Defining and Defeating Defaults

What's up, people.
Miggy Torres here.

In Part 1 of this sub-series on default settings in the creative process, we discussed how product and process are inextricably intertwined. To think creatively about the product, we must think creatively about the process, and apply the creative process reflexively as a kind of metaprocess.

In order to answer questions about our own metaprocesses, however, a good first step is to examine the decisions we’re already making by default, and to ask ourselves 1) why is that my default setting, 2) how does that default setting affect the final productprocess, and 3) what other options do I have?

While these are all questions that can only be answered by each individual artist, I’d like to share some default settings that I noticed in my own choral writing a while back—which I think are reasonably common in the choral world—, how I think they affect the productprocess, and what other options I’ve come up with to help me make deliberate creative choices.

A Sampling of Usual Defaults

1. Writing at the piano.

We touched on this when we talked about SSF vs. FSF pieces in Part 1 of this sub-series, but I think this has the potential to be a big one for a lot of people. I find that when I sit down at the piano and put my hands on the keys, they naturally gravitate toward the same notes, the same chords, the same voicings—it’s always that E-flat Major 7. Ugh. Such a yummy chord. Damn. Love it! Maybe I’ll use it. But maybe my body and my brain are just used to always playing it—by default—when I sit down at those keys. It could be good… not to start there. It could be good just to keep that chord in my back pocket for when I’m really sure I want it.

The default settings generated by muscle memory go beyond particular chords. As mentioned above, certain voicings of chords often assert themselves through the hands: e.g. fifth in the bass, third or sixth in the treble (in a four-part texture). This is one of those works every time voicings that does, indeed, “work every time,” but the sound you get is kind of generic—like bowing all the open strings on a violin, or playing a C-E-G arpeggio at the piano. Of course, in the right context, voicing a chord this way can make a lot of sense, but I find that when I’m at the piano, my hands tend to play chords—especially tertian chords—in this “Chorale Style” almost automatically.

Writing at the piano also affects rhythm. I find that I’m much more likely to write homorhythmic passages at the piano, simply because I’m better at playing them than more contrapuntal textures. The same thing goes for rhythm in general: I’m much more likely to write rhythms I’m used to playing—simply because of muscle memory. In this regard, if you write music at the piano, being aware of where your hands tend to go and what they tend to do can be extremely valuable. Music written at the instrument will naturally bias itself toward those gestures ingrained in us through muscle memory, simply because of how our brains work. If you’re a very accomplished pianist, you may have different gestures and tendencies, but they’re likely still there.

Beyond these mental tendencies, however, the properties of the instrument itself reveal certain creative limitations and affordances. The piano—most of the time—is equal tempered. This stands in conflict, of course, with how we sing (as well as with how many other instruments work, specifically brass and string instruments, but winds and percussion as well). Voices can sing any frequency, and are not limited to 88 divisions of seven octaves. While the piano has a wider range than the human voice, the human voice has far more frequencies it can sing within its narrow gamut. And even if you’re not interested asking singers for specific microtones, these frequencies can be deployed in other ways: glissandi, microtonal clusters, etc.

Not only is the piano equal tempered, but it’s designed specifically for playing diatonic/pentatonic music—with a C Major scale in the white keys and F# Pentatonic Major scale in the black keys. If you need to change tonal centers, you can remember what notes to play my memorizing the arrangement of black and white keys to be used—an arrangement that looks and feels different for every key. Honestly genius. (Can you imagine how different piano music would be if the keys all arranged in a single chromatic row?)

Our notation system, is arranged the same way. The five-line staff is also designed specifically for playing and singing diatonic music. This makes things elegantly simple if you’re Guido d’Arezzo and all the music you sing is modal with maybe a ficta or two thrown in here and there, but it creates weird asymmetries if you’re looking at it through a chromatic lens. Even as early as the 1600s (earlier?) this system began to break down when composers decided they wanted to apply accidentals to accidentals. They MacGyver’d together some new notational patchwork, and the double-sharp and double-flat were born!1Interestingly, when composing works that don’t use functional chromaticism, double-sharps and double-flats again become redundant. The traditional staff offers a lot of clarity—since everyone knows how to read it. Unconventional notation systems can be extremely helpful in certain cases, but there is a tradeoff, i.e. now the performer needs to spend time learning your new system. For the purposes of this discussion, however, we’re talking about ways in which we approach beginning work on a piece—not the notation of a final product. Many composers may find it useful to begin sketches for a work using more abstract notation (to get the creative juices flowing), while using more traditional notation for the final performer-ready version.

