What's up, people.
Miggy Torres here.
I wanted to take some time and talk a little bit about some of the things that I think about when I’m considering “honing the craft” when it comes to choral music. You know, maybe it’s not even “craft”? Maybe it’s like… artistry? I dunno, I mean they kinda go hand in hand, right? Like, the more interesting and important and vital your artistic ideas are, the more craft you’ll need to express them. And the more craft that you have, the more it will open you up to thinking about and expressing new ideas.
So I guess what I really want ask is:
how do you get “next level” as an artist? What does that even mean and how do you get there?
For me, that has had different meanings depending on how old I’ve been. To back up a little bit, when I was younger—when I was like 19, 18—of course, like most 18, 19-year-old “choral composers” my hero was Eric Whitacre. I still own every octavo of his from The City and The Sea all the way back to Go, Lovely Rose. I took a year off between my high school and my undergrad, and in that year I spent most of the time in my basement with these octavos, playing them on the piano, learning how they worked—take them apart, put them back together—really trying to understand the way that he wrote music. Because, for me, that was “next level.”
Eric Whitacre was doing things that I as an 18-year-old would listen to and have absolutely no clue what the heck that was, how that worked so well (and it sounded amazing!). For example, the way he voices chords based on vowel. That’s something that, for me as an 18-year-old, seemed so advanced: How do you even think about out how to do that? How do you know how to do that!? Of course, now it makes perfect sense: open chord voicing work well with open vowels while closed vowels can help make closer harmonies sound more clear (besides whistling, singing an /u/ vowel is the closest humans can get to making a sine wave with their bodies). Of course, back then I didn’t know that. So for me, “next level” was “whatever I haven’t understood.” And “what I haven’t understood” were things like that, things like what Eric Whitacre was doing.
Nowadays, however, that’s not “next level” for me. Nowadays that’s something I can do in my sleep. But now (2020) “next level,” i.e. “what I haven’t understood,” is something different. “Next level” is like Kate Soper’s deployment of dramaturgical devices in Voices from the Killing Jar, or Michel Van Der Aa’s use of intermedia to blur the threshold between different realities, or Lachenmann’s understanding of the physicality of playing each instrument, or Beat Furrer’s granulated “force fields”, or the spirit of intricate playfulness in Ligeti’s entire output, or Kokoras’s orchestration techniques, or Ferneyhough’s command of rhythm and instrumental physicality, or Sørensen’s sounds that decay and rot before your ears, or Nabokov’s ecstatic use of language, or Black Mirror’s ability to consistently create tension and hold it over long range dramatic trajectories, or Marquez’s realities created from new mythologies, etc.
For all of these artists and all of their pieces, I want to figure out how they work! I want to take them apart, put them back together, and see how they work. Not because I want to say the same thing all those artists have said, but so I can further my own craft and artistry. So I can gain new ways of expressing the things that are personal to me, and so that I can open my mind up to new ways of thinking about the world and have more to say. Many of the works described above seem so technically advanced at the moment, that for me, now, in 2020, “next level” is that.
• • •
So basically, what I’m reflecting on is this:
Aside from just learning more about Eric Whitacre’s music, what happened to change what I considered to be “next level”? Why are things that were once “next level” no longer “next level”? Why are things that weren’t even on my radar, now things that I aspire to learn from artistically? How did this happen?
You might think it’s just the natural progression of things, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Why, for instance, did I not—having finished studying Eric Whitacre—move on to Ola Gjeilo? Or Morten Lauridsen? Or other well known contemporary “choral composers”? If your goal is to write awesome choral music, why not just continue reverse-engineering as much choral music as possible? Then you will have ostensibly “mastered” the genre.
To be perfectly honest, that’s exactly what I did. If you look at the music I wrote Freshman, Sophomore—even Junior year at Ithaca College, it’s all in that same vein. I wrote a Sara Teasdale setting called Heart-Fire, which sounds exactly like what you think it sounds like. I wrote some slightly more creative works on two Khalil Gibran poems a year or so later. Overall, however, the gestures were the same. All three pieces were essentially the same work, just with different notes, different rhythms, different text.
Looking back, this was to be expected: if you’re trying to find new ways of thinking about choral music by synthesizing concepts from music that you’ve reverse-engineered, you’re never going to make anything fresh if the ingredients in that synthesis are the same gestures, techniques, and processes that have been floating around the choral world for decades. If you want to synthesize something fresh, something personal, the ingredients need to be fresh and personal. And that means you either need to 1) draw ingredients from as many sources as possible or 2) create your own ingredients.
