Writing to Stereotype

[Ed. Note: Matthew Van Brink is blogging for us this week about the Essentially Choral reading sessions in St. Paul MN. To read his initial post, go here. - FJO]

Many great composers have treated the choir with an orchestrator’s touch. There are many, many examples—Schoenberg’s Op. 50b setting of De Profundis, Ligeti’s Requiem, and even that stunning Honda commercial. But works which include solo voice can have this “instrumental” flavor. Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître comes to mind right away, since, at least to my ears, the voice often becomes a seventh member of the instrumental ensemble. In those moments, the text serves as a point of departure for a completely instrumental setting.

Thus, a well-chosen text can simply supply the program for a piece—listeners may not understand the delivery of the text, but other elements of the music reflect its meaning. For example, Berio’s ingenious choice of text for his Sequenza III “Give me a few words…to sing…” provides a clever and colorful palette as the words come apart. John Hollander’s text for Milton Babbitt’s Philomel is one about intelligibility itself, depicting a character incapable of speech. Babbitt’s composition then eerily sets the scene.

There are so many wild possibilities created by turning the voice into an instrument, rather than merely the arbiter of a text. But none of the pieces by us composers here at Essentially Choral do this. In fact, composer mentor Daniel Godfrey suggested that to a certain extent we five participating composers have gravitated towards writing “American”-sounding works for choir. (Lots of pandiatonicism, shimmering consonant sonorities, etc.) My instant emotional revulsion to this idea was then tempered with the fact that it is… a good point. Listening to tonight’s read-through of our five compositions revealed this pretty clearly. Is there a danger here? How often do we compose to stereotype?

A second recurring idea was a classic one—making the scores absolutely, abundantly, unquestionably clear. Misaligned words, missing slurs, syllables incorrectly divided, and the occasional missing accidental: precious rehearsal time spent answering questions!

We were dogged by an unamusing power outage, which had director Philip Brunelle reading by flashlight and the choir inching their chairs toward the dwindling natural light from the ceiling windows. After relocating, the rehearsal continued, where we observed, without further distraction, Philip Brunelle’s extraordinarily efficient rehearsal with his extraordinary Ensemble Singers. The rehearsal was followed by the usual composerly beer banter: ruminations about 18th- and 19th-century American history, and the longevity of Rod Stewart.

3 thoughts on “Writing to Stereotype

  1. mdwcomposer

    Matthew, I found your post very interesting. Giving one of your questions a different slant, I wonder whether the (or a) stereotype seems prevelant because that’s what conductors prefer to perform. I had a conductor tell me once that she does not like textless choral pieces and would never perform one. Was that an isolated or unusual case? Of course, the sound-world you describe exists for a good reason: it’s naturally choral and it “sounds really good”. But when one chooses a different approach,whether it be text, sound, or concept, is there inherently a harder sell required to get the piece performed? How many times have you heard or heard of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna performed live versus any number of other things that regularly turn up on choral programs? Is it only the level of technical difficulty? Or is it the level of musical difficulty in dealing in dealing with a different concept of choral sound as well as a different kind of text / music marriage? It’s probably an unanswerable question, but one worth pondering.

    As for one of your other points, that of the necessity of careful proofreading prior to rehearsal, it’s definitely “classic”. It’s been mentioned on these pages with the Minnesota Orchestra program and in other contexts as well. Though it never hurts to have another reminder for all of us composers. Like flossing every night, we all seem to slip every once in a while.

       – Mark Winges

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  2. philmusic

    But when one chooses a different approach,whether it be text, sound, or concept, is there inherently a harder sell required to get the piece performed?

    I agree with you. I think it is. 2 things;

    There is the question of the choir “sound.” For some choir directors their sound comes before all other artistic considerations. So they look for works that are confluent with that sound.

    The question of available rehearsal time certainly comes into play here. The advantage of rehearsal time goes to choirs at music festivals and schools. In my experience many professional choirs just don’t have time to rehearse say a “serial” work to the required perfection.

    I continue to hope that performing ensembles will embrace risk.

    Phil Fried, available at partial day rates

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  3. Leos

    choral music
    Another sad truth in the area of choral composition is the fact that there are still far too many choral conductors who cannot hear beyond a certain point harmonically and who don’t have the musical (particularly rhythmic) skills to deal with more complex types of music. Over the past decades composers who have a knack for choral composition have found clever ways to circumvent these problems and write more “user-friendly” pieces. Some of these work well, others are all too transparent in their lack of adventurousness. People have learned what types of voicings, gestures and textures will work, and no one is really interested in finding out if others could be made to as well. To the average choral conductor, your stylistic choices are Rutter, Lauridsen and Whitacre, the last two of whom have produced some good music, but have also too often fallen into the trap of finding a formula and sticking to it. (Admittedly, any composer in any genre who has a piece that is a “hit” runs the same risk, a difficult pitfall to avoid.) Anyone who wants to push the envelope a bit basically hasn’t got a chance, no matter how good the music is. It’s a pity, because much more can be done with a good chorus than most people dare to dream.

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