I stopped by the library at SibA a few days ago to check out the crop of new CDs the summer had brought in. I spied a newish disc of choral music by Eric Whitacre and, given that choir is kind of my thing lately, decided to sample it. It's not really my taste, a lot of slow chorales and the like, but it's heartfelt and undeniably pretty. It must also be gratifying to sing. The piece that really resonated with me is the title track, Cloudburst. Most of the first half features the unaccompanied voices, but toward the end of the piece, a battery of piano and percussion chime in, with the choristers clapping, snapping fingers and slapping thighs to simulate the sound of a rainstorm. It's tremendously effective, and I love hearing composers make singers use their bodies in choral works. Most of the time, this kind of extended techniques get used in "fun" pieces, like folk song settings or music that uses humorous poetry, stuff that's easy for the audiences to accept. It's nice to hear a composer create an entire section or a big texture in a more "serious" piece out of extended techniques. It doesn't get done nearly often enough, what with cliché traps like the aforementioned slow chorales and wrong-note Renaissance polyphony looming large over the medium. Aside from the spastic clarinet-like acrobatics and self-conscious babble the modernists tried to inflict on the choir in the mid-century, very little "serious" choir music makes use of extended techniques in an organic, structural way.
I've never really understood why this is. Maybe choral music, being largely an amateur activity, tends to attract more conservative performers, and conservative composers as well. (My evidence, I admit, is mostly anecdotal, based on attending choral festivals and competitions.) But it's not the only reason. Many times I've been disappointed by choral music written by seriously far-out composers who spend their lives extending the timbral and expressive range of instruments, only to turn to the choir and write something utterly conventional, squarely in the comfort zone of the Western voice. Does the perceived conservatism of the medium tempt composers to condescend to it? It seems unneccessary, given that more often than not, producing complex sounds with an amateur or non-professional group is a matter of simplifying the notation rather than the aesthetic. This applies equally to the timbral qualities of the voice. Why does so much vocal music cater to the bel canto paradigm? While it can be beautiful, the bel canto voice is also seriously limited in the timbral sense. (Yes, opera fans, I hear you moaning and rending garments. Now back in your hole.) The human voice is capable of so much more, coloristically, expressively, technically (cf. Meredith Monk, anyone?). Why doesn't this get explored in any systematic way in the choral repertoire?
It's something I've been trying to do with my recent choral music, the integration of extended techniques like whistling, whispering, overtone singing, Mongolian kargyraa (fundamental singing), different vocal timbres, and the use of body movements as structural rather than SFX elements in a piece. So far, I'm pleased with the results – although finding a kargyraa guy on short notice might make it tough for most choirs. But I haven't heard much other new music that attempts this, using the choir as an orchestra capable of a huge variety of timbres and sound production methods, rather than simply as a vehicle for text. Which is why I was pleased to discover another person who's into similar things, however different our aesthetics may be. Whitacre also has a keen interest in the poetry of Octavio Paz, which gives him bonus points in my book.
This truncated sally into the pitfalls of choral writing is just that, a beginning. I have a commission coming up for mid-length piece for the Helsinki Chamber Choir, which will be my first work for a pro choir. I'm excited about the possibilities of the project, and will most likely come back to the topic of choral music repeatedly in the next few months, hopefully with greater clarity of argument.