Tag: choral music

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė: Unexplainable Places

SoundLives Episode 24: Žibuoklė Martinaitytė. (NewMusicBox presented by New Music USA)

Growing up in Soviet-era Lithuania, where people were often afraid to express their real feelings, Žibuoklė Martinaitytė discovered early on that music was safer than language and that it could enable her to express her innermost feelings without self censoring. It ultimately led her on the path to becoming a composer whose music is performed all over the world.  Although Žibuoklė now divides her time between a democratic Lithuania and the United States, her formative experiences have led her to explore a sonic vocabulary, which though frequently inspired by nature and always deeply emotive, is completely abstract and open to multiple interpretations.

“Music is enough; not only enough, it’s more than enough,”  she explained to me during a Zoom conversation last month. “It surpasses words; it surpasses the meaning of words because it can go to unknown places and unexplainable places. The beauty of music is that if you are telling some story, some inner story that you don’t want to reveal the details of, you could still tell the story and the listener would relate to that story. … [T]hey create their own story in their minds because nobody’s telling them what to think. But they have the emotional components that come up, like physiological and psychological reactions to the sounds that they hear.”

This approach to narrative is an ideal modus operandi when creating an orchestral composition or a piece of chamber music, and Žibuoklė has made significant contributions to both of these idioms which have resonated with audiences both in the concert hall and on recordings. Horizons, a 2013 symphonic tour-de-force, has been performed in multiple cities and has been recorded twice. Starkland’s recording of her enhanced piano trio In Search of Lost Beauty was described by Richard Whitehouse in Gramophone magazine as “one of the most significant releases thus far” on that label, praising her music’s “potency.” Last season, soon after the Finnish label Ondine released the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra’s recording of her haunting 2019 Saudade, a work inspired by the death of her father as well as her immigration to the USA, the work received a performance by the New York Philharmonic causing Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times to describe her orchestral writing as “intriguingly agitated.” Bang on a Can’s record label Cantaloupe Music recently released her 2020-21 Hadal Zone, an immersive sonic experience for a quintet of low-ranged instruments and electronics evoking the bottom of the ocean. But how does this play out when composing vocal music?

In our talk, Žibuoklė described her reticence to use words when she first received a commission to write a work for the choir Jauna Muzika in 2010 from the annual Gaida Festival, the most prominent new music festival in Lithuania. After feeling more drawn to the vowels of words in certain texts than the actual words, she ultimately decided to eschew text and set only vowels.

“When I made that choice of not using language, I felt, once again, very liberated,” she admitted, which makes perfect sense considering her life’s experiences. “Music was the way to have that freedom and music was the way to express myself in an absolutely free way and nobody could stop me from that. … That sense of freedom, I think, stayed with me to this day. That’s why music is so precious to me. And that’s why I don’t want to use narratives and text because I feel they would put me into some kind of perceptional prison.”

That first choral work, The Blue of Distance, which was subsequently performed and recorded by the San Francisco-based choir Volti, has led to two others thus far: Chant des Voyelles, which was commissioned by Volti in 2018, and Aletheia, a 2022 work created in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which was premiered by the Latvian Radio Choir during last year’s edition of the Baltic Music Days. All of these pieces were without words although that does not prevent her from conveying a visceral narrative, as she acknowledged in describing Aletheia. “I was thinking … about voice being the first and the very last instrument that we might have in our lives and all those people in the war, how they still have their voices with them and they could express themselves in this rage or scream, even as they are being killed.”

However, Žibuoklė confessed that the piece she is working on right now, a half-hour song cycle for female voice and orchestra, will actually have words. “Yes, I know, it’s quite unusual for me, but I must say I’m enjoying working with it, although I have mixed feelings about how I feel about text. But I will insert some vowel singing without text because I can’t go without it. But it’s this text by this very, very old female poet from more than 4,000 years ago called Enheduanna. … It’s fascinating how the poetry that was composed such a long time ago still contains the same subject matters that are very much today’s topics, like war and migration of people and environmental concerns and catastrophes and gender bending identities. It’s just incredible how all the issues remain the same over and over.”

The End of the World? We’ll Compose It.

We can’t consider what new music will look like in ten years without asking, first, what the world will look like. As I write this, here in the United States, current events are trending towards the bleak. Maybe I check the news too often, but it feels like the last few years have been little else but bleak. Mass shootings continue on, unchecked, and the legacy of our country’s racist history remains deeply entrenched in, well, everything. Here in California, we face another season of fires and drought, and a statewide housing crisis. Worldwide, our climate continues to change and degrade with increasingly deadly consequences.

I’m not a political analyst or a climatologist; I don’t hold a doctorate, just a master’s degree in Music Composition. Far be it from me, then, to forecast what the next ten years will hold. But as I consider the best and worst possible outcomes for our trajectory and the role music might play, anxiety clouds my vision. Trying to make sense of an abstract future, I imagine a steep drop off. A cliff. A black hole.

What role does music play in all of it, now and in the future? And, on a more optimistic note, what about the music being written now? How is it already helping?

In normal times (Have we ever lived in normal times? Has anyone?) I want music that surprises and delights me. I want music that uses notes and rhythm and lyrics and form and texture and timing to challenge and reframe my perspective. I want to leave every concert altered in some alchemical way.

And even in the worst of times—if, say, climate change brings us temperatures better suited to Death Valley than Los Angeles, or if my country halts its slow progress towards equity and equality and instead regresses to the oppressive value systems of the 1950s—I imagine I’d want the same. Music that surprises and delights, still, but with an accurate, biting fierceness. Music that functions as an emotional tool and a rally for action and a safe haven—not all at once, but in different pieces by different artists. Music that is sometimes an escape, other times a mirror. Now and in ten years, I want to hear this music performed live as often as possible. I want to bask in it until it lives in the very marrow of me, reshaping me, readying me for whatever comes next.

This summer, I taught on faculty at Choral Arts Initiative’s Premiere Project Institute, which brings composers together for world premieres and a week of discussing the business and creative practicalities of composing for chorus. In many of the fifteen works premiered there, I found my own anxieties reflected back to me: music as mirror. Patricia Wallinga’s The Danger set government warnings about long-term radiation: instructions for future generations, telling them to avoid permanent nuclear waste sites. David Walters’s Paradise recognized the devastating effects of the Paradise Fire in Northern California, setting a former resident’s account of visiting the aftermath of the fire. Cooper Baldwin’s Libera Me (as embers singe the tide) wove Baldwin’s own words with a traditional Latin Requiem Mass text and excerpts from 2022 IPCC Report on Climate Change. The resulting piece pleads for a better future than the one we’re facing.

Other recurring themes echoed throughout the concert: staggering responses to personal and collective grief, as well as the desire for a reciprocated love. These were just as welcome as the works about climate change. After all, if we linger in despair for too long—or if we listen to nothing but one musical panic attack after another—we’ll burn out, too exhausted and stressed to accomplish much of anything, let alone create more art.

But when daily horrors are unavoidable, a well-crafted piece about anxiety or grief isn’t a source of exhaustion but a voice that whispers or shouts: You’re not alone. In Los Angeles, whenever I wake up to my blinds shaking and windows rattling, I turn to Twitter first and search “earthquake.” I want to validate my experience and make sure I wasn’t the only one who felt the trembling. There’s comfort in the knowledge that we’re collectively moving through the same fears.

In the next ten years, I believe we’ll need this communal recognition more than ever. We’ll need a musical community that offers reassurances and comforts, however small. I think of partnered grief—how a small, strange advantage to grieving with someone else is that you can trade off who is emotionally incapacitated and who is merely numb. One person reheats dinner while the other sobs on the couch. The next day, maybe, you switch roles. It may be naïve of me to think that music can hold space in a similar same way: a container for sorrow. A vessel to hold our despair, so we don’t have to carry all of it at once. But even if music can’t provide this emotional support, a community of musicians can.

My spouse and I recently decided not to have children, in part because of so many unknowns about our shifting climate—what it will look like in ten, twenty, fifty years. But whenever I’m around younger composers, at a conference or on faculty for a festival or guest-teaching at a university, I feel hopeful. I see so many of us searching for meaning and hope and accuracy and evolution. I see so many distinct ways to create our musical safe havens, our pointed critiques, our unclouded mirrors.

