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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.
[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.”
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.
Voicings beneath a soprano high G and how they will likely sound.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I used to wear the title of “Perfectionist” as a badge of honor. My former office mates and I, for example, jokingly competed for being more “type A” than the next person: one would make sure all the papers in the files were facing the same way, and I would make sure that the tabs for any added files would alternate flawlessly – left, middle, right, left, middle, right. . . . We bragged about how well-formatted our spreadsheets were. Being on the finance team, our ability to reconcile accounts down to the last penny was implicitly part of our job description.
As a composer, I’ve realized that perfectionism is encouraged frequently to some extent and with good reason. Precise notation minimizes uncertainty for performers and makes rehearsals more efficient. Thoughtful orchestrations ensure that gesture is not lost.
Don’t allow perfectionism to creep in too early in the creative process.
However, I’ve also learned the hard way that such meticulous attention to detail has a time and place. My weakness is that I allow perfectionism to creep in way too early in the creative process, preventing me from letting ideas flow freely so that I can complete a piece. I’m learning to own the fact that improvisation is one of the compositional techniques that generates my ideas rapidly, but for some reason, part of me feels obligated to over-intellectualize my pieces early on.
For instance, in one section of a theme-and-variations-based piece that I began in the fall, I struggled with the texture of one variation in particular: I would write an idea, discard it, and repeat the process with much frustration. There was a gap in the piece for months on end, but I had decided that the pacing was not satisfactory if I eliminated that section. Yet, after improvising on the piano during a 15-minute break at work, I finally came up with the texture I wanted. I instantly recorded it on my phone so that I could remember the details when I got home.
Since I graduated from college, I’ve had less of an impetus to stick to deadlines such as end-of-semester recitals that force me to put down my pencil and say that the piece is “good enough” to share or perform. I’ve found that I have relatively little trouble coming up with new ideas, yet developing the ideas through their completion is much more of a struggle. Unfortunately, using self-imposed deadlines as a strategy to counteract this tendency has often had little effect on me. I simply keep extending them.
Don’t lose self-esteem because of a denied sense of accomplishment.
One of the mantras that I’ve learned from Rory Vaden’s best-seller Procrastinate on Purpose is, “Done is better than perfect.” More often than not, if I am waiting to complete something because I feel that it is not “perfect,” I fail to complete the project at all. As a result, I tend to lose self-esteem because I deny myself a sense of accomplishment, giving myself even less confidence to tackle the next project at hand. The result is an ongoing, downward emotional spiral.
I’m slowly learning to combat my desire for perfection by seeking satisfaction in the progress that I’ve made. When I allow myself to be content, I can finally reflect on what worked and utilize that knowledge to move forward, building my confidence instead of tearing it down. Even when ideas don’t work out, framing them as an opportunity to learn from what didn’t work allows me to further my progress.
In the case of the seemingly magical fifteen minutes where I re-wrote an entire section of that piece, reframing my failures in this way made me realize that it wasn’t just that moment that helped me to arrive at a solution. It was changing my process from simply discarding ideas to identifying morsels of progress in those subsequent drafts which helped me to finally move forward.
I’ve composed works using electroacoustic technologies since 1963, and I want to share with you over the next several weeks some of my thoughts about the current state of the medium. Since I am trained as a Western classical composer, my comments will be from that perspective.
1. Structural Issues in Current Electroacoustic Music
The first subject about which I’d like to share my thoughts with you is the issue of structure in current electroacoustic music. I serve on the board of The Association for the Promotion of New Music (APNM). We at APNM will soon be issuing a call for composers to submit their work for an electroacoustic concert in Spring 2017. We intend to award the performances to electroacoustic compositions of structural clarity and elegance.
Why electroacoustic music focusing on structural clarity? Because, in our opinion, many current electroacoustic works are weakened by not having clear structure. Even if some may be promising in other ways, we believe many current electroacoustic works suffer from an overall sameness of events throughout the duration of the piece.
Many current electroacoustic works are weakened by not having clear structure.
If what I am describing is true, then why is this happening, and why now? In the following I’ll consider a number of possible reasons. I’ll start with some thoughts about what might be the smallest structural unit in music, and I will focus most of this discussion on structural issues involving timbre.
Microstructure: the changing of small patterns in short periods of time
Music is a time-based art form. However long a piece of music lasts, the listener’s interest must be engaged, second by second, moment to moment, led on in time. If this teasing of the listener’s ear does not happen, the immediate result could be assumed to be boredom and disinterest. How do we as composers—of either acoustic or electroacoustic music—create this teasing, this interest, moment to moment?
I believe it’s through a certain degree of change, in a limited number of sonic parameters, at one time. For example, if pitch is the parameter being changed at that moment to tantalize the listener, then some or all other parameters of sound are held relatively constant, such as tempo, duration, timbre, or volume.
The listener’s interest must be engaged, led on in time. If this teasing does not happen, the immediate result could be assumed to be boredom and disinterest.
The lack of change in the held parameters frames and intensifies awareness of the change which is taking place in the chosen parameter. The degree of change, the choice of which parameters are changed, and the choice of which parameters are held relatively constant will become important identifying characteristics of a particular piece of music. The audible distinction between changing and non-changing parameters of sound could be considered the baseline of musical structure, the momentary movement from one musical event to another.
But, you might say, isn’t the ability to separate out and manipulate the different parameters of sound the very focus of professional training for a classical composer? How can a composer with years of professional training fail to create this micro-level of structure?
One reason microstructural clarity may be more difficult to create is that in current digital technologies the composer largely creates her/his own timbres, whereas in writing for acoustic instruments, a composer uses already highly developed, distinctive timbres that can be easily heard by the audience to be different from the timbres of other acoustic instruments. The use of acoustic instruments gives a wide palette of different timbral colors, and thereby enables acoustic instrumental timbres to be easily used as a changing parameter in microstructural momentary movement through time.
The composer writing for acoustic instruments can then use additional orchestration skills to further separate the musical materials played by different acoustic instruments, maintaining clarity and contrast between them. Such momentary microstructural contrasts can then be further extended into larger, macrostructural sections of contrast, large structural units.
The role of inadequate timbral differentiation in weakening microstructure
In contrast, the electroacoustic composer using current digital technology generally has to create his or her own timbres. At present there are a number of ways of doing this, ranging from commercially available off-the-shelf electronic timbres, to recorded sound samples of musical instruments or sounds from daily life, to sounds generated through the use of software synthesis programs such as Csound and Cmix. Thus any composer using digital technology has quick and easy access to sound samples of all sorts, easy access to fairly crude built-in modes of timbrally modifying those samples, and easy access to crude amounts of reverberation in which to drench the sound samples. Without careful consideration and restraint, by using these current digital technologies the composer can easily fall into the error of constructing sounds whose timbral spectrum will conflict with others, resulting in the masking and muddying of whatever microstructural change might take place in the music at that moment.
