Tag: vocal

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

NOTUS standing outside

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

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

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


Point #1: “The Chorus” contains multitudes.

According to Chorus America’s 2009 Chorus Impact Study:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

1. Dynamics:

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

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

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

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

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

2. Breath

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Range & Tessitura

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

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

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

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

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


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

From whence cometh the pitch?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Singers and Musicians” and Why Our Language Matters

A cohort of singers on outdoor steps

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a problem.

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

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

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

    Dominick DiOrio, composer and conductor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So enough. Let’s embrace some new language.

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

Or how about just “musicians?”

Sounds Heard: Duo Scordatura, The Act of Loving You, and Ritual

Three very different albums showed up on my desk recently. One came from a friend, another from a friend of a friend, and the last from out of the blue, and the wildly varied music reminded me of what NewMusicBox is all about: exploding the idea that contemporary American music is any one thing.
Duo Scordatura


Violinist Nicholas Leh Baker and violist Faith Magdalene Jones form the Houston-based chamber group Duo Scordatura. Their eponymous debut album is the result of collaborations with all the composers featured on the album and each of the works came from their ongoing commissioning project.

Jordan Kuspa’s Beneath the Magma starts out with quietly growling unisons glissing and whining wider and wider into small turns. High energy, quasi-Balkan (or maybe real Balkan?) rhythms evolve from these opening gestures, populating alternating odd time signatures. While not straight-up tonal, the piece is centered in this ballpark for the most part and serves as a strong opening to the album. Robert Garza’s Ill-Tuned Illusions is one of the two works that reflects the duos namesake. Here the violin is tuned G D A# E and viola C G D# A, and the extra tension on the instruments can be heard in the work. A series of truncated vignettes, the piece is almost cartoon-like in its extreme changes of mood and texture. This is not meant pejoratively and, while there are a number of disparate sections, it certainly holds together quite well.

Jack Benson’s Tightrope Sonata is in two movements, and the first features long lines, each instrument having a turn at shaping them. Long soliloquies traded between the players merge into a languid dialogue, the back and forth spiraling upward in register before returning to material reminiscent of the opening. The second movement comes out guns blazing with its muscular jetés across double-stopped lower strings. Throughout the movement, one player plays chordal material in the chunky double-stop vein while the other lays out melodic material above. There are larger, more distinct sections, some of which have enough character to possibly warrant their own movements.

George Heathco’s Turbine features a Q&A between the two instruments that quickly overlap and become a sort of hockety canon starting in the lower registers and ascending by and by as the piece develops. A bright harmonic tonal center sways from dark to light and back again, as an ostinato in the viola plays against double stops in the violin. Pizz moments make their way into this trading texture, one that never gets too busy but always feels full and focused. This leads to a more legato section followed by a reductive ending in which a long phrase played between the instruments gets pared away until there is nothing left. Alexandra T. Bryant’s All True Passion Comes Out Of Anguish begins with a single keening line drawn out and punctuated with pizz. Glissando on the viola begins to break up the call while gentle dips in the violin mark the start of a new section, one in which arguably brighter harmonic content prevails. Chords long held by the violin are coaxed upward by sharp stabs in the viola, which upon dying away make way for a new and welcome texture of light arpeggiation from the violin and slowly gliding double stops in the viola. The arpeggiation moves into the realm of harmonics and dies away at the closing of the work. A final work by Benson, Fringe, provides an approachable and visceral close to a spectacular debut by the Houston duo.


Odessa Chen and the Invisible Stories Ensemble—The Act of Loving You


Odessa Chen’s chamber-folk EP The Act of Loving You is certainly an album of its time. Chen’s lyrical content and vocal delivery would fit comfortably in the pop rotation, though the former is more richly varied than much of that rotation and the latter has a breadth of character that outshines the average pop singer. Accompanying Chen are nine seasoned classical musicians and a composer/arranger.  (Full disclosure: the last is my friend Max Stoffregen.) The Act of Loving You has four charming tracks, each with their own character but wonderfully connected as well. The first thing that struck me about the opening song, “Our Hearts Boom Boom, was the distinctly different mic positions and distances between the vocal parts and the instrumental arrangements. Chen’s breathy vocal treatment is largely in line with typical pop production (the reverb is lush but not over the top) while the instruments are somewhat drier and more present. Delicate, intricate, and linear, the largely polyphonic arrangements set the piece apart from a pop track simply sweetened with orchestral instruments, though I admit that I missed the homophony a little bit in the choruses where, in pop, all things are tutti. Just a little.

