Go Tell It To The Choir—A Report from ACDA

Last week’s gathering of the American Choral Directors Association in Salt Lake City, Utah was one of the largest national music conventions ever held in the United States. Thanks to a newly added composer track at this biennial conference and a greater emphasis on new music, there were also tons of composers and new music aficionados there.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

Part of the Salt Palace building with a large sign for ACDA

A late night view of part of the Salt Palace where the 2015 ACDA Conference was held.

I had been told that last week’s gathering of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) in Salt Lake City, Utah, would be the largest national music convention held in the United States. More than 10,000 people were in attendance two years ago in Dallas when the ACDA held their previous biennial convening. The event had attracted not only directors of professional, amateur, church, and school choirs from around the world but also tons of singers, publishers, and composers of choral music. This time around, thanks to a newly added composer track at the conference (organized by Steven Sametz) and a greater emphasis on new music, even more composers and new music aficionados were expected to show up. According to ACDA’s associate director Craig Gregory, counting conference registrants, exhibitors, members of performing choirs and their chaperones, more than 12,000 people were there. (The only music convenings I can think of that are larger than that are those of the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA), which is not national, and MIDEM, which is international.)

Anyway, suffice it to say, it was incredibly crowded at the so-called Salt Palace (officially the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center), even though it boasts more than 500,000 square feet of meeting space and feels larger than most airports. In fact, many of the local hotels were completely unequipped to handle the onslaught. There were several reports of attendees showing up to the hotels at which they had confirmed reservations only to learn that all available rooms had already been booked. A promotion associate from one of the large music publishers reported that another conference registrant was given the same room assignment as hers and unknowingly barged in on her. When I showed up about 1:00 a.m., I was also assigned a room that was already occupied; luckily the person who arrived there before me remembered to bolt the door and by 3:00 a.m. they had found a new, empty room for me to get a few hours of shuteye before the whole shebang began early the following morning.

Continuing the airport comparisons, waiting in line to officially register and then in another to pick up conference materials resembled the check-in and TSA lines during the busiest time at O’Hare, but ultimately ACDA was way more efficient. Even though there were so many people, it moved pretty fast, though admittedly this is perhaps because no one had to take off their shoes.

Two long lines of people and carts filled with score packets

Waiting to pick up score packets after registering for ACDA.

But, before I get into any greater details about the sessions I attended, here’s Steven Sametz explaining the thinking that went into the composers’ track.

Excited to plunge into new music-focussed sessions from the very beginning, I jaunted in a mad rush up one level and what seemed like a half-mile down various corridors to attend the first one on the schedule, called “Thirty-Something: New Choral Music by Today’s Hottest Young Composers,” which was to be hosted by Dominick DiOrio, a Bloomington-based composer and conductor who leads NOTUS, Indiana University’s Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. Sadly, due to numerous flight delays (ah, those airports again), the session was postponed for later in the day during a time I was unable to attend, although I did get to hear DiOrio lead the fabulous singers of NOTUS later that week. More to follow on that later.

Meanwhile, not wanting to waste time, I zoomed into the first room where a session was taking place and—as luck would have it—I stumbled into a fascinating discussion about barbershop quartet singing featuring live demonstrations of various techniques by The Fairfield Four and Crossroads. One of the central themes of the presentation was how what we now instantly recognize as the classic barbershop sound derived from an earlier African-American quartet singing tradition which involved a greater use of microtonal intervals—yes, I was in heaven here—which got straightened into equal temperament when white groups appropriated it. Perhaps an even greater takeaway, however, was a comment made by one of the presenters about how valuable barbershop quartet singing can be in schools since it “brings out the best in imperfect voices.”

Circle of men in white shirts singing together.

I later heard some impromptu barbershop harmonies near the booth of Barbershop HQ in the exhibition hall.

From there I ran to the ballroom to hear the legendary 82-year-old Minnesota-based conductor, composer, and new music advocate Dale Warland being interviewed by 28-year-old composer/conductor Jake Runestad who has been a rising star in the Twin Cities choral music scene. Warland, who has been one of the most active commissioners of new choral music, spoke about the very first piece of music he commissioned, from Jean Berger in 1953, before he knew that commissioning a composer required a payment. He said that “money shouldn’t be an obstacle” and there is always a way to make a piece of new music happen, imploring the audience “to keep the art alive and to take risks.” He was proud that there are now “15 full-time composers in the Twin Cities; 50 years ago there was only one composer who wasn’t part time and he was supported by his wife.”

Sadly, following that, a scheduled conversation with Jake Heggie was also cancelled since he had caught the flu and decided not to travel, but an afternoon talk to a room packed to capacity called “Integrating Technology in Choral Music” by Christopher J. Russell, who maintains a technology in music education blog, more than made up for the loss. He began with a provocation and an analogy that was difficult to contradict: “Are you here to learn or are you here to change? You wouldn’t go to a hospital that looks the same way now as it did 50 years ago.” Then he systematically went through eight ways in which choral directors could integrate elements of technology into their rehearsals and performances that would make the experience more efficient and, he claimed, more exciting for younger audiences. He was particularly passionate about using digital musical scores instead of physical sheet music and was prepared to ruffle a few feathers when he argued that it was better for a chorus to perform with a MIDI accompaniment than a live pianist if the pianist or piano was sub-par. I kept wondering throughout his talk how a chorus that was more comfortable using technologies he was advocating for such as NotateMe, SmartMusic, Weezic, and Kahoot could be persuaded to be more comfortable performing newly composed music rather than the old classics. He might write about this for us later this year. Stay tuned.

