Sing a New Song: How Contemporary Vocal Music Will Save the World

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“SATB” from Musical Anatomy by Shawn Feeney; used with permission of the artist.

Ah, contemporary classical music, that sliver of a sliver, that rarefied world where academics talk to themselves and devoted practitioners are too specialized to perform anything else. And then there are the singers of contemporary music whose success, as the inimitable opera parodist Anna Russell tells us, will only increase the more out of tune they can sing. Yet the genre attracts highly intelligent and versatile musicians, usually the types who are happy to seek adventure outside of the opera mainstream. And perhaps surprisingly, new music for voice is not only a favorite among certain performers but a hit with audiences as well. The portability of the human voice—not to mention the unique connection listeners feel to singers—means that new vocal music can find itself in of all sorts of venues and reach all sorts of audiences.

And all sorts of people are getting on board. The music world is still swooning from the New York Philharmonic’s bold foray into opera with its flamboyant production of Ligeti’s modernist masterpiece Le Grand Macabre, which sold out on a Memorial Day weekend. Across the plaza, New York City Opera is reasserting its role as an incubator for new American opera with two mainstage productions of works that had been workshopped in their Contemporary American Opera Lab: La Machine de l’être by John Zorn and Stephen Schwartz’s first opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Smaller opera companies across the country are also finding success with newly commissioned works. From the biggest institutions and beyond, contemporary vocal music is earning its place as an innovative medium that can give audiences the new and different experience they crave.

The timing couldn’t be better. While the rumored demise of classical music has long been one of its most enduring attributes, the facts are frightening. A 2009 report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that “the percentage of adults attending a classical music performance declined from 12 percent in 2002 to 9 percent in 2008.” In addition, the research showed that only “two percent of U.S. adults attended the opera in 2008—one of the lowest levels of attendance among all arts activities tracked.” If this is the case for classical music overall, surely the figures for contemporary classical music must be even slimmer.

Ironically, the avant-garde might be the old guard’s best bet for bolstering the audience for classical music. And vocal music might lead the way.

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Now with five chapters scattered all over the country, Opera on Tap reaches people who might never think to set foot in an opera house.

Take, for example, Opera on Tap. This feisty company brings opera to bars and other unconventional places, reaching people who might never think to set foot in an opera house. What started as one soprano’s lament over a lack of performance opportunities has kicked off a movement, with a youth education component and chapters in New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, and Ann Arbor. While OOT does plenty of conventional repertoire, some of its runaway hits have been with contemporary music. Their new collaboration with American Opera Projects, Opera Grows in Brooklyn, presents evenings of excerpts from new works by living composers. The first performance—a reading of Sucker by James Barry—at Galapagos in Brooklyn was sold-out, and more shows are planned for 2010. Core OOT members also create theatrical programs of 20th and 21st century music through New Brew, which accepts submissions from composers. OOT has presented works by Christopher Berg, Christian McLeer, Andrea La Rose and numerous others. They also collaborated with Beth Morrison Projects for a multi-media evening of post-classical song. As for their audience, OOT co-founder Anne Ricci says she’s “seen people go on to see their first opera, and other people who love OOT’s informal format but are turned off by the length of a full opera.” OOT finds its singers through periodic auditions, and works with performers and entrepreneurs who are interested in starting chapters in new cities. For example, the first OOT outpost in New Orleans began with the initiative of local singers. The group grew into an innovative partnership with New Orleans Opera, which allows the venerable company to feature regional talent and reach new audiences in a casual, accessible way.

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Aliana de la Guardia as Sarah Palin in Guerrilla Opera’s 2009 production of Curtis K. Hughes’s Say it Ain’t So, Joe