Returning to the piano, we also note that each pitch—when played traditionally—bears a percussive envelope. That is to say, it goes Ping! and dies away. It doesn’t sustain. So often, however, we use the piano to compose music with sustained envelopes. Here’s a case where we’re actually using the piano in a way that stands in contrast with its baked-in properties. The percussive nature of the piano is, in my view, one of its most interesting affordances, and something to consider when using it to compose vocal music. Since the human voice most often performs sustained envelopes, however, we tend to imagine a sustained sound on the piano as we play (the decay lasts long enough for us to imagine that it’s sustained). It can be fun, however, to try to adapt idiomatically the properties of other instruments to the human voice.

The differences between instruments can often inspire the composer to essentially invent their own writing techniques. I’ll give you a quick example off the top of my head. In the fifth variation of Rzewsky’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, he employs a really cool technique whereby a chord on the piano is struck loudly and staccatissimo, followed immediately by pressing down on the sustain pedal. The sustain pedal goes down just after the chord has been struck, and the result is that the piano catches the resonance of the chord, but not the chord itself. Look it up, it’s super cool. This kind of thing could be adapted easily to a choir: half the ensemble can sing a chord loudly and staccatissimo, while the rest of the ensemble sings the chord pianissimo and sustained. They can sing it with their mouths closed or on the same vowel as what the loud portion of the ensemble just sang, but the effect would be that of a “reverb” that never dies away. This would be even more interesting in a really resonant hall, as the sound of the quiet singers slowly emerges from the actual reverb of the loud singers. Now imagine that the quiet singers begin to crescendo toward a loud staccatissimo arrival point, where they change chords upon arrival. Then the other half of the choir (the part that first was loud) sustains the new chord quietly. You can repeat this over and over again, speeding it up until you reach an even stronger climax.

Skip to 5:55 for the passage in question.

You can have that one for free. Next one will cost you though.

In any case, the technique isn’t important, and will always be gimmicky if it’s not being deployed to communicate the point of the piece. The important thing is how I came up with it. I took a technique I saw on a different instrument and adapted it idiomatically to the choir. You can do this with anything. You can do this with birds and whales. You can do this with glitches on a scratched CD. You can do this with impasto brushstrokes on an old Van Gogh. You can do this with anything. It’s all about thinking creatively about the creative process itself!

Continuing with the piano, the variety of timbres it can produce—while quite diverse—has very little to do with the sounds humans make. I mean, when you’re playing piano traditionally, you may be able to control the color to an extent, but it doesn’t even come close to the crazy oscillatory shifting of formants that occurs when someone sings. Prepared piano can, of course, give you more colors, as can other playing techniques such as una corda, harmonics, or string scraping. But the piano can’t tell you what it sounds like when two different vowels are sung together. Or what a certain vowel sounds like with one voicing vs. another. Moreover, the piano—when used traditionally—pretty much only plays pitched sounds.

This is huge. Like. The voice makes so many unpitched sounds! Every unvoiced consonant is a non-pitched sound. In the English language alone that’s like nine different unpitched sounds! Nine different timbres! Nine different instruments! Most of those can be combined with pitch to make even more voiced sounds! When we write music at the piano, it automatically makes us ask questions about pitch! About notes! It forces us to answer “what is the first note?” Like, Whoa! Hold on there! Who the heck said anything about notes!? Why should I be prioritizing notes? Why should my first decision be about notes? What if I want my first decision to be about gesture? What if I want my first decision to be about timbre? What if the piece is really about how the phonemes in the text all come together? What if it’s about brightness of sound? What if it’s about spacial arrangements of singers? What’s the first pitch!? If you’re going to ask a question like that, at least take me to dinner first.

This is perhaps the biggest default setting toward which the piano biases us. It pushes us to prioritize pitch and harmony above other musical parameters—something for which we, as composers from the Western Classical tradition, already have a propensity—before we’ve considered whether those parameters should be prioritized above others. Don’t get me wrong, harmony is important. Moreover, harmony is probably the reason we’re all here. No one loves harmony more than us choral folks. That’s like—the whole point! The harmony (or rather, the ecstasy of singing harmony with others)! But there’s more to music than harmony, and there are other sources of dopamine hits that don’t involve singing a perfectly tuned semitone against your friend in the Tenor section. I would advocate for the importance of each musical parameter to be duly considered before beginning work on a piece, such that any hierarchy of parameters—if there is one—is deliberately chosen for the sake of enhancing artistic expression.

