Author: Fahad Siadat

Innovations and Experimentations in Distanced Choral Singing

A screen capture from one of C4's Remote Livestreams

While the entire music sector has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, the choral community has been hit especially hard. Singers have been deemed “super spreaders” of the virus, by a study commissioned by a coalition of performing arts organizations. The study has let the national community know they don’t believe there will be a safe way for choirs to safely rehearse until there is widespread testing and/or a vaccine, potentially an entire year or more in the future. Like other musicians, this bleak forecast has prompted panic for professional choristers who rely on group singing for their income, but it has also affected some 40 million people in the United States who rely on choirs for the social community, mental health, and emotional well-being.

My spouse Cynthia Siadat, a licensed psycho-therapist, recently wrote an article about how choir helps alleviate mental health distress. She writes, “73% of singers report that choral singing helps them to feel less lonely…A 2015 study, found that loneliness has been proven to be just as detrimental to one’s longevity as obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day”. My takeaway is that choral singing might not just be benefiting people’s mental health but is also indirectly saving lives. It is no wonder that so many church goers, one of the largest demographics of choral singers in the U.S.A., are banging at the doors to return to their weekly gatherings.

  • Choral singing might not just be benefiting people’s mental health but is also indirectly saving lives.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, and publisher
  • Virtual choirs make certain kinds of repertoire more accessible than ever before.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, and publisher
  • Desperate musicians are learning that Zoom is a subpar platform for music making.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, and publisher
  • Is there a way to maintain the artistic/social/musical experience as well as to develop skills via distance learning?

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, and publisher

Over the last few months, over 270,000 choirs nationwide have been trying to figure out how to move forward. While making a high quality musical product is the common call for any music ensemble, the pandemic has made it clear that it is just as much the MEANS rather as it is the ENDS that is the raison d’être for many choirs that makes the choral experience so widely popular. The question becomes not only, ‘how do we make a quality musical product?’ But, ‘how can we continue to have meaningful musical and social experiences?’. For music educators, there are existential questions about what the intended learning outcomes are for the choral classroom and if they can be achieved without singing in the same room at all.

For the groups I am part of, this question comes with an examination of our values and goals as a choral community. I believe this new medium requires a deep look at our assumptions and expectations about the choral experience and how we may have to reassess or establish anew what we consider to be a ‘good’ choral experience and how we can satisfy what both audiences and singers are missing most from choral music.

I have the good fortune of making my living as a chorister in a particular subset of the community deeply interested and invested in innovating and experimenting with choral music, and because of this involvement have had the opportunity to participate first hand in how different groups are handling the crisis and trying to move forward. No one group has ‘solved’ the issue of not being able to sing and rehearse together, but all of them have found unique ways forward and are experimenting wildly. I’d like to share with you some of the varied experiences I’ve had as a singer, conductor, and composer in community, professional, and liturgical choirs and examine some of the pros and cons of these approaches in the hopes that other enterprising leaders will be inspired to add their own experiments as we collectively try to move forward during the next year.

Asynchronous Music Making (Virtual Choirs)

It’s pretty ironic that the pandemic hit full swing almost exactly on the 10 year anniversary of Eric Whitacre’s first virtual choir. Building a virtual choir, once considered a technological marvel, has become astonishingly commonplace in the last few months. The professional choir at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles (led by my long time colleague David Harris), for instance, has recorded 3-4 virtual choir pieces every week since March.

A screenshot from an online performance of The FCCLA Virtual Choir

The FCCLA Virtual Choir

There are many resources for those interested in getting involved with virtual choirs. I’ve even put my own document of step by step instructions for composers, conductors, and singers.

(Virtual Choir ProTip: Recording the audio and video separately allows a great deal of editing and ‘punching’ in while recording. It goes much faster than trying to get a single perfect take.)

(Additional ProTip: Conductor tracks aren’t all that helpful for the singers, use a click instead. Also consider using a “section leader” to create a guide track for each part so the rest of the choir has a voice to follow along with for style and phrasing.)

For choirs concerned primarily with making a familiar musical product, virtual choirs fit the bill. Audiences appreciate the regular output of music, the result can be quite high quality, and the experience can feel close to watching a live performance. Composers who are interested in having their new choral work premiered and workshopped, will also appreciate virtual choirs as a way to both have their work brought to the public, but also have a close equivalent of a studio recording to boot.

There are some unexpected perks to virtual choirs, namely in terms of how it makes certain kinds of repertoire more accessible than ever before. Newly composed music works particularly well for this medium because 21st Century engraving technology makes MIDI guides and click tracks readily available, which minimizes the amount of time needed to rehearse and prepare one’s part for a virtual choir. Even without such guide tracks, the ability to learn and record a piece phrase by phrase allows for the ‘performance’ of music that might have otherwise been out of reach of an ensemble.

In May, for instance, the FCCLA professional ensemble performed Stravinsky’s 12-tone anthem The Dove Descending, an emotional and mystical work rarely performed by choirs today, especially church choirs, perhaps in-part due to the amount of rehearsal time required. In the virtual choir setting, however, we were able to effectively record the piece in a matter of a few hours. It would be quite an phenomenon if one of the results of our current circumstances was a revival of mid-century atonal choral literature!