Through such blurring of timbral contrast, the otherwise forward movement of microstructural change can be reduced to sameness, to non-change, to some degree of boredom.
Is this any different, you might ask, than in pre-digital analog technologies? I would say it’s quite different. When I listen to current electroacoustic works, I often hear the blurring and muddying of timbres, significantly more than in pieces made with pre-digital analog technologies. I think the main reason for this is speed: current digital technology supplies the composer with very fast access to ready-made or minimally developed timbral solutions. If the composer does not have rigorous discipline and cannot resist caving in to this fast but undistinguished solution, the result is a set of timbres that are almost identical to those in many other composers’ pieces, timbres that are relatively undeveloped in formant structure, that perhaps contain unfiltered white noise, are indistinct and can readily mask others, and that are experienced to some extent as boring.
In contrast, with the use of pre-digital analog technology much more attention, consideration, effort and time was required of the composer to create almost any timbre at all. The analog process of creating a timbre could involve something like setting three or four sinewave oscillators to create a cluster of throbbing interference patterns, or choosing a sound sample from a tape recording of an animal sound and, say, recording it backwards while running it through a filter. The only sound source in the analog studio that was as fast to access as sound sources are in the digital studio was the analog synthesizer, which could immediately generate extremely simple timbres, identical to those of any other composer using such a synthesizer.
The Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1985.
The diminishment of macrostructure through timbral blurring and overuse of reverberation
Timbral blurring can thus result in the perpetuation of sameness by weakening the microstructural movement from one moment to the next. If timbral blurring is perpetuated throughout a piece of music, it can reduce the pattern of the structure of an entire piece into simply a beginning, an enduring in the same way for a period of time, and then an ending.
Another issue that I hear in current electroacoustic music that weakens timbral contrast and can easily diminish the perception of sectionality over an entire piece is the overuse of reverberation. In some current works the composer seems to have run the entirety of their piece through the same degree of reverberation, thereby blurring whatever timbral range and locational contrast might have otherwise existed. The wholesale immersion of all music material into reverberation moves it perceptually away from the listener and into the middle or far distance by reducing high frequencies and reducing volume. As with the blurring of a particular timbre, the result of excessive reverberation is an increase in blandness and sameness, a lack of contrast—in addition the lack of “presence” or closeness of the sound to the listener.
Why do some composers not realize the weakening effect of immersing their musical material in lots of reverberation, with the resulting loss of high frequencies and presence? I suspect it may have something to do with never hearing their compositions in public concert at the proper volume in an acoustically optimal space.
2. The Importance of Public Presentation of Electroacoustic Music
I’m more and more convinced of the importance of public concert playback of electroacoustic music, in contrast to listening on loudspeakers or computer speakers, or—worse—on earbuds or a smart phone.
I’m more and more convinced of the importance of such public concert playback of electroacoustic music, in contrast to solitary listening on one’s home loudspeakers or on one’s computer speakers, or—worse—on earbuds or on a smart phone, or even on high-quality headphones. A recent performance of my piece The River of Memory for trombone and fixed audio media at Opera America’s fine recital hall made it stunningly clear to me that electroacoustic music, just like acoustic music, sounds most exciting when shared in public—in live concert and in an excellent acoustical space. The acoustic spaces that are superb for the shared experience of a public concert of electroacoustic music sound even more exciting when there is a live instrument also playing. The quality and quantity and placement of the loudspeakers of course are the other major factors for top-level electroacoustic music playback in an acoustically appropriate hall.
The public concert playback of electroacoustic works originally written for dance or theater, but presented only as audio playback, present other issues related to structure. On June 14 at 12:30 p.m. my composition The Mud Oratorio will be presented in concert playback by The New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival (NYCEMF) at the Abrons Art Center in Manhattan. This 51-minute-long computer piece for dance-theater, for which I wrote both music and libretto, was commissioned by Dance Alloy of Pittsburgh and Frostburg State University in Maryland. I created the work around two Nature Conservancy swamps in Frostburg, Maryland, whose flora and fauna survived the ice age. My voice narrates, with bird and animal imitations by a local biologist, and sounds constructed by digital sampling and software synthesis.
This will be, of course, a concert presentation, with no staging. The work is in four sections: “Spring,” “Summer,” “Fall,” and “Winter.” The four sections of the music are indeed very different from each other, differentiated by tempo, timbres, and the like, and will sound well if the venue is acoustically intimate and the loudspeakers of high quality. But the musical structure of this piece was created around the verbal structure of the libretto and the visual structure of the dancers onstage. This is a concert performance, so to substitute for the visual macrostructure of this large work, I intend to have the libretto projected upon a screen.
I hope to share some more thoughts about electroacoustic music with you soon.
Alice Shields is considered one of the pioneers of electroacoustic music. Her works include some of the first electronic operas, as well as vocal, chamber, and electronic music influenced by world music, dance, and theater. She received a doctorate in composition from Columbia University and has been associate director of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and director of development of the Columbia University Computer Music Center. Recent performances include the world premiere of Quartet for Piano and Percussion by Iktus Percussion on June 4, 2016; The Mud Oratorio by the New York City Festival of Electroacoustic Music on June 14, 2016, and The River of Memory for trombone and computer music by the Association for the Promotion of New Music on May 18 2016. For more information please visit www.aliceshields.com and https://soundcloud.com/user-aliceshieldscomposer.
“You write the best alto lines” is among the dearest compliments I’ve ever received, made more so because it was offered to me by an office worker who sang alto all her life in a church choir. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I believed her, although one of my goals as a composer has always been to keep the altos happy. Nor do I equate “church music” with “amateur music.” I love writing for professionals. I treasure the artistry, and the comments, from those who’ve experienced the greatest variety of music at all levels. But the fact is, the non-professional will be the usual musician in a church environment. So when someone who doesn’t do music for a living appreciates what I attempt to do, that’s a special thrill. In the 12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music, this leads me to:
4. Make Them Sound Good
Much choral writing is in four parts. The traditional way of teaching composing, going back hundreds of years, encourages writing the top line first, then the bottom, then the middle. It makes sense. Nailing down the melody and anchoring the bass helps to build a strong sound. I usually write (in bits and pieces) this way.
But Top/Bottom/Middle is three parts, and the result is that altos and tenors are often scrambling for leftovers. Just like hornists and violists who roll their eyes at yet one more “um, bop, um, bop” march or the “wait-boop-boop, wait-boop-boop” waltz, altos wish they had a nickel for every C and G they sing in C major. (The “dominant” scale degree is named for the chanting tone in the old church modes, but it’s also dominant in tonal music because it plugs holes in more chords than any other. When a composer can’t think of anything else to do, flipping a dominant into the alto line usually fits the bill.)