Personally, I generally tend to strive toward a global democratization of musical parameters in a work, with the importance of each parameter fluctuating locally as needed. It’s up to the individual artist to decide upon the organization the musical parameters for a particular piece, but whatever that arrangement might be, it should be a deliberate artistic choice. Black & white or color? I’m not alone in this. Composers such as Franck Bedrossian have spoken at length about treating rhythm, gesture, and timbre with the same importance as harmony and melody. Augusta Read Thomas is well known for her aesthetic paradigm “in which every musical parameter is allied in one holistic gestalt.”2Composer's website. See below for link.

Finally, everything I’ve said about the piano can be transposed to any other tool we use to write music, be it an instrument or software like Sibelius and Finale. Briefly, notation software can be helpful in many ways, and I’m not one of those purists who says,“don’t use it!” But it’s important to be aware of how the software affects your productprocess. A couple of limitations I’ve noticed as a Sibelius user: 1) You can’t draw on it, so non-standard notations (that would be simple with a pencil on staff paper) take way longer to write, 2) It asks you to pick a meter before even creating a file, 3) no tuplets across barlines (Dorico is changing this), 4) it is constantly asking you about pitch, 5) it is constantly asking you about note duration, 6) balance of instruments during playback is bullshit, 7) it has its own set of default settings that will influence your productprocess, and many many more things that I’m sure you can think of. Some affordances: 1) copy-pasting is easy, 2) keeps things looking clean, 3) playback can be helpful, 4) certain operations like transposition and inversion are easy, 5) infinite staff-paper/sketching space, etc. etc.

2. SATB

Holy shit.
SATB.
SATB is like this…—well you already know.
Shit, like—Everything’s SATB.

But of course, SATB is a very general way of splitting up a choir. And it doesn’t really say anything musical about the ensemble in question, or about the kinds of singers that are in it, their specific abilities, or about the sounds of their voices, or about the colors you want. But we default to it, primarily out of convenience. So many choirs are used to being divided up that way, into four generalized registral buckets:

Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass.
High-high, low-high, high-low, low-low.

Of course, we all know voices are way more complicated than this. Voices have unique colors (brightness, vibrato, falsetto, etc.), unique techniques that they may be versed in, even unique ranges. SATB are all generalizations of groups of voices that happen to overlap in register, but there is no one singer that perfectly fits the S archetype or the T archetype. Even between choirs we expect these voice parts to sound different depending on the style, time period, composer, etc. being performed. A soprano in an early music choir will be expected to sound different from a soprano in an orchestral choir or a soprano in a gospel choir or a soprano in the chorus of a musical theater production. Outside the choral world, even the more complex—yet outdated, Eurocentric, and slightly ageist (yikes!)—German Fach system is just a set of generalized prototypes, many of which, incidentally, overlap entirely in vocal range.

From a practical point of view, SATB is great because so many choirs are arranged that way today. But this arrangement is arbitrary. 5-part choirs, for example, were incredibly common in the Renaissance. Even Tallis’s fabled Spem In Alium is really just eight groups of 5-part choirs. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure when four-part ensembles became standardized (choral scholars please fill me in). Presumably by the time Bach wrote his chorales. In music schools, we teach common-practice harmony and voice-leading by working through four-part chorale textures. This further serves to perpetuate the idea that choirs somehow need to be divided into four. SSA, SAB, and TBB are reasonably common segmentations of the choir, but they still don’t shake the dominance of SATB (with or without divisi).

Again, nothing inherently wrong with SATB. But if the reason you’re doing SATB is because you’re expected to, or because that’s what Sibelius’s template defaults to, or because you think SATB will sell better, or because you just always do SATB, take a step back and ask yourself, Should this really be SATB? Is that what I actually want? Even if you’re writing for a mixed choir, you don’t necessarily need to default to SATB. You can split the ensemble into as many parts as the music demands. They can come and go and split and re-coalesce. You can also leave parts out. The King’s Singers form a CCTBBB ensemble, the Cs being the two countertenors, but often they sing four-part or five-part arrangements in concert where one or two of the other singers lay out for a song.