While the end product of virtual choirs can be satisfying, the means by which that product is made can be sorely lacking. The great communal spirit of singing together is completely lost, and the pandemic has shown with painful clarity the aching social importance of group singing. I cannot point to a more clear example of how music is greater than the sum of its parts than when an ensemble performs together. Virtual choirs reduce the experience of making music to its component parts and only reveal that ineffable sum once the engineers have done their editing magic. This urgent need to reclaim that in-person experience has led to some fascinating explorations of…

Remote Choirs and re-creating the community experience

Though Zoom has become one of the primary means of communication during the pandemic, desperate musicians are learning that it’s a subpar platform for music making. The sound algorithms cause voices to cut in and out, and the latency, or lag, between singers makes any kind of meaningful rehearsal or performance of traditional choral music tenuous at best. Luckily, there are some low-latency audio options specifically designed for musicians to re-create some semblance of in-person music making. (Soundjack and Jamulus are two that my community uses, but there are others.) C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, a maverick choral ensemble in New York dedicated to performing new and innovative music from the last 25 years (and with whom I’ve been working since 2011), did not wait long before becoming one of the only choral groups to experiment with this software and start giving truly live choral performances streamed over the internet. You can read about how they created the technical set-up for these performances with these detailed instructions.

It didn’t take long working with this medium to realize that remote choirs are entirely new kinds of ensembles that need to be approached with a different set of values as well as repertoire idiomatic for what is essentially a new instrument. For those that had hoped to recreate the traditional choral experience, this was a disappointment. Typical choral values like blend, balance, and uniformity are made that much trickier by every singer’s individual mic set up. Rehearsals started with about an hour of tech adjustments, setting levels, and troubleshooting, not exactly the most enlivening rehearsal experience, and the singing itself still felt like a group of individuals rather than a unified choir.

And yet, once we finally waded through the tech set up and arrived at our first moment of singing together, just a simple C Major chord, I felt a flood of emotion. After long weeks of isolation, I was finally singing with my friends. It wasn’t the choral experience I was used to, but it was unmistakably live music making, and that taste was enough to keep me coming back every week.

The results have been a series of pretty astounding and ever improving online performances with a great collection of experimental repertoire.

Similar to the virtual choir experience, there are some unexpected perks to this new medium, especially when it comes to repertoire. One great opportunity is for the incorporation of live-electronic elements. There isn’t a lot of work for choral ensembles that utilize live sound processing, partly because it is not usually feasible to individually mic each singer in the choir. With the remote choir format, however, such micing is an intrinsic part of the medium and opens up the door to a whole new world of expressive devices. C4’s online performance of The Last Transmission of Amelia Earhart, by composer Robbie LaBanca is a prime example of how the choir can take advantage of this inherently electronic medium. Distortion, reverb, mic noise, and spatialization are all employed to bring the piece further to life in a way that would be impossible for an acoustic concert experience.

Because the software being used for remote choirs is LOW-latency, not NO-latency, perfect rhythmic unity is nearly impossible. Similarly, the unified choral sound typically asked for in traditional rep is also difficult to achieve. These two factors inspired C4 to curate, solicit, and create repertoire that embraces timbre, improvisation, and asynchronous performing, sometimes juxtaposing such sections with moments of metric unity in rhythmically simple and homophonic textures that don’t sound out of place with a little lag.

As I’ve written about previously, such aleatoric writing where individual performers have some creative control over their parts is not new to the music world, but it is uncommon in much of the choral world. Ensembles interested in shifting to a remote choir format, however, seem to show a surge of interest in pieces that allow for dense textures outside of the stereotypical four-part polyphony. Some well-established composers, like Kile Smith and Dale Trumbore, have quickly responded to the changing needs of the field by writing new works and making them freely available to the public, though there is already an abundance of pieces that utilize graphic notation, minimalist textures, and other aleatoric elements that fit well with the remote choir format. My own publishing company has curated a list of pieces from our catalog that are particularly appropriate for virtual and remote choirs.

The aleatoric musical score for Sarah Rimkus's 2020 choral composition O God, Thy Sea

The score for Sarah Rimkus’s 2020 choral composition O God, Thy Sea, published by See-A-Dot and reprinted with permission.

Choral Karaoke

Remote choirs aren’t going to be for every ensemble. The tech requirements, both in terms of necessary hardware and techie know-how, will likely be a barrier for many avocational community choirs to jump into this format. The volunteer choir at FCCLA is one such example. Group video chats during a weekly “choir happy hour” did a lot in terms of keeping the social aspects of the group alive, especially in the early days of the pandemic, but without the ensemble’s focal point of making music on a weekly basis, enthusiasm and participation started dropping off.

To bring back some semblance of community singing, we started experimenting with what I call Choral Karaoke. The concept is simple, the meeting host takes a previous recording of the choir performing a song they know well (for our church ensemble we have a lot since we’ve been doing so many virtual choir performances), shares their audio for everyone to hear, and participants put on headphones, mute themselves, and sing along.

I know this might seem hokey, I myself was extremely skeptical when the suggestion to try this was made, but I only made it halfway through the first piece before emotion overtook me and kept me from singing any further. I was watching my friends sing, and I was hearing their voices wrapped up in that perfect choral sound we achieve on stage as a group. It didn’t matter that in reality what I was seeing and hearing weren’t the same thing, it was close enough that my brain was convinced I was singing in a choir again. Once the song was over, I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes. The singers shared how much they had missed making music together and how this bittersweet experience simultaneously revealed and brought home for them a piece of what had been absent. If you are struggling to find meaningful ways to connect with your choir, and you have some decent recordings of familiar work, you might find choral karaoke a satisfying stop-gap. This is a great method for learning new rep too, as you can show a score and sing one part at a time with a guide voice while others sing along on mute.

