What's up, people.
Miggy Torres here.
Do you like choral music?
Do you like composing choral music?
Do you like singing choral music?
Do you like conducting choral music?
Do you like programming choral music (for yourself or you department)?
Do you like making cool shit?
And — most importantly — have you ever wondered: “What can choral music be?”
If your answer was “Yes” to any of the above, you’re in the right place. About a year ago I started a Podcast exploring the creative process as related to the composition of contemporary music — with an focus on choral music — in an attempt to help stimulate new forms of creativity in an artform that I feel has become somewhat creatively stagnant (or at least moving at a glacial pace). These articles are a revised version of that Podcast in which some discussions have been trimmed down and others have been given greater depth.
It seems crazy to me that — for all the different composers that currently exist — when they go to write a choral piece, suddenly they all start using the same harmonies, the same gestures, the same rhythms, the same poets, the same texts, the same processes, and the same techniques. Yet, however, when you look at the other non-choral works by many of these composers, suddenly you catch glimpses (and often much more than glimpses) of original artistic points of view. This article series — along with the accompanying podcast — seeks change this. 1 In addition, while I believe the best leaders lead by example, this article series isn’t geared toward getting people to write music like me. Rather it’s about cultivating the creative process and thinking about æsthetics in broader terms. To that end, for the most part, I’m going to refrain from using my own pieces as musical examples. If you’d like to hear some of my music, however, you can find it in the Projects section.
The topics discussed here can be applied to any kind of music, but I focus the discussion on choral music. Throughout this series we will be exploring:
And many more topics.
This article series will not be covering basic techniques in vocal writing such as vocal range, voice leading techniques, giving singers time to inhale between phrases, registral colors, passaggio, dynamics, traditional text setting, etc. If you want to learn about all of that, the best way is to learn by doing. Write a choral piece, have it performed, and learn from it. Beyond that, score study will be extremely helpful. Choral octavos are cheap on JW Pepper and there are tons of score-follower style videos on YouTube. Moreover, there are plenty of articles online that deal with those topics.
This article series will also not be prescribing or suggesting specific musical techniques. I was disappointed a few years back to read an article series on NewMusicBox by Fahad Siadat entitled, The Future of Choral Music. The series starts off promising, with the author expressing similar lamentations to those outlined above, writing in his introduction things like, to paraphrase,
[so many composers are writing the same dull music]
and, to quote more precisely,
While there is plenty of newly composed music for choir, it is not part of the same contemporary conversation around new music as its instrumental and solo counterparts.
For the remaining articles, however, the author then proceeds to prescribe for readers a new handful of techniques — techniques which will undoubtedly become just as thoughtlessly rehashed in the years to come as the ones the author was originally decrying.
I am not interested in injecting the community with 10 Cool Ways to Spice Up Your Choral Writing! 2Incidentally, spreading avocado on your manuscript paper before writing—with a dusting of cracked black pepper, a poached egg, and the tiniest hint of freshly grated nutmeg—may help with this. Rather, I am interested in empowering composers to think creatively about the choral instrument so they can invent their own techniques. I want help composers make thoughtful decisions about the techniques they are using and how they actually function in the communication of whatever artistic idea they are trying to convey. The same thing goes for style and tonality: I don’t give a damn if your music is tonal, atonal, micro-tonal, neo-tonal, pre-tonal, post-tonal, hyper-tonal, expecto-patronal, etc. I’m interested in encouraging composers to consider all of their options to create their own intricate, thoughtful, and authentic musical realities, such to express original points of view.
A tall order for any artist (myself included!) to be sure, but something worth working toward as we all continue to grow and learn.
• • •
Bear in mind, this article series—and podcast—takes a point of view in which the primary goal is cultivating authentic artistic self-expression and is less concerned with commercial gain. These two things are not mutually exclusive, of course, and if we’re lucky, we may be able to do both. If your primary goal, however, is to make money with your choral music, you might not find what you’re looking for here. While making money is certainly important in any field, if that’s your main artistic (?) goal, you may be better off simply rehashing what’s familiar to people and then marketing the living crap out of it.
In the same vein, I hesitate to ascribe value a piece by the number of performances it gets. Rather, I value a piece because it makes me think, because it makes me feel something I’ve never felt before—something that I would not be able to feel without having heard that specific work of art.
I value works that open up my mind to new ways of thinking and feeling.
These values of mine are arbitrary, I suppose, but not accidental. Like most (all?) people who love choral music, something happened to me a long time ago when I sang with other people for the first time. And not just with other people, but in harmony with other people. Something in my brain clicked, and a torrent of dopamine broke through neurological flood gates. Something about the way the overtones aligned, the feeling of being both an individual and in spiritual communion with others, of being surrounded by voices both embodied and disembodied, gave way to a sense of spiritual transcendence. This feeling of transcendence—I would wager—is the reason why most of us not only sing, but also compose choral music, in search of something similar.
For me, however, achieving that sense of transcendence again is not simply a matter of recreating the same sounds that got me there the first time. Beyond the sounds themselves, part of what triggered that feeling was the opening of my mind to new forms of thought and new avenues of emotion. This search for new truths has continued to shape the values I hold as an artist, and underpins most, if not all, of the ideas discussed in this article series.
I encourage the reader to play critically with the ideas in this series, weighing what I have to say against their own set of principles and artistic values.
• • •
I hope you’ll join me as we dive into these explorations and self-reflections!
We’re standing on the precipice of a new era of choral music. An era of freshness and creativity. An era where authentic expression and individuality are more important than being “radical.” An era of compositional and performative virtuosity and skill.
The pendulum of neoconservative postmodernism has reached its apex: from behind the bloated tone-cluster of stock-gestures and Sara Teasdale settings, true creativity is beginning to leak out like ambrosia from the cracks between pitches, from the sounds-in-between, that everyone hears but nobody listens to. It’s time to shatter the massive thing, and let its shards scatter and swarm and coalesce into new grammars of rhythm and timbre, new conceptions of space and temporality, new textual paradigms where self-reference spirals itself into oblivion.
It’s time to ride this wave. And at its crest, one question that by its very nature has an infinite multiplicity of answers:
What can choral music be?
• • •
1 In addition, while I believe the best leaders lead by example, this article series isn’t geared toward getting people to write music like me. Rather it’s about cultivating the creative process and thinking about aesthetics in broader terms. To that end, for the most part, I’m going to refrain from using my own pieces as musical examples. If you’d like to hear some of my music, however, you can find it here.
2 Incidentally, spreading avocado on your manuscript paper before writing—with a dusting of cracked black pepper, a poached egg, and the tiniest hint of freshly grated nutmeg—may help with this.