Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music: Composers’ Forums

Experimentation and Choruses

DALE WARLAND: What do you all think is the role of a composer today in dealing with experimental music and new advances in what is tonally possible?

ERNANI AGUIAR: I have heard so many sounds and I have seen so many experiments. And some things I cannot say! Now I am old, and I have returned to the sounds of traditional music. I am happy with the traditional sounds of the orchestra and traditional sounds of the choir. This is enough for me.

DOMINICK ARGENTO: It seems to me that a great deal of my writing is experimental in its own way. I’m not talking about the use of innovative systems or techniques and so on. When I am writing, I try to use the purest and most direct mode of communicating with the particular person or group who is going to be listening or performing my music, and that differs in most cases. I think Benjamin Britten said that everything that he ever wrote was an experiment. I don’t suppose historians and analysts would agree with that, but I do because I believe he is also referring to a purity of communication that changes from work to work. The other point that I would make is I think that certain people—artists, composers, whatever you wish—are pre-wired by nature to be either experimenters or traditionalists. In either case, one communicates a certain vision and tries to put one’s own stamp in it. Some composers can achieve that within the common practice. Others, like Schoenberg, are destined, possibly against their will, to be experimenters. I think you all know that famous story about Schoenberg when he was a soldier the Austrian army. A fellow soldier, meeting him, said “Oh, so you’re Arnold Schoenberg!” And Schoenberg replied, “Well, somebody had to be!”

CHEN YI: For me, choral music is closely related to language, to any kind of a voice—a human voice. Whatever we could do for the voices, if we combine them well and use them properly in a piece, then it should be appreciated as a work. I don’t have a preference for ìWhat kind of style or technique do you use?” I just think that if you combine them well in a piece—according to the text and meaning or the background—that it will become a good piece of choral music.

R. MURRAY SCHAFER: I guess all through our lives we keep discovering new kinds of choral music and other kinds of music, as well, very often from unfamiliar schools and unfamiliar periods in history. I remember the shock when I first heard Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame. Perhaps some others have had the same experience with ars nova music. We are constantly being presented with new inventions, new creations, some of which come from very old traditions and others from traditional societies that we are unfamiliar with. I can think of a couple that we have all discovered in the past few years, one is the Tibetan overtone chanting, the other one is Inuit throat singing. These are new choral techniques that are now being used by composers everywhere. So there will always be experiments, as Dominick has said. There will be composers who reveal new kinds of sounds to us that we have never heard before. I think it is natural. I always think of the statement of Nietzsche‘s: “The artist who knows his/her audience has nothing to say.” Think about that in terms of choral music. So there is an awful lot that still remains to be discovered and will be presented to us and will shock us and delight us by opening up new territories.

DALE WARLAND: An appropriate point that you just made about the composer who knows his audience has nothing to say. I’m curious about how that factors into your desire to know the performers for whom you are writing. And if you cannot answer that question, then comment on your interest in working with a conductor in the approval of text, and maybe even receiving suggestions for texts?

DOMINICK ARGENTO: I don’t approve of consulting a conductor about a text. If a composition is going to be a part of my life—take several weeks or months or years—I want it to be the best possible work it can be. And I don’t want to do it just because the conductor says, “Would you mind setting this nursery rhyme, because my daughter sings in the choir.” That’s just not very interesting to me. If it posed some sort of challenge, I might consider it. But if you asked me to set the Gettysburg Address, I would say no. I don’t think it is very musical, nor would it benefit from being set, even Copland avoided setting it to music. I think if I’m going to write the music, I get to choose the words. I do not feel comfortable setting text that somebody else has selected unless it is also something I would have selected on my own.

CHEN YI: Most of the time I choose my own texts, even for my Chinese Myths

Cantata. I wrote out the program notes first before I wrote the cantata, then I wrote the text with lots of syllables and it was not in any language. It was written for orchestra and the choir Chanticleer. And they memorized the whole score and even danced on stage. It is impossible for me to write a text without any input, but I did have the idea of the whole project from the beginning because we had to make our proposals to seek production grants first. So everybody agrees to that kind of a story for the project. Mostly, I found my texts from old poems, but sometimes people ask for something else. For example, in one of the two works I wrote for the Ithaca College Choir, I was told that the commission piece should be related a kind of spiritual thoughts, because they wanted the whole concert with that theme. So I chose a section from the text of an old Chinese Thought. That is possible, according to the difference in circumstances.

R. MURRAY SCHAFER: I think the simple answer is that if any composer is going to set something to music, they do have the right to veto a text that has been presented to them or choose an alternative. Otherwise, it would be very difficult for the composer to get inspired at all, and that is absolutely necessary. The difficulty that I tried to emphasize in the beginning of writing something for a group of people whom I had never met and never heard perhaps is not felt so strongly by other people. It would just be more interesting, I think, to work with a choral group or work with people you do know, and to perhaps create something communally. I have certainly done that in some cases of writing choral pieces. One piece that some of you might be familiar with, Epitaph for Moonlight, a quite early choral piece of mine, was conceived that way. The words were supplied by twelve-year-old kids in a class that I was teaching, when I asked them to create words in their own language that would express the qualities of moonlight. I would prefer to work like that—closely and harmoniously with a group that I knew, and create perhaps even more collectively.

ERNANI AGUIAR: I have many friends who are poets. I want to select their best poems. Sometimes I am commissioned to do a work and I am given a text, and I have to do that. I don’t want to lose a friendship. But in honor of the government, I won’t do it. I am an anarchist. Giuseppe Verdi has given us a lesson in this sense. I read the text many times until a melody eventually comes out of this text. Sometimes I look at the text and immediately I have a melody. This is part of my process.