Harnessing Technology and Creating Hybrid Live / Pre-recorded Music

Perhaps the most innovative and technology-heavy approach to choral singing I’ve seen during the pandemic comes from The Contemporary Choral Collective of Los Angeles (C3LA). Hungry to keep making music together, and looking for alternatives to the more “traditional” virtual choir,  David Garcia Saldaña, a tech-savvy members of the ensemble took the lead on organizing a hybrid project that combined pre-recorded ‘virtual choir’ like elements, live electronics, visual art, improvised vocals, and audience participation to create an astonishing multimedia concert experience.

Check out the “fridge magnet concert.”

What I love about this approach is how eagerly it embraces distance and recording technology as a creative opportunity, and how the process itself was a collaborative opportunity for artists to get creative and make music together, even if it’s in a different manner than they were used to. Each aspect of the project required a combination of collaboration juxtaposed with individual writing and recording. Teams of musicians selected word banks and parameters for composing musical cells and images for each word in the composition, which were then written and recorded by individuals and programmed into a playback device that can be performed live by another musician. You can read a full write up of the process here.

As an audience member, I found the concert immensely satisfying. It was unmistakably a live event, replete with the awkward introductions, delays, and delightful mishaps of live performance, but with an excellent audio quality coming from the pre-recorded tracks. While the performance experience is singular, there is only one person triggering samples, what was presented was visually and audibly choral. One of the electronic performers, Molly Pease, added another element to the performance by layering live vocals on top of the pre-recorded samples. Taking it a step further by adding visual elements, the concert went beyond the normal choral boundaries into a full-on interdisciplinary feast for the senses.

For performers, this project was more satisfying than the lonely and isolating experience of recording for a virtual choir. The collaborative elements that involved meeting with fellow artists, planning what would be created, and allowing room for interpretation, especially with the visual element, brought life, direction, and purpose to the project as a whole. Such a template has great possibilities for the future of remote collaboration and made a clear statement that choral music is an important part of the experimental new music landscape. I hope it’s an approach other choirs look at as they find ways to continue performing live.

screen capture from "fridge magnet" concert showing faces of individual choristers and the words: breathe, absorb, silence, witness, our, love, flow, hold human, love, safe, do

A screen capture from C3LA’s Fridge Magnet concert.

Re-examining Goals and Values in an Educational Setting

For ensembles that are part of a learning institution, additional questions about what the ensemble experience is supposed to teach are also present. Have we been using choirs as an opportunity to practice ear training and sight-singing skills, vocal technique, or ensemble skills? If so, are there meaningful ways to continue this education in a remote environment, and what about the artistic/social/musical experience is lost if pedagogy becomes the focal point. Is there a way to maintain both? This is an especially urgent question since so many schools are committed to distance learning for at least the coming fall semester.

The National Collegiate Choral Organization recently released a position paper about choirs in an educational setting during the pandemic. Much of it is an argument for maintaining choral programs at risk of getting cut while simultaneously reading as a lament for what we lose with the remote experience that is only achievable when we are together. I think, however, there are a number of educational opportunities that present themselves through these current circumstances.

While planning an entirely remote education semester at Chaffey College, where I co-direct choirs, my collaborator (the inimitable David Rentz) and I decided to reexamine our learning outcome goals to better fit this new online format. Certainly singing is at the heart of all we do as choirs, and that can be maintained even if our energy is not on the performing ensemble skills (blend, balance, uniformity, etc.) we might typically focus on during a traditional rehearsal. Instead, by examining our usual values and amplifying pedagogical subjects that permeate the background of a choral rehearsal, we can embrace the individual singers and how they each contribute to a larger work.

One of the primary goals I am interested in cultivating among students is audio recording skills. There is an assumption that young people are more comfortable with technology than the older generation. While that may be true in terms of creating a new TikTok video, many (young) singers have never had to concern themselves with learning the basics of recording and editing an audio track. For community choirs where the emphasis is on the experience of singing together, taking the time to learn audio engineering skills might be a low priority, but for aspiring artists such skills are an intrinsic part of sharing your work with a modern audience. I see this as an opportunity to fill a gap in traditional classical music education that tends to focus on live acoustic performance, and yank both educators and students into the 21st Century by getting them comfortable with using recording technology. Virtual choirs are excellent culminating projects that utilize such skills in a way that results in a satisfying product.

Another area of focus that usually takes up background space in the choral rehearsal is vocal pedagogy. Building muscle coordination, tone, and breath support by working on scales and exercises helps build the individual voice and lays the foundation for stronger singing in solo and ensemble situations alike. Focusing on pedagogy is also an opportunity to share technical information about vocal anatomy and acoustics. Screen sharing in the remote format allows me to use tools like VoceVista to teach about the overtone series, vowel, and timbre, and I often share the colorful and illustrative resources on VoiceScienceWorks to show students how the voice does what it does.

Improvisation is another skill that can be achieved using a combination of virtual choir and choral karaoke methods. Establishing basic harmonic progressions, like a 12-bar blues (even building them with your ensemble through a virtual choir!), and teaching students how to solo over them idiomatically is a great opportunity to develop ear-training, creativity, and music literacy. Ear training and sight-singing in general are core musicianship skills in the western music curriculum that are often integrated into the choral classroom and can translate decently to a virtual environment. On the more avant-garde side, there are opportunities to engage with graphic scores, drone based music, and other methods of music making that aren’t as common in the usual choral curriculum.