Altos, however, just like tenors, sopranos, basses, and all musicians, want to sound good. They want to sound like they matter, like they’re making music. Professionals want to; so do amateurs. I love the German editions of piano music that proclaim: für Kenner und Liebhaber. For professionals and amateurs, yes, but reading it in another language highlights that professionals (who, we hope, also love music) are those who know, and that amateurs (who, we hope, know a thing or two) are those who love.
I don’t want to jilt them.
5. Follow the Rules
Voice-leading rules exist for a variety of reasons, but school didn’t teach me what might be the most important one. Parallel fifths, we say, destroy the individuality of the line. This is true, as it is also for doubled sevenths, which want to resolve in the same direction to the same pitch. Doubled major thirds emphasize sketchy intonation. Leaps following leaps in the same direction sound ungainly. All true. But the main reason to follow the rules—in the majority of cases and for the majority of ensembles—is that when you don’t, the music is harder to sing.
I’ve witnessed this over and over in choir practice. A piece will break down at one spot. A fairly easy anthem comes to grief in one bar; we sing it again; we stare at it. It shouldn’t be this difficult. But don’t you know, exactly there, a cross-relation monkey wrench, a tenor F-natural following on the heels of a soprano F-sharp. Same or different octave, hardly matters.
Men have to sing parallel fifths in oh, how many anthems. It’s tonal, it’s not fast, it’s not chromatic, yet one or the other or both voices are fishing for notes. Leaving aside the (usually) boorish effect, it ought to, you’d think, lock in. They’re fifths, after all. On paper it looks locked in. But it doesn’t lock in, nope. Sure, the guys get it eventually, with a good will and with good direction. But they have to fight for it. Next week, at the next rehearsal, they fight for it again. When they should be working on dynamics, say, or on another piece, they’re fighting parallel fifths. It’s one more item the director doesn’t need on the to-do list. It’s one more strike against the composer.
The rules are short cuts to easier music-making.
6. Break the Rules
I’ve never forgotten what a tenor said after a rehearsal of a Bach chorus. It was challenging, as Bach often is, and chromatic and snaky and kind of fast and rhythmically akimbo and, well, in German. It necessitated repeated work with individual voice parts. There was a lot of sitting around and keeping quiet (just as hard for volunteer grownups, by the way, as for kids) while other parts sang their lines over and over.
The tenor, thus made to listen to the sopranos, altos, and basses all by themselves, had a revelation. He told me afterward, as we reshelved our music, “That Bach, it’s like he makes every voice line a melody.” My knees buckled. Flags unfurled, fireworks burst, popcorn popped, fish were jumping, and the cotton… I wanted to high-five him. I had no idea what to say, but I looked him right in the eye and said, “Oh. Yes!” He had gotten Bach. He works in a bank, he screams at the Phillies on TV, and he gets Bach.
He gets music. He understands what should be—this I believe—the goal of all music: each line, a melody. Every moment in every voice (whether sounded or not), indispensable.
But to get to there, rules must be broken. The music of Bach is riddled with cross-relations, doubled major thirds, hidden parallels, and galumphing sequential leaps. Well, maybe not riddled, but they’re easy for the motivated freshman to find and present with an “Aha!” to the putatively blockheaded theory teacher. The answer isn’t, as the deserved smackdown often is, “He’s Bach; you ain’t,” as if genius comes with a pass to break rules.
The answer is, of course, that there are no rules. Or better: That there is a deeper rule, and Bach knew it. Location, location, location becomes, in music, the line, the line, always the line. As Aslan says in The Chronicles of Narnia, “The Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still.”
For, despite my schoolmarm finger-wagging above, the point isn’t to have everything easy. The point is to have everything sing.
Keep the altos happy, and find the deeper magic.
Conducted at the composer’s home in Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 2, 2012—12 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Poster image by Myra Klarman
Transcribed by Julia Lu
In conversation, Evan Chambers conveys his ideas using words in a strikingly similar fashion to how he delivers them in music: honestly, intelligently, with neither fear of open emotion nor of making a sharper point than his laid-back demeanor might at first lead you to expect. As he speaks about his familial roots in folk music, his love of poetry, and the responsibility he feels as an artist to acknowledge broader social, political, and environmental challenges, a portrait of the composer emerges that reveals again how incompletely shorthand genre descriptors and professional biographies capture art and artist.
And so it was that we moved from the tag of “folk-inspired” composer to discussions of the brutal side of traditional music and the power it holds over audiences both native and foreign. A commission from the West Point Band became more complex once it was revealed that music that digs around in the messy pits of conflict and loss and death inspired both the request and the resulting piece. Chambers is a composer well versed in electronic music, yet a strong advocate for making a deeply human connection. He is a musician firmly rooted in his Midwestern community, but just as genuinely entrenched to society’s broader concerns. Through it all, he is listening and incorporating his experiences into his life and work. It leads him to quote Rilke:
There’s that poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” right, and the last line is, “You must change your life.” So we have these aesthetic experiences, these moments of awareness, and even if we don’t know how, we have to change somehow and that imperative drives the process. It’s an imperative—you have to do something with that, the rhetorical you has to do something with that. I have to do something with that. You have this tremendous enthusiasm to make something out of it, to express it somehow.
And so he has, that we might follow.
Molly Sheridan: I know that you tell a story about listening to The Thistle & Shamrock some years ago and undergoing something of a musical conversion experience. And I want you to tell that story again! It is a great entryway into some of the things you’ve done. But I’m also interested in what goes around that story. Where were you in your music making before that point? Did this inspire a sudden sharp shift or were you already questioning some things and this was sort of a way towards an answer?
Evan Chambers: I might start crying! [laughs] It was a really emotional experience. My parents were 1950s folk revivalists. They weren’t professionals; they were just people who loved the music. My dad played the banjo and the guitar, and he actually “collected” folk songs. He had notebooks full of songs and all the old Sing Out! magazines. So my earliest musical experiences were him banging on the guitar and singing with his head tilted back at the top of his lungs—really physically committed performances. It was a hootenanny kind of atmosphere, people getting together and singing together, and those were the happiest times. When my dad was singing, the family was happy. It was just this joyous thing in my childhood. But he also was interested in classical music. He loved opera, and he played the violin. He would bang through the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with a cigarette between two fingers on the bow, and he’d stop and smoke. So I had these two kinds of things going on.
I started music late—I really got into it when I was a junior in high school and went completely gaga for classical music, just buried my head in the trough for many years. By about 1988 or ’89, I was in between degrees, living here in Ann Arbor, working at the original Borders store back before they went bankrupt. I worked on Christmas Eve, and I was driving to Cleveland to see my true love—who is now my wife—for Christmas. They’d given us a little glass of champagne at Borders before we left, so I had a little happy feeling. I remember I was driving past Toledo, which doesn’t sound romantic but, you know, it’s Christmas Eve and the snow is falling and I’m free from work! I turned on the radio, and it was The Thistle & Shamrock, and there was this group called the Tannahill Weavers, a Scottish group, singing “Auld Lang Syne” in the melody they said was the original one that Bobby Burns intended. It was like getting punched in the chest. I just had to pull over—tears streaming, and all of that—because in that moment, I reconnected with some of the energy of that childhood experience. I always tell my students, if you can find a way to put what you’re doing now together, or to bring it into sympathy with, synchrony with, your earliest musical experiences, then that releases a lot of energy because it’s like being in touch with your roots, honestly. I guess that’s a simple way to say it.