Of course, being 20 at the time and thoroughly embedded in the world of American Choral Music, “as many sources as possible” still meant “listen to more kinds of choral music.” This is obviously important to do in general—if you’re writing music for any medium, it’s important to understand what it has done, what it can do—, and was moderately helpful, but only to a point.
But. Eventually something happened. And I want to share that experience that made things shift:
• • •
Ithaca College. Great choral program. Top notch. Great conducting program, too. But. If you’re a composer—like me—who would listen to a lot of Eric Whitacre, then you’ll know that there’s a very particular sound that comes along with that kind of music. And of course, I’m talking about the kind of St. Olaf-y, British-y, early music-y, meno vibrato-y sound that’s permeated contemporary choral music over the last few decades.
Well. Ithaca College is not like that. Ithaca College, everyone wants to be an opera singer, and their choral music—the way that they sang it while I was there—was very free, in the sense that there was virtually no limiting of soloistic affects within the ensemble. This was especially true for the IC Choir under the direction of Larry Doebler. Love the man—he’s super nice, inspiring leader. I sang in his choir. It was a transcendent experience. But. Most unblended sound I’ve ever heard. Not because Larry was a bad conductor—this was an intentional choice.
He liked his choirs to sound like an orchestra (molto vib). He also liked how hearing each individual voice allowed each individual singer to communicate personally with an audience member. To this end, he always had us make direct eye contact with the audience while we sang, keeping him only in our peripheral vision. Whereas I found unity of ensemble to be a source of ecstatic beauty, Larry felt that that sort of sound verged on the robotic. He felt a choral sound that was more of an amalgamation of individual vocal identities had more soul to it, whereas I just thought it was sloppy (and depending on the piece being sung, I still do!).1While I don’t want this article to descend into a discussion on the use of vibrato in choral music—a subject that still sparks controversy—I would like to clarify that—even though I was interested in a particular choral timbre while at Ithaca—I don’t believe a meno vibrato sound is inherently more beautiful than a molto vib sound. Rather, I feel the best choirs are able to employ a wide array of colors to best express what is musically required, from Byrd to Brahms and beyond.
When Larry retired, Dr. Janet Galván took over as DCA. Ensembles under her direction certainly had a better sense of ensemble, and the conducting was a billion times more clear.2Nothing against Larry; love Larry. Still, the sound was not for me. While it was certainly more well blended, blend was still a four-letter word in rehearsals. She had good reasons for this. Like many choral conductors, it seemed she was trying to get us to blend without actually saying the word blend because the expectation was that a choir wouldn’t be able to interpret that instruction properly. Nothing against Dr. Galván: her pedagogy is excellent, as is her conducting. This was a deliberate artistic and pedagogical choice informed by years of experience. Nonetheless, the resultant sound was not the æsthetic I was looking for.
The culture at the school was a large part of it. If you’ve sung choral music at a music school with traditionally-minded voice faculty, you probably know how this is: Don’t tell the students how to sing. Don’t tell them to change their vowels. Don’t ask them to sing more quietly. And for the love of God, if you value your life and your career, DON’T say The V-Word. The Vibrato Crusades of Olde, between Professors of Voice and Professors of Vocal Ensembles, were alive and well at Ithaca College, and probably played a large role in why the choirs sounded (and presumably still sound) like they did.
In any case, although the choral department had good reasons for their æsthetic choices, they were choices that were in conflict with my own. Confronted with this large æsthetic rift I basically realized,
No matter what I write it’s not going to sound the way I want it to because I’m never going to get a group together to produce the timbre I want, even if the notes and (ostensibly) the rhythms are correct.
So I decided around my Junior year,
Alright, well, I’m gonna take this opportunity to write more instrumental music and hone those skills instead.
even though choral music was my main interest.
And as it happened, this was eye-opening. My senior year, I realized that the Composition degree at IC included a special clause whereby one could substitute an elective “minor ensemble” for a required “major ensemble.” So I decided to quit choir (!) and join the Improvisation Ensemble, which ended up really being a kind of “composer’s lab” and an incredible learning experience.
• • •
So. Here’s my advice:
You wanna write really really really good choral music?
—Oh and I’m not saying my choral music is really really really good, but I do think it was really really really helped in doing this. So —
You wanna write really really really good choral music?
Stop writing choral music.
You wanna know the secret to writing good choral music?
Stop writing Choral Music.
Get away from all the pieces that you sing, that you conduct, that you listen to. Get away from them. Because they’re all saying the same thing. And they all say it in the same way. They are all just Heart-Fire with different notes, different rhythms, different text.
