Tag: chorus

Writing Music for Developing Instrumentalists and Singers

close up of a trumpet

“I’d love to do that with my band, but it’s too hard for us.”

“I can’t afford it.”

“We don’t have all of those parts.”

“I’m out of time to look.”

These are some of the frustrations I’ve heard in the last six months from at least four music educators and community ensemble directors who want to diversify the voices they amplify in their programming. They’re caught in a deeply frustrating bind: even if they could find a new piece and they could afford it, their students couldn’t play it—it’s too technically advanced for their developing players. And that’s saying they can find a new piece from a new voice in the slim hour of the day they’re not running between classes, lessons, planning, meetings, and fixing the jammed copier.

These artists’ and educators’ mission is to nurture as many healthy musical habits as possible and share their growth with their communities. They’re invested in programming more works by living composers, especially composers from communities of historically marginalized voices. They’re invested in their students and community members not seeing a revolving door of the same names in the top right corner of the page all the time. They’re invested in their own growth as conductors and willing to put in the score study and rehearsal planning to learn new works, and that needs to be strategic for them.

Teachers and conductors must consider the developing techniques of their players, limited budgets for their libraries, and limited time to seek out new works that are not yet available through major publishers for whom they already have vendor numbers established in their purchasing systems. These ensembles need technically and financially accessible works for their libraries from living composers.

Here is a mix of practical and philosophical ideas for how you can help.

 

Pick Your Parameters

While composers love to explore ideas at the boundaries of virtuosic technical prowess with incisive beauty, these are not the works that developing players or time-pressed joyful amateurs can hope to be successful in playing.

  • Both long works and miniatures are physically and mentally challenging. Help these players work up to great heights with works between three and seven minutes in duration.
  • Pick one area of challenge for your musical ideas to explore. You want developing players to feel invited into capability, not overwhelmed by notation. If you are going to include rhythms they will need to woodshed, put it in a key area that does not push them. If you are going to push them on tonal centers that are distant from the fundamentals of their instrument, do not push them on range, too. If you are going to introduce them to mixed meters, keep the modulations predictable and the tempo moderate, etc.
  • Offer options for instrumentation where possible. Many schools and community ensembles will not have a full concert complement for orchestra or band or the funds to hire ringers. Double reeds are not guaranteed. Include cues for important passages to instruments with similar ranges. This goes for percussion, too. They will have a glockenspiel, but not crotales.
  • Add not only text and translation for choirs, but also consider adding IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet characters) as a reference for a harried choir director.
  • Leave a little more space, if possible, around the text for developing singers to write in pronunciations.
  • Provide clear and endearing program and performance notes. These players dig them.
  • Edit to the utmost of your skill. Include curtesy accidentals. If it saves a pressed-for-time music educator rehearsal time, they will buy from you again.

 

Make It Affordable

Your work and expertise deserve a fair price. Full stop. Most schools and community ensembles aren’t able to commission; a commission would take a year of fundraising. No one should be arguing that composers should lower their rates or “do it for the exposure.” Music educators are generally aware of the work, practice, and years of collective experience go into a single composition, and they also know that they must make their dollars go as far as possible, and many an E-copy from a major publisher is between $55.00 and $75.00 USD. Many departments and ensembles have budgets in the hundreds of dollars a year, not thousands, to add to their libraries. They will have a budget review process, a public one, and need to be able to explain the value for price and direct benefit to students of their expenditures.

  • Consider having a collection of E-works that these ensembles can afford.
  • Offer collections where they do not need to purchase additional parts if one part goes missing.
  • When connections are made or orders come in, be as responsive as possible to whatever documentation process is needed for transparency to demonstrate they are good stewards of tax dollars.
  • Consider partnering with music libraries that are well connected through interlibrary loan networks to buy sections of your catalog and tell educators in your network where to check them out.

 

Make Some New Friends, Reconnect with Old Friends

Connect with Educators and Community Ensembles in your area. It’s not prestigious. These students and lifelong players don’t need your headshot and bio; they need you. And while there are many grants out there to help pay for visiting guest artists (and they should), an honored guest in their midst is only one of the ways that students and community members should connect with composers in-person or electronically. We are the people in their neighborhood; some of the time we should sit beside them, not in front of them. Not just our work, but our presence erodes symbolic assassination. Our engagement within these ensembles is one of many experiences for these musicians that normalize, that de-exoticize, the relationship between composers and performers, especially performers from low-population density areas. Don’t let the developing technique and less than perfect rehearsal discipline blind you to the big hearts of these groups. All kinds of ensembles need nurturing.

  • Join a community ensemble with a municipal or college group and participate.
  • Share your networks with the educators you meet in them.

Both music students and amateurs who play for a lifetime are looking forward to making music with you. Let’s get better connected.

 

Writing for “The Chorus”: Text, Dynamics, and Other Occupational Hazards

NOTUS standing outside

As a composer-conductor who works primarily with new choral music, I encounter over 500 freshly minted new works for chorus each year. Sometimes, I am considering newly published works for potential programming; other times, I evaluate new manuscripts as part of a jury in a composition competition. At still other times, composers will send me scores via email and ask that I consider programming them.

Some of these scores are beautifully crafted, expertly notated, and idiomatically written. More usually, however, the scores will often make exceedingly unwarranted demands on the singers or include some rather basic errors.

In order to guide us all toward a more perfect harmony in writing for the chorus, and because writing for the chorus is often neglected in the training of composers at academic institutions, I am including below some of the most prevalent pitfalls that I have seen over and over again—even by some of today’s most reputable composers.


Point #1: “The Chorus” contains multitudes.

According to Chorus America’s 2009 Chorus Impact Study:

[A]n estimated 42.6 million Americans regularly sing in choruses today. More than 1 in 5 households have at least one singing family member, making choral singing the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for both adults and children.

You can probably surmise that not all of the 42.6 million Americans who sing in choruses are paid professional musicians. This leads us to our first consideration: for whom am I writing?

Unlike in an orchestra, where you can probably expect a section of violins to sound a certain way, a section of sopranos can be any one of a vast range of possibilities—10 trained opera singers, 16 Anglican boy trebles, 50 non-professional community singers over the age of 55, etc.—and it is quite critical that you have some awareness of which choral instrument you are envisioning before writing. As you might imagine, the fortissimo of an opera chorus will likely be very different than the fortissimo of a high school chamber choir.

Whether writing a new commission for a youth chorus or a professional chamber choir, recognize that your role in writing for the chorus is closer to what in fashion is known as “bespoke.” You are tailor-making a new work for a specific group of individuals, and those individuals may come from a wide array of professional or non-professional backgrounds.

The same is true in publishing: you probably wouldn’t submit a sacred anthem for mixed chorus and organ to a publisher that offers its catalogue predominantly to a secular, educational market.

So: before you do anything else, define “the chorus” for your situation or project. It will anticipate and surmount a whole host of problems before they even have a chance of existing.


Point #2: “The Chorus” is not “The Orchestra.”

Where many composers lack academic training in writing for the chorus, nearly all composers are expected to learn how to compose for the orchestra and its various instruments. Composers are taught the technical considerations of the string family—harmonics, bowing techniques, which strings are open, etc.—and about optimal voicings when combining the winds and brass into harmonic sonorities.

Composers also learn what is inadvisable in writing for the orchestra: namely, which pitches do not exist on certain instruments, the dynamic tendencies of certain instruments, why you can usually only write seven pitches for the harp, etc.

Here, then, are some regular rules for “The Chorus,” especially as they differ from “The Orchestra.”

1. Dynamics:

Most voices are naturally quieter in the lower register and naturally louder in the higher register. (Very few people naturally “scream” low in their voice; young babies, when they want your attention, will cry high and loud in their range.)

For this reason, it is very difficult to adequately balance a choral sonority when the sopranos are high (F5-A5) and the basses are low (F2, etc.), as the basses will naturally be softer than the sopranos. This is unlike an orchestra, where a dramatic crescendo may often be built with the low instruments descending (cellos, tuba, bassoons) and the high instruments ascending (violins, clarinets, trumpets, etc.).

Unlike an orchestra, the most effective choral crescendos occur when ALL vocal parts move to the upper part of their vocal range.