In an ideal world, of course, we’ll reverse the effects of climate change in the next ten years. We’ll all agree on basic human rights. We won’t ever have to carve a path through our worst fears in order to make music.

But even in the bleakest possible outcome, I’d still want to feel recognized and known. So much of the music being written today already provides that solace and recognition. I may not have faith in our world’s ability to fix what is broken, but I have faith in artists. I have faith in those who see what’s crumbling and write about it instead of turning away. I have faith in musicians, period. I don’t anticipate that changing any time in the next ten years.

Alice Parker: Feeling the Same Emotion at the Same Time


It is difficult to think of anyone more loved by the musicians with whom she works than composer, arranger, conductor, and teacher Alice Parker who has been a fixture of the choral music community for eight decades. Since becoming an arranger for the legendary Robert Shaw Chorale when she was fresh out of college in the late 1940s, Parker has devoted herself almost exclusively to music for the voice, since she strongly believes that people find their common ground through singing together.

During an inspiring conversation over Zoom, Parker explains how our lives become enriched when we can share a communal music-making experience.

When we sing something perfectly lovely together … and it really clicks, you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.

Sadly though, as she also points out, singing is no longer something that most people do: “As a society, as a culture, we don’t sing. … [W]e simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.”

Music has been a presence in Alice Parker’s life since growing up in Boston in the 1920s, attending concerts by the Boston Pops as a little girl, attending an African American church sing while staying with her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina, and hearing African-American lyric tenor Roland Hayes sing spirituals in a concert in the 1930s. Soon after she began taking piano lessons, she started to compose her own music, though her teacher had to find another instructor to help her write it down. But Parker doesn’t think that made her special.

“The ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift,” she claims. “I think everybody would if they were encouraged to. And I was encouraged to, right from the beginning.”

Parker formally studied composition at Smith College before studying choral conducting at the Juilliard School, deciding to switch majors because she did not want to compose the music they wanted her to compose.

“They were trying to get me to write 12-tone music,” she remembers. “I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn’t do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong in the sense that what really lasts is not necessarily tonal music, but modal music. Somehow or other, that peculiar mixture of whole and half steps is much closer to musical truth than any system that is drawn out of equal half steps or equal whole steps. That’s too much. Henry Ford making everything exactly match. Things in nature don’t exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.”

Perhaps the most tell-tale sign of Parker’s lifelong humility is her devotion to creating music for and with community groups rather than for big celebrities. She has no interest in writing music unless it serves a purpose, as she explains:

If someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don’t see any purpose for it. In a church, there’s loads of purpose. It’s all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you’re in the good schools, there’s lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there’s almost always purpose.

Although she was writing music up until 2020 (you can hear a performance of her glorious hymn “On the Common Ground” which is embedded in the transcript below), her deteriorating eyesight has made it impossible for her to either enter notes on staff paper or even on a computer. But she’s enjoying spending time with her four great grandchildren and has become obsessed with Wordle.

Dale Trumbore: Recognizing Anxiety, Creating with Empathy

A series of pencil drawn images of possible covers for Staying Composed by Dale Trombore

Composers and best friends Dale Trumbore and Julia Adolphe discuss living with anxiety disorders and writing during a pandemic. Dale is the author of Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety & Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life. They discuss Dale’s choral works written specifically for Zoom, her experience with anti-anxiety medication, and how she addresses unhealthy thought patterns in order to return to her creativity.

Choral Singing on the Brink of Delta

Concinnity singing with masks on at Twain House in May 2021

The resurgence of positivity rates and return of mask mandates in recent weeks has become a huge tug on the loose thread that has been holding choral directors and singers from unraveling during this pandemic.  Concert cancellations are likely to commence in the coming weeks and we should be concerned for the musicians and the small choral art organizations who support them. Even if choral music may not be your jam, over 54 million Americans sing in a choir and an even greater number enjoy watching and listening to choirs, ensembles, and a cappella groups. You may even have shared one of those inspiring virtual choirs videos during the height of the pandemic isolation. A number of choral ensembles have a mission greater than cultivating singing, such as creating community for marginalized groups or a vehicle for exploring social justice. Thus, the latest COVID trend is just one more reminder of the trauma that has perforated the choral landscape these past 18 months and decimated many small community choirs. The general public is likely unaware of the carnage or how to help.

From the start of COVID-19, choir became labeled as unsafe, with singers being inappropriately branded as “super-spreaders”. This admonishment really only presented singing groups with two options during the pandemic: go dark and wait out the storm or reimagine choir by transitioning to a virtual model. Neither option was desirable as a hiatus bred despondency for singers and virtualizing choir accelerated burnout for choir directors. But, the choral world stepped up regardless and gave tirelessly during a tumultuous time to soothe and offer connection through music by sharing it virtually. The rate at which choir directors became sound engineers/video editors by proxy in 2020 to keep their singers and community connected virtually was an impressive feat of strength. Choristers braved all types of weather and nature to safely sing and record outside. Directors employed complicated formulas to calculate air exchange rates and hepa filter strength to gauge the safety of  inside rehearsal spaces. Some musicians even harnessed long forgotten sewing skills to produce special singers’ masks for their ensembles.

From the start of COVID-19, choir became labeled as unsafe, with singers being inappropriately branded as “super-spreaders”.

All of these impressive undertakings were often accomplished with little to no financial support for these choirs, which was especially true for small community choirs and choral arts organizations who were not eligible to receive state or federal aid. It is akin to a tree still managing to grow upward when the earth has been washed away underneath. The branches continue to extend skyward, but the possibility of the tree being able to survive for long without soil foundation is debatable. 

Photo by Sarah Kaufold (2021)

Nevertheless, many choirs innovated, collaborated, and stepped out of their comfort zones in 2020 to keep the greater community engaged while singers quietly mourned the loss of “choir” from behind their home computer screens. Let’s face it: choral singing while wearing a face mask, singing outside, or recording virtually is not a particularly enjoyable endeavor for the singer.  This type of choir fits into the “better-than-nothing” category or checks the “it-makes-our-audience-happy” box.  Many choirs managed to endure, but at a significant financial and emotional cost.  It is no wonder that after navigating through the stages of grief since March 2020, many choral musicians found themselves settling into the acceptance stage of the grieving process toward the end of the year—life without choir.

Many choirs innovated, collaborated, and stepped out of their comfort zones in 2020 to keep the greater community engaged.

But then came the light at the end of the tunnel in 2021: vaccines. Virtual rehearsals over Zoom or outside/masked choir sessions concluded with the gleeful countdown of when the singers would be eligible for their shot. The possibilities of a performing season for 2021-22 seemed within reach. The vaccines did allow for a return of singing safely for the vaccinated, but only for a very short time in the early summer. We fell prey to hope that vaccines would open the door to our concert halls, but any plans for a permanent return of communal singing were dashed on the wave of the Delta variant.  If we did not express trepidation before these virus variants took hold in the US, you can bet that choral directors and singers everywhere are calculating how much more disappointment and letdown their hearts can take. Choir is not only our livelihood, it is deeply connected to our identity, health, and emotional well-being. Planning in earnest for the return of choir has become wrought with apprehension because we now know how quickly it can be taken away. Yehuda HaLevi once wrote, “Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.“ Choral singing has become capricious.

As we stand on the precipice of the 2021-22 concert season, the anxiety and unease about the future of the choral landscape is palpable. The difficulty extends beyond losing the opportunity to sing together… once again. The revenue streams we had anticipated with a return of in-person performances this season to keep our choirs afloat are uncertain once more. For many small choral organizations, ticket sales and donations to support performing activities are the main source of revenue. If performing is not available… you can surmise the outcome. Also, there are significant costs associated with creating virtual content; however, virtual concerts do not yield much in the way of revenue.  As for balancing the ventilation calculus in our rehearsal spaces and concert halls, the process and equipment is cost-prohibitive for most choirs under normal circumstances let alone after 18 months of barely scraping by. Many small ensembles rent rehearsal and performance space, which compounds the issue. As previously mentioned, most small choral organizations did not receive any state or federal pandemic aid because they do not have full-time employees nor own a venue, both of which do little to measure the impact these choirs have on their community. Although grant opportunities did exist, not everyone is chosen to receive the funding and each application requires herculean effort. 