Then there is Guerrilla Opera, a young ensemble with the vibe of a garage band that commissions new works and courageously performs them without a conductor. Guerrilla Opera generally has four instrumentalists and up to eight singers, and composers are usually closely involved in the production. They received national attention for their 2009 premiere of Say it Ain’t So, Joe, by Curtis K. Hughes, which featured musical realizations of the Palin-Biden vice-presidential debates and emotive moments from Joe the Plumber, the words coming straight from the real-life characters themselves. [Disclosure: I sang the role of Hillary Clinton in this production.] Guerrilla Opera hopes to enrich the repertoire of chamber operas, creating works for lightweight forces that could easily tour or find their way to unconventional venues. “I want people to think about going to new music the same way that they think about going to the movies,” says co-founder Aliana de la Guardia. “People forget that Mozart was a premiere.” Past highlights include No Exit by Andy Vores and Rumpelstiltskin by Marti Epstein. In four seasons, the group has cultivated a strong local following in its hometown of Boston. As for how singers join Guerilla, the path is somewhat conventional for contemporary music. “We find our singers through recommendations, and generally we just know people in the field,” says de la Guardia. “If there are a few we are considering then maybe we call in three or four to audition, but we don’t have open calls anymore. We actually haven’t been happy with our results that way since what we do is such a niche. Generally we like to use the people we know are actively pursuing opportunities and careers in contemporary music.”

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Some of the singer/composer/conductor members of C4. Photograph by Johannes Baumgart.

In the world of choral groups dedicated to contemporary music, ensemble C4 presents a unique, collaborative model. Comprised of singers who are also conductors or composers, C4 focuses exclusively on the music of the last 25 years, with an emphasis on music written by the group’s members. The format allows composers to test new ideas in a workshop setting, while performers learn new skills for handling a diverse range of repertoire. “My fear is that many of today’s audiences and musicians view choral music as old-fashioned and limited in its potential for novelty and experimentation,” says singer and composer member Franny Geller. “I think this is absolutely untrue, and C4 is one of a handful of vocal ensembles aiming to disprove it.” She goes on to explain, “We’ve improvised to moving artwork, sung while inhaling, sobbed, employed kitchen utensils and choreography, and lit matches. Whether the audience loves or hates it, it gets a strong response and gives people something to remember.” C4 holds open auditions each season, usually attracting singers who are also composers, conductors or both.

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San Francisco’s Volti. Photo by Eliot Khuner.

In some ways, C4 is the East Coast’s answer to Volti, the San Francisco-based contemporary chamber chorus. Founded in 1979 as an ensemble dedicated to traditional choral repertoire, Volti soon evolved into a laboratory for new vocal chamber music with special attention given to American composers. The group focuses on commissions, but they also have built programs around individual composers. Volti consists of several longtime core members and a roster of collaborators that come to the group via auditions and networking in San Francisco’s contemporary music scene. In 2003-04, Volti inaugurated the Choral Arts Laboratory, a commissioning and residency program for American composers under the age of 35. Young composers have the opportunity to work with the professional singers of Volti during the compositional process, workshopping a piece together and presenting a revised version at the premiere. “We find it important, especially in America, to give composers a chorus of professional quality,” says Sidney Chen, a Volti singer and its former executive director. “Choral singing as an art form is not well known to composers.” At the same time, the repertoire generated from these commissions “requires a certain type of musicianship,” says Chen, referring to the virtuosic yet non-traditional techniques often demanded of the singers. “And that part is really a lot of fun,” he says. As for audience development, Volti has the benefit of its long history to attract a steady following. Still, “the standard choral crowd isn’t drawn to contemporary music, and the contemporary crowd isn’t accustomed to coming to choral concerts,” says Chen, which poses a challenge to expanding the group’s audience.

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M6 is taking Meredith Monk’s music to a new generation. Photo by Kat Cheng.

Chen is also a founding member of M6, a chamber ensemble devoted entirely to the music of Meredith Monk. The concept, he says, is entirely different from Volti, relying on the collaborative work of the six singers in the group – who came together after participating in a Carnegie Hall workshop on Monk’s music – and emphasizing the preparation process as much as the actual performance. “Most professionals pride themselves on being able to learn something very quickly,” says Chen. “In order to do [Monk’s music] right, you have to go through a process, take time with it.” M6 feels responsible for extending the legacy of Meredith Monk’s work, which is highly collaborative and improvisatory, necessitating that it be transmitted orally among performers.

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Some singers have relocated to Atlanta for an opportunity to sing in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus.