In “Spring Comes On” a less rhythmically driven texture dominates. Filigree flute lines play around piano and bassoon while seagull strings serve to fill the space. The rhythmic activity does ramp up towards the end of the track, but the piece continues to float along by and large. “Objects May be Closer” begins with guitar and continues with a pulsing texture which at first blush is quite conventional. However, as the piece progresses and is overtaken by the orchestral instruments, one can hear the possibilities this sort of treatment has both in terms of density as well as timbre. Frankly, the pop world has no shortage of timbral possibilities, and that embarrassment of riches certainly plays a role in too many overly simplified broad-stroke arrangements. Here a strong understanding of each instrument and its timbral characteristics works strongly in favor of emphasizing the lyric at times, as well simply matching the quality of Chen’s voice, occasionally fusing the voice and instruments into a single entity.

The title track finally brings the homophony that I personally craved in the preceding arrangements while retaining the timbral matching of “Objects May be Closer.” While still floating along like “Spring Comes On,” “The Act of Loving You” is somehow bigger and thicker in spots, and when the piece ends like an indrawn breath, one is certainly left wanting more.


David Dominique—Ritual


David Dominique’s album Ritual reminds me of the best parts of the tradition of “rock band plus horns,” albeit with violin, flute, and flugabone in this case. The ten tracks feature four “Rituals” in spots one, three, seven, and nine, the first of which was salvaged from an opera and reworked from the original in which the piece acted as a sardonic fanfare for Saddam Hussein. As Dominique explained it to me:

The four “Ritual” tracks are all tied together by an emphasis on cellular repetition. In Ritual 1/BDB, that repetition gets a bit of development. Ritual 2/Dirge has a long chord progression that repeats once with repetitions in the way Andrew Lessman is improvising (not all exactly cellular). Ritual 3/Hostage overtly repeats almost the same material six times in a row, with small variations at the end of the “phrase.” And Ritual 4/Release takes an opening series of motives and deconstructs and varies them through processes of literal cellular repetition followed by a motivic group improvisation.

While the album is by no means derivative, listeners of a certain vintage will pick up on Zappa and Waits, while others may hear elements of Morphine and early Mr. Bungle channeled through Dominique’s tight arrangements. The album has a dirty, visceral quality, and while there is no story per se, there is a quasi-narrative forward motion—kind of like Zorn’s “Naked City,” without the hyperkinetic/schizophrenic arrangements and vocals.

In addition to the eponymous tracks, highlights include Golden Retriever, with its wandering pizzicato strings and lowing tenor sax, and Mulatto Shuffle, which marches in on its namesake before shuffling off, and last but not least, Drunk Hump, which sounds like the end of the night, no doubt. The album is very evocative, totally begs live performance, and to my ear lends itself to additional elements of theater and dance. Dominique’s performing contribution to the album is on flugabone on all ten tracks, and my only criticism is that with an album with a vibe like this, if you play a flugabone, you should name one of your tunes after it. Ritual 5, anyone?