Most small choral organizations did not receive any state or federal pandemic aid because they do not have full-time employees nor own a venue.

For many choral musicians, the thought of another virtual choir season in the wake of the Delta variant conjures feelings of dread.  The amount of hours and funding a choir director needs to invest to create one 3-minute remotely recorded virtual choir video is considerable. There is an added cost of procuring a sync license per song to place the video online, which mounts quickly, especially for those choirs committed to sharing music by living composers. In addition, the process to create the virtual choir is stressful on most choral singers as they need to sing alone, which is exposing and time consuming to get the perfect take. 

Singing in a mask to record the choir to share virtually is a possible solution, but masks are uncomfortable, vocally tiring, and hinder the choral sound.  Specialty singers’ masks exist to mitigate these issues, but they are pricey (multiply $20 by 40 singers to get an idea).  Recording outside without masks is possible, but comes with a long list of vocal production constraints and numerous recording difficulties (the wind is much louder than you think.) Most unfortunately, some choir members have recently professed they will not commit to another season of singing in a mask, virtually, or outside. The confessions of these dedicated singers suggests a trauma response to having the craft they love taken away again and provided a substitute that offers reduced benefit to the musician. If producing virtual content does not yield much, if any, revenue for the choirs and the process is not as fulfilling for the singers, what is the purpose?  The benefit of virtual content is to continue that which choirs have cultivated all along – connection, collaboration, beauty, and hope.  How do we continue with exhausted singers, directors, and coffers?

Masks are uncomfortable, vocally tiring, and hinder the choral sound.

It is as if we have reached a choral impasse in the wake of impending virus variant waves. As a society, we need the essence of choir to help evoke community and hope. Directors and choral organizations want to financially support their professional singers.  But, forging ahead for singers and community choirs is colored by trauma and compounded by financial fears. Many choral directors are currently managing their exhaustion as they desperately rework the upcoming 2021-22 season to be safe for singers and audience members. Choristers are weighing the emotional cost of virtual participation or singing in masks or outside while still working through the grief of losing choir.  In addition to considering the emotional component, choir directors and boards are calculating the extensive financial costs of the now ever-changing choral landscape.  Many choirs have committed to adapting, but may not survive the next onslaught without significant support from the community and considerable additional funding. Choirs want to offer connection for the singers, share music with the greater community, and financially support their professional musicians this next season.  But, to be brutally honest, community choirs cannot do it without additional funding, especially from local and state municipalities. The good news is that we can all be part of the solution to this problem: donate to your local choral organizations and contact your local governments requesting they dedicate funding to the arts. Alleviating some of the financial burden of sustaining choir through this next season would be the easiest way to support your local community choir.  Help replace some of the nutrient “soil” washed away with the pandemic so the communal singing in our communities can endure.

Sounding and Writing Good: Composer Ethics When Writing for Children

Children blowing large bubbles in a public square in Prague.

By conventional classical music wisdom, high schoolers should not sing Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria. Their voices haven’t developed fully yet, they likely don’t have a lot of proper training, and probably don’t have enough musicianship to perform such a piece well. The Queen of the Night’s aria is a “good” piece of music, and therefore “good” performances of it are only achievable by someone truly skilled and equally “good”, but not a high schooler. Even on top of that, it is said that this aria would do harm to a high school singer’s health and training. They shouldn’t sing it, and moreover, they can’t sing it, which is to say that they could never sing it well. “It” is a good piece of music, not worthy of teenagers.

Following the line of logic where they can’t sing truly “good” music, it seems children should and can only sing “bad” music.

But then what should those high schoolers sing? What should even younger children sing? Following the line of logic where they can’t sing truly “good” music, it seems they should and can only sing “bad” music. Pop music maybe, which, to some people is bad music already. They should sing music that is “simple”, “easy”, “short”, or “fun”. However, this mentality poses an interesting question for composers tasked with writing music for children. If we are trained to write “good” music, how should we write for children?

There is a lot more discussion in the world of new music and in particular in classical academic spaces about how to write for “skilled” musicians. Musicians that are our peers in terms of education and perceived ability. If you were to ask any adult composer, they would probably say that they know more about music than any child does. Therefore, in a situation in which they write for children, there’s a way of looking at things where these subsequent pieces would be “lesser-than” compared to their “good” pieces – that children inhibit their full compositional prowess from coming to light. I think this is the assumption made by a lot of adult composers and directors and it is quite an ambitious assumption.

Many common assumptions that go along with writing music for children constitute terrible breaches in composer ethics that do incredible harm to marginalized children.

My belief is that many common assumptions that go along with writing music for children constitute terrible breaches in composer ethics that do incredible harm to marginalized children. These assumptions position children’s performance ability in negative terms (e.g. a high schooler can’t sing Queen of the Night). Assumptions like children being immature, innocent, or pure. Assumptions like “children’s performances cannot be as affecting as performances by the masters.” Assuming that children need adult care or that they need to be brought into the folds of classical music “for their own benefit.” I believed this last part once but then I was forced to sing in a men’s choir and be seen as a man in front of an entire state’s worth of choir directors – I felt like vomiting. Then, I was put in choir rehearsals where my back was so stiff and my breath painfully caught in my throat out of fear and panic. Beyond feelings of alienation or neglect, the results of others acting unethically caused physical pain in my body.

Children are assumed to always be immature, innocent, and pure.

So let’s look at those assumptions. Children are assumed to always be immature, innocent, and pure based on narratives used by patriarchy and white supremacy to make arguments that children (read: white children) need to be protected above all else. That alone is enough to destabilize this assumption, but as another counterpart to this, I think about children held prisoner within ICE detention camps or children that went to a protest recently and got tear gassed by police. These children have likely been through more than most people reading these words; are they really only capable of singing about rainbows and sunshine? Turning to notions that children’s musical performances are less impactful than “good”, “professional” performances, I am immediately struck by how many stories I’ve heard about parents crying upon seeing their children perform. I think those feelings should be recognized and valued, not written off.

Lastly, let’s look at the assumption that kids need us adults. Need us for what? Children’s music education is so often positioned as essentially “good”, that it can only benefit children. But why should our “rational” or “masterpiece” music be in their lives instead of, say, the pop music they might already listen to? Why do they need training in order to someday, hopefully (if they’re lucky and talented and work hard), perform that “good” music? It’s a complicated question, but there is so much more to be had in earnestly asking this instead of making assumptions and ignoring it. I’m sure that kids already find plenty of musical gratification in pop music; so why do they need Mozart, or any number of well-regarded classical composers? (Or us for that matter.)

Four children, whose faces are not visible, standing in a line

Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash

For better or for worse, we composers are in a position of power over the children we write for because we get to answer those questions. Not them. So, like a surgeon having power over a comatose patient, we can do serious damage if we neglect or refuse to care for the people left to our personal whims.

Composers are in a position of power over the children we write for because we get to answer those questions.

Most of this article focuses on vocal music. This is because the combination of words and music makes acting unethically much, much easier. However, the principals I lay out here apply to all music written for children. Instrumental music can also carry a lot of meaning that creates unethical situations. For a short, hypothetical example of an ethical breach, in the case of writing a band piece for a school where most of the students are children of color, think about the ethics of writing a patriotic military march. The assumptions that you would be making here are that: a) these students do already or should feel pride in our country; b) that that feeling is undeniably a good thing; and c) that that’s a feeling your audience wants to feel. The resulting consequences are asking children of color (on your behalf and without consent) to glorify a military that has a history of murdering people that look just like them.

For an extended example, let’s specifically turn our attention towards high school women’s choruses. Of the contemporary repertoire available to women’s choruses, there is a staggering amount of sexist love songs (for examples, see Ron Nelson’s “He’s Gone Away” or David N. Childs’ “The Kiss”) – songs that position womanhood as directly related to love, songs that have the choir sing from the perspective of the man who is attracted to them, songs that remove all sense of selfhood (Patricia O’Toole wrote an article about this in the Dec 1998 issue of the ACDA’s Choral Journal).

Of the contemporary repertoire available to women’s choruses, there is a staggering amount of sexist love songs.

