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.