I wouldn’t say I made some kind of conscious decision to change direction. It was like a heart opening, honestly. I started to learn to play the fiddle, and I started working to find a way to integrate that kind of folk music, community music making and energy, into music that I was writing. Which was a little bit hard at the time—I encountered some resistance.
MS: I was going to say, these days that kind of thing might be quite accepted—not arbitrarily smashing genres into concert music in a fake, impersonal way, but actively mining all musical experience. But I imagine that there might have been some push back at the time you were exploring this, either from people you were studying with or your colleagues.
EC: Yeah, it’s hard to say sometimes exactly what that is. As a student, I can say that a lot of us felt kind of trapped in the 1980s vocabulary. There was a lot of octatonic music. I felt like, at the time, there were a lot of people forcing dissonance into what they were writing. Nobody instructed us to do that. I was studying with Bill Albright, for example, and William Bolcom taught at my school, and those guys were shining examples of how to move between Boogie Woogie, ragtime, the popular music styles of the early 1900s, and contemporary classical tonal and rhythmic techniques. But somehow the students weren’t getting the memo. There was some peer pressure to be a certain way. I’ve looked back on it and I’ve tried to analyze: Was it the teachers? And I think it was more us; it was more the students than the faculty. We were repressing ourselves in some way. But I was lucky that I had the two Bills—as I like to call them—because they were both very supportive. They helped me and encouraged me quietly, especially Bill Albright who I was studying with. I brought him a string quartet that was all Irish jigs and reels, and he said, “Great! I’m happy about this!” I was a little nervous showing it to Gunther Schuller—who actually liked the piece, too, and programmed it at his festival in Sandpoint. So I feel fortunate in that way, even though I personally had to struggle.
MS: If it wasn’t coming from the top, so to speak, what was driving that pressure among the students? Why was that the vibe?
EC: I don’t know. I had one teacher say, “What the fuck is this? This is fucking Renaissance music. Don’t do that. Give me a real piece.” So there was that. I had some really important people in my life who I learned tremendous amounts from, but it was still hard. You have Bill Albright saying, “Good, I couldn’t be happier about this,” and yet somehow there’s still internal turbulence. I guess when you’re young and you’re still learning, you’re still forming not just what you can do technically, but also who you are, how you think about things. You’re forming this worldview and this aesthetic. It’s hard to figure out where your attention goes. The negative inputs and the positive ones kind of vie for attention in a lot of ways.
MS: That “folk-inspired” influence, though, carries its own pressures and mischaracterizations. I think the impression might be that this is something that’s somehow quaint or cute, but in reality, of course, folk music can be quite raw and direct, and sometimes quite dark. The influence doesn’t necessarily equate with a watered-down cartoonish approximation of a genre overlaid on concert music.
EC: When I first started writing folk-influenced classical compositions, I worked to overcome the pervasive idea that folksongs were somehow quaint, naïve, or innocent. To me, they are instead powerful, sometimes gritty, bitter and ironic, full of the sadness and longing of life, and I always try to go beyond the texts and musical surfaces to translate a feeling for the expressive values of a participatory whole-body experience.
I have a student now, Tanner Porter, who is writing a setting of “Barbara Allen.” It was one of my father’s favorite songs, and might get dismissed as a polite old chestnut, but it tells a story that is full of hurt, suffering, unrequited love, illness, and death. In the end even hard-hearted Barbara Allen realizes she can’t bear what she has done—a tragic cautionary tale that might serve to warn us about our own lack of compassion in this world.
It seems clear that at present we are at a very serious environmental, social, and economic crisis point, and for me it all boils down to a crisis of compassion. Things are too dire for us to just keep working to get ahead within the existing system—the existing system is literally killing the planet, and it’s our own hard-heartedness that leads us to tolerate war, homelessness, and the destruction of the living world. We need more of anything that can break through the silent acceptance of what amounts to a gradual apocalypse, that can break through our chauvinisms to instruct us about our real place in the world, that can help us wake up and open our hearts even a little bit. Folk music from our own culture has the potential to remind us about who we are and what truly matters in part because it can bypass our defenses withits familiarity and get straight into our bodies. And if one of the things music can teach us is how to move, then our encounters with traditional music from other cultures can teach us to move in a new way. Both offer us an experience of the transformation and reconnection that we so desperately need in our society.
MS: That all said and appreciated, I don’t want to give the incorrect impression that your work sounds like you’re soundtracking a Civil War documentary. This is something bigger. The “folk music influence” is a neat biography tagline, but your catalog is of course much broader than that.
EC: When I started out, it’s important for me to note that I was an unrepentant modernist. I loved the avant-garde. I was ecstatic when I first heard Messiaen. In high school, I drove myself downtown to the Dayton Public Library—which seemed like going to the moon, even though it was, you know, 20 minutes away—and I would go to the bin that had the Composers Recordings Incorporated recordings. They were records still. I would check out everything that they had. Then, the next week, I’d go back and get everything else. It was just thrilling to find the experimentation with sound and the dissonance. There was a composer, Dane Rudhyar, who you don’t hear very much these days, but he had some string quartets with the early incarnation of Kronos that just set my hair standing straight up. That was really important to me. So it’s true, even though I’m influenced by folk music, it’s more the energy almost than the sound, right? Like I talked about my dad—the physical commitment to sound, this kinesthetic UGGGHH of a moment, trying to get that into the performers’ bodies so that the audience can feel that release and that energy.
I’ve also been influenced by a lot of different kinds of music. I was really involved in studying ethnomusicology as a graduate student, and my wife is an ethnomusicologist. So, for example, she took me on a fieldwork trip to Albania shortly after the Communist government fell, back in the early ‘90s, and I had, again, these experiences that were just—I think we all have them, right? I’m tempted to call them conversion experiences, but peak experiences, peak listening experiences where everything seems to drop away and you’re just left vibrating with the music. In Albania, I had some experiences like that, so that I feel like it’s my responsibility almost to integrate them into my own singing because they’re so important to me as meaning events and not just as sonic events or cool licks to steal. So even when I’m writing a piece about polka, I figure I’m trying to get inside how it feels to be in it, not writing how it sounds to listen to it. The same thing with folk music or Albanian music or Sufi Qawwali music—all of which I’ve tried to integrate into the way I sing.