These love songs bring up a whole host of ethical questions even when we are just thinking about gender and age. Why do we, as adults, feel the need to create situations in which minors profess being swept away by the whims of love? Why do we, as adults, feel gratification on seeing children act out existence in a sexual framework? Why, as it so often is the case, do we choose really old poetry almost exclusively written by white people as our models of “good” love? Why should these songs make up most of the women’s chorus repertoire?

Let’s even go beyond that to the next logical step and think about the girls in these choirs that are attracted to other girls. They are not attracted to men in any way, so why should they be forced to sing about loving a man? By writing such music, we are literally putting words into their mouths that they won’t and could never mean. We are asking them to pretend that they are straight in a medium that promises “authentic” expression and communication. From the composer’s point of view, if we don’t consider the very likely possibility that not everyone in a women’s chorus is straight, we are not allowing those queer girls to give voice to their experiences. We miss the chance to allow these girls to feel good in their attraction and instead ask them to lie.

There are a couple of possible counter arguments here. One, queer people play straight characters in plays and musicals all the time. The key difference here is that children auditioning for theatre productions choose to do that – in normative choirs, children have no say about what music they are asked to sing. On top of that, theatre is explicitly disconnected from the actors’ personal lives. Choir music does not make the same claims. (See “Hive of Frightened Bees” by Andrea Ramsey and “Ner Ner” by Jake Runestad for examples.) Two, there’s a possible argument that the historical canon of “good” love poems are usually straight themselves, so we don’t really have a choice but to write straight love songs. But honestly, I don’t care about valuing “our” history when doing so can do violence to marginalized children. I care about kids more in this case because they are alive.

Furthering this women’s-chorus-love-song example, since most poets of these love poems are white (Look up Sara Teasdale for a popular example), these songs privilege the actions and standards of what white colonialism deems good, pure, and acceptable about love. For example, take the stock image of a white woman wistfully watching a man from afar while waxing poetically about the surrounding land we white people stole and that, in the present day, is most easily accessed by us. If music can only benefit kids, can only be “good”, this stock example shows that the benefit being talked about here is unquestioning assimilation of those kids into a society built upon colonialism and white supremacy. Ethically speaking, there is no way to justify that in a way that shows that we are doing good by the children who actually take the burden of performing this kind of music.

So what should you do instead? Perhaps you find poetry where a woman speaks of loving a woman or structure your piece in such a way that allows for any pronoun to be substituted in so that all attractions may be accounted for. I think this can be a great solution if you are writing for a very small choir where all singers can discuss and actively consent to this. But large choirs will still not get that chance – and anyways – positioning love as inherently tied to gender is a very heteronormative way of thinking about things in the first place. So in this particular case where maybe you want to write a queer love song, don’t focus on gender at all. Focus on material things that actually might be a part of anybody’s experience of romance, even children’s: the deep-felt meaning communicated in holding hands with your lovers, sharing a meal, waking up in bed one day and realizing that yes I like them. Maybe tea or fruit or water (see Dale Trumbore’s If I Say Yes).

Focus on material things that actually might be a part of anybody’s experience of romance, even children’s.

Here is where justice-driven composer ethics takes us. Consent is important (Alex Temple already wrote a piece for NMB that I find beautiful, so I won’t go into this further here). It is important that we acknowledge that music can hurt people. It is important that we recognize and really deal with the fact that we are writing music for people far removed and far different from us. We should not put words into their mouths without thinking about what we are doing.

Chorister singing

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

Justice-driven ethics are important because, even while neoliberal social justice puts so much weight in abstract ideas, acting unethically in music has very material consequences. Leaving racism unchecked in the choir world has led to many choir directors only programming music by Black composers when their music is perceived as “sufficiently Black”. Ablest and cis-gendered notions of how bodies are “supposed” to work creates cultures where any form of bodily deviance is not tolerated.

Acting unethically in music has very material consequences.

I think one of my favorite authors, musicologist William Cheng, says it well in his book Just Vibrations. “[…] by attending to how our convictions, relations, and actions ripple through public spaces, we can achieve a sense of how we matter and what matters most.” If we do not attend in this way, you could say we are being selfish and narcissistic, creating work that ripples through only our private spaces, only our own experiences. We would not be caring for others. Cheng goes on to say that, “care ethics prioritize[s] embodied encounters and the precarities of lived experience,” we must “seriously [consider] feelings, pleasurable as well as painful.”

By traditional standards, children’s music is “bad” when compared to music of “skilled” performers, but on what grounds is that judgment being made? Some abstract idea of what music should be? How could we follow such an abstract, immaterial idea and know whether or not our music is good? Following Cheng’s lead, in writing this music we should not worry about whether our music “sounds good” according to traditional standards, but rather if our music sounds good-ness into the world. That’s what matters most. Because, after all, our music cannot claim to be “good” (as in ‘desirable’) if it does not sound (as into put into the air’) good (as inthat which is right or just’).

We should not worry about whether our music “sounds good” according to traditional standards, but rather if our music sounds good-ness into the world.

Children being told that they have no idea what they’re doing does not sound good. Deciding without children’s consent or knowledge that they should only sing music about subjects we as adults deem suitable does not sound good. Projecting images of innocence and naiveté onto children who might have experienced more pain than us does not sound good.

But holding hands? Tea? Sleep? Decolonization? Justice? Solidarity? Or, maybe even simpler, just the words of William Cheng’s mother, “Love! Optimism, happiness … closure.”

That sounds good to me.

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.

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. 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.

Getting Your Hands Dirty (Performing Microtonal Choral Music, Part 2)

A series of three photographs of someone's year.

Emotionalist Preamble

As a choir director, the majority of my experience is with youth and amateur ensembles. Thus, I usually deal with a different set of concerns and priorities than many readers of NMBx might.

Choirs are in it for the community.

The first thing to know about choirs below the professional level is that, in my firm belief, we are in it for the community above all. There is pride in the technical execution, too, of course! But much more so, it’s about conveying emotion, and experiencing the same emotion, and thus creating and maintaining the bonds of community with each other and with an audience.

In addition, it is quite common to encounter experienced choral singers who have limited sight-reading ability, who rely instead on a finely developed skill at retaining and repeating melodies that they hear. The notation then becomes, as it was in medieval Europe, more of a memory aid than a set of explicit instructions.

Medieval Neumes

A facsimile of the manuscript for ‘Iubilate deo universa terra’ which shows a series of unheightened cheironomic neumes added to psalm verses. (Image in the public domain.)

The joy is that it brings the experience of communal music-making into the reach of a very large population. The challenge is that the director is very often, of necessity, a teacher. So, for amateur choirs, there is no guarantee that the singers will have the whole-score awareness that is a hallmark of elite ensembles; and for many, there is basically a guarantee that they won’t!

Why on earth would anyone try to bring microtonal music into this ecosystem? Well, for one thing, it will help hone everyone’s intonational awareness—which can be sorely needed. But, on its own terms: there are new worlds of emotion to be explored that are unavailable with 12 equal tones alone!

However, a director in this circumstance needs to sell the piece in question to a perhaps skeptical ensemble. Use your entire boundless enthusiasm to support the methodical techniques below. If the singers like you, they’ll give it a chance.

If the singers like you, they’ll give it a chance.

With all caveats out of the way, then, let’s get to the technical side.

The technical side

For teaching microtonal passages, I advocate a “bimodal, target-based” approach. I chose this name because I needed a title that was both accurate and impressive sounding for a paper proposal. (It worked.) But here’s what I mean:

Bimodal – Requiring an integrated awareness of both the horizontal and vertical aspects of every pitch change. That is, one must keep in mind a new pitch’s relationship to the pitch it just left, and also its context within the sonority in which it arrives. These are often independent.

Target-based – Relying on anticipating the familiar, whether melodic or harmonic, or indeed both. When this is done, intervening things can more easily fall into place, even half-unconsciously.

These two tactics are already necessary for being a good choral musician within standard repertoire, but it’s important to make them explicit when we’re working with microtonality. A useful step toward using them explicitly in microtonal pieces is using them explicitly for challenging tonal passages. So, a director might work on these tactics during the semester immediately before a microtonal piece is even on the program.

A tonal example of the bimodal strategy

One illustrative passage is in Poulenc’s O Magnum Mysterium. Among many intonational trouble spots in this piece, consider the tritone in the opening tenor, at 0:08 and a few times afterward:

Most singers can pull out a tritone, but it’s not a reliable interval.

