Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music: Composers’ Forums
LINDA HOESCHLER: How many of you perform contemporary music? How many of you have actually commissioned pieces? Good! I like to see that! What kinds of questions do you have of these composers?
AUDIENCE QUESTION: I am concerned about the number of languages that we are losing every year, and what we are doing, what your thoughts are—both Moses and Libby especially—about preserving even shreds and shards of languages that are dying, especially in this country.
MOSES HOGAN: Well, I have not devoted my work to a specific area. I am not sure of the languages in terms of which ones specifically you feel that we are losing?
AUDIENCE QUESTION: For example, some of the smaller islands in the southeastern part of the United States, or some of the native indigenous languages of the first peoples.
MOSES HOGAN: Well, it would seem to me as we run across the same considerations as relates to dialect, for example, the use of dialect in spirituals and now that we are educated, we should not abandon dialect, but it is necessary, I guess, in preserving any culture, to certainly document and have recorded examples. I think that is one sure way to do it. You know, when I first became interested in the spiritual, I would listen to the older recordings of William Dawson, “Over Jordan,” to find out just exactly how these compilations were actually sung during that day, and I think if we made an effort all around with, when it comes to those things that we see as disappearing in our culture; that is one way to help preserve it.
LINDA HOESCHLER: I think there are two issues. One is documenting the songs in the language. The other thing is, have you thought about commissioning works in some of these languages?
LIBBY LARSEN: Good question. I agree that the more that we can capture the dialect on tape, the better off we will be. I mentioned this before, and I am going to say it again, because I think it will illustrate what I am trying to say, and that is, I learned to sing Gregorian chant in Latin when I was five years old, and sang it every day for 8 years. Now, the first time that I heard the Dies Irae set by a western composer, this may sound harsh, but the word that changed my mind was “hideous.”
LINDA HOESCHLER: Who was this, by the way?
LIBBY LARSEN: It is a very famous setting of the Dies Irae, and we sing it a lot. But to my ears, I didn’t grow up in a classical household, so I wasn’t exposed to the repertoire that we studied in the academy at an early age. And it struck me, and I still have fights with conductors about how to sing Latin. The inflection of it and where you hold, and how you rest, and it is really best sung without a conductor and with your eyes closed. I’m sorry. I know that hurts, but to me one of the challenges to composition—because I think you also asked how you preserve it as a composer—is very difficult. Because if the language is to be sung as it is meant to be sung, we have very little training in how to do that in our field. We train our voices in a very specific way, to sing in a very specific way and one of the wonderful things about this symposium is that I am hearing so many other ways of singing, and I keep thinking, “How can I use those ways? What can I do? How could I put that on the page so that it won’t come out, “Dies. Irae.” With that rounded bass tone…. Now you know…. I keep wondering. We composers are trained to be able to capture what we hear and put it on the page as best we can, and in the way that we hear it. However, if we are going to set “Gullah” for instance, it just wouldn’t be in 6/8 or 4/4 or 3/4 or duple. It wouldn’t look like exact pitches on systems of spaces and lines. And there is the challenge for us.
MOSES HOGAN: There must be a guide. Again I go back to the documentation. If there is no effort to document in an effort to preserve, you may hear something different and phonetically when you come down, it may sound different to you than it sounds to me. Even my singers who come from all over the country—guys from Mississippi sound different from guys from New York. And so you are going to always run into that. So, if there were a master recording, or something to aim for…so that what you hear and how it comes out are two different things, sometimes.
LINDA HOESCHLER: Well, I think one of the questions is should we be writing in that idiom, or should we be leaving it to the Smithsonian records? Seriously, because there is a big debate in this country. Should western composers be writing with eastern sounds? Whereas, we do accept that many Asian immigrants here are adapting western music to create their sounds? I think that is an issue too.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: My question follows right along with that. As choristers with this whole text issue—as choristers we sing in a lot of different languages. We learn to sing in different languages, and we should learn to sing in different languages. As composers, should you be writing in anything except your native tongue?
LINDA HOESCHLER: Well, you can hear Libby’s piece tomorrow, and answer that question! Libby, why don’t you start?
LIBBY LARSEN: It frightens me to death to write in a language other than my tongue—which is American English, not British English—because I cannot feel the word. I can’t feel them. I don’t know how much we have talked about feeling words, but I need to feel the words.
MOSES HOGAN: I will write what is comfortable for me, because I don’t write in foreign language doesn’t mean that I’m dumb or I cannot grasp it, but I think in order to best show what I am able to do, I would like for my compositions to be in the language that I am most comfortable with. And I have not had the opportunity, or I am not sure if I would accept a commission, to do something that is totally foreign to me. I think we have to know our limitations. We cannot be everything to everybody. You must do those things with which you are most comfortable. So that is a choice that I have made personally.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: So how did you approach the Japanese language?
LIBBY LARSEN: Actually, I asked for several people to speak it, native speakers, and I recorded them. So, I used my ears.