Poster University of South Dakota Chamber Singers
The University of South Dakota Chamber Singers' new version of 'America the Beautiful' will be on an album being released June 28.

New interpretation of 'America the Beautiful' helps celebrate Fourth of July

A fresh arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” recorded by the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers and scheduled for release just in time for the Fourth of July, actually was set in motion for a different national holiday.

In the fall of 2021, David Holdhusen, chair of the USD music department, got a request: The school’s marketing department wanted to create a musical video in honor of Veterans Day.

David Holdhusen, University of South Dakota music director
David Holdhusen is the chair of the University of South Dakota music department.

“They said, ‘Think Pentatonix,’“ Holdhusen said, alluding to the popular a cappella group. “This was maybe early October. I sent them a couple recordings of things that I had from the past, patriotic performances.”

But the marketers had different ideas.

“They explained that they were looking for something that would have different people in different parts of the campus singing something like ‘America the Beautiful,’ and it would all come together, and there’d be one big thing at the end with everybody,” Holdhusen said.

“I thought, ‘OK, well, this is going to take a little bit of extra effort.’”

To that end, he turned to K.J. Phillips, a graduate student and director of the school’s student-run jazz group, whose composing and arranging talents he’d seen up close through their longtime connection.

“When Dr. Holdhusen comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I want you to write something,’ OK, I’m on board,” Phillips said.

“It was a bit of a short deadline, but I’m the type of composer that sits down and tries to do it pretty much all in one sitting. I can get a really good rough draft done in about 3 to 4 hours.

“Just figuring out: ‘This is the chord progression that I really like. I think it fits the text here. I like the way it built here.’ That comes to me pretty quickly,” Phillips said. “It’s the fine tuning that takes a lot more time. Now can we make it sound like a really solid, finalized product in that amount of time? And [Holdhusen] helped me with that.”

The mutual effort paid off with a modern-sounding version of “America the Beautiful” that was “rehearsed and edited and rehearsed and edited” before the final recording. A videographer created the visual aspect, and the final production had its premiere at a USD volleyball game at which veterans would be honored. Its initial popularity led it to be played at other events, including at the football team’s Veterans Appreciation Day.

“And it’s kind of popped up here and there at various other things,” Holdhusen said. “I finally decided, if it’s so well-received in our community, it’s time to get it out there and be seen by a wider range of people.”

Holdhusen has theories about why this rendition, available June 28 on Navona Records, resonated with audiences.

The harmonies “aren’t so unique that it’s difficult to listen to, but unique enough that it’s interesting to listen to,” he said. “It’s not the typical ‘stand and sing four-part chorale type’ arrangement. And I think that that really helps build to that climactic moment when they all come together, because of the different harmonies and complexities of it, then that unison becomes so strong.”

That slow build is another reason Holdhusen loves the arrangement.

“It starts with that solo, and it adds people and adds color,” he said. “And it’s kind of like the country coming together, to build up and be together. So that’s really what I appreciated as a listener and as a leader of the ensemble.”

KJ Phillips, composer
Composer K.J. Phillips arranged the new version of 'America the Beautiful.'

Phillips, who decided early on that they were going to be “a musical sponge” who would compose by the rules and then break them, echoes that sentiment.

“As somebody who is part of a marginalized minority in this country, it was really important to show the different voices, coming together and building one big sound,” they said. “Making sure that not only is the whole arrangement interesting, but you get a better, more well-rounded product, and every single voice has its own meaning. That person’s adding something to the color, to the texture.

“Every single dissonance that’s in there has a meaning to it. It’s not placed randomly, it’s put on a note or on a word that makes sense for it.”

Phillips advocates a close and repeated listen.

“If you are someone who has a musical ear and can pick out those harmonies, I’d encourage you to go listen to that again and say, ‘Oh, I can see that that’s moving in this way,’ and it makes more sense.”

It’s a lot to pack into one short piece, one that everybody knows. For Holdhusen and Phillips, it also includes something intangible.

“I’m just very proud of the fact that it really does represent what USD stands for,” Phillips said. “I love this university a lot. And when I was able to write this composition of ‘America the Beautiful,’ I wanted to make sure it felt like USD was saying, ‘Thank you.’”

Holdhusen added, “We’ve released several recordings before, but this one is a standalone. And the reason I did that was because I am really proud of the entire event, from where it came from to what the finished product actually is.

“The video was better than any of us expected it would be when we started the project. We’re proud of what this says about USD, and the feeling of America and the veterans, pulling that into it as well.”

Listen to a preview of the new recording:

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