Sounds Heard: Some American Albums

In the wake of the many “Best of 2013” lists floating around, I wanted to highlight some recent album releases worthy of your time and attention. I didn’t select them for this reason, but it occurs to me that they each say something interesting and distinct about what it means to make American music right now.
William Winant—Five American Percussion Pieces (Poon Village Records)


Buy:
Winant has been a champion of contemporary percussion music for decades and can boast a personal connection to most of the composers represented on this album—Lou Harrison, Michael Byron, Alvin Curran, and James Tenney. This is a fascinating snapshot of mid-to-late 20th-century American percussion music, including pieces as early as Harrison’s Song of Quetzalcoatl (1941) and as recent as Curran’s Bang Zoom (1995), with works from the 1970s by Byron and Tenney filling in the gaps. The recordings themselves span many years, too—Byron’s Tracking I was recorded in 1976, while Tenney’s Never Having Written a Note for Percussion was recorded earlier this year. Taken together, these works lend the album the feeling of a retrospective in miniature, spanning most of Winant’s prolific career as a performer.

Song of Queztacoatl is the lone ensemble piece, and a curiously strident one for Harrison. It alternates between aggressive sections driven by unpitched percussion—tom-toms, bass drum, an insistent snare drum—and more melodious passages inhabited by bell-like muted brake drums, glasses, and cowbells. The Willie Winant Percussion Group (Todd Manley, David Rosenthal, Daniel Kennedy, and Winant) really captures the feverish energy here, and they play with an astonishing unity of purpose—if not for the many layers going on, you might be forgiven for mistaking this for a solo work.

Byron’s Trackings I for four metallophones toys with density; clangorous textures elide into skittering runs and back again. Curran’s Bang Zoom for 13 tuned cowbells immediately conjures up Balinese gamelan music, but without the frantic pace and tempo shifts. Winant maintains a steady, resolute tempo here, bringing out the emergent melodic patterns with incredible clarity.
Tenney’s Never Having Written a Note for Percussion is a bit of an anomaly here, consisting of a single tam-tam roll that crescendoes and diminuendos over the course of nine minutes. Again, Winant’s patience and precision gives the piece a magnificent arc, as disparate layers of sound from the tam-tam emerge and recede one by one.

The record concludes with another Lou Harrison piece, Solo to Anthony Cirone for tenor bells. It is understated, tantalizingly brief, and a perfect epigram for the album as a whole. One striking thing about the entire collection is its strong focus on melodic writing (with the exception of the Tenney). Running counter to prevailing stereotypes, it makes a strong case for melody as a central concern of 20th century percussion music, and Winant is an ideal ambassador for this message here.


Scott Worthington—Even the Light Itself Falls (Populist Records)


Scott Worthington’s Even the Light Itself Falls also looks back to the 20th century in a way, recalling the sparse, gentle textures of Morton Feldman’s music. Scored for clarinet, percussion, and double bass, Worthington’s piece unfolds at a remarkably patient pace—the bass does not even enter until several minutes in. The ensemble et cetera (Curt Miller, clarinet; Dustin Donahue, percussion; Worthington, double bass) plays with noteworthy restraint and control here. Miller’s playing is the most immediately ear-catching, with plaintive yet precise variations in vibrato. Nearly an hour and a half long, it is tempting to put this album on as background music, but the rewards for active listening are plentiful as well.


Various Artists – Rounds (the wulf. records)
Rounds
Purchase directly from the wulf. records
There have been countless free concerts of experimental music at the wulf., a local Los Angeles venue. Rounds is the first release on the organization’s recently launched recording label, and it’s a very interesting choice for a first album. As the title implies, each composition is in fact a round, a melody that overlaps with itself. Of course, this immediately conjures up memories of nursery rhymes, but while many of these pieces do trade on a certain childlike simplicity, the composers also find diversity and depth in these limitations. Most tracks are a capella, though occasionally an instrument or two will double a line for extra support. There are bluesy inflections in Daniel Corral’s Your Storm, raucous nonsense syllables in Eric KM Clark’s Rhythmic Round, clever numerology in Jessica Catron’s Four 3 And, ominous chromaticism in Larry Polansky’s Scarlet Tanager, and so on.


The performances feature a beautifully heterogenous mix of trained and untrained voices, giving individual lines a timbral uniqueness that adds both clarity and character. It also connects the experimental tradition to folk music traditions—in particular, it reminds me of the Sacred Harp tradition of choral singing in the American South in its rawness and realness.