Most singers can pull out a tritone, but it’s not a reliable interval. It’s not uncommon to need to be reminded what it sounds like, using Maria or the Simpsons theme as a mnemonic. (Here’s a heartwarming comment thread from the Simpsons video:)

A thread of Facebook comments in response to the tritone in The Simpsons theme. The messages read as follows: “; “lmfaoooo same”; “Me too, but I still don’t know what it is.”” width=”370″ height=”456″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-376411″ />

Even when they have it securely, each person will execute it slightly differently, especially when neither of the tones involved acts as a leading tone. The resultant group pitch can be fuzzy. And, because it’s a “dissonant” horizontal interval, there is often the expectation of a dissonance where it lands.

So, you sing it slowly, tune that chord on a long tone—and it becomes apparent that the “Cb” is in fact a B natural, the third of a G major!

The tenors are now, ideally, experiencing that trouble spot on two levels. In one sense, they’re singing a tritone up from the previous note. But in another sense, they are occupying a very clear “home” in the resultant harmony, a home which has nothing to do with tritone-ish-ness.

In microtonal music, it’s even more important to maintain these two separate levels. This is because such music inevitably calls for singing some unfamiliar horizontal intervals—and the singers’ natural instinct will be to land on a verticality that’s equally “unfamiliar,” i.e. dissonant, and this instinct is likely to be wrong. We will see the unfortunate fruits of this approach in a 1962 performance of the Kyrie from Julián Carrillo’s Misa a San Juan XXIII later in this article.

A note on targets

We now move on to the “target-based” part of the approach. In microtonal music, for example, if your choir needs to sing an unfamiliar chain of small intervals—then give them a rock-solid idea of the interval they are encompassing, and the intervening tones can almost unconsciously fall into place. They can be refined later, in a second step.

To reinforce how easy this can sound when modeled, here’s Jacob Collier blithely doing that sort of thing to a minor third:

(His full discussion of this really starts at 10:12, but come on, go watch the whole thing. The guy is so hip, it’s surreal.)

The target-based approach is not limited to melodically filling in familiar intervals. On a broader scale, it’s about providing a series of conceptual anchors throughout a piece—where singers can regain their footing, if they happen to lose it on the way. This can be target melodic intervals as above; but also target harmonic intervals to tune to (e.g. for entrances), or target chords.

The novelty here is that the targets need not be musically prominent within the piece—they can occur on weak beats, or at de-emphasized places within a phrase, etc. They only need to be already familiar to the singers, who can then use them to recalibrate. For example, an exotic cadential sonority might be the musical goal, but does not need to be the conceptual target—that role could be an adjacent, less important, more familiar sonority. Here’s an instance of that in a piece I wrote (which will be hosted on NMBx after its premiere on January 24):

An excerpt from the score of Robert Lopez-Hanshaw's microtonal choral composition vokas animo.

An excerpt from the score of Robert Lopez-Hanshaw’s microtonal choral composition vokas animo.

This goes from a Just A major chord, to a 7:9:11 in the harmonic series of B twelfth-flat (in my preferred 72edo notation). The latter is surprisingly easy to nail, because you’re leaving a very familiar place, each part moving basically by quarter step—a distance which can easily be practiced. The common tone also helps.

Building the scaffold

The other thing that should guide your microtonal teaching is the educational idea of scaffolding, or the “zone of proximal development.” All this means is that every new concept needs to relate to immediately adjacent concepts; and the adjacent concepts give rise to insight at the individual level.

For example: You don’t learn to read by someone telling you how to read. There is no way to do it except making the connection on your own between individual letter-sounds and the way they combine into words. Your grade-school teacher just provided the conditions for you to make that leap, by making you memorize the letter-sounds, then confronting you with easily decoded combinations (and then, not-so-easy ones).

The principle here is important. Despite the appeal of a “brute force” method, such as learning a piece by rote from a synthesized recording (newly easy to produce, due to technology!), that tactic will not succeed for most people—because they haven’t internalized the building blocks to make the new intervals “stick.” And many might be unwilling to make that huge technical leap in the first place; it’s not why they’re in choir.

So, we need to look at how we can provide the scaffolding.

There are two pathways, a Just Intonation path and an equal-division path.

We’ve already covered two important things, which happen in normal choral singing, and can be applied to microtonal singing. What now follows is a list of additional concepts, each building on the previous, and some resources to master them. There are two pathways, a Just Intonation path and an equal-division path.

Just Intonation Path: Expressive Intonation

Ironically, this path begins with the opposite of Just Intonation: “expressive intonation.”

None other than Ezra Sims, the great exponent of 72edo, was set upon the microtonal path by his undergraduate choral conductor, Hugh Thomas. Thomas insisted on his ensembles singing very high leading tones when resolving to tonics, and very low 4ths when resolving to 3rds, among other things. Under such influence, says Sims, “you are liable to find it hard ever again to believe (no matter how much the keyboard instruments may try to convince you it is so) that there is, for example, one thing which is G-sharp, one frequency that defines it for ever and ever, Amen.”

Expressive intonation, at its crudest, is very intuitive. (Exaggerate the tendency of the tendency tones!) So, if it can achieve the goal of knocking singers out of a fixed-pitch way of thinking, then it smooths the way forward considerably.

Actual Just Intonation

Fahad Siadat has a series of articles, to be continued, on the website of his publishing company, which introduce the subject of Just Intonation for choirs. Some fuller resources currently available include Harmonic Experience by W. A. Mathieu, which I mentioned in the last article; and The Just Intonation Primer by David B. Doty, which is rather more direct.

A practical choir director might choose only a few intervals to work on.

A practical choir director might choose only a few intervals to work on. Major thirds and harmonic 7ths are useful to start with, because they are easy to demonstrate. Bring in a cellist to play natural harmonics and compare them with the piano! Bring in a high-level barbershop quartet to “ring” some chords! At first, you’re just developing the idea that there are several available “flavors” for a given interval, each with a different function.

Use what’s relevant to the piece at hand. If your choir adds only the harmonic 7th to their vocabulary, then that’s enough to start working on Ben Johnston’s I’m Goin’ Away.

Quantifying Comma Shifts

Ross Duffin is well-known for his book on meantone and well temperaments, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (And Why You Should Care). But he also wrote a wonderful defense of, and method for, Just Intonation practice, which hinges on locating and using the syntonic comma. This is a very helpful way of thinking systematically about tuning 3rds, 6ths and 7ths compared to 4ths and 5ths. It is freely available here. He even includes exercises for practicing typical problematic intonation situations that can occur.

The Hilliard Ensemble and Nordic Voices regularly incorporate this basic system (different in the particulars) into their practice. If your choir sings Renaissance counterpoint one semester, looking at intonation through this lens, then the following semester could extend the microtonality further:

Extended Just Intonation

Now we get into the weird stuff. It is possible, with much repetition and a rock-solid reference, to memorize and reproduce intervals of the higher overtones of the harmonic series.

One possible reference is overtone singing (Fahad Siadat, personal communication), which—on a low fundamental—can reliably produce harmonics at least up to the 14th, and perhaps further. A retuned digital keyboard is another potential resource.

But there is a remarkable set of exercises available, too: Andrew Heathwaite devised a system for singing through every possible interval that occurs between members of a given group of overtone-based pitches, charmingly called Singtervals. Others have elaborated on this. It is surprisingly logical and intuitive, using a slight alteration of solfège syllables.

If a singer were to make listening to, understanding, and singing this type of matrix a part of their daily practice, they would soon be able to approach a strictly overtonal (or undertonal) piece like Henk Badings’s Contrasten without much suffering.

Quarter-Tone Path: In-Between Tones

We can use people’s ability to sing in between the pitches of a small and familiar interval to develop a true quarter-tone framework.

Starting again at the beginning of a different path, we can use people’s ability to sing equal-ish tones in between the pitches of a small and familiar interval, to begin to develop a true quarter-tone framework. At first, you could simply add an exercise to normal warmups: Sing F – Gb, then F – F quarter-sharp – Gb, and then the same in the opposite direction. The outer tones are, of course, easily checked on the piano.

The Tucson Symphony Chorus warming up prior to rehearsing my piece vokas animo.