SATB not only encourages us to primarily write four-note chords, but it also pushes us to give all four of those voices something to do all the time. In an orchestra, generally speaking, all the instruments don’t play all the time for an entire piece. Should each voice part be singing all the time in any given piece? Maybe. Maybe not. But whatever they do should be an intentional artistic choice. You shouldn’t feel pressure from your staff paper to fill up all those bar rests. If a choir can sit though an entire Beethoven symphony before standing up to sing at the every end, the Altos can wait until measure 55 of your Postminimal climate change anthem (or whatever) to come in.

Similar to what we discussed about the “standard choral voicing” above (fifth in the bass, third/sixth in the treble) SATB also creates a very registrally balanced sound. This can be a good thing, but sometimes a more asymmetrical sound is desired. Imagine instead SSSSSSSSB: eight independent Soprano parts (potentially even soloists, depending on the size of your choir) and the entire bass section. A lot you can do with that. That’s already giving me ideas, things I wouldn’t have even considered if I’d defaulted to SATB.

“But it’ll never balance!” O, ye of little faith…. Do you want it to balance? Then make it work. How many on each part? What part of their register are they in? How loud are they singing? What vowels? It’ll balance just fine if you want it to and if you write intelligently. Maybe halfway through the piece that gets flipped on it’s head: SBBBBBBBB. Kind of on-the-nose, though. Can I justify it through the subject matter of the piece? Maybe I throw that idea out. At least I considered it.

Anyway, the more we talk about this the more we begin to approach the subject of instrument specificity when writing for choir. One the one hand, if you want your work to be played (sung) a lot, the more general you can can make it, the more adaptable it will be to more ensembles. If you write a piece for any number of any kind of instrument, it has a lot of opportunities to get played, but you’ll have to keep the writing pretty general and flexible. But if you write a piece for—I don’t know—a specific ensemble of six Bass Trumpets (with 3rd Bass Trumpet doubling floog), you might only get one performance, but can make the writing as specific as you want, catering to the individual technical capabilities of each of those six players. Finding a balance between these two worlds is up to the individual artist for each piece they write.

Many composers feel that working with unique media, that are extremely specific to particular ensembles or venues or instrumentations or performers, is a worthwhile tradeoff, even if the number of performances goes down. Marc-André Dalbavie, for example, said of his Violin Concerto—a very site-specific work—, “the artistic possibilities are so interesting that I can accept losing something in frequency of performances.”3Paul Griffiths, “When Melody Grows From Harmony,” The New York Times (The New York Times, January 27, 2002). Composers in the Bang on a Can community tend to be skeptical of readymade ensemble types (e.g., string quartet, wind quintet), eschewing the cultural baggage they bear in favor of groups whose unique configurations reflect contemporary sensibilities. Ken Ueno’s work explores ideas of performer-specific music—as does most contemporary pop music.

For artists like Lady Gaga or Kendrick Lamar, the identity of the work is coupled with the identity of the performer: if anyone else performs it, it’s just a cover, not the original work. Cases like these force us to consider the role of recording technology in new music, which keeps works alive after only one performance. As long as you have one good recording, you can keep enjoying and sharing the piece. Is it important to the artist to have the work primarily experienced live? Or is the work composed with the ultimate goal of being listened to through headphones (how most music nowadays is consumed)? Both live and recorded music afford listeners and composers different experiences. My recent work, On the Fractured Identity of the Millennial for 8 amplified voices, was composed with a headphone-experience in mind, while my work Mise En Abyme for oboe and resonant spaces is meant to be experienced live in the space in which it’s being performed.

Transposing these ideas about specificity into our SATB discussion, it seems to me that SATB lands on the more general side of the specificity spectrum. Most SATB works don’t specify the size of the choir or how many singers should be singing each part. You can write a piece for exactly x-number of singers, or you can write for any number of singers. The culture of inclusivity in the choral world—one of its greatest strengths—tends to encourage composers to write choral music that can be performed by as many ensembles as possible with diverse makeups. I think this is generally a positive thing—works can take on new dimensions as they’re performed by different ensembles—but I would also ask composers of choral music to realize that if your artistic vision demands a more specific arrangement of voices—and you have the resources to realize such a work—just go for it (and let the the “inclusivity” of the work fall where it may. We can talk more about this on my article on “The A-Word”).

My recent work, On the Fractured Identity of the Millennial for 8 amplified voices, was composed with a headphone-experience in mind.

