The October 2019 issue of Choral Journal is now available online. Below is an excerpt of the cover article “Ours to See: Emerging Trends in Today’s Choral Compositions” by Alan Denney. You can read it in its entirety online at acda.org/choraljournal. Click “Search Archives” and choose October 2019 from the dropdown menu.
Choral conductors consistently strive to find artistic balance in the selection of repertoire— standing upon the monumental shoulders of the past giants of choral expression while remaining open to contemporary musical conception and innovation. If choral conducting were a proverbial automobile, conductors are always peering ahead while simultaneously looking in the rearview mirror—closely watching the direction of the future while showing deference to the past. Undoubtedly, one of the choral conductor’s foremost responsibilities is to promote choral music so that it (or perhaps better referred to as “they”—the works) exists long after they themselves and their audiences are gone. One of the highest callings is to seek the pieces that will endure and sustain not the works but the art.
Choral conductors must ask themselves these pertinent questions: “Will what I select and perform be strong enough to last longer than I do? Will my students and audience remember this piece? Is it enough to sustain them?” Yet, even more pertinent questions need to be asked: What does the future hold for the choral art? What does its emerging landscape look like? To address these issues, a panel of eight composers was asked (via email) to respond to a series of questions regarding the future of choral music. These composers were selected for their innovation, durability, and notoriety.
Panel: Ēriks Ešenvalds, Abbie Betinis, Andrea Ramsey, Mark Winges, Jake Runestad, Stacy Garrop, Z. Randall Stroope, and Timothy Takach.
What do you as a composer see as the biggest strength in twenty-fi rst-century choral composition repertoire? The biggest weakness?
“In my opinion, the strongest influence on modern choral composition is the internet,” says Z. Randall Stroope. “We are connected (and influenced) by composers from all over the world, and to their unique bent on compositional ideas and ways to sonically communicate. The global competition will increase the quality of writing, and the overall possibilities. If there were any ‘weaknesses,’ it is—in my opinion—the choice of texts. It is an easy pitfall to either 1) choose a text that is ‘over-done,’ or 2) to set a text that lacks in depth and originality. I spend about 80 percent of my time looking for a suitable text when I begin writing a new work. The text is the well from which all decisions flow. May we, as composers, always be less concerned about quantitative output and more concerned about the qualitative.”
“Compared to last century, we now live in a time where there aren’t specific “schools” of composition to which one feels she or he must abide (which was often the case in academic institutions),” comments Jake Runestad. “With the global adoption of the internet and popularity of resources like YouTube, iTunes, and Spotify that provide instant access to music from around the world, composers have a plethora of musical styles and traditions at their fingertips to inspire the music they create. I hope this continues to allow the choral tradition to develop in unique and meaningful ways—deepening appreciation for diversity, and broadening the techniques and traditions of composers and singers alike.”
Runestad continues, “With the advent of software like Garageband, Sibelius, Finale, and others, it is easier than ever for the trained and untrained to create music. This is an exciting and helpful way for beginners to get started, and for all composers to create mock-ups of new works. However, a heavy reliance on this technology can produce vocal music that feels mechanical with little sense of phrase, pacing, and breath. I believe that vocal music must be conceived of with the voice, no matter how the composer feels about her or his vocal abilities. We, as conductors, editors, publishers, and performers, should continue to champion composers of all styles, and encourage works that exhibit musicality beyond mechanically plodding duple rhythms.”
Reflecting the times in which we live and being a voice are the responsibility of the artist. Andrea Ramsey states, “I find it exciting to see composers tackling issues of social justice through the content of their compositions—using their platform to increase awareness about important issues and working to motivate change. Perhaps it’s the storyteller in me, but when a composer gives voice to a narrative that needs attention through artfully crafted music, I’m inspired. “Another strength of twenty-first-century repertoire is the increased visibility of composers who are women, people of color, and/or LGBTQ. Basically, it’s nice to see composers starting to look more like the whole of humanity. There is more work to be done, but representation is improving.”
As for a weakness, Ramsey believes, “It might be the sheer abundance of homophonic works—many of which are marked at slower tempi and occasionally with little rhythmic or melodic variety. There is nothing inherently wrong with slower homophonic works, and some can be strikingly enjoyable to perform as a singer, which is why I think we have so many of them! Some of my own works would fall into this category, however; in examining the twenty-first-century choral catalogue as a whole, perhaps too great a percentage of our works comprise slow homophony. A dear friend of mine once asked in complete sincerity: ‘Do you think polyphony is dead?’ A great conversation ensued, and I believe it will be interesting to see if, as in much of any art’s history, we have a reaction to what has come before. Will there soon be an era in which polyphony flourishes in response to our current homophonic trend?”
Read the rest of this article (and more!) in the October 2019 issue of Choral Journal, available online at acda.org.