Conductor David Harris argues “the individual’s vocal and emotional experience are the core building blocks of the ensemble.” During this time when singers have to be isolated, ensembles have an opportunity to build on those individual skills and experiences, thereby making their group dynamic stronger when they are allowed to sing together in the future.

A Final Thought

All of the above methods and considerations of how to keep choral singing live scratch some part of the itch for some of the participants, but nothing can re-create the mystical experience of sharing the space and air of our fellow musicians when we make music together. Perhaps some enterprising ensemble will organize a concert in a parking garage or individually mic every singer in the choir and spread them across a football field, but until then exploring how to find the opportunities in the current situation is the way forward. There are silver linings that come from having to innovate and experiment, and I hope some of those changes, especially the new repertoire and examination of values in the choral world, stick around and lead us into a new and exciting era when we sing together once more.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

ASCAP Foundation Logo

Reflections on Segregation and Representation in Choral Music

choral hymnal

In the wake of global demonstrations and protests against police brutality and racial discrimination, I have been reflecting on how unconscious bias effects the music field. It’s no shock to state that classical music in the United States is an overwhelmingly white activity, even as America is increasingly diverse. Recent research by The League of American Orchestras has shown the wide disconnect between the demographics of America as a nation and who finds representation in classical music. As a musician who predominantly works with vocal music and spends a good percentage of my time as a chorister and choral conductor, I’d like to use this opportunity to take a broad look at the choral landscape in terms of gender and ethnic diversity, confront what questions the existing research present, and share some resources and recommendations for potential ways to create space in choral music so that it might more accurately reflect the world we live in.

  • Choral music has unique diversity issues that are more subtle than those in the instrumental world.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher
  • Gender equity in choral music is an easier and more accessible topic than ethnicity.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher
  • Participation by singers of color, but especially black singers in non-genre specific choirs, is low in and often leads to tokenizing of those members.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher
  • Is lack of diversity in the visible leadership of classical music part of a self-perpetuating cycle that reinforces to potential musicians of color that this genre isn’t for them?

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher
  • It’s worth looking at our past programming and asking ourselves why we have programmed the way we have.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher
  • Most choirs audition for very specific kinds of skills that align with repertoire descended from the European classical tradition.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher
  • Representation leads to participation.

    Fahad Siadat, composer, conductor, singer, and publisher

Choral music has unique diversity issues that are more subtle than those in the instrumental world. Because of my work as a publisher and composer, I am particularly interested in the representation of our programming as well as in leadership and overall participation. Unlike orchestral programming, many choral music programs consist of music by living composers. In fact, over 80% of the recommended repertoire from the ACDA National Repertoire and Standards lists were by living composers. Choral singing has fewer barriers for participation and the approach taken by any given choir can range from an egalitarian activity with which nearly anyone can participate to an elite one available only to the highly trained and educated.

My intention here is to offer a researched approach to representation as a call to action for equity and diversity in overall participation, representation in positions of leadership, and among composers.

Women in Choral Music

Gender equity in choral music is an easier and more accessible topic than ethnicity as female singers are in greater numbers than their male counterparts throughout the choral community. Since historically voice parts have been seen as synonymous with gender, and choirs are split evenly by voice part, choirs are generally evenly divided along gender lines. This relative parity is decently reflected among the aggregate of conductors across the nation. This survey of conductors from Chorus America shows that women lead nearly half of the choirs in the country, though the number is skewed towards youth choirs and K-12 school directors and dramatically diminishes when looking at community, college, and professional choirs. A survey of collegiate conductors in Wisconsin, for instance, shows that gender parity is lopsided in higher education, but still much closer in choral music than for instrumental conductors of orchestras and wind bands. 

Among composers, however, women are still quite underrepresented. I recently surveyed the music curated by the ACDA National Repertoire and Standards committees that were presented during reading sessions at the 2019 national convention, and women composers made up 21% of the composers on the suggested lists. That percentage rose to 26% when considering only living composers.

My non-rigorous look at composers on MusicSpoke (a marketplace where composers may sell their self-published music) shows only 20% of the composers are women, a percentage roughly matched in the representation of composers in the catalog for my own company. My guess is that these numbers generally represent the percentage of women composers in the American choral scene, an obvious disproportion to the percentage of women in both the choral community and the nation at large.

Ethnicity and Segregation in Choral Music

Ethnicity, however, is a much trickier topic to parse. First, there seems to be less overall research about ethnicity in choral music. Chorus America’s conductor survey notes, “Only 5 percent [of respondents] were African-American, Hispanic, or Asian/Pacific, less than the proportion of minorities in the U.S. population; we don’t know how accurately these percentages reflect the population of choral conductors.” They add “fewer [respondents] are from the South as compared with the population as a whole,” which might indicate why there were so few black conductors in the survey in particular.

Second, there is an ethnic segregation of participation, leadership, and programming, between ‘non-genre specific choirs’ (usually referred to simply as ‘choirs’) and ensembles that predominantly perform music of a specific idiom, especially one outside of the European classical tradition, for instance, ‘Gospel Choir.’ A great deal of ensemble singing is done in Churches, which also tend to be segregated along ethnic lines. 

Social and creative solidarity among a like-minded community is totally understandable. I see no issue with those who care to focus on or specialize in a specific type of music, nor do I think there’s any problem with gathering among those who share cultural experiences and values. What I am interested in looking at is how this segregation affects non-genre specific choirs. This could, perhaps, be a problem of terminology. Perhaps most ‘regular choirs’ are actually ‘European Classical Choirs’, or ‘American Classical Choirs.’ However, it’s been my experience that most ‘regular choirs’ are interested in exploring a wide breadth of repertoire including pop music, gospel, folk-song arrangements, as well as music from the classical tradition.

