Tag: contemporary choral music

Vokas Animo (Performing Microtonal Choral Music: The End Product)

A photo montage of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performing Robert Lopez-Hanshaw's microtonal choral composition Vokas Animo

If you read my Performing Microtonal Choral Music articles earlier this year, you may remember that I threatened to post some video of my most recent choral and orchestral piece after its premiere. I am hereby making good on this threat.

Vokas Animo by Robert Lopez-Hanshaw
Music in 72edo, approximating 11-limit Extended Just Intonation.
Premiere performance at Tucson Music Hall, Sunday, January 26, 2020
Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Director: José Luis Gomez
Choirmaster: Bruce Chamberlain
Commissioned by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra
Text in Esperanto by William Auld, published as “Ju alten oni soras” (1951), used with permission of the Auld family.

The piece illustrates the essential parts of my approach to teaching microtonal choral music. I designed it, during composition, to exploit the easiest of those pathways. So, a motive that returns over and over in the piece is a two quarter tones, going the same direction, outlining a semitone. With very slight tuning changes, it generates a good number of different structures—and these tuning changes are much simpler for a choir to perform when all vocal parts are doubled by instruments, as they are here. Unfamiliar sonorities are anchored on either side by familiar ones, to provide reliable targets. And it was necessary for the choir to learn only a very few new intervals—chiefly the 7:6 subminor third, and (in two melodic instances and one harmonic instance) the 11:8 neutral fourth. Everything else was constructable from things the choir already knew.

Tuning changes are much simpler for a choir to perform when all vocal parts are doubled by instruments.

This approach extends to my view of the audience, by the way. In the words of Eugene Narmour, in The Analysis and Cognition of Basic Melodic Structures: “Gravity does not explain architecture, but architecture is subject to its law; likewise, perceptual laws do not explain music, but music cannot escape their influence.” The “laws” he mentions are not tied to a particular system, or else they’d be merely rules. Instead, they deal with things like our basic ability to track a melody, subconsciously aligning it with internalized sound categories such as scale degrees; and with the pattern of a built expectation followed by either confirmation or denial. You can do all kinds of things with those.

My background is in education. So this was, in a very real sense, a teaching piece. But it was also the highest expression of my artistic ethos that I’ve yet produced, and it tested the limits of my craft as a composer. So it is not “just” a teaching piece; it patronizes neither the orchestra nor the choir.

My next project is a piece for symphonic winds—also comprehensively microtonal—for a consortium of ensembles. There is interest in microtonality among regular musicians, not only the self-consciously modernist set. And it so happens that my priorities tend to produce music that could be called a gateway for nonspecialists, a path leading into ever stranger territory. So I embrace this!

There is interest in microtonality among regular musicians, not only the self-consciously modernist set.

And why be stingy? It’s time to spread it around. To that end, I’m also editing a collection of fingerings and playing techniques for all standard orchestral instruments and several auxiliaries, in a fine-grained microtonal system. That system is 72 tones per octave, or a step size of 16.7c. And yes, standard instruments can accommodate that! They did, after all, for vokas animo – as did the choir.

The book is called Practical Microtones, to be published in 2021. The contributors are too many to list here, but each is a lifelong performer on the instrument in question, and well-known in the microtonal and contemporary music world. I hope that it will help in the creation and performance of many more such gateway pieces.

The New Polyphony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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