Four different chord voicings sung fortissimo: not good (SATB=G5,D4,B3,G2); better (SATB=G5,B4,D4,G3); best (SATB=G5,D5,G4,B3); and best with multiple voices (divisi: sopranos singing E5 and G5; altos singing C5 and D5; tenors singing F#4 and G4; and Basses singing B3 & D4)

Voicings beneath a soprano high G and how they will likely sound.

2. Breath

It is easier for a section of strings to sustain a sonority than it is for a chorus of singers. This may seem self-evident, but singers need to breathe to produce their sound, where string players need to breathe to stay alive, yes, but not to create sound with their bow.

When a chorus is clear on how, when, and where to breathe in music, the resulting performance is always more compelling and artful.

Two different settings of the word stars. In the first one, all sing at piano level the word "stars" on whole notes for four full measures without a breath (SATB = C5,A4,F4,D4). In the second setting, the pitch values are the same but only the sopranos sing "stars", with a crescendo and then a decrescendo halfway through and taking an eighth note rest in the penultimate measure and returning to their pitch intoning "m" pianissimo. The altos, tenors and basses intone "m" throughout and all also take a decrescendo in the penultimate measure with the altos taking an eighth note rest halfway through, the tenors taking an eighth note rest at the end of the first measure, and the basses taking an eighth note rest after the first beat of the penultimate measure.

Of course, a chorus can stagger their breathing—where some voices in the section continue singing while others breathe, and then they switch off—but there are limitations to this technique, too. It is easier to stagger one’s breathing without a noticeable effect during passages that have quieter dynamics and lower ranges. It is much more difficult to do so without noticing when louder dynamics and higher ranges are in play.

If you want to sustain a chord over a long period of time, consider planning the breaths and releases into the over-arching sonority and texture. Not only will it be more successful in performance, it will also probably be more interesting to the listener, too.

There is an easy solution for this: when you are writing choral music, sing every part as if you were performing it. Is it clear where the breaths should be placed? Are you having trouble sustaining a particularly long line? When you begin to put yourself in the place of the singer, your choral writing will improve.

3. Range & Tessitura

Singing high notes is difficult. Singing high notes over a long stretch of time is especially difficult and especially fatiguing, just as it would be if a composer were to demand the same of a brass player. Singing high notes non-vibrato, at a very quiet dynamic is exceedingly difficult. Asking a singer to do this for pages on end is simply cruel.

One of the most common mistakes I see in choral writing is a disregard for the tessitura of the singers. Tessitura—according to Wikipedia (I know)—is “the most aesthetically acceptable and comfortable vocal range.” It’s not just an issue in the higher registers either. It is fatiguing for singers to be in any narrow range for a long period of time.

An extremely slow (all whole notes and fortissimo) parallel setting of the text: "Night has fallen on the lot of them." (Sopranos sing C5 B4 E5 D5 A4 B4 F5 D5 C5; alto sing B3 C4 D4 B3 C4 B3 A3 B3 E4 D4; tenors sing E4 F4 G4 E4 F4 E4 D4 E4 F4 G4; and basses sing A2 B2 C3 A2 B2 A2 G2 A2 B2 C3.) The ranges are all rather condensed and it makes much better sense to swap the tenor and alto parts so they are both singing in more comfortable ranges.

In composition, it is best to consider questions like, “How long has the section been singing in this range?” If you find that the tenors are only singing between D4 and G4 for six pages in a row, you should probably consider re-voicing their part. They will grow tired, their intonation will suffer, and they probably won’t enjoy singing your piece.

So, vary the range and tessitura of your vocal parts, especially for longer and more extended works.


Point #3: “The Chorus” does not have valves, keys, or slides.

From whence cometh the pitch?

While some highly trained choruses can perform any selection of pitches put in front of them, even the very best professional radio choirs in Europe often have to use tuning forks to find pitches in extremely complex music. It is to your benefit as a composer to make this job easier for the singers by skillfully preparing your score to be more successfully executed.

To be clear: I am not advocating for a “dumbing down” of your music. I am saying that we should be aware that a singer cannot just push down a key to find an F#. It is helpful to sometimes find other ways of forecasting the pitch prior to singing.

This may be apparent in the motives played by other instruments before a choral entrance, in the case of choral-instrumental music. In a cappella music, it might be a skillfully placed unison statement for the chorus before a treacherous 11-pitch sonority. Be resourceful but also kind.

A good rule of thumb: Can you, as the composer, pitch every note in your score accurately? If the answer to that is not “yes,” then perhaps consider a rewrite.


Point #4: “The Chorus” does have consonants, vowels, and other assorted phonemes.

Ah, text! Nothing differentiates a chorus from an orchestra more clearly than the use of words and all that they entail.

If you are not used to writing texted music, then some basic disclaimers are worth mentioning:

  • The vowel sound of any syllable is what occurs “on the beat” or “on the note.” So, if you write the word “Strength” on a downbeat, the “Str” will all have to occur before the notated pitch, and the vowel will occur on the beat.
  • Some consonants can be lengthened (m, n, f, v, s, z, sh, zh, etc.) and some cannot (t, d, k, g, p, b, etc.).
  • Chorus releases after notes usually occur on the rests in the music: so when a quarter note on the word “great” is followed by a quarter rest, the “t” sound will occur on the quarter rest following the word. (You do not have to notate this as the composer; the chorus will do this naturally.)

Further: It is your responsibility as the composer to know not only the meaning of the text you are setting, but even and especially the inherent stresses of the language. Nothing shows a novice choral composer more obviously than when the composer writes a motive for a text that inadvertently stresses the inappropriate syllable. Check your dictionary, especially when writing in a less comfortable language, to ensure that you are stressing each word appropriately in your setting.

One of the most common problems I encounter is when a composer hears the composite text of a part in their head, but does not think carefully about what each of the singers have to perform.

Two different settings of the text: "What must you bring?" In the first one, each section sings a different word and sustains it: basses singing "what" on a C3 for two measures, then tenors joining two beats later with "must" on F3 followed by altos singing "you on B3 at the beginning of the second measure and finally sopranos singing "bring" for a single beat two beats later. In the second setting the basses sing all four words on half notes with tenors joining for the final three words, altos the final two, and sopranos the last word, all on the same pitches as the first setting. DiOrio further comments that the first setting sounds like "Wha mu you bringstt" whereas the second one listeners can actually hear the full sentence.

In instances like this, the conductor has to reconfigure the arrangement of syllables to make the composer’s intention clear.

Finally, text is expressive. The chorus can communicate not just the text, but also the meaning behind the words. Make sure you, as the composer, have given some thought to how you would express the text—poetically, rhetorically, etc.

A good practice that works for many composers I know: memorize your text and speak through it regularly, until its natural rhythms, inflections, and lines begin to emerge. Do this before you set any of the words to notated music.


Point #5: “The Chorus” is made of people.

At the end of the day, a chorus is a collection of people. These people come into the rehearsal room with an assortment of daily experiences: one of the baritones may have just won an award, while one of the altos may have lost a parent. They both enter that room to have a communal singing experience that will connect them to others and give voice to where they are on that day.

Millions of Americans sing in choruses because making music is part of being human. To truly be successful as a composer of choral music, we have to recognize that all choral music is in some ways communal music. And all choral music gives voice—literal voice, with text—to our human experience.

So let’s be empathetic composers. Let’s put ourselves in the singers’ shoes. And let’s make the study of choral composition and its rudiments as usual in the academy as the study of string harmonics.

“Singers and Musicians” and Why Our Language Matters

A cohort of singers on outdoor steps

There it was yet again, this time in an article written by a living composer in October 2018.  It stuck out like a four-inch crease in a freshly ironed shirt. While it may first appear—like so many other biases—to be simply a polite substitution, it actually carries a condescension that comes from a long history of implied assumptions that communicate “separate and certainly not equal.”