MS: How does that end up happening in real terms? I’m asking you questions I know you might not be able to answer in words, but it kind of begs the question: you have an amazing musical experience. It’s touched you; it’s become part of you. You want to put that out there, not copy something else, so what really is happening?
EC: Whoa. This gets into the most intimate, the most non-verbal…how do you synthesize an experience into your life? How do you take an understanding that opens your heart and your mind and then integrate it into how you act every day? We don’t know, but we do it. We don’t have a system for it, but we do it. I mean, I guess honestly, the only thing I could say about that is to quote Rilke. Saved by the bell! Saved by Rilke again. There’s that poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” right, and the last line is, “You must change your life.” So we have these aesthetic experiences, these moments of awareness, and even if we don’t know how, we have to change somehow and that imperative drives the process. It’s an imperative—you have to do something with that, the rhetorical you has to do something with that. I have to do something with that. You have this tremendous enthusiasm to make something out of it, to express it somehow.
MS: There’s also a stream of electronic sound through some of your work, but is this a multi-stranded braid you’re developing through your work, or are these different boxes that you’re drawing out of but keeping distinct?
EC: It’s interesting. Sometimes I’ve been told it’s a good thing that my music doesn’t fit into one category, and sometimes I’ve been told it’s a bad thing. I think it all sounds like me, honestly. Electronic music was one of the early thrills for me, too. My parents had a reel-to-reel tape deck, and I “invented” tape deck echo. I didn’t study it, I just learned that if you do this to this switch, and do this to this switch, and go Pakown, it goes Pakew…kew…kew…kew. That pure joy in sound was so important. Then, when I started studying electronic music, the kind of physical gesture that you can create when you don’t have to use just these muscles to make the music go into the medium you’re storing it in, really that was another thing that helped me release some energy into the music. I have this idea that music can be kind of like psycho-spiritual Rolfing or deep tissue massage or yoga, where you get into people’s bodies. If the music has these physical tensions and releases and pushes and pulls built into it, then you can, in a way, inflict those symptoms on the audience. If you can cause tension and get into that place, you can also then release that for people. So, electronic music had a real physicality about it that fits with that for me. And I taught electronic music—I still do—so I’m around those sounds and that medium a lot and think in those terms. But I’ve been doing it less and less actually in terms of my own composition in recent years.
MS: It does seem to me in a sense though—and I’m curious what you would say to this—that there’s a kind of parallel between the folk music and the electronics. You’re getting off the page. These genres seem like opposites on the surface, and yet to me there is an underlying parallel there.
EC: Yeah, I think there is. Folk music influences the electronic components of my sound, and even my acoustic pieces are deeply influenced by electronic music. I mean, I cut my orchestrational teeth in a tape studio, cutting tiny pieces of tape that are like five millimeters long to put on the beginning of a ding. So you really come to see how sound is put together, both in time and vertically in terms of timbre. But also, I guess I find that being able to put the physical energy into the taped music is very similar to the kind of physical commitment you can put into folk performance. And I do want to bring that together in the middle.
MS: I would also argue that electronics today are in some sense taking the place of what folk music offered, in terms of perhaps a lower bar to participation—the perception at least.
EC: But I think it’s important to remember that the technology, the way it is now, really puts lots and lots and lots of steps between you and the making of the sound. That’s why I’m much more interested in the live performance, DJ thing where they’ve got record players to play and things to physically control. The sequencing stuff on a laptop—you can end up separating yourself from the physical performance so much that it sometimes loses that sense of every sound being crafted and touched by human hands. That’s what I love about live music, and it can be a quality of electronic music, too, if you hand craft every note and shape every sound and every timbre. Then it has this wonderful living feeling, but if you throw things onto a track and leave the same effects on the whole time, it tends to flatten out and be a kind of machine music that I can see the value in, but it’s not my style.
MS: You yourself have been in the performer’s chair, so you have first-hand experience of delivering these kinds of physical performances. But when you’re at your writing desk, how much and in what ways does that experience filter into the music you write?
EC: You know, you start out when you’re young, and honestly, for me, the thing that drove me was just that adolescent angst that builds up in your gut and has to get out. So, the physicality of performance comes in—your hands have to make it, you have to almost squeeze that sound out of the instrument and push it out into the world. Composing is not just collaborating with an eventual performer. You are the performer in that moment that you’re writing. You’re thinking about the instrument. You’re thinking about what position you’re putting the player in, often trying to maneuver them into uncomfortable positions actually, to, again, model a symptom for the audience, to create a pattern of tension and release in the people who are listening and attending to it. So I don’t think about the music as subsisting in the notes on the page or some rarified autonomous object that is in the world, but not of the world. To me, it’s not pure proportion or a kind of platonic ideal, the composition. The composition is a recipe for action. I’m very focused on the action part of it, so that is performance. I’m composing that in, I hope.
MS: I want to talk a little bit about place and your work. It’s not as if your career is limited to this lovely campus, but you have invested a lot of your energies here: first with school and later with teaching, lots of performances with ensembles in the region. Your work is played all over, of course, but there’s also a rootedness and a connection to this place that you’ve taken care to cultivate.
EC: There’s this tremendous local food movement; we don’t want our food to come from far, far away and be factory made, or made by people we don’t know. There’s something tremendously rich about knowing the person who grew your lettuce. And for me, art and music have a lot to do with the sense of place. I’ve thought about what it means to be a composer from the Midwest, who lives in the Midwest and has a great love of the Midwest. People driving on the Ohio Turnpike or something will say, “Oh, this drive is so boring.” But you know, if you look out in the fields when their corn is up, you can see the rows of the corn strobing as you go by, you can see down each individual row. But it’s more than just even being able to take pleasure in those small details of the world around you. There’s a tone to the kind of beauty that I think really deeply informs, or I hope deeply informs, what I do with my music. And I think there’s a value in being rooted in a place. I ask my students sometimes, What are you going to do when the power grid goes down? I teach electronic music, so they’re working on their laptops, and everything’s electric, so I say, That’s great, but make sure you have something you can do when the power grid goes down. Because when it does, every single one of us is going to be needed to bring a local community and a local sound and a local activity because we won’t have anything else. I like going to other places, but I really believe in trying to do something for this place. I’m writing pieces about this river, and this environment, and these trees. I mean, that’s where I am. I’m here. I don’t feel like it’s healthy for me to chase after imaginary people and imaginary places, in a way. I want to belong in this place.
MS: In an interview you gave in 2005, you drew some lines between your music and poetry: that it wasn’t a straight literal narrative, but it also wasn’t completely without meaning, and you used the metaphor of it being poetry. But that’s all you really said about it, so I wondered if you’d elaborate a little bit further on that idea.
