall, first starting with the Bad Religion song. Other songs include AFI’s “Girl’s Not Grey,” Thrice’s “So Strange I Remember You,” Circa Survive’s “In Fear and Faith” and Underoath’s “Too Bright to See, Too Loud to Hear.”
“I wanted to choose songs that meant something to me, that there was some nostalgia from when I was growing up, but now will be presented in a very different context,” Sponseller says.
In sixth grade he started listening to pop-punk bands. He first picked up a guitar in seventh grade, later discovering more punk bands and starting his own bands that performed around Ventura (including Talea) and eventually studying music in college.
During the process of choosing music for The Seas We Fear to Sail, he read through all the lyrics of nearly 20 bands, trying to decide which would work best for choral composition. Without instruments or anything else to entertain, choral music needs particularly powerful words and notes, he explains. Sponseller was looking for three things: Strong lyrics, a strong melody and something from the band’s earlier discography.
“The bands tend to be heavier — or louder and screamier — the further you go back,” he says. “And I really wanted there to be a stark contrast between the original and the choral arrangement.”
With the performance this week and the songs about to be self-released online, Sponseller hopes The Seas We Fear to Sail (both the album and the show) will jump-start his career in composition, arranging and film scoring. “I just love writing music and I’d love to be able to make a living doing that,” he says. He’d also like to see other choirs performing these pieces and other arrangements he composes in the near future.
The Seas We Fear to Sail Live will be on Tuesday, Nov. 14, at 6 p.m. at 1496 Tower Square, Ventura. For tickets and more information, visit evansponsellermusic.com.