Not even The New York Times is immune from this double standard. Quite to the contrary, you’ll come across the phrase hundreds of times if you spend just a few minutes scouring their archives. You’ll find it in headlines and reviews, in news articles, letters, and obituaries:

  • An article on the Bayreuth Festival from 2015 includes the line: “Plaques just outside the Festival Theater poignantly memorialize Bayreuth singers and musicians who were persecuted by the Third Reich.”
  • The headline from a 2001 obituary reads: “Alix Williamson, 85, Noted Publicist for Singers and Musicians.
  • A news article on the Metropolitan Opera’s union and management negotiations from 2014 includes this gem: “Outside the opera house on Friday, the day began with about 150 singers and musicians from the Met’s chorus and orchestra holding a demonstration, with a melodious score, in Dante Park, a small park opposite Lincoln Center.” (Aside: yes, I recognize that this is complicated by the names of the unions themselves—i.e. the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra players, and the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the chorus and the principal singers, as well as other professionals including the stage managers—but there is no good reason to use this language when referring directly to the artists themselves and not to their union representation.)
  • And there it was as recently as October 2018 when Nico Muhly was describing his new dramatic work: “My role, as I understand it now, is to be an editor and custodian of the document Nick and I created, and to guide — but not prescribe — the various options the singers and musicians have in expounding it.”

To be absolutely certain that no one misses my point: singers and musicians are not mutually exclusive categories. All singers are musicians, but not all musicians are singers (some are players, some are composers, etc.).

Language matters. When we use the phrase “singers and musicians” in one breath, we communicate—even if inadvertently—that they are mutually exclusive categories. In other words, singers are not musicians.

That’s a problem.

  • When we use the phrase “singers and musicians” in one breath, we communicate that they are mutually exclusive categories.

    Dominick DiOrio, composer and conductor
  • The vast majority of singers are individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to studying the art of performance and the craft of music.

    Dominick DiOrio, composer and conductor
  • These ‘singers’ are making some of the most adventurous new music being written today.

    Dominick DiOrio, composer and conductor

This subtle but false dichotomy reinforces many of the assumptions that singers are forced to confront in their careers: that they are not as musically literate, that they came to their career through a path of sub-par training, that they lack the ability to hear and understand the underpinnings of a musical score, that they have to hire a vocal coach to teach them their part, etc., etc.

We hear it in the subtext beneath the “Eureka!” stories about famous opera singers being discovered, endowed with a beautiful voice but lacking any formal training. (Woody Allen troped on this quite famously in his 2012 movie, To Rome with Love, where a mortician’s perfectly developed operatic tenor is only revealed when he’s singing in the shower.)

It is further reinforced by the history of choral-orchestral music performance, where an important tradition still flourishes: a professional (read: paid) orchestra of players and a non-professional (read: non-paid) chorus of singers combine to perform some of the great warhorses of Western art music (your Beethoven 9s, Mahler 2s, and the like). In this reading, musicians are trained professionals, while singers are those other people participating in the performance who could not have learned their part if it were not taught to them by a chorus master (which, it should be noted, is another problematic name for someone who can and should simply be called “conductor”… but that’s an issue for another article).

All stereotypes are grounded in some kernel of truth, and you may indeed encounter singers who conform to and confirm some of the worst stereotypes. But in my experience as a conductor-composer who has worked with literally thousands of singers, the vast majority of them are individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to studying the art of performance and the craft of music: i.e. musicians.

As a conducting faculty member at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, I lead NOTUS, a select vocal ensemble that is unique among collegiate choirs, as we have a singular mission to perform, commission, and record the works of living composers. As you might expect, we regularly perform contemporary music that is exceedingly challenging. We recently released our first commercial album, NOTUS: Of Radiance & Refraction, which features five world premiere recordings of works that we commissioned from IU faculty members. Listen here to a movement of John Gibson’s In Flight, for chorus and electronics, featuring soprano soloist Kellie Motter:

The thirty-or-so student singers that I work with each year are musicians in every sense of the word. These young people can sing pitches out of thin air from tuning forks. They can tune (and express!) 10-part chords. They can sing melodies with complex polyrhythms and syncopations. And they can do all of this while communicating a poetic text clearly and distinctly. (You might surmise that I’m quite proud of them. You’d be right.)

I prepare these students to be responsive to the musical gesture. I ask them to come to rehearsal already familiar with their musical part (no spoon-feeding their pitches with the piano). In short: I expect each one of them to be as professional a musician as the first oboist in an orchestra is expected to be.

I believe that we confront this bias head-on by making sure that we do everything we can to hold singers to the same musical expectations as our players, especially in our training institutions. I take comfort in knowing that I have many colleagues in this profession who believe the same, and who are also training their singers to be as responsive as the best orchestral players.

Excitingly, the choral repertoire has been expanding and transforming over the last fifty years as this artistic shift in our professional expectations of singers has led composers to imagine new choral musics that were never possible before.

In Sweden, Eric Ericson and his Chamber Choir redefined excellence in choral performance on an international scale with their recordings. They performed music more complex than any other choral repertoire then-written and helped establish careers for composers such as Sven-David Sandström and Lars Edlund. (Here’s the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir performing Sandström’s Agnus Dei consisting of gnarly tonal-ish clusters that float in and out of each other:

Today in the USA, Donald Nally and The Crossing are exhibiting new levels of choral artistry and technical mastery in the performances they give to works by composers such as Ted Hearne, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, David Lang, and Lansing McLoskey. (Here’s The Crossing performing Ted Hearne’s Animals:

Roomful of Teeth and Brad Wells have embraced the “choir as rock band” aesthetic, combining vocal traditions from across the globe to create stunningly otherworldly works by their singer-composers Eric Dudley, Avery Griffin, and Caroline Shaw. Listen to RoT sing Shaw’s “Allemande” from her Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 voices:

And for inspiration beyond measure, look no further than Francisco Núñez and the extraordinary Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Through their Transient Glory program, they have commissioned some of the most interesting, diverse, and eclectic contemporary music for youth chorus ever written, from the likes of Paquito D’Rivera, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, and Michael Torke. And these young people ages 9-18 sing as good as—and in some cases better than—any professional choir. Here they are singing Michael Gordon’s Every Stop on the F Train:

Yes, these groups are made of ‘singers.’ They are choirs, or vocal ensembles, or choruses, collections of people who make noise together with their vocal cords or whatever else you want to call them. But these ‘singers’ are making some of the most adventurous new music being written today, and you can be damned-sure that they are also musicians of the very highest caliber.

So enough. Let’s embrace some new language.

We could say “singers and players” or “vocalists and instrumentalists.” Or maybe call them all “performers” or “artists.”

Or how about just “musicians?”

Work the Work, Daily: Community-Building, Music-Making, and Conference Culture with Tenderloin Opera Company

TOC members at PRONK

It is a dreary, late-fall afternoon when I knock on the door to Diamond’s apartment, a nice duplex in a tidy neighborhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. She opens the door and quickly says, “Jacob, you’re not going to believe this, come look.” I walk through her living room, which is usually cozy but is now filled with twenty over-stuffed garbage bags full of clothes. They were given to her to donate to the homeless and at-risk people that are her clients at the shelter and service center where she works. As winter comes in Rhode Island, these clothes, shoes, and blankets are desperately needed. We get to her bedroom where she lifts a blanket sitting on a crate to reveal a small dog. The little black terrier with wiry hair is jumping and squeaking with excitement. “I’m watching her for a few days until she can get to her new home.”

Three years ago when I met Diamond, I do not think anyone could have imagined that she would be in this situation: housed in a good apartment doing two things she loves—fostering dogs and helping the homeless. Three years ago she was herself homeless and mourning the death of her good friend Wendy Tallo. That was when she first came to a meeting of the Tenderloin Opera Company.

Tenderloin Opera Company is a homeless advocacy music and theater group based in Providence, Rhode Island. It was founded by playwright Erik Ehn and composers Lisa Bielawa and Joshua Raoul Brody in San Francisco. When Erik transplanted to Providence, he recruited local students and homeless advocates to start a new version of the group locally. I was one of them. We kept the name, Tenderloin, to honor the neighborhood in which it was founded. Now in our ninth season, TOC comprises about a dozen core members, including folks who are currently homeless, formerly homeless, homeless advocates, students, artists, and other friends. The members of TOC compose and perform one opera each year based on stories of homelessness, abuse, addiction, hope, love, and redemption. We also perform at social and political events, protests, and marches about issues related to homelessness.