EC: I do think of my music as poetry. A lot. I spend a lot of time reading poetry, I love poetry—some of my best friends are poets. [laughs] I have a good friend named Keith Taylor and one of the first collaborations I did with a poet was an electronic setting of his poem “Upper Midwestern Apologia,” which speaks about how people from outside experience the white pines here as “dismal bushes wrapped in ice, and the rivers that we mythologize as creeks,” and how many people “try to love this place but leave bitter, partially broken by our endless gray.” So even from the beginning of my mature work, I was thinking about being rooted in a sense of place by devoting so much time and energy to that particular piece. I may not be the one to speak about what the process of making poetry is, but to me, what I think about it is, you take experience and match it with language and distill, distill, distill, distill down to this core that has everything packed and encoded into it. It doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t necessarily tell a story—or maybe my favorite kind of poetry doesn’t—but when you read it, it opens up like a flower. And everything is in there. All these intense interrelationships of sound and meaning and association are all woven together in this small offering that—I don’t like the metaphor of unlocking—but that opens for you when you read it. And it invites repeated encounters, too, because you hopefully put enough in there that it can sustain you.
MS: That makes me think of the text from your piece The Old Burying Ground. That isn’t poetry, per se, but the way language is used, there’s some mystery left in it. You could really let it fly in your own head.
EC: Yeah, The Old Burying Ground came out of another one of those really incredible “smack upside the head” kind of experiences. I was at the MacDowell Colony and I was “called out of my studio” to go hang out at the cemetery with a friend who was going to do rubbings for an installation project—any excuse to play hooky. So I went and ended up reading the tombstones. In this particular place in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, the stones were just absolutely riveting. It’s kind of amazing to think of a tombstone as being a real grabber, but the man who was the longest serving pastor in American history there, Laban Ainsworth, just really put some heavy stuff on them. I’ve never seen a tombstone anywhere else that had an exclamation point, for example. In order to read them, you have to lie on your stomach—you’re prone, the words are very small at the bottom where they put the poems. The guy could write, and he had a message, and when you’re laying face down on someone else’s grave, stern exhortations about how short life is have an impact. So, there was already poetry there at the heart of that—his poetry, although he’s not directly credited anywhere. But I knew that I wanted to not make it about that particular place. I knew that I wanted to make it about, well, about what’s really one of the noble truths about human life, which is that we die. And there is suffering around that. Our culture tries to ignore death. Thomas Merton says that by ignoring death, by denying death, American culture actually multiplies it. In any case, we are, each of us, individually deeply in need of facing this truth about our lives. So in that piece, I had to generalize things enough that it could be present and past, and specific and personal, and also about the human condition. One of the vehicles for that was contemporary poetry. So I have those very old poems from the tombstones, and then I asked friends and people whose work I really admire to write poetry to go in between those, to keep changing the reference and frame and simultaneously turn little lights on between the movements and also put it in a contemporary context.
MS: In a sense, your work Headwaters is somewhat the inverse of that, a composition that began as a piece about water generally but then focused on a very specific body of water.
EC: Yes, that’s a place one, too. We were asked to do a large scale, multi-media video/dance/music piece about water, just in general. And our group got together and decided that we would focus on our river, the Huron River, which is really just down the hill from my house. I go to see it every day. We were working with an environmental scientist, who is also a painter, and we grabbed another environmental scientist to go up there. We went walking around the headwaters of the river and then went to some of the early parts of the streams. So we were trying to bring together the environmental message, because when you think about your river, you have to start thinking about its health as a being thing, as a living presence in our world. But you want to try to find a way to do stealth advocacy. If you put in a bunch of facts and figures about the river while the music’s going by and things like that, it just—[shakes head no]. So it was an evening-length work and what we settled on was trying to come up with a way to point, like the finger at the moon. The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The video and the music about the river is not the river. But the least we can do as artists is use our face time with the audience to point to the things that really matter.
I mean, we’re filming this just after one of the largest, most destructive storms [Hurricane Sandy] in the United States, and we’re living in a time when the environmental, social, and economic issues are so serious. We’re at such a crisis that we’ve got to do something, even if we feel like it’s not enough. So we treated this piece as a way to show the place and, in a way, educate [the audience] to love the river. Because if you love the river, you’ve got to get right with the river. If you love God, you got to get right with God. If you love Allah, you got to get right, you know. So that was the idea. We tried to give people an aesthetic experience around the ideas of the health of the river, and the river itself, and then hope that they carry that out with them the rest of their lives. I wrote a song called “Where is the River,” and hopefully it’s catchy enough that they’ll leave thinking, “Hmm, where is the river?” Well, it’s everywhere. It’s beneath my feet. It’s in my veins. The river literally flows through us.
MS: Is this where your work typically comes from, a desire to communicate a kind of message that’s bigger than, or that at least reaches beyond, the notes on the page? Do you ever sit down and write a piece of music purely with just aural inspiration, or are you usually starting with something more topical and then using music to talk about it?
EC: It’s the absolute music and program music divide. This gets to the notion of poetry again; that’s why I would classify myself as a poet-composer. I suppose I have written pieces of music that don’t try to message the way that you might put it. But I write a lot of music where I’m trying to get something right; I’m trying to get at something. There’s this idea that there’s something real, and then you put it to music. It’s not fair to music, because that means that music isn’t the real world, and the whole world is the real world. But I do think of myself sometimes as a translator between experience and sound. I’m trying to put the physical experience of sound into some other kind of experience.
There’s a story behind how Outcry and Turning was born. I could tell you that story.
MS: Let’s talk.
EC: Well, there’s this subcategory of works now where composers are all having to—at some point—write something about 9-11. My version of that is I was writing a piece for the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings—they’re members of the Detroit Symphony—and right in the middle of it, 9-11 happened and the piece just took this turn. At that time, I couldn’t turn it into a memorial kind of piece or anything, but I certainly had just wrenching feelings about it. I had to try to put that in somehow. I’d written several pieces that are related to Sufi Qawwali music and right after 9-11, the backlash against Middle Eastern people and the whole culture of Islam broadly defined across the whole globe was so huge. So I decided to put a little prayer in this by making it a piece that’s overtly about Sufi music, which I’ve spent some time with but I’m no expert on. It’s, again, one of those things that’s changed the way I sing and the way I experience music.
That piece got played in Chicago at a conference and there were some things in the program notes about this, and after the concert, a guy in a military uniform came up to me. I thought, oh god, here it comes. I’m going to get it now—like I’m fraternizing with the enemy, and how could I do that. It turned out that that was just a pure spotlight on my chauvinisms and my prejudices, because the guy came up to me and said he wanted to talk to me about commissioning a piece. Then we had this long discussion about the limits of military power in the 21st century. He was a conductor of the USMA band—now they’re going by the West Point Band—and it ended up they played a large piece of mine called Polka Nation and they commissioned this piece, Outcry and Turning, which I wrote as the wars were beginning in Afghanistan and Iraq. I had to say something about this. It was another one of those things where you could just see the death and destruction that were going to be visited on the world. All of us have experienced the pain of grief and suffering, and we’ve all, on some level, felt that this cannot be—some loss or death or disaster—and we have to cry out. So I ended up writing this piece about the wars, but also about our own individual losses and grief and suffering, for the USMA band. They played it beautifully and they recorded it, and I then I revised the piece and we recorded it just this past week with the University of Michigan band.