The Boston and Atlanta Symphony Orchestras are the two professional orchestras in America that rely on exceptional volunteer singers to fill their choral ranks. Singers with an interest in contemporary music are better off with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, where Robert Spano has brought a new commitment to nurturing, commissioning, and recording contemporary music. Most significantly, the Atlanta School of Composers brings in notable American composers for multi-year partnerships, resulting in new choral works by the likes of Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi, among others. The ASO was a choral juggernaut under Robert Shaw, including a tradition of premieres, but “Robert Spano’s passion and enthusiasm for new music has transformed Atlanta audiences as well as the chorus itself,” says soprano Wanda Yang Temko, an Atlanta-based singer and long-time performer with the ASO chorus. “We have become more disciplined, skilled, and flexible with our rhythmic accuracy and tonal palette,” she goes on. “We are a chorus of 200 that can sing with the precision of a chamber chorus and the sonic impact of a jetliner, qualities many composers do not encounter often in one ensemble.” Edgie Wallace Jr., another ASO chorus member, also notes the effect on the audience. “People came out in droves for Dr. Atomic,” he recalls. “You find a lot more younger people in their 40s bringing their children,” he says. “I think that the audience is willing to give [new music] a shot, and it’s usually a shot worth taking.”

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New York Festival of Song’s artistic directors Michael Barrett (left) and Steven Blier. Photo by Dario Acosta

On the scale of chamber music, the New York Festival of Song rejuvenates the traditional song recital by offering a broad range of repertoire on programs that are enlivened by staging, character, and storylines. That new music for voice can have broad appeal isn’t news to Artistic Director Steven Blier. “I always assumed contemporary American music would be a tough sell, and play to a different audience. But I soon realized that this was not the case, at least not with NYFOS. Back at Greenwich House [their first venue in 1988], our New American Works concerts often got the biggest house of the season; our Ned Rorem 70th birthday concert was, I believe, our single largest crowd. I think the audience response to contemporary music has gotten stronger—but I also think we have gotten better at locating new composers and fashioning programs with strong structures.” In this way, NYFOS has cultivated their audience to be open to all sorts of music, from classical lieder to popular song to new works. Blier and NYFOS Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett cull their singers from some of the world’s finest talent, both established and emerging, and from their work with vocalists at institutions such as the Caramoor Center for the Arts, the Juilliard School, Wolf Trap Opera Company, and San Francisco Opera Center.

Vocal music may not be the focal point for all presenters, but it often finds a strong presence on programming. When the energetic Melissa Smey plans a concert for the Composer Portraits at the Miller Theater, where she is general director, she compares her repertoire wish list with the guest artists before conferring with the composer. While each concert strives to give listeners a well-rounded impression of one composer’s style, songs appear frequently. This coming season will see Tony Arnold singing with the International Contemporary Ensemble on two separate concerts of works by Matthias Pintscher and Mario Davidovsky, and soprano Sarah Wolfson will present a series of recitals exploring four titans of American songwriting: Ives, Barber, Thomson, and Copland. The Miller Theatre straddles two worlds with their offerings, cultivating a following among lovers of contemporary and early music. This leads to some particular considerations in planning a season. “There’s a sense that the early music crowd will come out for specific repertoire, while contemporary music fans follow certain groups,” says Smey. Still, she acknowledges “a sense that contemporary music is scary or hard to listen to.” She hopes that the new addition of sound samples to the venue’s website will help prospective audience members put aside their fears. Miller is also savvy about hiring innovative ensembles that cultivate a following, such as International Contemporary Ensemble, which routinely finds innovative ways to attract crowds through multimedia outreach and cross-disciplinary collaborations.

ICE also can take pride in its “revolutionary organizational model,” in which the ensemble also acts as a presenter and manager. They have headlined at major venues around the world, and also self-produced contemporary festivals in venues ranging from nightclubs to public spaces. Soprano Tony Arnold and tenor Peter Tantsits are part of their roundtable of musicians, who also help choose repertoire and plan concerts. “This season ICE is launching a new commissioning project called ICElab that we think is a model for the creation of a 21st-century repertoire,” says clarinetist and program director Joshua Rubin. “ICElab composers workshop new pieces early on with individual members of the group so that they can take advantage of the unique skills of ICE’s musicians. This leads to a concert of their music produced and performed by ICE. Two out of our first six ICElab commissions feature vocalists, and we hope that in the future ICElab will create many new vocal works that will become incorporated into ICE’s permanent repertoire.”