  • Out of this simple writing process characters emerge, those characters interact in a story, that story becomes a script, we make some songs out of the script, and come out with our “opera”—one a year for the past nine years.

    Jacob Richman, multimedia artist, scholar, and educator
  • We all create the characters and drama together, learn the songs together, and perform together. We are always on book, and our motto is “Wrong and Strong.”

    Jacob Richman, multimedia artist, scholar, and educator
  • I believe we spend way too much time locking ourselves in our privileged spaces, looking around at the people who look just like us, and asking each other why nothing changes.

    Jacob Richman, multimedia artist, scholar, and educator

We meet weekly at Mathewson Street Methodist Church in downtown Providence. The church is a hub for homeless outreach non-profits and volunteer groups and hosts a number of free community meals every week. We meet right before the meal on Friday afternoons.

“Put your bodies in the space of someone else…It’s already a whole lot.”
-Helga Davis, New Music Gathering 2018 Keynote Address

Our meetings start with a group check-in, which is perhaps the most important part of the whole enterprise. Members share their names and how they have been doing this week. During check-in, which sometimes lasts up to half an hour, we learn who among the group has gotten housing, who is back on the street, who is sick, who in the community has passed away, who is excited about a new boyfriend (usually it’s Linda), who is doing well, who is recovering, and what is going on down the street at City Hall or the State House that affects the homeless, tenuously housed, and visibly poor populations in Rhode Island.

The rest of the session is spent working on the opera. It starts with generative writing exercises. These exercises are the genius method of Erik Ehn, and we have tried our best to keep the process since he moved away two years ago. They start very simply, with everyone getting index cards and responding to prompts, such as: “List three people you saw on your way to TOC today,” “Five signs of autumn you see on the streets,” “Who has been on your mind this week?” We then read our responses and mix them up: “Take one person you are thinking about this week, and one person someone next to you mentioned, and come up with two things they talk about together,” “Take one sign of autumn you saw, and one you heard from a friend, and make two lines that rhyme.”

Out of this simple writing process characters emerge, those characters interact in a story, that story becomes a script, we make some songs out of the script, and come out with our “opera”—one a year for the past nine years. The operas are technically more like musicals: songs mixed with spoken dialogue. The music for the songs is composed primarily by co-music director Kirsten Volness, some by me, and some with the group all together at the piano.

We have fun in Tenderloin and get to know people.
A place to meet and talk and sing.
A safe space.
My one hour of sanity!
A place to let people know what’s going on in the streets.
—Collective TOC members’ answers to the question, “What is TOC to me?”

We perform the operas each spring, and songs from all the operas (“greatest hits”) at least monthly all around Rhode Island. We all create the characters and drama together, learn the songs together, and perform together. We are always on book, and our motto is “Wrong and Strong.” However, Tenderloin Opera Company performances are some of the most expressive and challenging that I have even been a part of. The music is pop-y, but odd, complex, not what you imagine songs for untrained musicians to be. Within each song are fragments of many people’s stories strung along a main narrative. There are sometimes dance routines, sometimes live sign language translation (also courtesy of Linda), and often extended rhythm vamps, opened up for members to approach a mic and tell a story.

TOC members in rehearsal

TOC members in rehearsal

TOC works are truly “operatic” in subject matter and deal with stories derived from our members’ experiences with homelessness: loss, neglect, exploitation from landlords and politicians, and police harassment, but also love, recovery, magic, and spirituality. Homelessness is deadly, and almost all of our plays involve memorial songs we write about members and friends who have passed. Their ghosts and angels inhabit our operas, as do robots, talking dogs, half-baked superheroes, and villains who curiously resemble the local politicians, authorities, and land developers whose actions threaten the lives of our members and the character of our city.

An example of how a TOC member’s personal experiences transformed into a song is the case of founding member David Eisenberger and the song “Article 134.” The story derived from Dave’s experience as a veteran and having to deal with the unfair and dehumanizing aspects of the code of military justice and veteran neglect. Its lyrics include his stories and experiences, but also a smattering of those from other group members, including dealing with a pregnant teenage daughter, relationship drama, and a collapsing marriage.

“Work the work, daily”
—from the TOC song “Ranger Juan

For almost ten years, Tenderloin Opera Company has been effective in helping our members express themselves, find friendship and fellowship, but also find resources, services, donated goods, whatever is needed in a given week. It connects our members to a broader homeless services network, 134 Collaborative, headquartered at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church. We look out for each other, make art, and perform together.

What has allowed for this success is consistency and situating our activity within the homeless and homeless advocacy community. We meet, rehearse, and perform our operas in the place where people come to serve, eat meals, and get vital services.

TOC playing a gig at People’s Baptist Church community meal, Providence 2016

TOC playing a gig at People’s Baptist Church community meal, Providence 2016

TOC On Tour: Community Art and Conference Culture

In 2016, TOC was invited to present at the New Music Gathering hosted at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. The theme for that year’s gathering was “Community,” and we performed some songs and took part in a panel discussion that included other community arts groups from around the country.

I knew it was important to bring some TOC members who were currently experiencing homelessness or were closer to it than I and the other more privileged members were. When I asked the group, Diamond insisted that she was going.

TOC members Laurie Amat, Diamond Madsen, Wendy Thomas, and Jacob Richman at Peabody Conservatory 2016

TOC members Laurie Amat, Diamond Madsen, Wendy Thomas, and Jacob Richman at Peabody Conservatory 2016

At the time, Ruth “Diamond” Madsen was at a low point. She had been in and out of homelessness and was currently staying at Crossroads, the largest shelter and transitional housing complex in Rhode Island. Among other things, she was struggling with the loss of a good friend, Wendy Tallo, who had been found hanging from a tree in a cemetery off Broad Street, one of the most hard-up blocks in Providence. The official cause of death was suicide, though word on the street was that she was murdered. Diamond wrote a poem about it that we had set to music earlier that season. This horrific event came during a dark couple of years in which there were numerous attacks on homeless and visibly poor individuals in Rhode Island, including some TOC members.

It wasn’t easy making sure Diamond could get away. I had to talk to her case manager at Crossroads to convince them that the conference and her role as speaker and performer was legitimate, and to make sure her spot at the shelter wouldn’t be given up while she was gone. The lack of trust and leeway given to Diamond was very demoralizing.

Once that was settled, we piled four TOC members and luggage in my car and sped off south on I-95. As soon as we hit the road, there was a change in Diamond’s demeanor. She was excited, singing and dancing around in her seat. Then she quieted down and started furiously thumbing at her phone. By the time we crossed the Delaware River, Diamond had used social media to contact a number of homeless outreach organizations in Baltimore. She had scheduled time for us to visit the Franciscan Center of Baltimore, to work at the kitchen there giving out meals, sort donated coats, and perform with TOC at breakfast. She did all this in a couple of hours on her phone in the car.

We spent our week in Baltimore traveling between the marble palace of Peabody Conservatory to perform and talk about homelessness and arts outreach, and the Franciscan Center on West 23rd Street to play for homeless people, hand out coats, and share stories.

Diamond was a star at both locations. After our talk and performance at NMG, she was swarmed by new fans who listened to her share her experiences and asked nervous questions about building community through new music and art.

“What’s all this about community?…You know where I am. I’m homeless. Just come be with me and you’ll be my community.”
—Ruth “Diamond” Madsen, New Music Gathering 2016

Diamond addressing crowd at NMG 2016

Diamond addressing crowd at NMG 2016

There is a disconnection between the ease with which Diamond approaches community and the way we approach it as community arts groups at conferences—just like there is often a disconnection between our rhetoric on diversity and inclusivity in the new music community and how we actually practice our art.

I was disheartened to see that many of the same discussions (“conversations,” as we often say) we had at the 2016 New Music Gathering were repeated at the 2018 NMG in Boston, without much having changed in the intervening two years. To understand this, it is worth watching Keynote Speaker Helga Davis’s brilliant, Socratic indictment of the difference between the stated aspirations and realities of the new music community.