As an example: New York City, like many of America’s large urban areas, is a ‘minority-majority’ population. White people make up only about 40% of the city’s residents. That number rises to 50% if only considering Manhattan. Looking at this photo of the Oratorio Society of New York it is clear such demographics are not proportionally represented. This ensemble’s demographics aren’t unique in New York among non-genre specific groups, but I mention them specifically because of a major recent project: performing and recording a new oratorio written by Pulitzer prize winning composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell (both white) based on the writings of William Still (a black abolitionist). For this project, the soloists were all black performers, an appropriate choice for a work about the underground railroad. This choice, as can be seen from this photo of the performance, created a dramatic demographic shift among the performers, at least doubling the singers of color in the performance.

But where do they go when the performance is over? Participation by singers of color, but especially black singers in non-genre specific choirs, is low in and often leads to tokenizing of those members, especially when black music is being performed (or in this case, music on black themes). Such othering is a big part of choral segregation and is not unique to black musicians. We separate and essentialize ‘ethnic’ music and look to composers of color, even those born and raised in the US, to provide that work. Non-idiomatic pieces are often overlooked in favor of music with a more ‘world music’ flair, pushing composers of color to write music that matches their ethnic backgrounds, whether it’s their preference or not.

I’ve experienced this myself. As a first-generation American of Middle Eastern ethnicity, I find this experience particularly frustrating. I can count on one hand the number of other Middle Eastern choral directors and composers I have met. I am frequently asked by strangers about choral music on Middle Eastern themes or that utilize Middle Eastern idioms, asked to pronounce or translate Arabic and Farsi, and have even been told that when I sing minor seconds, they exhibit a low, eastern tuning. (To set the record straight, I know almost nothing about Middle Eastern music theory and speak neither language of my parents, but I am decently conversational in Brazilian Portuguese.) Is my music influenced by my experience as a first-generation American and person of color who finds themselves between cultures? Absolutely. My takeaway from these type of interactions, however, is that my music training in the western classical tradition, especially the avant-garde and experimental music on which I focus, isn’t of value or interest and that I would be better served to pursue the music of ‘my culture’ than the music in which I actually specialize.

While composers of color are dominant in genre-specific groups (black composers in gospel choirs, for instance), they are disproportionately represented in concert programs of non-genre specific choirs. Referring back to the survey of Repertoire and Standards from the 2019 ACDA National Conference, composers of color only make up 14% of the total curated pieces. This includes a category called Ethnic and Multicultural music, a broad and ill-defined category that seems to include folk songs, Jewish sacred music, and gospel, among other music by people of color. This category is, I believe, an intentional outlier, and 60% of the chosen rep is from composers of color. Removing the Ethnic and Multicultural category as an outlier, only 8% of selected repertoire in all other categories was from composers of color (10% if only considering living composers). There were no recommended pieces by composers of color in both the youth and middle school choir categories.

Among visible leaders on the national choral scene, approximately 45% were women, and 25% were people of color. This number is considerably higher than the representation of women composers and composers of color in the Repertoire and Standards, but, particularly considering people of color, is markedly lower than the 40% of the national population who are people of color. It’s hard to say how this might or might not reflect the demographics of the choral field on the national level. 

Considering the intersection of ethnicity and gender only compounds the lack of representation. Looking again at the ACDA Repertoire and Standards, women of color make up only about 25% of all composers of color, making them 10% of the total composers. Among the MusicSpoke composers, there are only two women of color and none in my own company’s catalog.

Asking questions

Looking at the above information, I start to have some questions:

Why does this cultural segregation occur? Are there factors, like the tokenization mentioned above of minorities, that leave people of color discouraged from what is perceived as a white activity or push them to form choral communities of their own that feel more welcoming? Is that lack of diversity in the visible leadership of classical music part of a self-perpetuating cycle that reinforces to potential musicians of color that this genre isn’t for them?

Is such segregation even sustainable? The American League of Orchestras points out “With more than one-third of all Americans belonging to a ‘minority’ group, it is increasingly difficult to be successful without incorporating diversity in your overall organization.” Who we have in the audience will reflect who we are onstage, especially for avocational groups where the majority of the audience are the friends and family of performers. Ticket sales are a big part of supporting our ensembles, as is public funding, both of which are in jeopardy if the performing group does not engage with the population the public funding supports. 

Another, perhaps more contentious question: is the representation of women and people of color a problem in choral music? As it is now, it seems the representation of leaders in the choral world and its programming isn’t that far off from the demographics of the field as a whole. If, for instance, the percentage of composition students is accurately reflected in the professional world, then perhaps the issue to focus on is education. According to DataUSA, only a little more 50% of students to receive an undergraduate degree in composition are white. Sound and Music (a British organization) shares that the percentage of women composers is over 50% for those with the General Certificate of Secondary Education and steadily decreases the further along in education one goes. 

In terms of composer representation, it’s worth looking at our past programming, dissecting the demographics of those composers, and asking ourselves why we have programmed the way we have. Are there creative perspectives that are missing? Where are we looking for repertoire? Why have the curators picked the music that ultimately becomes available, and where else might we search? 

The data I’ve shared might not be enough to draw the definitive conclusion of systemic discrimination or pervasive unconscious bias, but it points in that direction. This series of asking ‘why’ isn’t endlessly recursive, resulting in a “turtles all the way down” situation. When I ask myself these questions, I inevitably come to the systemic racism that has structured the world of concert music that more highly values musical characteristics from the European Classical tradition. 