Finally, until now, we’ve only discussed different ways of dividing a choir based on register. This, again, forces us to think first about questions relating to pitch. But as we’ve already established: there is a great deal more to a choir than pitch, and maybe pitch shouldn’t be the primary parameter with which we identify subsets of the choir. At the end of the day, what is a choir? A choir—in a general sense—is just a group of people who make sounds with their bodies (though they can also wield instruments if they know how to play them). Provided you have their consent, this group of people can basically do whatever you want them to, and can be divided up based on whatever musical parameters you want.

Maybe instead of dividing a choir up by pitch, you divide it up by brightness! Imagine a staff in which up and down don’t correspond to notes on a scale, but to light and dark vocal timbres. Instead of SATB, you have Bright, Medium-Bright, Medium-Dark, Dark. When you look at a staff like this, it no longer asks you “What’s the first note?” It asks you “What’s the first timbre?” This initial question may inspire more avenues of explorative thought: What’s the first vowel? Who sings it? The bright singers? The dark singers? What if I give a dark vowel like an /ɔ/ to a dark singer? What if I give a bright vowel like /i/ to a bright singer? What if I switch ‘em? What sort of musical narrative can be created through this manipulation of dark and bright timbres? Start dark, end bright? Start medium, end at extremes? Remain at medium with short extremely dark/bright sections punctuating the piece? What happens if I now start asking questions about pitch?

Here we can see how simply making one alteration to a default setting completely changes the creative process. We’re asking questions we never would have even considered had we just defaulted to SATB. The productprocess has fundamentally changed because we’ve reconsidered a fundamental assumption we were making at the beginning of the work.

3. Treatment of text.

I’ll make this the last on my list of defaults since my discussions on working at the piano and SATB have been quite lengthy, and have hopefully already given you lots to think about regarding your own practices. I also have another upcoming article that delves much more deeply into how we work with text as composers, so I’ll keep this pretty short.

Ok.
Defaults.
Two big ones:
The text is a poem. The text is sung.

The text could be a poem. Could be a newspaper article. Could be a student loan agreement (see On The Fractured Identity of the Millennial ). Could be phonemes you really like. Could be anything. How does the source of the of text affect its performance? Would you perform text from a newspaper article the same way as you’d perform text a poem? I don’t know, you’re the composer!

And, speaking of modes of textual delivery, does the text have to be sung? We all assume, because it’s music, that the text needs to be sung, but—as we’ve established above—if a choir is just a bunch of people who consensually make sounds with their bodies… does it? Music is just organized sound in the end (some even say music is just organized events). Maybe it doesn’t need to be sung, maybe it needs to be spoken. Maybe it needs to be spoken and sung. Maybe it needs to be sung phonetically backwards. Do these words need notes? Do they need my notes? Do they need the singer’s notes? I don’t know, you’re the composer!

tl;dr:

Identify your defaults. There are so many of them, and they often change. Question them. How do these defaults affect my productprocess? What other choices do I have and how do those choices affect my productprocess. Which choices will lead me down a productprocess which best expresses and communicates my unique artistic point of view?

By questioning everything once held dear about the creative process, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer multiplicity of artistic possibilities at your fingertips. But at the end of the day, what keeps me from getting too discombobulated is the original idea I that wanted to communicate, that’s personal to me. This singular artistic impulse guides me and helps me navigate the staggering number of choices that lie before me at the outset of composing a piece. Other times, I approach the process more playfully. I think, Hmm, what could I do with a choir divided up by brightness instead of pitch? and go from there.

In any case, I’m not going to tell you how to compose. Well—okay, I am gonna tell you how to compose, but only insofar as I’m asking you to be thoughtful: to consider as many of your artistic choices as possible—especially ones that are often made by default, without thinking—and how those choices affect the rest of your productprocess, for the purpose of expressing your most unique authentic artistic self.

Thank you for reading! If you’d like to share some of you own default setting, I’d love to hear about them and get a conversation going! Next time, we’ll be blowing up traditional ideas of text-setting. Stay tuned! Hope to see you there!

Cheers.

• • •

Notes

1 Interestingly, when composing works that don’t use functional chromaticism, double-sharps and double-flats again become redundant.

2 Composer's website: http://www.augustareadthomas.com/about/index.html.

3 Paul Griffiths, “When Melody Grows From Harmony,” The New York Times (The New York Times, January 27, 2002), https://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/27/arts/music-when-melody-grows-from-harmony.html.