MS: Why the revision? A practical or artistic consideration?
EC: Well, you can imagine, because it’s called Outcry and Turning, in the outcry sections of the piece especially I was going for something that really hurt: really dissonant, really packed orchestration, really irregular rhythms that lope constantly, push against the beat, and I think I overdid it a little bit. The piece worked; I think it worked very well. But I think it would only have worked for the highest level of professional players, and I wanted to try to make it a little more accessible to university bands. So I had to make some adjustments in thickness and dissonance, so that it could sound more easily. I had lots of very close half-step dissonances in high trombones, for example. I love that sound. Just bzzzzzz. I stepped back from that a little bit and tried to make it a little easier to get into people’s bodies, so that you could hear where your part fit into the whole, and also feel where you sat on the beat a little more clearly without trying to change the way it felt for the performers and without changing the music too much. So that’s the kind of adjustment I was making.
MS: So to bring it back around to where we began, but having covered all the ground that we have now: There are the common shorthand phrases for your work, things such as that “folk-inspired composition” tag, but then you also have the official bio, which list awards and commissions that have been important, career highlights and such. Still, what words would you choose if these were not already the engrained ways we talk about composers? If you were simply free to express something about yourself and your work that is meaningful to you, what would it be that identifies you as an artist?
EC: I’ve been railing against composer bios for many, many years. When I was a graduate student, for one of my “big” performances I wrote a bio that talked about, you know, that I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and that I had a dog named Socrates that I loved very, very much and that he had recently died. And I loved going for walks in the woods and spent a lot of time trying to notice things about trees and leaves. The professor said, “No, no, you can’t do that. Come on, you won this award. What else have you done?” I’ve been tilting at that windmill for a while. I have written my ideal bio. I’ve also written what I call my anti-bio that I swear someday I’m going to publish. My colleague Paul Schoenfeld has done this. He’s brave. He put it up on the university website. He and I were always joking that we were going to put our bad reviews in our composer bio and he has things up like, “An undeserved standing ovation”—The New York Times. I’m so proud of him. So someday I’ll publish my own anti-bio on my blog or something.
But it gets back to our short life and our inevitable death. The question that comes to the center is not what prizes did you win, but what do you want people to say about you when you’re dead—right after you’re dead, because after you’re dead for a while, we’re all going to be forgotten. What do you want your friends and loved ones and the people whose lives you have touched somehow to say? And I think it would be something like, “I always tried to pour my heart out in every single piece.”
I hesitate to do this because it’s such a fraught topic, but I wanted to write about the art of composing while depressed. I don’t intend to speak for everyone’s experiences (I know some have had it much worse), but somehow I don’t think I’m the only artist in the era of late-stage capitalism to experience infrequent bouts of mild-to-moderate depression. So here we go.
The most obvious effect of depression on creativity is that your motivation generally goes way down. This isn’t always true–sometimes creative endeavors can be a refuge from depression–but it can just as easily be a minefield. Added to that, your tolerance for rejection is almost non-existent, and composers inevitably face a lot of rejection (as Rob Deemer’s post about Jennifer Jolley recently reminded me). A lot of this can often be mitigated by tricking yourself into just sitting down and starting, becoming immersed in the work before you have a chance to question yourself. But here another, more complicated problem shows up. You find that your critical faculties, so essential to the creation of work, are completely misaligned. When you are working in an area where you’re used to relying on intuition and instinct, this can be absolutely crippling. Irrational thoughts creep in, rejecting almost every idea before it has a chance to blossom. A rational mind recognizes when an idea just needs a little more development or reworking; a depressed mind has trouble with this concept. Or even worse, the anhedonia prevents anything from being good or bad. Instead, everything sounds equally lackluster, a gray ocean of mediocrity.
I still don’t have a reliable way around this, and I’m not sure there is a surefire solution. What I have found is that sometimes, just sometimes, I’m able to get my ear back by “pushing through,” for lack of a better term. That is, I act as though my critical abilities are intact, purely by memory of what they used to be, even if I don’t feel them. If I am persistent enough, then at some point they might kick in again, and at that point I’m no longer pretending. And even if they don’t kick in, I’ve still put the work in and have something to come back to the next day.
I guess the appropriate cliché would be “fake it ‘til you make it,” but I dislike how that phrase sets up ordinary instincts as the fake part. The enthusiasm and excitement I normally feel when composing–that’s the real stuff!
“You have to learn the rules before you can break them.”
I have no idea where I first heard this phrase. I may have heard it so many times, in so many different contexts, that it’s lost all meaning. I’m sure I’ve uttered it myself without giving it much thought. But lately, what once seemed like an innocuous adage has started to feel more and more like a poisonous platitude, something completely inimical to the actual methodology of artistic practice. I’ll try to explain why.
Regardless of where I first heard it, for me the phrase is inextricably bound up with undergraduate music theory courses, specifically related to learning four-part voice leading in the style of the J.S. Bach chorales. Almost all music students go through this rite of passage, with varying degrees of resistance. (Composers usually like it, instrumentalists tolerate it, and singers generally hate it.) But every now and then, someone will stumble on a chorale that doesn’t conform, a clear instance of Bach himself committing contrapuntal heresy. Instead of the anticipated “gotcha” moment, however, the aforementioned truism is trotted out, shutting the student down. You see, Bach knew the rules of voice leading so well that he knew just when it was appropriate to ignore them. When you are as good as Bach, maybe you can break them too. But until then…
The first problem with this statement is that it isn’t quite true. Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum wasn’t published until Bach was 40, and even there, voice leading rules weren’t laid down in the same way they’re taught today, with the modern degree of specificity and meticulousness. My main problem with the whole learning-before-breaking thing, though, is more broad, and more applicable to the many other situations where I encounter it. It begins with the question, “Which rules?”
When I’m composing, I often find myself negotiating between many different, often contradictory sets of rules. This is the inherently challenging and (when I am in a good mood) fun part of the whole enterprise. It’s also what makes it fruitful and productive; when everything’s working right, the music has a relationship to the past without being slavishly devoted to it. It has meaning. This kind of negotiation isn’t limited to composition, either. In a certain sense, our system of equal temperament arose as a succession of compromises between various musical needs. (Should we all learn to play in just intonation before we play in equal temperament?)
The question of “which rules?” is one that, I think, composers have to decide on their own at some point or another. The fact that different composers have different models and sources of inspiration is part of what staves off stagnation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, at least in the States, some of our most influential composers (Cage, Reich) drew many of their musical ideas from non-Western cultures.