If the majority of choirs are truly ‘non-genre specific,’ then what happens if we re-examine our inherited values of music from the European classical tradition. How have those values defined for us what ‘good’ music is? What doors might such a re-examination open? 

Most choirs I have participated in audition for very specific kinds of skills that align with repertoire descended from the European classical tradition. Sight-singing is often highest on the list, a skill favoring those with a formal education in western classical music. Why have we selected certain musical abilities and neglected others? Do we audition a person’s ability to learn by ear? For their versatility of sound? The ability to improvise? Having such skills in our ensembles might open up new performative opportunities. 

Finally, what creative opportunities have been missed because of the influence of these unexamined values? From my perspective as a performer and composer of new and experimental music, it’s worth noting that such a reconsideration of values has been a huge part of innovation in music in the past (Cage, minimalism, etc.) and might be worth considering for our own creative evolution.

If our goal is to have the various levels of representation (particularly gender and ethnicity)  in the choral world match those of the nation, then we’ll need to look at why there are so many fewer women and people of color being represented in ‘mainstream’ choral music. Overall involvement, for instance, does not necessarily address the issue of segregation. Would a greater degree of visibility at the professional level make a difference in young musicians receiving the encouragement and mentorship they need to pursue careers in classical music? There is a question of where the responsibility lies in feeding the populations of future musicians and looking at strategies for how that can be accomplished. Education and mentorship are certainly an essential part of this equation, as are removing socio-economic barriers that disproportionately affect people of color.

Resources and suggestions for getting started

The Institute of Composer Diversity shares these guidelines for incorporating a more extensive range of representation in concert programming. What stands out to me is their suggestion to “Program to your potential audience as well as to your usual attendees,” which aligns with the previous question about audience sustainability. Their guidelines also suggest a kind of aspirational programming: it might not reflect the current state of the choral field, but by programming how we want our field to look, that is to say, if we want the creative voices in the choral world to reflect the country we live in, we can guide the evolution of our ensembles to include everyone in our community. As ensemble leaders, we decide whose music is visible, we decide which of our audience members will look at our programs and see themselves reflected in the names of the composers and the faces of those on stage.

Considering that the choral world has such an emphasis on the music of living composers, it’s interesting to note that the Institute of Composer Diversity suggests nearly 50% women composers and 50% people of color for groups that perform mostly new music. If you’re like me, your first reaction to those numbers might be deep resistance. It’s helpful to remember that the math here does not add up to 100%. Gender is not an ethnicity, and vice-versa; this is a suggestion that asks for an intersection of demographics. When I saw this suggestion from a colleague, I thought, “This seems unrealistic and looks like SO much work,” a task compounded by our national curators not yet following these recommendations. 

Outside of programming, these numbers could also be applied to the visible leadership of our ensembles, looking beyond conductors to our board members and other officers. Especially at the national level, there is a logic in having those who represent the most popular extra-curricular activity in the country look like the people they represent. There is evidence to support the idea that increased representation of minorities in leadership increases engagement of minorities in the community. It seems reasonable to me that the more one can ‘see’ themselves doing a thing by having it modeled for them, the more one feels encouraged to participate themselves. In short, representation leads to participation.

Here are some other resources for those interested in researching repertoire they might not have looked into before:

The choral world has worked hard over the last several years to address issues of inequality and disadvantage for women and people of color, and it shows. There’s a lot to be proud of in terms of how much progress has been made in the choral world during the last century. In many parts of the field, there is gender parity, and people of color are finding more representation, on the whole, than in the instrumental world. We still fall short of accurately representing who we are as a nation within the choral world, but the progress thus far has made choral music one of the more inclusive fields in classical music. Our work is not yet done. My hope is that, by looking inward at these unique aspects of diversity, by examining issues of segregation and inclusion, and by shaping our ensembles to reflect the world around us, choral music can be a model for the rest of the classical music world as we move towards a creative world that is as diverse as the population that potentially feeds its future.

Exploring Timbre in Choral Music

Full Disclosure: many of the samples I share in this article are from the See-A-Dot Music Catalog, a company for which I am the director.

Unlike many aspects of the experimental music world, choral music in the western classical realm has historically avoided employing a variety of vocal timbres in any given piece, usually defaulting to the inherited English choral cathedral tradition. By contrast, string players are readily prepared to perform a variety of sounds on their instruments from sul tasto and sul ponticello to pizzicato and scratch tones. But while this kind of experimentation with sound used to be unusual in the choral world, it is now becoming more common.

In choral music, timbral varieties are generally confined to specific styles and genres.

It’s not that choral singing as a whole does not employ a variety of timbres: singers sing differently in a gospel choir than when singing in an Anglican church; musical theater and opera choruses ask for very different vocal production, and that’s just sticking to the most common styles in the United States. If we back up even further and look at ensemble singing from a global perspective, Bulgarian choirs use an entirely different timbre from singers in West Africa, Sardinia, and India. But these timbral varieties are generally confined to specific styles and genres of music. Modern recording and communication technology has brought a new level of awareness and exposure to vocal timbre to a large group of people, and there is an increasing interest in playing with the sound possibilities of the voice influenced by music of other cultures—from yodeling to Mongolian throat and overtone singing. I believe the future of choral music will embrace timbre as an integral component of sound making.