“If you want to know what you want, look at what you have.”
—Helga Davis quoting August Gold, NMG 2018 Keynote Address

A number of times I have been invited to speak about TOC at conferences focused on the arts and community building, yet have been asked to leave my fellow TOC community members at home—to give my “notes from the field,” I suppose. Based on my own experiences at these conferences, they seem to achieve little in terms of the broad concerns they presume to address.

However, the effect that visiting the New Music Gathering had on Diamond was profound. Since the conference almost three years ago, Diamond has been continuously housed, has been awarded internships and paid trainings, and is now working at a homeless outreach center and women’s shelter in Pawtucket, RI. She attends TOC meetings almost every week and helps fellow bandmate Wendy organize clothing donations at Mathewson Street Church where we meet. She still talks about the crabs and spiked milkshakes we had at our splurge dinner in Baltimore.

Diamond enjoying crabs

Diamond enjoying crabs

Diamond: Risky Business

…and doing “Risky Business” at our hotel in Mount Vernon, Baltimore

Things were rough for Diamond when we left. But at the New Music Gathering she saw how much people valued her and her knowledge about the homeless community, and how people from different backgrounds can come together in a group like TOC to share stories and make music. The fact that she was asked to share this information and help people at both places of high privilege and extreme need made the process even more meaningful.

“EVERYBODY NEEDS A LITTLE TOC IN THEIR LIVES”
—Diamond

What my experience with TOC at the New Music Gathering taught me was that these types of meetings can make change, but only if you let people in. What if we invited more people from different backgrounds to a conference like NMG? What if we did outreach? Volunteered as part of the conference program? Held a student instrument exchange? What if we let performers of all kinds perform their own new music in the well-heeled institutions where these things are held, and also had the conference take place in community centers, schools, churches, clubs, and homeless shelters? I believe we spend way too much time locking ourselves in our privileged spaces, looking around at the people who look just like us, and asking each other why nothing changes.

“Make something with a group of people that includes people that don’t look like you…Just the invitation will begin to open a door…We’re interested in opening the door.”
—Helga Davis, NMG 2018 Keynote Address

We need to create community art that lets people in and lets everyone grow. I think we can do this by being more mobile, flexible, and accessible. Flexible in terms of where, when, and with whom we perform. Accessible not in the terms of the art we make—some TOC performances are as complex as anything I’ve seen or performed—but in terms of cost, location, and transportation options to the venue. We in the new music community will have to give up control and come out of our comfort zones.

Here’s my advice based on my experience with the Tenderloin Opera Company for almost ten years: Show up. Be consistent. Make friends. Meet in a space that is accessible to your community (geographically, economically, handicap accessible). Keep the performing group together for more than one show. Raise money to go on trips and small tours. Diamond demonstrated to me how important and impactful these excursions can be.

Prepare for it to be hard: the structures that separate us are old, powerful, and ingrained. There will almost always be something that trips us up and reveals the privilege, difference, otherness, and walls between people that your group is working to dismantle. But that’s okay. It’s necessary. Expect to be challenged. As Davis said, “Be willing to let go of your rightness of what you think you know.” If we are not able to do that, we should stop lying to ourselves about wanting to change.

Courting the “Lay” Listener

dating music

I am on a date, and he asks me, “What do you do?” I tell him, and if he is not scared away, we go to my car and I play him select recordings of my music. I am notably vulnerable, and he is just calm. Then, I ask him what he thinks. The reaction is routine.

Whether it’s him, a family member I have not seen in a while, or an old friend from high school, upon hearing my work, they may describe my music as “beautiful” or “relaxing.” These are not bad terms, but my heart cries that they cannot fully digest what I and my collaborators have made—the inspiration, the obsession, the hours of self-doubt, the days of rehearsal, and the anticipation. And what they experience is just, “Mmm.”

Do they hear the intricacies? Do they experience the seduction of a modulation or harmonic parenthesis? Do they feel the tension created by suspension or sense the folding of time created by contrapuntal rhythms or melodic heterophony?

I fear not. They may not have learned how to listen to this genre of music.

Maybe it’s my failure as a composer to be plain enough. It’s conjecture, but they probably listen to music organized by regular beats and loops and jams. Or perhaps, they would appreciate it more deeply if my music were delivered in timbres to which they were accustomed, i.e., electronics.

Declassifying “Classical”

My dates commonly make the comment, “All of my friends that listen to ‘classical’ music, are those who have formally studied music.” And there’s the rub!

It is a little disheartening that everybody, including “classical” musicians, has the need to grasp for terms like “classical,” “concert,” or worse, “art” music. Is there not a tacit air of aristocracy or bourgeoisie to the concert-going community? I know that what I do and with whom I do it are privileges, but our products ought to be more publicly digestible.

“Classical” is a problematic blanket term for Baroque, Renaissance, Romantic, and contemporary music performed by choral, symphonic, wind band, and chamber ensembles. What is more, these classifications are blanket terms in themselves! And, I understand that we credit composers, not “artists,” for creation, but why is there so much compartmentalization?

Overwhelmingly, I prefer music on acoustic media. Of course, it is a matter of taste, and my taste is influenced by classically oriented ears. It is not to say that I do not appreciate more mainstream genres of music, but I certainly have an affinity for artists with some classical background, e.g., Regina Spektor, Sara Bareilles, and the Québecoise Béatrice Martin of Cœur de pirate.

Bridging the Gap

On a personal note, until grad school, my background was predominantly choral and vocal, and my listening was limited. I had only a moderate appreciation for symphonic music. But after a year of orchestration seminar, a semester on the history of orchestral “masterworks,” and a semester on Mozart’s string quartets, my ears were utterly transformed. I discovered colors, layers, and movement that I did not acknowledge before. How had I gone all these years not truly hearing the music?

Very plainly put, this is yet another push for music education as core curriculum because the study of music is fundamentally the study of listening. And we are all missing out when children are neither readily exposed to nor invited to participate in musicmaking.

Two years ago, I met the director of choral activities at the University of Washington, Dr. Geoffrey Boers, when he came to Texas to clinic the All-State Choir, and I was fortunate to hear him speak on choral music programming. He suggested, and I paraphrase, that folk and pop music is in fact contemporary “classical” music—that it is as appropriate for an ensemble to sing an arrangement of the Beatles or Elton John as it is for them to sing Brahms or Britten.

Months later, I attended a choral convention in Seattle, in which his Chamber Choir performed. Their program, themed “Stars,” consisted of works from a variety of eras: a Monteverdi madrigal, a 20th-century avant-garde piece by Ingvar Lidholm, and a contemporary work by Eric Barnum. But the most memorable song was their finale, Boers’s choral arrangement of “Lippy Kids” by the British artist Elbow. The director withdrew from the podium, and the choir, dispersed around the stage, revealed a tenor at the mic and another chorus member at the piano. As their soulful singing built, the choir raised their hands, holding reflective stars, and became a full portrait of the night sky.

The addition of a non-“classical” arrangement was deeply moving. Having witnessed others in tears, I know the singers connected with the listeners. Perhaps the solution we seek is such programming, which offers a fusion of genres to inhabit the same time and space. So, all of us can appreciate the music a little more deeply.

What musicians create serves many purposes, but it is all in vain if we are not genuinely connecting with the listeners. We owe it to ourselves to deepen their listening and to maximize our communication.

Con vibrato ma non troppo: Rethinking Sopranos

boys chorus

boys chorus

“Keep it light.”

“Less wobble.”

“Check your vibrato.”

Choral singers, from adolescents to adults, are familiar with a conductor’s fussing over, specifically, the soprano section’s vocal production. Conductors, many of whom are not trained sopranos, hate to confess that they ask their sopranos to sing senza vibrato. To most, such instruction is anathema.

Even so, there are a variety of ways they tiptoe around asking sopranos for such “pure” tone production. And what is often perceived by their singers is that vibrato is bad, ugly, tasteless, or unnecessary, to the extent that vocal pedal tones and high pianissimi look daunting.

Soprano and composer Victoria Fraser, a friend of mine who makes a living as a choral musician, recently referenced her experience at a summer music festival in Germany. They prepared one movement from a new major work by James MacMillan, commissioned for the following summer, and she said it “killed” the sopranos. To which I responded, “Well, MacMillan is not a soprano.”

