The Future of Choral Music
Highly chromatic or atonal music is rarely written for choirs, and the deep exploration of timbre found in instrumental pieces from later in the 20th century has mostly been ignored in favor of the pervasive choral sound inherited from the English cathedral tradition. But choral music in the 21st century is undergoing a cultural renaissance and performers are hungry for new types of exploration.
Here’s a common experience I have as a publisher of choral music: I’ll receive a piece with all the hallmarks of a composer who knows what they are doing. The piece is well engraved, follows the rules of voice leading, is idiomatically written for the voice—and is dull. But then I’ll do a little sleuthing and find samples of this same composer’s instrumental music, which will often by contrast be lively, engaging, and innovative. Nothing drives me battier than to see this separation between the two mediums, and I’ll often write an impassioned reply to the composer asking why they are so apparently willing to stifle their creative voice when it comes to choral music. Nine out of ten times, they respond with something akin to “thank you for giving me the permission to write the music I want to write.” These experiences have lead me to the belief that while there is plenty of newly composed music for choir, it is not part of the same contemporary conversation around new music as its instrumental and solo counterparts.
It’s no shocker to say that the choral and instrumental worlds have evolved quite separately over the past century. Highly chromatic or atonal music is rarely written for choirs, and the deep exploration of timbre found in instrumental pieces from later in the 20th century has mostly been ignored in favor of the pervasive choral sound inherited from the English cathedral tradition. Not only have the two worlds evolved separately, but their cultural importance is weighed differently as well. Using the Pulitzer Prize as one limited metric, it’s worth noting that, until The Little Match Girl Passion in 2008, an a cappella choral piece had never won the prize. This fact is confounding if we consider that choral music is thesingle most popular activity among adults in America. It is estimated that 32.5 million adults in America sing with a choir on a weekly basis and that ensemble singing is the most popular arts activity among adults in the United States. While the majority of choirs are religious or school ensembles, it is conservatively estimated that 12,000 of US choirs are community and professional groups. That’s 10 times the amount of community and professional orchestras in the United States. It’s entirely possible that the Pulitzer committee shares the same perspective as much of the new music world, that choral literature is not in the same “high art” category as its orchestral counter-part. And to be fair, the largely avocational nature of choirs contributes to the cultural sense that, as a whole, it need not be taken as seriously as instrumental music.
Thankfully, choral music in the 21st century is undergoing a cultural renaissance. More and more ensembles are bringing together musical innovation in the choral world, and ensembles are performing music that points composers in a new direction. These composers are exploring and expanding what is possible in the choral medium without being stymied by the avocational nature of many of the performers. There has, perhaps, never been a better time to make a national, and even global, impact with choral music. The choral world is one of the most accessible avenues for the public to stay connected with “classical” or “concert” music, especially when it comes to the work of living choral composers, where there is still a mass appeal from the young to the elderly. The medium is hugely popular, it is being taken more seriously than it has for the past hundred years, and the performers themselves are hungry for new types of exploration. There is a wonderful opportunity to use choral music as a way to expose a wide swath of Americans to the adventurous side of today’s new music conversation by getting people involved as performers, not just passive listeners.
In the series of articles that will be posted here in the coming weeks, I will explore: how the choral world is changing artistically, logistically, and creatively; what factors into that change; and where we all might be headed. I’ll also describe how technology is changing the social and business world of publishing and what methods composers can employ to bring experimental musical ideas to a wide demographic of people without alienating the majority of avocational singers in the choral world.