I give credit to Meredith Monk for pioneering music for vocal ensembles that focuses on the different sounds of the voice, perhaps above and beyond the individual notes and rhythms. For example, Dolmen Music has an entire section where the soprano line gradually changes from a more open, “traditional” sound to a very bright nasal technique, and that transition in timbre is the main driving force behind the drama of that section.

Like the above example by Monk, much of this choral music is wordless, putting the focus on the voice itself as an instrument, rather than the musical interpretation of the text. Here is an example from the composer Toby Twining, who is also a versatile vocal performer familiar with a variety of techniques. Twining treats the voice like an instrument and incorporates a slew of different styles and techniques into a single composition.

While the piece certainly isn’t easy, it has been performed by college and community choirs around the country. Twining has also recently written new pieces for Roomful of Teeth, an ensemble popularizing the incorporation of techniques from global singing styles into Western music. While most of the music written for them is extremely specialized and likely not performable by large choirs, avocational singers, or even most semi-pro ensembles, there is a growing body of work that incorporates a variety of timbres and techniques in such a way that is accessible to avocational and student singers.

There’s a growing body of work incorporating a variety of timbres that is accessible to avocational and student singers.

I’d find it silly to not include my own most performed piece for choir, which is an example of timbral exploration for choirs. Hymn to Aethon uses four different timbres, ranging from dark to bright sounds, and it’s the use of timbres and rhythmic groove that provide the bulk of the aural interest, not the harmonic content which mostly revolves around melodies and open fifths.

I believe what contributes to the popularity of this piece is the relatively simple harmonies (it’s only 4 parts with almost no divisi) and straightforward rhythms making it relatively easy to perform without compromising its interest. I’ve taught this piece to unauditioned college groups and professional ensembles, and in both instances, the rehearsal process relies on rote learning, vocal play, and listening rather than note learning, blend, and lyrical interpretation. I think exploring vocal timbres will play an increasingly important role in the future of choral music as a way to expand the expressive palette available to choirs without relying on the harmonic content of the work.

Giving Singers Creative Control

Full Disclosure: many of the samples I share in this article are from the See-A-Dot Music Catalog, a company for which I am the director.

What happens when performers can exercise some level of agency?

My usual experience in the choral world is one with a strict hierarchy: composers create works, conductors interpret them the best they can to try to deliver the composers’ intentions, and the singers do what they are told. But what happens when a piece makes room for individual performers to exercise some level of agency over the work? As a conductor, I find presenting my younger singers with indeterminacy an amazing teaching moment where my students break through to new levels of understanding. For instance, when presented with a moment of free choice-making in a piece, my singers’ first concern is almost always that they are doing it wrong. Teachers and conductors alike emphasize accuracy, intonation, and making sure students “know the notes.” When given a piece of music that is less interested in “getting it right” and more interested in giving performers creative agency, it can cause a great deal of consternation in rehearsals.

Composers can open up a whole new world of sound and textural possibilities through the use of indeterminate sections in a piece, whereby individual voices break away from others in their section and make creative choices on their own (usually within given parameters). This technique is common in instrumental music, but less so in choral scores. (Perhaps we’ve sung the chorus “All We Like Sheep” one too many times.) The degree of indeterminacy and individual choice can vary quite a bit, from pieces that present strict guidelines to pieces that include undefined symbols that are left solely to the performer’s interpretation.

This example, from Karen Siegel’s Maskil of David, shows a more constrained form of indeterminacy where each line is given a short phrase that is performed individually by each person in the section, though with the same sense of tempo and meter.

Another example, from Drew Corey’s piece Of All Of Them: the first, the last uses a similar technique, but without the strict rhythmic component. In the passage below, we have a few different events happening simultaneously. First, there is a warm harmonic background texture provided by the middle voices, created from repeating notes or phrases, sung independently by each performer in the section. Then, there are rhythmic and melodic unison gestures guided by the conductor and indicated with vertical dotted lines to show their simultaneity. The last phrase in the upper voice, however, is a solo part and is rhythmically independent from what occurs beneath it. While the conductor gives cues for the unison moments in the lower parts, the soloists freely sing the melody in whatever time they choose.

Performers who are actively part of the creative process connect with each other and the music in entirely new ways.

Similar to what I had discussed in my previous article on New Polyphony in new choral music, this compositional technique opens up a wide palette of textural opportunities, polyrhythms, and dense harmonies that might not have been as possible or easily achieved if strictly notated. More importantly, there is a level of engagement and presence that such techniques require from the singers. When performers are actively part of the creative process, they connect with each other and the music in entirely new ways.

The New Polyphony

Full Disclosure: many of the samples I share in this article are from the See-A-Dot Music Catalog, a company for which I am the director.

The choral composer’s concern is often one of accessibility.

A few years ago I attended a choral conference, and during one presentation on new music an attendee raised his hand and asked, “Is polyphony in choral music dead?” He was referring to the increased use of homophonic textures in choral music, which I believe comes from composers wanting to create increasingly dense harmonic textures to fit in with other mediums in the contemporary music world. The choral composer’s concern is often one of accessibility, since the majority of ensembles in the USA are avocational groups.

I don’t believe polyphony is dead, but I do think the future of choral music will embrace techniques that preserve the horizontal approach to writing, while maintaining accessibility and not falling into anachronistic musical styles like traditional tonal polyphony. Such techniques are already arising in today’s choral music. Our traditional interest in polyphonic textures and increased harmonic complexity can, for instance, be satisfied with thick layers of otherwise tonal material. When done well, these layers create dense, multi-faceted textures, without demanding a high level of virtuosity from the singers. Instead, these techniques will engage choristers as thoughtful and musical artists.