I fondly recall singing the popular Scottish composer’s The Gallant Weaver under Simon Carrington as a member of the Texas All-State Choir. It is a sublime example of a work for advanced adult mixed voices requiring vocal flexibility, endurance, and wide ranges. The alto, tenor, and bass parts remain low and the sopranos are high and exposed. In fact, there are three soprano parts, creating a melody that echoes in heterophony with many sustained highs and repeated leaps to A5.

Yes, it makes beautiful music, but it is what I call an “expensive piece.” It is demanding, to say the least. This model for vocal beauty has been popularized, and, much like society’s standards for feminine beauty, it is lofty, grossly impractical, and often, manufactured.

It is a suspicion of mine that this is the case because most of the choral repertory comes from male composers, who have no experience in the role of sopranos who are women.

A Misnomer

It so happens that a significant amount of our choral literature draws from an historical context in which women were not able to participate. The SATB voicing, as we know it today, belonged to all-male choruses, consisting of both pre- and post-pubescent male voices.

Consider the language. Soprano is Latin and ends in “o.” Even in 2016, even when discussing female roles through centuries of opera and the highest voices in our vocal ensembles across the world, women are given the title of “boy.”

Early music is customary in choral markets and programming, from high school on, and we have become more than comfortable with the “o.” And now, we are composing, conducting, and teaching in a way that puts post-pubescent female voices into the role of pre-pubescent males’. That is, we expect our sopranos to sing thin, high, and without vibrato.

Victoria Fraser suggests there has indeed been an early music “revolution,” which is a factor in the increased desire for straight tone singing. She believes that the trend of early music has “bled” into contemporary choral music, and she laments that conductors often opt out of a more energized, colored vocalization from their sopranos.

So, why as professionals do we perpetuate, and why as composers do we imitate, the sound of a soprano section comprised of pre-pubescent boys? Why insist on the misunderstanding that adult female sopranos are able to or should sing strictly senza vibrato in the way children do?

Vocal Health

Too often, conductors forsake healthy vocal production for easy tuning and clarity of tone. Then, we revisit the controversy between the proverbial choral director and their private vocal instructors.
The teacher in me would ask that we compose with the understanding that “straight tone” singing all the time is not only limiting to a soprano’s timbral capacity but also destructive to their instrument. Such strain can lead to vocal nodules and other health-related phonation problems.

Conversely, singing con vibrato is singing out, with energy, and it is conducive to efficient phonation for all voice types, especially on highs and fortes. Vibrato also helps with vocal endurance because it is only possible when the vocal mechanism is in a position to relax and allow for some vibration, which is an indication of steady breath flow.

That is to say, if the first sopranos are singing above the staff senza vibrato for longer than a couple of minutes with infrequent rests, you are going to have an exhausted soprano section for the remainder of your rehearsal or concert.

Composers would do well to prevent such a situation. We may think we can get away with sustained highs and louds senza vibrato because of that seductive playback function on our engraving software. Those sopranos do not have trouble sustaining and tuning when they are represented by a pre-recorded sound. But there are more reliable models.

As another expert in the vocal field, my brother Matthew Valverde, puts it: “Sopranos who can ‘straight tone’ beautifully all day do exist. But if you’re looking for the music to be done well and in diverse communities, it is best to allow women to just sing.”

Composers Are Responsible

One of the mundane but necessary parts of collegiate composition curricula is the study of what is idiomatic to compose for any given instrument. What are the different colors you get as you explore the clarinet’s registers? How difficult will it be to hear a flute at that dynamic level in that tessitura? What triple stops are feasible on the violin? How quickly can the harpist make these pedal changes?

Likewise, it behooves a composer to research the idiom of adult female voices. Unfortunately, recording after recording will suggest that sopranos have supernatural abilities of sustained tone production like sunbeams on a crisp winter morning. Such a sound comes at a cost, and we could stand to reimagine vocal beauty for the sake of the accessibility of our composition with sensitivity to the longevity of our collaborators’ livelihoods.

An Atheist Composer on Choral Music

female chorus

female chorus

Musicians of all stripes are just coming off of a month of “winter” concerts, services, masses, caroling, and other traditional religious productions. It is no mystery that Christmas and Easter are among the best times to get a decent paying gig. As a singer, I am among these musicians.

Ever since high school, I have adored choral music. Like many young musicians, I idolized the composers and decided I wanted to compose choral music, too. Indeed, new choral music has a big market!

But, as an atheist in a field often inextricably connected to a religious community, there is an element of cognitive dissonance that’s a running theme in my career. When I tell someone that I sing in professional choirs and compose “mostly” choral music, it is uncomfortable, even alienating, when they make the assumption that I do so for spiritual reasons, that I am a “believer,” that the music that I compose is for worship, and that it has been sung by choirs, in the strictest sense, not choruses.

Why do so many people assume “sacred choral” music when I say just “choral” music? Religion, like music and especially choral music, at its best brings people together for a common good. That is the reason I sing in choirs.

Still, I was raised in Texas, surrounded by religiously conservative messages that discouraged me from ever exploring questions of faith. Because of my queer identity, I understood early on that there was not really a place for me in the church. It turned out, I was okay with it.

Sacred vs. Secular

One of the most unnerving moments of my career, young as it may be, came with my first publication. I was truly overjoyed to put forth my work as part of the Anton Armstrong Choral Series, but it was initially misclassified as “sacred” not “secular,” presumably because the word “Heaven” was in the title.

Why do publishers make the distinction in the first place? We do not market band or orchestral music as “sacred” or “secular.”

The one time I met Eric Whitacre, he said something to the effect of, “Isn’t all music sacred?” These words come from a composer whose music was described as “religious music for the commitment-phobe” two years later by The Telegraph after a performance in London. It is quite clear that the writer Ivan Hewett is not a fan, but I would argue that the premise of the discussion is a bit contrived.

The composer identifies as “not an atheist, but not a Christian either.” So, why does Hewett insist on contextualizing Whitacre’s music as “spiritual” at the Proms? Are their audiences really “craving” religious music? Are we not permitted to perform “sacred” music at a concert hall? Or “secular” music in a church?

We are living in the era of Whitacre’s Alleluia, which is a choral setting based on a—presumably secular—instrumental work of his called October. His music sells well, and his Alleluia is deemed appropriate in a religious context because of its title and single-word content. After all, is there a non-religious way to sing “Praise the Lord”?

In any case, I could not condemn a composer for expressing his “spiritual” agnostic truth.

Blurry church interior

Why the Distinction?

Still, since we are in the business of distinction, or perhaps discrimination, I think we should call “sacred” choral music what it actually is: Christian choral music. Surely, this repertory is distinct from music inspired by Judaism and Islam, e.g. Steve Reich’s Tehillim or Abbie Betinis’s Bar Xizam.

Additionally, why does the term “sacred” in a publisher’s catalog tend to exclude music from non-Abrahamic religious traditions? What about Native American-, Canadian First Nation-, or Aboriginal-inspired texts? Why should we put such a limit on what qualifies as “sacred” music? What does it suggest about “secular” music?

Perhaps the prevalence of specifically Christian choral music is what is limiting. In prioritizing the “sacred” above the “secular,” we emphasize certain lessons and ignore others.

At the very least, we have abandoned the questions of human sexuality and gender diversity. When discussing a commission with Sandi Hammond, the director of one of the United States’ first all-transgender choruses, she insisted that a new work not include anything about Jesus or the Bible. She said her singers felt “suppressed” by religion. As a trans woman myself, I understand their frustration too well. To us, there is something missing or erased in a program that excludes music that is not part of a Christian tradition.

Facing Forward

Now that I have it off my chest, I would like to ask for a response from composers. Has choral music been relevant to you in a way that Christianity has not? Have you wanted to compose choral music but have not—or have you ignored the contemporary choral scene altogether—because of its religious association?

Needless to say, I am reluctant to set “sacred” texts. I will only set them if they truly move me, as in the case of the Prayer of St. Francis. I am more than eager to expand the repertory of “secular” choral music, and I would encourage other composers to contribute the same.