Full 24-Tone Scale

Where it gets interesting is extrapolating this simple technique to all intervening positions in the chromatic scale. Robert Reinhart, who teaches music theory and aural skills at Northwestern University, assigned intermediate vowels to the quarter-tonal pitches between solfège notes, such as ra-reh-re-rih-ri for all varieties of the second scale degree re. He then designed—and used in the classroom—progressive exercises to train the ear on the new intervals. In many cases, these involve first singing known intervals; then filling in the gaps with quarter tones; and then ultimately singing only the altered pitches, while audiating the more familiar surrounding pitches.

This is just an extension of sight-singing pedagogy in movable-do systems! For example, to teach the pattern do-fa-la (difficult for beginners), one can repeatedly sing a major scale, and gradually remove the intervening tones re, mi and sol; first audiating them, and then making the cognitive leap to simply singing do-fa-la without any crutch.

Reinhart has presented on this subject and is currently working on a systematic collection of quarter-tone solfège exercises, graded by difficulty.

You, too, could use this basic framework to divide, say, semitones into groups of three sixth-tones—or whole tones into fifth-tones, if you’re singing Renaissance enharmonic music. The specific vowels in your extended solfège don’t matter that much, as long as they’re consistent.

Going Deeper: 72-Tone Scale

Julia Werntz is the current bearer of the 72edo aural skills tradition at the New England Conservatory, succeeding Joe Maneri. She teaches students to hear, perform, and compose with twelfth tones—that is, quarter-tones each further divided into thirds. Her class begins by developing a quarter-tone framework, and elaborates from there. The course textbook, Steps to the Sea, is both highly accessible (with plenty of audio examples) and readily available.

By the time we’re getting into twelfth tones, the Just Intonation and equal-division paths begin to merge.

By the time we’re getting into twelfth tones, the Just Intonation and equal-division paths begin to merge. For singers specifically, the simpler Just Intonation intervals correspond so precisely with pitches in the gamut of 72 tones per octave, that the difference—a maximum of about 5 cents, and usually under 3—is literally impossible to produce with the voice.

In fact, a recent study by Matthias Mauch et al. shows that, even for experienced singers, the Just Noticeable Difference and the median pitch production error on a given note both hover around 18 to 19 cents—a bit over an entire 12th-tone! The study dealt with solo melodic singing, and intonation accuracy can be somewhat higher in harmonic singing (especially in barbershop); but not by as much as you think.

(Different sources give different amounts for the Just Noticeable Difference in various contexts, and 5-8 cents is the usual value cited. But in the case of sung pitches, a little more chaos seems to reign.)

Thankfully, in case you were wondering, microtones really can be learned, and ear-training in 72edo really does have the effect of increasing pitch discrimination and production ability. It tames some of the latent chaos of music-making.

The End Result

If you’ve gone through all of this with your choir, then you’re obsessive, and they’re all saints.

If you’ve gone through all of this with your choir, then you’re obsessive, and they’re all saints. What you should really do is pick and choose among these possibilities, based on what’s going on in the piece itself. This is what I have done. But where I might not yet have used a particular technique myself, it has been field-tested by others. They all really do what they claim.

Potential Bad Results

As I promised earlier, here’s the first movement of Carrillo’s Misa:

This is not, shall we say, a touchstone performance. The singers may have assumed that the goal was an “other-worldly” sound, and presumably claimed enough success to release the recording. But unfortunately, they performed the whole score inaccurately, including what should have been the “this-worldly” parts.

They are pitchy from the very beginning. By 0:58, the tenor is an entire semitone flat compared to the others, leading to a sounding Ab major in first inversion, instead of the written C augmented chord. (When it happens again at 1:07, you can hear him drift upward to try to correct it.) In the music that’s in frame starting at 1:32, the poor Bass 1 sings written perfect 5ths as tritones, because he can’t get the lower note to go down far enough. And so on. If one heard this as an exemplar of microtonal choral singing, one might be forgiven for souring on the idea.

But despite the deficiencies of this particular performance, the piece was actually written in a way that could be easy to grasp—using the tactics I’ve outlined above. It could even work as a first venture into microtonality for a choir!

Here’s how I would approach it.

  • First, I’d add quarter tones to the warmups at the beginning of rehearsals—simply splitting a semitone. This happens constantly in Misa, so the choir would get a lot of mileage from just that exercise.
  • Then, also in warmups, we would build augmented chords and other whole-tone sonorities, like [046] and [024] in different inversions. These are Carrillo’s building blocks for the piece. They are somewhat uncommon as structural elements in conventional choral repertoire, so they would require reinforcement in order to be useful as targets.
  • Then, going to the piece itself, we would sing segments without the quarter tones that intervene, and make sure the choir has memorized the target whole-tone sonorities in their larger harmonic framework.
  • Finally, it’s time to insert the quarter tones. We would do this one part at a time, at first, to cement melodic awareness.
  • Now, the surprise! Carrillo helpfully puts all quarter-tonal changes in vertical alignment, other than some suspensions. The piece alternates between one 12-tone “world” and the complementary “world” in 24edo. So, the sonorities built by the altered pitches are generally familiar. The sonority at 1:11, on the second beat of the last measure in frame, is in fact an A quarter-flat major chord in first inversion—so it should sound like a major chord in first inversion! Everybody knows that sound.

All of this is entirely lost in the wailing, loosey-goosey intonation of this performance. I believe an accurate interpretation, on the other hand, would reveal a piece of extraordinarily different character than what’s presented in the recording: perhaps startling in just how accessible it really is.

Conclusion: Practicalities

Here are a few miscellaneous suggestions I can give about teaching microtones to choirs.

Use warmups to reinforce new musical concepts, if that wasn’t clear already. Why waste time singing major scales or arpeggios the whole warmup, when you could be practicing quarter tones by repetition, or building harmonic-series chords? This reduces the teaching time on the microtonal piece itself.

Absolutely do not play a tone cluster in place of an intervening tone, if you are modeling a microtonal melody on a standard piano. This does nothing for imagining the pitch (do we “hear” a D, when C-E is played? Hell no! So why would we hear a D quarter-sharp when D-Eb is played?), and it models a dissonance, which the choir will obligingly give you. Better to skip over the altered pitch—or better yet:

Model with the voice whenever possible. This is not only easier to follow than a keyboard, but it also demonstrates that the passage is, in fact, performable.

Retune the keyboard, if it’s digital. The task is now basically trivial, with available technology; but it may not be so for you personally. If that’s the case, and you’re a person who would read this, then you assuredly have friends who are big nerds like you, except with computers. You can ask them a favor or hire them to do it for you. BitKlavier is free software with an easy learning curve; if they can program in Max/MSP, then they should be able to use Pure Data without much fuss, which is also free; or you could shell out for PianoTeq Standard, which has professional-quality sound and very good microtonal tuning controls. There are many other options, but these are a start.

Working closely with your accompanist is critical, especially if any keys are remapped drastically! But again, if you’re a person who’s reading this, your accompanist is probably game for it.

Do all the normal choral stuff first – speak the piece in rhythm, aim for precise cutoffs, use expressive phrasing, interpret the lyrics – so that they realize how much they already know how to do.

Proper breath support is absolutely indispensable. Unfamiliarity causes uncertainty, and uncertainty causes improper support, and improper support creates sagging pitch and bad timbre, which makes the project infinitely harder. So, never lose sight of that bedrock of a well-supported sound and come back to it often.

You have to convey joy in the music.

Most importantly, you have to convey joy in the music. And isn’t that what it’s always about?

The Journey In (Performing Microtonal Choral Music, Part 1)

A 19-tone keyboard with 7 white and 12 black keys per octave. (Photo by Dan Pelleg)

Why would anyone expect a choir to be able to sing microtones? All the literature seems to be on their limitations. Everyone knows that choirs are devastatingly conservative, anyway. They, and their audiences, would surely revolt at the slightest hint of strangeness. There are some who celebrate this paradigm, saying that the limitations on the massed human voice have constrained choral music to a more traditional style in the face of modernity, and that it’s a good thing they have!

This obviously rules out microtonal music of any sort. That stuff is pretty weird.

Why would anyone expect a choir to be able to sing microtones?