Layering melodic cells offset from one another is reminiscent of rounds and canons.

One technique that mimics the horizontal focus and function of polyphony, without quite as much attention to the consequent vertical harmonies, is the layering of melodic cells offset from one another. This is reminiscent of using rounds and canons, but instead of using the same material repeated in every part, each voice has its own repeated phrase. While the technique can be used in combination with other types of writing or just in specific sections of a composition, it can also stand on its own as the sole organizational idea behind a piece. This is seen in minimalist instrumental compositions such as Terry Riley’s famous In C, but is also found in vocal ensemble music and vocal adaptations of instrumental tunes.

Meredith Monk is a pioneer of this technique, which can be found in one of her most popular works for chorus, Panda Chant II. Panda Chant II uses a series of short cells, most in different meters, that are layered additively one on top of another sequentially, creating a dense wall of sound. Here’s a performance of the piece by the San Francisco Girls Chorus:

What I love about this piece as a conductor is how simple it is to teach to the singers. I have taught this piece to a variety of groups from traditional community-style choirs to workshops for dancers with little to no singing experience. Other recent compositions for choir, like Bettina Sheppard’s Love is Anterior to Life, use the same technique, but with a more familiar notation and choral structure. In this piece, each voice is given a melodic phrase, anywhere between one and eight beats in length, which are layered on top of one another creating an undulating texture series of phrases.

Pieces like this make for a great first rehearsal “win,” yet still remain musically engaging through the rehearsal process. However, while singers can generally memorize their parts after a few minutes of repetition, the simplicity of the piece emphasizes how ensemble listening is what makes or breaks a successful performance. It’s not enough in a piece like this to get your own part right; engaging with the how your part fits in with the others and maintaining a sense of meter, blend, and balance are key to its success.

These examples use layering as their sole method of composition, and this idea of combining various repeated phrases of different lengths can also be used to great effect without organizing them additively. Ethan Gans-Morse’s Kyrie is a similarly constructed minimalist piece, yet instead of layering each phrase on top of another in sequential order, these cells act as base musical material, which are combined through different permutations to create a narrative flow. The effect is a relentless and haunting experience.

These are just a few examples of ways to explore this idea. It can be a creative and effective way to bring a different kind of polyphonic texture to your work without increasing the harmonic and rhythmic difficulty of the individual lines, thus making the piece more accessible to avocational singers and students.

 

The Future of Choral Music

Here’s a common experience I have as a publisher of choral music: I’ll receive a piece with all the hallmarks of a composer who knows what they are doing. The piece is well engraved, follows the rules of voice leading, is idiomatically written for the voice—and is dull. But then I’ll do a little sleuthing and find samples of this same composer’s instrumental music, which will often by contrast be lively, engaging, and innovative. Nothing drives me battier than to see this separation between the two mediums, and I’ll often write an impassioned reply to the composer asking why they are so apparently willing to stifle their creative voice when it comes to choral music. Nine out of ten times, they respond with something akin to “thank you for giving me the permission to write the music I want to write.” These experiences have lead me to the belief that 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.

Highly chromatic or atonal music is rarely written for choirs.

It’s no shocker to say that the choral and instrumental worlds have evolved quite separately over the past century. Highly chromatic or atonal music is rarely written for choirs, and the deep exploration of timbre found in instrumental pieces from later in the 20th century has mostly been ignored in favor of the pervasive choral sound inherited from the English cathedral tradition. Not only have the two worlds evolved separately, but their cultural importance is weighed differently as well. Using the Pulitzer Prize as one limited metric, it’s worth noting that, until The Little Match Girl Passion in 2008, an a cappella choral piece had never won the prize. This fact is confounding if we consider that choral music is thesingle most popular activity among adults in America. It is estimated that 32.5 million adults in America sing with a choir on a weekly basis and that ensemble singing is the most popular arts activity among adults in the United States. While the majority of choirs are religious or school ensembles, it is conservatively estimated that 12,000 of US choirs are community and professional groups. That’s 10 times the amount of community and professional orchestras in the United States. It’s entirely possible that the Pulitzer committee shares the same perspective as much of the new music world, that choral literature is not in the same “high art” category as its orchestral counter-part. And to be fair, the largely avocational nature of choirs contributes to the cultural sense that, as a whole, it need not be taken as seriously as instrumental music.

Choral music performers are hungry for new types of exploration.

Thankfully, choral music in the 21st century is undergoing a cultural renaissance. More and more ensembles are bringing together musical innovation in the choral world, and ensembles are performing music that points composers in a new direction. These composers are exploring and expanding what is possible in the choral medium without being stymied by the avocational nature of many of the performers. There has, perhaps, never been a better time to make a national, and even global, impact with choral music. The choral world is one of the most accessible avenues for the public to stay connected with “classical” or “concert” music, especially when it comes to the work of living choral composers, where there is still a mass appeal from the young to the elderly. The medium is hugely popular, it is being taken more seriously than it has for the past hundred years, and the performers themselves are hungry for new types of exploration.  There is a wonderful opportunity to use choral music as a way to expose a wide swath of Americans to the adventurous side of today’s new music conversation by getting people involved as performers, not just passive listeners.

In the series of articles that will be posted here in the coming weeks, I will explore: how the choral world is changing artistically, logistically, and creatively; what factors into that change; and where we all might be headed. I’ll also describe how technology is changing the social and business world of publishing and what methods composers can employ to bring experimental musical ideas to a wide demographic of people without alienating the majority of avocational singers in the choral world.