Those of you who are choral directors, especially in a high school or university environment, could we focus on humanism, rather than religion? What makes the “sacred” choral literature you program or compose relatable to the singers, some of whom may not be Christians?

As an atheist singing, teaching, or composing music associated with religion, I strive to appreciate how the “deeper” meaning is universally applicable. Whether or not we accept a particular faith as a spiritual direction, it is, perhaps, of utmost importance that we connect with the humanist content of these musical settings.

***

Mari Valverde

Mari Valverde

Mari Esabel Valverde is a composer, singer, teacher, and translator. Her music has been featured at conventions, festivals, and tours across the States and abroad in England, France, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Oman. A native of Texas, she holds degrees from St. Olaf College and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a protégée of David Conte. She has appeared with the St. Olaf Choir, International Orange Chorale of San Francisco, Dallas Symphony Chorus, Dallas Chamber Choir, and Vox Humana.

Killsonic: L.A.’s wild, war-painted musical incubator

It was late July of  2010, and we stood lined up in pairs just outside the lobby of the REDCAT Theater in downtown Los Angeles. I found myself constantly adjusting the bottom layer of the tattered green-black garbage bag dress that was my costume as a member of the Tongues Bloody Tongues women’s choir.  We were a wild-looking gang of women, specifically placed at the end of a long and windy procession of musicians, with our hair teased out and plastered into swoops and swirls on top of our heads, black liquid eyeliner streaked in an arc of tears from the lower lid of one eye, fashioned to look like oil. As we waited, the accordion players in front of us made jokes amongst themselves while members of the drum core twirled sticks deftly in one hand or stood quietly, waiting for the cue to move.

A friend of our troupe burst out of the lobby doors and into the REDCAT parking structure where we waited, exclaiming, “It’s sold out! They can’t fit any more people into the lobby.”  Excited chatter rose from the line. The tension between us all grew thick and the garage seemed to grow warmer.  A few of my fellow choir members checked the batteries of their bullhorns, pressing the red button in and out in a series of audible clicks.

NOW Fest #1  7/2010

In five minutes the Los Angeles-based music collective and marching band known as Killsonic (KS) was about to make its REDCAT debut, literally and sonically invading the cramped lobby with a bombastic cacophony of horns, accordions, full drum core, Amazonian war cries and amplified shrieks.  We were to make our way through the center of the crowd and divide into two lines, furies on one side and musicians on the other, and we were to engage in a full-on sound battle.  The audience could not escape, were not meant to escape. They were now both full participant and witness to this musical frenzy, showered in sound and confusion only to then be escorted into the theater space itself surrounded by both band and choir.

NOW Fest #1  7/2010

It was a moment that in many ways symbolized the creative culmination of the long-time and ever-evolving sound of the band and the city it hailed from. By the time the band had made its way to the New Original Works Festival there that July, it had grown from a little-known smallish avant-garde jazz ensemble made up of primarily music students into a sought-after 30-plus person marching band with a membership comprised of people representing all walks of life, music training, education, financial, and occupational backgrounds.

My introduction to the group happened in the early ‘00s when good friend, composer, and KS founding member Brian Walsh heard me doing vocal warm ups in between teaching students at the music store where we both taught in the San Fernando Valley.  He asked me if the sounds he had heard emanating from my studio had come from me.  Not quite sure how to interpret the question, I answered with a sheepish, “Yes, why? Was it too loud?”  Brian just smiled and asked me if I’d like to sing in a new project he was involved in.

Over a series of many Tuesday evenings we would all cram together in the living room of a small house in Highland Park and run through song after song. We endured long, sometimes agonizing breaks in between while Brian and KS founders contrabassist Michael Ibarra, drummer “Princess Frank” Luis, guitarist Minh Pham, and percussionist Dominique “Chief” Rodriguez would debate arrangements and timing.

It was during these various rehearsal cycles with KS, in all its shapes and variations, that my foundational understanding and approach to creating music was challenged and ultimately blasted apart. I realized quickly that being a part of this group was not going to lead to the makings of singer-songwriter-y stuff. I would not be singing with my guitar, and the sounds demanded of me as a vocalist would not be the gentle, soft, and harmony-laden sound so often associated with the music of Southern California.  It would instead demand growls and guttural sounds in some places, whispering and soft crooning the next. It would demand that I surrender all I knew about “verse chorus verse” and be an active creator and listener of something completely foreign to my classically trained ears and thinking. Creating the material needed for the choir’s parts in Tongues Bloody Tongues meant turning the traditional song form on its head, breaking it down, and patching it back together in a way that would create a sonic picture of a sandstorm in the desert or the call of tropical birds in the jungle. At times we were provided with only a verbal description of a feeling or landscape and other times we were introduced to the cues and symbols used in John Zorn’s game pieces. The process summoned both the beautiful and ugly from us vocally and coupled it with the ceremonial make up of  either chanteuse or madwoman, depending on the performance.

Los Angeles itself is a city of duality. At first glance one may see only the gorgeous and sprawling campus of venues such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the LA Opera atop Bunker Hill in downtown L.A. These are spaces where the classic canon of high art is performed on a regular basis. One may see that audiences for such places and repertoire is often comprised of a rather homogeneous community: older adults of a certain income bracket, education, and experience of life and art.  Yet one only has to walk a few blocks down the hill from such revered centers of culture to experience the truth and reality of downtown L.A.: an endless stream of homeless men and women sleeping in doorways and sidewalks, many bussed in and dumped from facilities and towns unable to contain or rehabilitate them.

Killsonic held the right musical pedigree to play the more refined stages of Bunker Hill, but it was from the less glamorous part of the city that the band declared itself musically. With its sinister horn parts and rapid-fire percussion, the group took to the streets and subways of downtown L.A., to those seen but unspoken of places and energies, and created music that erupted in frenzied harmonies and dissonance only to then melt into a slinky groove or Latin-infused rhythm of the neighborhoods they lived and worked in.  Killsonic at UCLA’s Royce Hall

As the band grew in popularity and exposure, it refused to change its tone and approach, instead bringing these truths into more open public spaces. The band eventually took its work right into the spaces it rebelled against: outside on the plaza of UCLA’s Royce Hall, around and through the art and sculpture of LACMA, the slick and hip art galleries on the Sunset Strip. In 2010, Killsonic marched itself straight into the audience of the black box theater of Walt Disney Concert Hall to tell a wild music tale of the history of Iraq.

Los Angeles is also a city that is easy to hide away or get lost in. The sense of community that can be found in other creative towns such as Chicago or San Francisco is much less present here.  You have to work to find your tribe, and you have to remain dedicated to sustaining and maintaining it. You have to be fierce in your creative work, because the number of people here pursuing similar endeavors is exponential and there is much audience fatigue—too many people performing in too many spaces with all the prospective audiences generally too wrapped up in the reason they moved here themselves to take time out to go see your show or play or gig or reading. That Killsonic was able to create a growing and loyal musical community and space for itself in a town where such things are difficult is truly incredible.

The performance at REDCAT signaled the beginning of the group’s dissolution. This was not because of conflict, but because over the course of its ten year history, a varied and colorful collective of musicians, composers, music educators, filmmakers, visual, and performance artists had grown in confidence and talent through the continued supportive environment of the collective itself. The time had come for its members to reinvent themselves once again, much like the ongoing reconstruction of Los Angeles itself.

El-Haru Kuroi—a trio made up of Michael A. Ibarra on bass, Eddicka Organista on vocals and guitar, and Dominique “Chief” Rodriguez on percussion—emerged around the time of Tongues Bloody Tongues performances. The group has since garnered a substantial fan base for and acclaim for itself, carrying the Mexican and African rhythms often referenced in KS music into a more intimate and guitar-based setting.

Dominique also joined up with several KS horn players and another music store colleague, Charles de Castro, to create a group called the California Feetwarmers, a musical ensemble that came together to share their mutual love of ‘20s music and bring it to a public audience. The group recently found itself walking the red carpet at the 2014 57th Annual Grammy ceremony as nominees for Best American Roots Performance on Keb Mo’s “The Old Me Better” and appearing on the BBC.