You want to start writing really cool choral music? Stop writing choral music. And I mean that both in a literal way and in a figurative way. The literal way is to say that I think it’s important to go out and try to write for all sorts of instruments, in all sorts of styles, because it will inform you as an artist and it will inform your technique in different ways that strictly writing for choir cannot. And then you can take those things and you can bring them back into your choral writing in really unique and imaginative ways.
But in another way, when I say “stop writing Choral Music,” I capitalize “Choral Music,” to mean not “choral music” the instrumentation, but “Choral Music” the style. “Choral Music” the genre. Strictly speaking, choral music, the instrumentation, should not be a style or a genre. It’s just an instrumentation. It’s like saying “String Quartet Music” is a style.
When someone says “I write string quartet music! Here’s a piece for string quartet!” most of the time—just based on the instrumentation—you have no preconceived notion of what that piece is going to sound like. You might have a few possibilities bouncing around in your head: maybe it’ll sound like Haydn. Maybe it’ll sound like Ravel. Maybe it’ll sound like Ferneyhough. Maybe it’ll sound like Coldplay. Maybe it’ll sound like Bang on a Can.3So also Coldplay? Maybe it’ll sound like something I’ve never heard before. All of these options are possible, but they’re extremely diverse and none are expected based solely on the instrumentation.
But, when someone says, “I write choral music,” suddenly the instrumentation implies a genre, a set of stylistic idioms. Suddenly you have a very strong preconceived notion of what that music is probably going to sound like: a set of gestures you know the composer is probably going to employ, a collection of poets whose works they’re probably going to have set, methods of treating text they’re probably going to use, a group of subjects-matter the work will probably be about (longing, love, death, nature, God, music, etc.).
Now, when you actually listen to the person’s music, these preconceived ideas may be completely wrong. But they’re there! They’re baked into the instrumentation. And part of the reason this is the case is that many composers of choral music are still doing what I did Freshman, Sophomore year. They’re trying to synthesize new choral music by using ingredients reverse-engineered from the very choral music they’re trying to reinvent! The music just cannibalizes itself, over and over and over again. The works are Frankenstein-monsters, sewn together from the necrotic limbs of Leonardo Dreams and the inverted kidneys of I Am Not Yours (whichever version) and the shriveled lips of O Magnum Mysterium (whichever version)—all fine pieces in their own right, but so central to the repertoire that any rehashing will result in derivative works which only serve to reference—or, at best, pay homage to—their original counterparts, as well as the artists who wrote them first.
• • •
One of the things I find palpably fascinating4You heard me. Palpably. is the way inexperienced artists rip off the wrong things from artists who produce great work. Igor Stravinsky famously said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”5A quote, incidentally, stolen from T. S. Eliot, itself a deformed appropriation of words by Tennyson. This may be true, but I would argue that the “Great” isn’t in the stealing, but rather in knowing what to steal and how to steal it.6It’s equally important to know what not to steal and how to properly cite and acknowledge musical influences. Artists, and especially composers, are some of the most kleptomaniacal individuals that exist. That isn’t in itself a bad thing, but becomes extremely problematic if it leads to cultural appropriation.
When people started to write music like (i.e. steal from) Eric Whitacre, for example, almost every single time they would rip off the wrong thing. Or they’d rip off the cheapest thing, the easiest thing, the most superficial thing. The large tone clusters, the unresolved suspensions, the chord voicings.7Fifth in the bass, third in the treble, plane it everywhere, works every time!
It’s like when Jaws came out. After Jaws came out—well, I wasn’t alive when Jaws came out, but I saw a Jaws documentary once, and one of the things the producers were talking about is how after Jaws came out there were a whole bunch of shark movies and such that followed suit. They’re still happening today: Sharknado. Sharknado 2. Sharknado 3 (I think it’s up to six now). And, of course, what they’re ripping off from Jaws is all the scary shark stuff. But what they’re not taking from it, the stuff that makes Jaws a great movie, are all the more emotionally vulnerable, human moments: the family relationships, the depth of the characters, the connections between people—the deeper structural elements that make it such a compelling film.
Robert Shaw’s monologue on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, for example, is one of the most iconic speeches in Western film history.8Robert Shaw, the actor, not Robert Shaw the conductor—may his soul rest in the hallowed halls of the choral Otherworld And part of what makes it great is how it functions within the overall narrative of the film, how it deepens our understanding of the complexities of his character and his relationship with the others, including the yet-to-be-seen shark.
Robert Shaw's iconic monologue from Jaws (1975) on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. 9I know about half of you are about to take this speech and start setting it to music with accelerating half-steps. Not saying don’t do it, but please. Just take a step back for a sec and re-read the last four paragraphs.
