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.
My usual experience in the choral world is one with a strict hierarchy: composers create works, conductors interpret them the best they can to try to deliver the composers’ intentions, and the singers do what they are told. But what happens when a piece makes room for individual performers to exercise some level of agency over the work? As a conductor, I find presenting my younger singers with indeterminacy an amazing teaching moment where my students break through to new levels of understanding. For instance, when presented with a moment of free choice-making in a piece, my singers’ first concern is almost always that they are doing it wrong. Teachers and conductors alike emphasize accuracy, intonation, and making sure students “know the notes.” When given a piece of music that is less interested in “getting it right” and more interested in giving performers creative agency, it can cause a great deal of consternation in rehearsals.
Composers can open up a whole new world of sound and textural possibilities through the use of indeterminate sections in a piece, whereby individual voices break away from others in their section and make creative choices on their own (usually within given parameters). This technique is common in instrumental music, but less so in choral scores. (Perhaps we’ve sung the chorus “All We Like Sheep” one too many times.) The degree of indeterminacy and individual choice can vary quite a bit, from pieces that present strict guidelines to pieces that include undefined symbols that are left solely to the performer’s interpretation.
This example, from Karen Siegel’s Maskil of David, shows a more constrained form of indeterminacy where each line is given a short phrase that is performed individually by each person in the section, though with the same sense of tempo and meter.
Another example, from Drew Corey’s piece Of All Of Them: the first, the last uses a similar technique, but without the strict rhythmic component. In the passage below, we have a few different events happening simultaneously. First, there is a warm harmonic background texture provided by the middle voices, created from repeating notes or phrases, sung independently by each performer in the section. Then, there are rhythmic and melodic unison gestures guided by the conductor and indicated with vertical dotted lines to show their simultaneity. The last phrase in the upper voice, however, is a solo part and is rhythmically independent from what occurs beneath it. While the conductor gives cues for the unison moments in the lower parts, the soloists freely sing the melody in whatever time they choose.
Similar to what I had discussed in my previous article on New Polyphony in new choral music, this compositional technique opens up a wide palette of textural opportunities, polyrhythms, and dense harmonies that might not have been as possible or easily achieved if strictly notated. More importantly, there is a level of engagement and presence that such techniques require from the singers. When performers are actively part of the creative process, they connect with each other and the music in entirely new ways.