And the person responsible for bringing me into this tribe, Brian Walsh, has and continues to compose and play in a wide variety of avant-garde jazz and new music projects, most recently in the group Gnarwhallaby, the Brian Walsh Set Trio, and upcoming performances at the 2015 Hear Now Music Festival this May with Brightwork newmusic.

In terms of my own work, the aleatoric approach to creating song and sound has crept into every aspect of my creative outlets, whether it be writing lyrics for a new rock-based project or creating textural landscapes for electric and acoustic guitar.  It eventually snuck its way into my column for Acoustic Guitar magazine this past year, with a step-by-step explanation of how to write a song by chance using using backgammon dice and online random sound generators. How very curious I have been to find out what happened to the folks that read that article and took the risk to attempt it.

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Lubbock

October Crifasi is a songwriter, musician, educator, and writer with extensive experience teaching and performing nationwide, including several years on the faculty at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and as guitar coach for projects on the Great American Country Channel (GAC), MTV, and Lifetime Networks. She is a regular columnist for Acoustic Guitar and Classical Guitar magazines and also directs a private guitar studio for girls and women in the San Fernando Valley called Girls Guitar School. In addition to music, October lives a parallel life as professional comics writer and overall nerd. She can be found online at www.rocktober.org or on Twitter @OctoberCrifasi.

Austin: Conspirare’s Moving Light

Craig Hella Johnson - photo by Danny Brod

Craig Hella Johnson
Photo by Danny Brod

What are the first few names that come to mind when you think of Texas music? It’s not a stretch to imagine that Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, or Billy Gibson (of ZZ Top) might pop up, and it should come as no surprise that these are just a few of the people who have been honored as the Official Texas State Musician of the Year in the eleven years that the award has been around. However, it’s not only grizzled road warriors and guitar-slingers getting recognition in the Lone Star state. Selected for a one-year appointment by the Texas Poet Laureate, the current State Musician, and the State Artist Committee, last year’s honoree was Conspirare founder and artistic director Craig Hella Johnson. His career in Texas spans over twenty years, including a decade at UT Austin, and in that time he has taken a one-off project for the Victoria Bach Festival and turned it into a powerhouse of contemporary vocal music. That these accomplishments track in the world of concert music is no surprise, but the fact that they’ve garnered recognition as representative of the state at large is exciting.

Often referred to as “Conspirare’s Craig Hella Johnson” the truth is actually the other way around. Conspirare in many ways is Craig Hella Johnson, and when you see them perform you are seeing his vision come to life. To bring the members of an ensemble (let alone the audience) along on a journey takes the ability to show confidence and sincerity and to instill trust and wonder. I saw him speak about his life in music before a group of composers last summer and about twenty minutes into a two hour chat half of the people in the room were weeping. Several people had to leave the room to collect themselves. These were mostly simple stories about important mentors and moments in his development, but he had a way of talking about them that brought everyone in the room into his world by relating to similar stories from theirs. It was neither a motivational speech nor one that seemed to be engineered to endear; the guy just connects, and it comes through whether he’s on the stage or kicked back in a comfortable chair.

Conspirare Symphonic Choir - photo by Danny Brod

Conspirare Symphonic Choir
Photo by Danny Brod

“Moving Light,” Conspirare’s most recent concert offering, was held on campus at the massive University Presbyterian Church on March 28, and consisted of two light-themed pieces: Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna and Luminosity by James Whitbourne. The former has become a bit of a warhorse in its short life and generally finds itself paired with heavy hitters of the canon such as the Brahms or the Faure, while the latter is even newer and shows it with solo parts for tanpura, viola, and tam-tam. I’ve seen Conspirare’s professional chamber choir, Company of Voices, on more than a few occasions, but this was my first experience with the full symphonic choir. Playing to an absolutely packed house, the 80-member choir filled the stage to begin the concert with the Lauridsen. Cast in five movements and clocking in at just under 30 minutes, the work draws its text from ancient liturgies including the Requiem Mass and its musical inspiration from the late Renaissance. The movements are played without pause, and Austin Haller’s organ accompaniment more often traded moments with the chorus as opposed to playing with it.

It’s no wonder the piece has been played regularly since its premier in the late ’90s. A thoroughly approachable piece overflowing with clean consonances, it struck me that such a texture really does put into stark relief the few sharp edges that pop out from time to time. In particular, the theme which materializes homophonically in the outer movements is not harmonically adventurous (and need not be), but its coalescence in a sea of flowing lines was quite striking.

In contrast, the Whitbourne showed up in some flashier clothes by way of the Shay Ishli Dance Company, which joined the singers on stage. The seven movements draw freely and liberally from a variety of religious texts in which light plays a role, and as these unfolded the dancers moved around and behind several screens through which the light flowed, at times creating shadows and silhouettes and at others showing through what appeared to be smoke from a smoke machine. I was up in the balcony for this one, so it was tricky to see if the smoke played a larger role below my field of vision, but from where I was sitting it was subtly handled. Throughout, Mousumi Karmakar’s tanpura played its foundational role, intoning 5-1 at various points as Sean Harvey accented entrances and colored the texture with tam-tam. Violist Bruce Williams played beautifully and managed to project even through the thickest of moments, all while the chorus delivered a strong performance under Johnson’s direction.

It’s heartening to know that among those named Official Texas State Musician of the Year is a prominent classical musician (two actually; Robert Dick was the inaugural honoree), mostly because it’s not simply a token honor. It’s indicative of Johnson’s impact on Conspirare and, by extension, on the Texas choral scene, and he more than warrants such recognition. I’m not sure that it’s the kind of thing that’s really on his radar though. He’s planning the next twenty years.

Warts and All

VOLTI

Last month I had the chance to work with the exceptional San Francisco chamber choir Volti as part of the choir’s choral arts laboratory for nascent choral composers. The singers in Volti are all new music specialists, and director Bob Geary and longtime composer-in-residence Mark Winges have brought countless works to life during the ensemble’s past seasons.

Volti commissions works by more experienced choral composers such as Stacy Garrop and Armando Bayolo, as well as performing contemporary classics by Aaron Kernis and David Lang, but Volti’s choral arts laboratory is all about offering younger composers a chance to learn the ropes in a supportive environment. It’s an experience that any young composer would be grateful for, and as I’ve yet to write a “real” SATB choral piece I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity.

This year, Volti decided to try something new: the big theater in town (the American Conservatory Theatre) had just opened up a new black box theater in Central Market, and Volti worked out an arrangement to use the space for an open rehearsal of new music. There’s a sense in which showing off a work-in-progress with all its warts to a roomful of strangers isn’t something that would make all composers sit up and exclaim, “Sounds good! Sign me up!” but I found the questions and response from the assembled audience to be provocative and ultimately very helpful. I sure wish that I could rehearse every piece several months prior to having it turned in; and even more wistfully, I wish that every ensemble I worked with was as invested, thoughtful, and eager to explore new ideas as Volti.

A.C.T.'s The Costume Shop, a 49-seat black box theater in Central Market

A.C.T.’s The Costume Shop, a 49-seat black box theater in Central Market
Photo by Dan Visconti

Which makes me wonder: Why don’t we do this all the time? The idea of a composition as a public work-in-progress (and composition as an act deeply integrated with the community it serves) is inherently attractive. It’s an opportunity for the composer to hone his or her craft, solving difficult problem while there’s still time. It’s an opportunity for the ensemble to connect to a new community of concertgoers, and an opportunity for the audience to follow the process by which a new work is created. And it does this in a way that deepens a sense of connection, in the same way that growing up with close friends or family members provides for a deeper knowledge that is the basis of intimacy. Why can’t workshopping a new composition be an important community event?

Finished products are great, but if we living composers have anything to offer that dead dudes like Beethoven cannot, surely it’s the creative process itself, which when it comes to the old masters can only be inferred indirectly. I hope that more arts organizations wise up to this approach to new projects, and also that presenters of music in particular will keep in mind that much of the value of engaging living composers has to do with so much more than the composition they eventually produce—those unseemly musical warts might have more value than the preened and often put-on affair of presenting painstakingly rehearsed works, cut off from the context of their own creation.