Dinosaur Annex, one of the first contemporary ensembles in Boston, includes in its mission the promotion of Boston composers, but features music from the world over, including plenty of collaborations with singers. Most significantly, their world premiere performance in 2000 of the second act of Lewis Spratlan’s opera Life is a Dream earned him the Pulitzer Prize. Dinosaur Annex continues to present a “huge amount of vocal music,” says Co-Artistic Director Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin. Their annual Young Composers Festival, now in its seventh year, commissions new works from college-age composition students and introduces audiences to their music through concerts and family-friendly workshops. The 2010 festival commission was awarded to Andreia Pinto-Correia, a New England Conservatory graduate student, who brought together Dinosaur Annex players with young singers and instrumentalists from the Community Music Center of Boston. Apart from commissions and requests for scores, the ensemble chooses vocal works by suggestions from close singer colleagues, or recommendations from within the group. “In the big picture of contemporary music events, I don’t think there’s a particular focus on vocal versus instrumental works,” says Hershman-Tcherepnin. “But we love working with singers.” Now in its 36th season, Dinosaur Annex has a long history of working with vocalists, and invites their favorite local colleagues based on the needs of the repertoire.

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Tony Arnold

Singers who pursue contemporary music careers remain something of a rare breed, with scant specialized degree programs and relatively few performance opportunities in conservatories. The timbral demands of the repertoire can also be daunting to classical singers. “A lot of opera people are afraid of changing the way they sing for contemporary music,” says de la Guardia of Guerilla Opera. “They have to get over that.” Soprano Tony Arnold, the frequent ICE collaborator who is especially known for her interpretations of Berio and Kurtág, points out that “bel canto singing treats the voice like an instrument, the demands of the style are much more narrow.” Berio and other composers “treat the voice like a voice.” She notes that so-called “extended vocal technique” has an appeal to children (yet another audience to cultivate!), and that listeners feel a visceral connection with the singer as they sense the physical work needed to perform.

“Vocal music has an enormous spectrum of possibilities, and it also has the unique capacity to encourage participation from almost anyone,” says Geller of C4. “What better way to understand some of the movements of contemporary music than to experience them in your own body?” Ricci of Opera on Tap concurs, suggesting that watching a singer in an intimate venue gives the audience a sense of the human experience of performing.

So where does contemporary vocal music fit into the classical world? Or into the world in general? “The singers I know are generally very excited to do new music, more than in the past, I’ve observed,” says Blier, adding that styles and tastes are changing too. “The ‘downtown/uptown,’ ‘traditional/transgressive,’ ‘tonal/gnarly’ divide is starting to disappear. Performers, audiences, and creators just want to get along and spread the musical joy everywhere—from hipster clubs to concert halls.” Arnold praises groups that are meeting their audience where they are, in clubs, bars, and art galleries, and the presenters who capitalize on that energy by promoting those groups at their own venues. “If a couple of performers come to a small place and it’s packed, and then a few of those listeners come to a concert in a concert hall, no one ever has to compromise on programming,” she says, and contemporary classical music might gain some new followers. It’s enough to make you wonder if we’ll all start whistling in tone rows. “If contemporary opera grows, it will still be a fringe thing,” says de la Guardia. Arnold agrees. “We need to preserve the special qualities of music, it can’t ever be commoditized.”

Perhaps the small-scale popularity of contemporary music is part of what makes it so special, which can appeal to people who wish to escape mass culture and discover something new. And just as contemporary fiction can spur a reader’s curiosity about writing from various times, contemporary music can achieve a similar effect with listeners. As presenters and performers attest, new music for voice appeals to listeners in powerful and intimate way. So much so that the repertoire has the potential to cultivate a new audience not only for itself, but for classical music overall. As Melissa Smey says, “Contemporary vocal music is poised to be a really cool thing.”

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Amanda Keil



Mezzo-soprano Amanda Keil sings repertoire that spans over 800 years, from medieval chant to contemporary opera, Baroque monody to operatic mainstays. Favorite roles include Hillary Clinton and Gwen Ifill in Say it Ain’t So, Joe, by Curtis K. Hughes, Nerone in L’Incoronazione di Poppea, the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe, and Brangane in the Boston Camerata’s production of Tristan and Isolde. She is also the founder of Musica Nuova, a chamber ensemble that brings staging and storytelling to Baroque songs. Amanda holds a master’s degree in voice and historical performance from Boston University and a bachelor’s degree in French horn performance from The Hartt School. When she’s not singing, Amanda contributes regularly to Classical Singer and teaches voice.