So when it comes to Eric Whitacre—again, just as an example since I expect most people reading this to know who he is, but you could say the same thing about Ligeti or Sørensen or Mincek—they rip off all the superficial harmonic stuff. But what they don’t rip off—and what they really should rip off—are things like, for example, his use of motivic development. They just grab the harmonies and through-compose the damn thing, word-painting themselves into eternal bliss. To be fair, Whitacre has many pieces that are through-composed (perhaps most of them, in fact), but it’s all through-composed based on a motif (“golden brick?” ugh), it’s not just the haphazard word-painting that moves us from section to section with no sense of thematic consistency that we see in many of the ripoffs.
So basically. I think what makes Whitacre an interesting artist is not the superficial techniques he uses in his music, but the deeper, more structural aspects of the music that determine how those techniques are deployed throughout each work. And I feel similarly about other composers and other styles of music and other instrumentations.
• • •
As I said, that’s just a quick aside. I’ll talk more about referential works, self-referential works, and derivative works in my articles on Harnessing Cliché, but I thought I’d give this idea of “what to steal” to you to play with.
My main point is just get away from it. Get away from choral music for a while. Like a while. You know? If you can. Like a year. Or even just one piece. Maybe stay away from the piano, too. Especially if you play piano, and especially if you write music at the piano. Change it up. Write a string quartet. Write a Pierrot piece. Write an electronic piece. Write a piece for three snare drums. Write a piece for bassoon and marimba. Message your friend who plays the flute and see if you can write them a short piece about a question you have about life. You know what I mean? Like whatever you do, don’t write a choral piece.
Choral music will be there. Waiting for you. With its sweet, smooth four-part voicings; its sensuous, enveloping tone-clusters; its exquisite, incandescent texts; the soft supple curve of its lyrical melodies; and the feigned sophistication of its quarter note rhythms, spasmodically punctuated by dotted quarters that immure submissive, obligatory eighths.
It’ll be there. And it’ll be fine. You’ll be good. Just get away for a while. Take a break. And then when you return to the choral instrument, see what you can apply—see what you can do that’s still “idiomatic” for the voice (we’ll be unpacking the I-Word in an upcoming article) but that you only were able to create by interacting with other instruments or other repertoire, outside the bubble of contemporary choral music.
For me, starting to write instrumental chamber music was both formative and transformative. It helped me discover a whole new world of expression to which I otherwise had no access, especially had I only been exposed to the music that I was singing, the music that I was conducting, the music that I was working on with my own instrument.
And when you look at the choral works of really great composers, you can see that they’re working within a broader musical domain that’s influenced heavily by instrumental music. For example, in Ligeti’s Nonsense Madrigals or Lux Aeterna, he uses techniques that are used more universally across his body of work, that aren’t specific to choral music. But he’s adapting them to the choral instrument—which I think is really really cool.
Stravinsky. Symphony of Psalms. What a cool piece. You know? These are composers who have written all sorts of music, and for that reason are able to work with the choral instrument in new and innovative ways.
We’ll talk more about this in my (forthcoming) article The [Choral] Composer as Specialist, but for now I think this is a lovely place to stop.
Thank you for reading! I hope these ideas I’ve shared give you something to mull over and play with. Hit me up with any comments you might have.
In my next article, The Product-Process Duality, we’ll discuss whether “default settings” in the creative process affect the structure of the final work. Are product and process the same thing? Join me as we dive in!
• • •
1 While I don’t want this article to descend into a discussion on the use of vibrato in choral music—a subject that still sparks controversy—I would like to clarify that—even though I was interested in a particular choral timbre while at Ithaca—I don’t believe a meno vibrato sound is inherently more beautiful than a molto vib sound. Rather, I feel the best choirs are able to employ a wide array of colors to best express what is musically required, from Byrd to Brahms and beyond.
2 Nothing against Larry; love Larry.
3 So also Coldplay?
4 You heard me. Palpably.
5 A quote, incidentally, stolen from T. S. Eliot, itself a deformed appropriation of words by Tennyson.
6 Fifth in the bass, third in the treble, plane it everywhere, works every time!
7 It’s equally important to know what not to steal and how to properly cite and acknowledge musical influences. Artists, and especially composers, are some of the most kleptomaniacal individuals that exist. That isn’t in itself a bad thing, but becomes extremely problematic if it leads to cultural appropriation.
8 Robert Shaw, the actor, not Robert Shaw the conductor—may his soul rest in the hallowed halls of the choral Otherworld.
9 I know about half of you are about to take this speech and start setting it to music with accelerating half-steps. Not saying don’t do it, but please. Just take a step back for a sec and re-read the last four paragraphs.