The highlight of events the following day was a master class by composers Steven Sametz, David Conte, and Robert Kyr in which the three finalists in the ACDA’s Brock Student Composer Competition (Nathan Fletcher, Connor M. Harris, and Cortlandt Matthews) had their pieces discussed by the three mentor composers and performed by NOTUS led by DiOrio. Conte spoke persuasively about thinking like an orchestrator when writing for chorus—which he called “chorestration”—and Sametz spent a lot of time focusing on specific issues when text setting—being aware of the relative audibility of text in various registers—and making sure that what was on the page was performable without help from an “interpretative conductor.” It was another well-attended session. My only disappointment, which could have easily been remedied by other conference attendees and people in that very room, is that the three mentoring composers, the three composers being mentored, and the choral conductor (who frequently added his own advice from the podium) were all male. There could have been a greater ethnic diversity as well. In 2015, this seems far more anachronistic than singing from an octavo, which is exactly what every group I heard perform at ACDA did, pacé Chris Russell.

I spent quite a bit of time wandering through all of the exhibitions and meeting with various composers there, among them a young composer/organist Julian Revie who is in residence at the St. Thomas More Chapel at Yale.

It was particularly intriguing to learn from Nebraska based composer Kurt Knecht about the new promotional platform for composers he has set up called Music Spoke.

And then there was the actual music. A particular standout performance was by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in Abravanel Hall, which is usually the home of the Utah Symphony. Though their hour-long program took place in the middle of a hectic day of conference sessions, they made time stand still with their magical interpretations of works by their compatriots Arvo Pärt and the late Lepo Sumera, plus a stunning post-modern take on the music of Gesualdo incorporating electronics by Australian Brett Dean. Sadly, no American composers were represented. That evening, a long line circled the Mormon Tabernacle and stretched outside the iconic Temple Square to experience a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This Grammy and Emmy Award-winning 360-voice volunteer choir was founded in 1847 and since 1929 has performed on a weekly radio show, which is one the longest-running broadcasted programs in radio history. While new music is not the centerpiece of MoTab’s repertoire, they did devote a portion of their program to American music, which included their orchestra playing an excerpt from Morton Gould’s 1941 Spirituals, as well as a hymn composed by the current MoTab music director Mack Wilberg. There were also several arrangements scored for a large antiphonal handbell ensemble, which sounded somewhat surreal. Though almost everything performed on the concert ended in a bombastic climax, they waited only about a second or two before proceeding to the next selection, the audience having been instructed in advance not to applaud until the very end of the program.   And applaud they did, for what seemed like the same duration as most of the selections.

The exhibition booth for the Mormon Tablernacle Choir

The 2015 ACDA Conference offered attendees not only an opportunity to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but to sing along with them as well.

The members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir were also the stars of ACDA’s exhibition hall back at the Salt Palace. Placed directly in front of one of the two entranceways to the exhibition area, their booth maintained a perpetual video loop that alternated between a brief documentary history of MoTab and the chorus singing “Amazing Grace” for which ACDA attendees were invited to join in and be green screened into the video singing along after which they were then given a file containing their “performance.” Throughout the conference, there was usually a line of folks waiting to have this post-modern musical experience—one person I witnessed even turned around and started conducting them. I wonder what she’s going to do with that video clip.

On the third day there were two back-to-back sessions in the composers’ track, both of which merit some mention here. The first was about composers who conduct and conductors who compose and how in the choral community the line between the two is often quite porous. David Conte, who moderated the session, pondered whether Bernstein’s advocacy for Copland on the podium was ultimately more significant than Copland’s mentoring of Bernstein as a composer. He also spoke at length about Robert Shaw revoicing a chord in a Poulenc choral work, a revision that bordered on being compositional. While Conte and Karen P. Thomas, who leads Seattle Pro Musica, were both composing music long before they began conducting, two of the other participants—Steven Sametz, who leads The Princeton Singers, and Eric Banks, who leads The Esoterics (also in Seattle)—confessed that they were conductors long before they ever considered themselves composers even though both are now very actively writing music. Sametz, who described walking out of his only composition lesson at Yale, claimed he was a “closet composer” for over a decade, at first just writing pieces to fill holes in programs he conducted. Banks is also completely self-trained. There seemed to be a general consensus during the session that academic training is damaging to composers, particularly to composers interested in writing choral music. In addition to being a composer and conductor, Fahat Siadat, who arrived halfway through the session, recently added publisher to his range of activities. His company, See-A-Dot Music, grew out of his work as a conductor and was started as a way to advocate for some of the other composers he met through his involvement in the NYC-based group C4, the Choral Composer-Conductor Collective.

The latter session, called Composers Speak Out, offered an even broader range of perspectives from composers spanning several generations. Alice Parker, who will turn 90 this year, boasted that she only writes a piece of music if she gets a commission, saying, “I never want to write something that doesn’t get performed. You don’t cook a big dinner and then find people to eat it.” She further commented that she does not think of the music of the future, only the present.

Japanese composer Ko Masushita, who also divides his time between composing and conducting, spoke about how precious his composing time is. Norwegian-born and now USA-based Ola Gjello (b. 1978), who was the youngest composer on the panel, talked at length about his compositional process. He works mostly in Logic, improvising ideas which he then bounces onto mp3s and listens to far away from his studio, walking around outside: “I try to put myself outside my music as much as possible.” Carol Barnett perhaps made the most polemical statement of them all:

Music is an art of nostalgia. Nobody is writing completely new music. You’re always referencing something you’ve heard before.

While that philosophical position seems diametrically opposed to the impetus for perpetual innovation and revolution that has long been de rigeur in many quarters of the new music scene, it seems to more and more central to musical aesthetics in the 21st century.