But—of course—there are cracks in this theory. Looking beyond the Western choral paradigm, the world overflows with examples of formidable vocal control. There are Indian, Turkish, and Arabic singers, for whom a fundamental part of music is very tiny intervals, without which the very identity of a given melody would be compromised. The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, in particular, was not just an apt practitioner of these microtonal gradations in interval quality: she was the authority on proper intonation (see Farraj and Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 2019).

And even within the Western music scene, there is the idea of Just Intonation: the pure arithmetical tuning of chords, as distinct from our modern 12-tone, logarithmic tuning. This has slowly worked its way into general choral consciousness over the last century or two, having been abandoned only relatively recently, post-Renaissance.

A Renaissance-era drawing of a monochord showing the placement of frets to correspond to various Just Intonation intervals.

A Renaissance-era drawing of a monochord showing the placement of frets to correspond to various Just Intonation intervals.

But, as many can attest who have professionally recorded themselves singing, the limitations of human pitch control are something to contend with. These limits are humiliatingly displayed by taking a look at what you thought was a pretty decent take, through pitch analysis software like Melodyne. Was I really that many cents off?

Composers may sigh and shake their head, thinking, “Sure, microtonal singing is possible. But unless I’m commissioned by Exaudi or Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart or Roomful of Teeth, it’s not going to happen if I call for it!”

Spoiler alert: it can. I am a choral composer and conductor, and I am also a microtonalist. I’ve recently had some successes with microtonal pedagogy for choirs, which will be the specific topic of the sequel to this article. After that, my piece vokas animo, for choir and orchestra in 72 tones per octave, will have a performance video posted to this site.

How could such a thing occur? My case might be especially unlikely. Until relatively recently, I had no exposure to ensembles like those listed above—small, professional vocal ensembles who routinely play around with extremely tiny intervals. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and never left. It’s a choir town, fed by the excellent and internationally recognized choral conducting graduate program at the University of Arizona; but it’s not exactly a hotbed of new music.

So this first article is about how I found microtonality, or how it found me, through collisions with writers and aspects of culture that are not, by and large, much associated with new music. It’s about how microtonal thinking influenced the music I made, and how that process came to inform the way that I now teach it to choirs. To normal singers.

Because, if I could learn it, why can’t they?

Beginnings: Rejecting Tonality

I came to music later than many of my colleagues. Before age 11, I didn’t even listen to it much. But by 14, I had picked up the guitar and learned some rock and flamenco songs from guitar tabs. At 16, I learned how to actually read music, and then worked through a secondhand harmony textbook while my friend was taking a music theory class. So I remember my struggles with the basics very clearly, and the triumphs as well. I can still taste the deliciousness of finding out about augmented 6th chords—like forbidden fruit! More fundamentally, I remember the visceral feeling when, in about 7th grade, my choir teacher first demonstrated a major chord in contrast with a minor chord on the piano. The difference was so powerful, yet so subtle! I couldn’t figure out what was changing.

Learning how these things were put together was electrifying. So on that background—with music still in its honeymoon phase, still bright and new—came my first introduction to microtones.

When I was about 16 or 17, a hyperlink on some forgotten website took me to www.anti-theory.com, a manifesto written by Q. Reed Ghazala, on something called “circuit-bending.” He described how he would painstakingly, semi-randomly alter the guts of electronic toys so they produced new and powerful noises. I ended up on a page describing an object called the “Deep Photon Bassoon,” over which a player would wave their hand and produce theremin-like glissandos. But also, using the other hand, a player could do something which sounded insane to me: cause the pitches to resolve into steps—but in “arbitrary scale divisions (how many pitches might occur between octaves).”

This was the new coolest thing I had ever heard.

A 1989 Kawasaki toy guitar used in a circuit bending project - Image by Greg Francke

A 1989 Kawasaki toy guitar used in a circuit bending project – Image by Greg Francke – used under Creative Commons Attribution license

There was no YouTube quite yet. So, aside from the occasionally terrifying sound clips on Ghazala’s website, I only came across one other example of this during that period of my life. This was the guitar solo to The Doors’ “When The Music’s Over.” (The part in question starts a bit after 2’50”)

It sounded absolutely unmoored from everything around it, sounded like the guitarist was using a slide without regard for fret positions. I thought, “That’s it, that’s what arbitrary scale divisions sound like!”

Fifteen years later, it turns out that he didn’t use a slide. And it’s not really in “arbitrary scale divisions”—it just has plenty of microtonal bends. Still, the heavily chromatic and semi-aleatoric non-melodies, the oft-warped pitch, the ametrical rhythms, and the bizarre, alien timbre had combined to create a passage which emphatically divorces itself from the music that surrounds it.

Coming back to the specific case of microtonal choral music, we can directly compare the use of microtones in this solo—and the resulting polyphonic texture—to the first movement of Giacinto Scelsi’s 1958 compositon Tre Canti Sacri, especially during the second minute of the piece.

This is a piece in which gestures are king, superseding melody; and in which intervals are arguably used for their timbre, ranging in dissonance from pure unisons and 5ths all the way to fast-beating quarter tones. The atmosphere is tense and alien—a favorite atmosphere in 20th-century art music. And, though Scelsi’s piece is tightly focused, in contrast to Robby Krieger’s freewheeling solo(s), microtonality was used as a tool to achieve the same effect in each: to exit the tonal hierarchy, to momentarily free the listener from those associations.

This sort of thing might make a choir director nervous.

Tonal hierarchies are half of what singers use to produce pitches at all … But it needn’t be a non-starter.

After all, tonal hierarchies are half of what singers use to produce pitches at all, not having any keys on our throats. But it needn’t be a non-starter. First: there are rational ways to approach a piece like this, using what is familiar in the music as a support structure. And second: music which uses microtonality specifically to reject familiar structures rarely requires precise intonation to succeed.

In the Scelsi, much of the time, I would say that an error of even 30 cents or so in either direction—unacceptable in tonal contexts—would still convey the necessary information. (For a fascinating case study of this sort of thing in instrumental microtonal music, see Knipper and Kreutz, Exploring Microtonal Performance of ‘…Plainte…’ by Klaus Huber, 2013.)

Even in this excellent recording, we do hear such variation. For example: the quarter-tonal diad between Tenor 1’s B ¼-sharp and Contralto 2’s C natural in measure 17 (about 0:38) is virtually a unison, whereas the one in measure 45 (1:39) between Tenor 1’s E natural and Tenor 2’s D ¾-sharp is much wider, even approaching a semitone. Nevertheless, I am confident that few would accuse Neue Vocalsolisten of doing injury to Scelsi’s piece!

The Other Side of The Coin: Expanding Tonality

We return to a time before I had heard of Scelsi. I was just beginning to really study composition, and fortuitously stumbled across a book while housesitting for a family friend. This was Ernst Toch’s The Shaping Forces in Music. Published in 1948, the book is an engrossing (and largely ignored) attempt to find commonality of practice between tonality and atonality. But one section, only a few pages long, stood out. In this, Toch advocated microtonality as potentially compatible with all musical approaches. He even discussed how it might have provided a neat solution to a “problem” that Beethoven, of all people, ran into (at 6’03”):

In Toch’s words: “Around the advent of [bar 8]… [the] smooth rhythmical flow of the bass is balked for three beats, there being no more moving space left for the descending voice. …[T]he problem could be solved by the use of quarter-tones as shown.” Here is one of his potential solutions (he also changed the inner voices for clarity’s sake):

A score excerpt showing Ernst Toch's quartertonal reworking of a Beethoven bass line.

Ernst Toch’s quartertonal reworking of a Beethoven bass line.

And he suggested singing it as a practical means to experiencing it. “It is recommended that the quarter-tone passage of the bass be sung, while playing the rest of the voices on the piano. One will be surprised at the facility of the task, its novelty being sufficiently eased by its tangible logic.” For me, this was one of those quotes that stuck. I took Toch’s advice, later, writing unobtrusive microtonal basslines and vocal harmonies, whenever a particular tonal problem spot seemed to require a microtonal solution.

Shortly after encountering Toch, I went to a choral conference, and someone mentioned Just Intonation for choirs—as a tuning strategy for conventional music. It seemed arcane and I forgot all the cents offset values, though it was interesting.