I was reminded of this, in a roundabout way, when reading Ethan Iverson’s recent series of insightful posts on the music of Thelonious Monk. Even now, Monk’s compositions stick out a little like unruly splinters in the jazz catalog, and the natural impulse of many players (including, apparently, Miles Davis and Horace Silver) has been to sand down those spiky surfaces until they feel more like jazz orthodoxy. Make sure every chord has a seventh; change a chord if it strays too far from a ii-V-I; give the melody a more sensible contour. It’s likely that many of these changes are unintentional and unconscious on the part of the performers, and Iverson is absolutely right to call attention to them.
But paradoxically, Iverson finds himself in a position where he seems like a stickler for defending one set of rules—Monk’s rules—against another. At which point he states:
The point of all this, by the way, is not to slavishly imitate Monk when playing his music. The point is to find yourself through immersion in authentic canonical detail.
If this sounds suspiciously like learning rules before breaking them, I’d like to make a slightly finicky distinction myself. What I think Iverson is describing is actually breaking the rules while or even before learning them. When a set of musical rules becomes fully codified, it has a tendency to be rather generic and inexpressive, like the one-size-fits-all chord scale style of improvising that Iverson mentions. Learning the rules before breaking them can breed a certain timidity of thought, and it can actually teach students to mistrust their ears and instincts, which may be telling them something contrary to what the rules are saying. In fact, musical creativity demands that you immerse yourself in different sets of rules with your critical thinking skills and aural intuition fully active, in which case breaking the rules is not only possible—it’s an absolute certainty, at every stage of the process.
This is my last post. Rereading my very first post—March 15, 2006—I’m reminded just how much time has passed since I started making these weekly attempts to better understand contemporary music. By March 2006 I’d been a student composer for four and a half years already, and that’s how I’ve spent the intervening six years. I won’t be one for much longer, though: My doctoral dissertation defense is scheduled for today. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be leaving student composerhood behind me forever. It’s my last chance to offer some personal retrospection on the difficulties and contradictions of being a student composer; I hope you don’t mind.
I am an excellent student. My SAT and GRE scores are, by a wide margin, the best things about me. The only B you’ll find on my transcripts—and that’s going all the way back to ninth grade—is attached to my first semester of composition instruction with James Dillon. Competitive merit-based awards have allowed me to pass through several public research universities without accruing any debt. But now I’m a doctor, not a student, and it doesn’t do you any good to be an excellent student if you’re not a student. It does you good to be an excellent composer.
I am not an excellent composer. I’m a composer with a lot of bright ideas and a very low successful-piece-to-bright-idea ratio. Anyone who knows my music will tell you this: It’s a stew of half-formulated hypotheses, faulty assumptions about what is and isn’t perceptible, and too-clever moves that neither fulfill nor challenge conventional experiential expectations. It would be really swell to assert that after eleven years of higher education in music I’ve become an excellent composer, but I can’t.
It’s a commonplace that most of us write music in order to be heard, in order to give ourselves a voice in society. (The rhetoric of composers in underrepresented demographic groups often makes this desire explicit: They want to claim a channel on a cultural mixing board, so to speak, from which they’ve been unjustly excluded.) However, equally true but more uncomfortable to admit is the fact that we also write music in order to be overheard. Looking back at eleven years of student pieces, it seems that in every case—without exception—I made aesthetic decisions in the hope that they’d be overheard and respected by my teachers, peers, and cultural superiors. As a devoted student, head-pats (explicit or implicit, of commission or omission) from one’s mentors are a powerful motivator. Unfortunately this need for approbation from the field is piped so subtly and deeply into one’s sense of self that one doesn’t even realize it’s activating one’s dopamine receptors.
I wish there were a lesson in this, but I don’t know that there is: I was rarely aware of my need to be overheard, and even when I was, I developed elaborate, unconscious ways of reorienting my ideology of music to rationalize this pathetic scramble for approval. Any warning I could offer would necessarily fall on deaf ears, just as it would have if someone had tried to warn me back in 2002. Maybe you’re like me in this regard and maybe you’re not; if you are, though, you probably don’t recognize it. And now, of course, if I needed someone to overhear me, I’d have to reach out to a virtuoso soloist or the artistic director of an ensemble; if I needed to be patted on the head, I’d have to align what I do with what I think festival organizers or publishers want to see. It wouldn’t be psychologically healthy, in any case. It’s time to stop worrying about being overheard. That’s what I’ve learned since 2006.
These observations and reflections weren’t easily pried out of my experience of student composerhood. The mental exercise of writing a few hundred words a week for NewMusicBox was utterly instrumental in developing the critical perspective necessary to finish this journey. I want to extend my most sincere thanks to Molly, Frank, and all of NewMusicBox’s staff for giving me the latitude to speculate and polemicize, to my fellow bloggers for giving me plenty to scratch my head over, and to everyone who read the ever-shifting contents of my brain here. If you see me around, say hi.
In 2010, The Guardian published a series in which some of the most prominent contemporary writers in the English language gave us their 10 Rules for Writing Fiction. I like returning to this list every now and then in order to enjoy the various takes on this deceptively complex task. The authors reveal their aesthetic predilections and what they value, both in their writing and in the works of others.
Some advice appears to speak directly to the craft of fiction itself, like Jonathan Franzen’s “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting,” but can easily be translated into music composition terms if one substitutes the word “chords” or “orchestrations” for “verbs.” I generally take this sort of statement as a challenge and try to create work that specifically defies these supposed axioms. One of the most interesting of the craft-based rules is Roddy Doyle’s “Do give the work a name as quickly as possible.” I know very few composers who follow this path in their music, perhaps because beginning with a title gives abstract compositions an element of literalness that experimental musicians eschew.
Some writers created dicta that are designed to help budding professionals navigate their way through the world of book publishing, but that might be equally applicable to musicians. Geoff Dyer reminds us to “never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project,” and Helen Dunmore suggests that we “join professional organisations which advance the collective rights of authors.” In advice echoed by Alexandra Gardner’s posts on this site, Anne Enright adds: “The first 12 years are the worst.” Richard Ford focuses on these sorts of postulates with edicts ranging from “don’t have children” to “don’t drink and write at the same time” and “try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.”
My personal favorites are the 10 rules given by Margaret Atwood, which you can find here. She spends her first three points discussing exactly what one needs in order to write on an airplane, which seems rather odd at first glance since these are a remarkably specific way to utilize nearly one third of the space delimited for her most essential aspects of writing. The cumulative effect is to limn the importance of making space in our lives so that we are always capable of working on our art. The seven rules that follow continue to give a sense of some truly essential elements we need in order to create something out of nothing, and none of them specifically speak to the nature of the finished product itself. She leaves that up to the writer.
As I re-read the various takes on the 10 Rules, I’m struck by how much the authors reveal about themselves. I wonder what sorts of results might emanate from a similar project with composers.
Dec 13, 2011
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