Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music: Composers’ Forums

The Appeal of Choral Music

DALE WARLAND: I commend the panel for coming up with the idea to have internationally renowned composers, in this case representing the Americas, commissioned to write works for ten outstanding choirs. There are supposed to be five composers here this morning, and one of them is unable to be here. But we are fortunate to have four of those. I am happy to say that I have done music by all of the composers you see up here. Ernani Aguiar to my right… and our last minute interpreter, here and on the spot. As all of you know, each of the composers were asked to write a four-minute a cappella work to be matched up with one of the performing choirs for this symposium. In addition to Ernani Aguiar on my right, a few blocks from this very spot lives Dominick Argento, a Minnesota composer. From Cuba, the gentleman not able to be here is Guido Lopez-Gavilan. From the United States by way of China is Chen Yi, and from Canada, R. Murray Schafer. The question that I would like to ask to get us going, for each of you, is: What about the choral medium is it that appeals to you? What challenges you? And along with that, are you currently working on other choral or vocal works (just to see where vocal choral music is at the present in your lives)? What about the choral medium would you say appeals to you or challenges you?

ERNANI AGUIAR: I like everything! Choral music ranges from medieval music to contemporary music. First, as a choral conductor, I am retired. I didn’t want to conduct any more choirs. Between me and the choir, there was an orchestra in the middle. In this moment with choirs, I am only composing. I don’t want to know any more about the -isms of the twentieth century. I am tired of them. I simply want to write music that singers want to sing and the audience wants to hear. I want to find direct communication.

DOMINICK ARGENTO: I have always felt that music began in the throat. There is that beautiful story about Orpheus and the tortoise shell. He strummed on the dried tendons stretched across it and, voila! Lute music was born. It is a very pretty story but I am convinced that music originated differently. There was a need for early man to be able to express things for which there were no words. Some prehistoric mother discovered that producing gentle crooning, humming sounds comforted her ailing infant, allayed its fears, and best of all, hastened healing sleep; in another cave down the block, a prehistoric father discovered that indulging in uncontrolled wailing, keening, moaning noises provided some relief from the unendurable anguish and rage aroused by the death of his infant; and in still another cave around the corner, some prehistoric elder wished to placate and gratify those incomprehensible forces responsible for illness and wellness, for life and death, by chanting wordless, solemn tones. These earliest manifestations of our art—the lullaby, the lament, the hymn—arose out of basic human needs and began in the human throat, and I find it interesting that most instrument that I have ever heard are imitations of the voice: they can play higher or lower, or can go without breathing…whatever. But music proves its vocal origins even in such simple things as the four-measure phrase, a structure that has persisted in so much music because that’s when the human runs out of breath and needs to breathe again. I find the essence of humanity in choral music, in groups of combined voices, in groups of humans expressing what they feel or coming together to express whatever the text asks them to express. It beats anything else I know. I love orchestral music, instrumental music, chamber music. I’ve written for these too. Not too much, but I have written some. I never do it without thinking, “This would be better in chorus, with singers and words to it!” Choral music is a representative for the soul, –if you agree there is such a thing–. I think we feel that most clearly in group singing. You were asking if we are writing any choral music now. Yes, as a matter of fact the thing that I am currently working on is a piece for an ensemble called the Young People’s Chorus of New York City: they wanted a seven- or eight-minute piece. And they want the text to have significance for the youngsters, –which I find extremely important and challenging. I have found a poem for the work, a poem about Orpheus, a poem by Sir Osbert Sitwell, which I think, though not well known, will be perfect. It seems to me that one failing of a lot of choral music is that the words that have been set didn’t need setting. I see no reason for the musical expression of a text that doesn’t really benefit from being set.

CHEN YI: I started musical training as an instrumentalist; I am a violinist. But in my childhood I heard choruses singing in church and also when I heard Tchaikovsky and Puccini operas. I loved them because away from instrumental music, I heard the human voice for the first time, and it was so natural and emotional. I tried to write for voice, but not until my formal conservatory training as a composer: it was a requirement to write for chorus every year. Also, when I went to the countryside of Guangxi province in southwest China to collect folk music I saw farmers’ performances, and that was so impressive for me, how I was feeling was tied with singing and dancing. And so I started writing my first major choral work for the China National Symphony Choir. After coming to the States, I worked as the resident composer with Chanticleer from 1993 to 1996. I have written some Chinese folksong arrangements and also choral settings of some ancient Chinese poems that were sung in Chinese. Because Chanticleer told me that they had sung in Italian, English, and German—everything but Chinese—–and they wanted to try this! I had even translated two or three songs into English, and they also asked that I translate it back into Chinese! And so afterward, I wrote for the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and Ithaca College Choir and Miami University Choraliers, and the Bradley University Chorale, and also the KITKA Women’s Choir. Although some works are Chinese folksongs and mountain song arrangements, more of these are original compositions. I find that there is not much difference in the process that I use to write for choral music or instrumental music. Because the first thing I do is to do some research on the group that I am writing for and then I get an experience of what is its strength and what is good and what can be done. I think that I am going to write another piece for Chorus America, for next year’s convention in Kansas City, and another work for the Singapore Youth Choir in 2004.

R. MURRAY SCHAFER: I guess the thing that I like most about choral music is that everybody has a voice and therefore everyone can participate in some kind of singing together. There was a friend of mine, a Dakota Indian from Manitoba, who once said something to me very significant: “No one in our tribe sings a wrong note.” That was a beautiful statement because it doesn’t mean that some people don’t sing better than others, but it means that you’re not going to be disqualified if you can’t sing as well as the top singers. So, the appeal of the choirs is that they are very democratic, that they allow ultimately, in the most rudimentary form, everyone to participate, everyone to sing along. Everyone sings along in church, sings the hymns. That in a way is an impediment because it does mean that choral music is regarded sometimes as a poor person’s art. It’s cheap, very cheap to put together. Buy a bit of music and sing. It is a lot cheaper than building an orchestra, which has various expenses, overhead and instruments, and yet, in capitalistic countries such as this one, that seems to be the ideal in music education. I think that is very tragic. Parents like to come and see a pile of gold and silver on stage, just the same as people like to go to a big concert hall to see a similar pile of gold and silver on stage, and think that we are a wealthy country, and we deserve this. And so, I guess all of us who are involved in choral music in a sense are denying that it represents the ultimate achievement in music. The ultimate achievement in music is cultivating the use of the original instrument God gave you, which is your voice, and doing all the miraculous things with it that composers keep doing. All cultures, for thousands of years, are still doing new things. We are still discovering new vocal techniques, new vocal kinds of performance tricks, and composers are still writing new pieces of music. So, although it remains a poor person’s art, it is one of incredible invention and creativity.

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