I also took a strange class on building instruments out of scrap metal, for which the textbook was Musical Instrument Design by Bart Hopkin. (It’s an excellent book on “outsider” approaches.) That book discusses Just Intonation a bit, and most importantly for me, it has a tuning chart in the back. This compares 12-tone equal temperament with several other systems, both JI and different equal divisions of the octave. Harry Partch’s collection of 43 tones was included. I was amazed at the sheer variety of intervals that apparently made some kind of harmonic sense. (I didn’t actually hear his music until years later.)

With all this kicking around in my head, I started playing with a rock band, and we recorded an album. One particular take on guitar had an incredible timbre, but it also had an error, so we had to redo it. But I couldn’t duplicate the timbre! After extended frustration and tinkering, we discovered that the guitar on the first take had been slightly knocked out of tune; so the major third had been flatter than usual. When I had routinely re-tuned it for the overdub, that property was erased. So, remembering the Hopkin book, I tried tuning the offending string to the 5th harmonic; and lo, there was that timbre again! A weirdly resonant and supported sound for a major triad on overdriven guitar. I thought, “So that’s what Just Intonation does.”

Later, dense vocal harmony became part of the aforementioned rock band’s schtick, but we struggled to stay in tune in live situations. So, with the guitar experience in mind, I looked for some kind of reference to use to help us out. That turned out to be W. A. Mathieu’s Harmonic Experience, a manual for understanding Just Intonation in practice (and applying it to jazz harmony). The band didn’t end up using any of the exercises—more’s the pity!—but the book showed me how it could be necessary to shift sustained tones by tiny intervals, “commas,” in order to maintain pure tuning as the underlying harmony changed. But, more importantly for Mathieu, it discussed the bodily feeling of pure tuning. That’s the way to learn these new/old intervals.

And old they are. Nicolà Vicentino wrote pieces which encapsulate parts of both Mathieu’s and Toch’s thinking—in the year 1555. Here’s one of them performed by Exaudi:

This has both Just Intonation-esque aspects—very narrow major 3rds and very wide minor 3rds—and quartertonal-esque aspects, which resemble Toch’s insertion of intervening microtones in an otherwise chromatic line. In the middle of what we would now call a V-I progression in G, Vicentino places an “extra” leading tone between the F# and the G. Unlike Toch, he tunes a whole chord to this intervening tone. This happens at 0:18—see the score excerpt below (lyrics simplified).

Score excerpt of Nicolà Vicentino's "Dolce mio ben" showing microtonal intervals.

Score excerpt of Nicolà Vicentino’s “Dolce mio ben”

It’s not truly quartertonal, nor truly Just Intonation. It’s really in 31-tone equal temperament, whose modern standard notation slightly reinterprets all the chromatic and quartertonal accidentals; but it should still be clear what’s going on. Vicentino loves this type of figure, by the way, and it pops up all the time in his surviving microtonal music.

I had been exposed to two completely different philosophies of microtonality: Either escape The System, or help it to become somehow more itself.

So, well before I took the plunge and resolved to compose in microtones—and, in so doing, got up to speed with the voluminous literature and repertoire that’s actually out there—I had been exposed to two completely different philosophies of microtonality. Either escape The System, or help it to become somehow more itself. And on the surface, those categories seem to have held up pretty well, in terms of guidance for interpreting a given passage.

One thing, though, that I wish I had been able to read as a teenager is some sort of comprehensive overview of all the ways people have used microtonality in Western music. Until very recently, nothing of the kind seemed to be around—everything had its relatively narrow agenda, and was too technical for my teenage self anyway. As we’ve seen, I was left to gradually pick up an incomplete picture from here and there. But last year, Kyle Gann published The Arithmetic of Listening, and now none of us need suffer that fate.

That book is possibly the most important microtonal resource that exists today. This is because it is, indeed, a survey of many of the ways microtonality has been used; but it’s also an entire paradigm for how microtonality can be taught. Tuning concepts like Pythagorean, meantone, 12-equal, and Barbershop intonation are explored through the lens of gradually adding prime limits to the harmonic vocabulary. After the 13-limit is passed (with discussions of Ben Johnston, Toby Twining, and Gann’s own Hyperchromatica), the conversation branches off into equal divisions of the octave, covering not just what they are, but what they do. This includes the single most helpful introduction to Regular Temperament Theory that I’ve ever encountered, which will be a life raft for anyone who has attempted to swim in the turbid internet waters that cover this subject.

Kyle Gann’s The Arithmetic of Listening is possibly the most important microtonal resource that exists today.

There are things with which I disagree: his thumbnail analysis of Ezra Sims’ String Quartet No. 5, for example, is done exclusively in terms of edo-steps—despite also quoting Sims multiple times to the effect that his use of 72tet is meant to be harmonic (i.e. ratio-based). And the brief section on non-Western tuning systems is so thoroughly salted with disclaimers (such as “not to be taken as fairly representative of how those cultures understand their own music”) that it comes across as, well, a bit salty. And anyone looking for strictly atonal resources in this book will leave disappointed—the book does not much discuss organized ways of using microtonal structures without reference to a global or local tonic (i.e. 1/1). Still, despite these and other quibbles, The Arithmetic of Listening is the first book I would recommend to anyone who wants a serious introduction to microtonality. I wish the world had had it sooner.

The Facility of The Task

But back to the narrative at hand: the ways in which I first experienced microtonal techniques are very approachable for beginners, and I consider this a fantastic stroke of luck.

Why can you sing in-between pitches? Because they’re in between.

Why can you sing in-between pitches? Because they’re in between. You are leaving somewhere and arriving somewhere, and both of those places are fixed and familiar. When I recorded a Toch-ian “double leading tone” in a background vocal for a country song, it was totally natural in context, just a slight extension of a normal voice-leading thing that happens in pop styles. It hardly took any practice at all to get that take. Anyone can do it: and I’ve taught people to do it.

Why can you sing JI intervals? Because, as Mathieu said, they are felt as much as heard. For all that Just Intonation is a theoretical construct just like everything else, it remains true that it provides easy perceptual landmarks to hit. When you’re singing in tune, it locks—just ask a barbershop ensemble. They know how to sing a perfect 7/4: not because of the ratio, or because it’s 31 cents flatter than an equal-tempered minor 7th, or whatever. Plenty of those guys can’t even read music. They know because the chord rings, in a way that stands out from the results of other nearby tunings. So, why can’t the rest of us learn such new consonances? Some are a bit more challenging than 7/4, but many are not that much more challenging. And again, I’ve had some success teaching people who aren’t by any stretch avant-garde.

Outside of these applications (which, by the way, are already infiltrating pop music via such acts as Jacob Collier and They Might Be Giants), it is well for us to recall that there is a huge range of learnable intervals in the world—far more than the simpler Just Intonation ratios. Many cultures use intervals which correspond to no particular harmonic “landmark” at all. So, a precise tuning standard clearly needn’t be dependent on acoustic phenomena per se.

It’s harder to learn such inharmonic intervals—whether as part of a traditional but new-to-you system, or a novel one—but it is possible with support. I’ve helped people do this, too. It helps morale to remember that all of our familiar 12-tone intervals, with the exception of the octave, are in fact also inharmonic. So, the ones you grew up with are just as “unnatural” as the ones you’re trying to learn!

Combining these things into a unified approach is surprisingly intuitive. They can mesh well with standard choral techniques, if one is a little creative with the use of technology, the role of the piano, the role of the director’s voice. Much of it can be achieved with the same basic tricks that people use to teach diatonic and chromatic intervals to children. Using all this, and aided by strategies from Fahad Siadat, Ross Duffin, Robert Reinhart, and others, I’ve come up with a toolbox to teach a choir just about any microtonal piece—eventually.

I’ve come up with a toolbox to teach a choir just about any microtonal piece—eventually.

Teaching any challenging piece takes time. And there are some microtonal pieces which are a lot more formidable than others; but that’s true for any genre, microtonal or not. The point is, you can use these tools as an entry point to any piece, rather than looking at something like Ben Johnston’s Sonnets of Desolation and sinking into, well, desolation.

I hope more choir directors might see this and be inspired to invest the time in learning some microtonal repertoire with their ensemble. The rewards can be great: not just from an artistic standpoint, but also for the way microtonal awareness hones intonation skills for standard repertoire.

Tune in next time for a discussion of the actual rehearsal techniques!