Wednesday, 4 May 2016

CHOIR (for SATB Choir)

"The more we sing, the wider ground we make to play in...'
This is a pivotal theme in "Choir", but the big punchline comes only at the very end.

In 2014, at the Jaipur Literary Festival in the Indian state of Rajasthan, there was an interview and poetry reading with the impressive Scottish poet John Burnside. John read a short poem (‘Choir’).  I liked it, have requested John’s permission to use his words, and set it to music for conducted SATB divisi choir.

 As you listen to the music (3' 42"), I highly recommend following the words on the printed music score (below) because my computer-realized choir can only sing in ‘vocalize’ (text-to-voice recognition isn’t yet an option in Sibelius music software). You can scroll through as the music proceeds (I recommend the 'fullscreen' option offered at the bottom... it will open in its own separate new window).

 Next, connect to a decent sound system or enclosed headphones, and click the orange PLAY button...

Some musings about the setting of words to music...
As a composer, my inner ear is normally full of purely musical ideas. I float around in a faraway bubble-world full of instruments, bird-song, and electronic/found-sounds. But when words get involved, whoa – everything suddenly changes. The audience’s attention is instinctively drawn to the words, the human element, because their meaning is more familiar, graspable, measurable. By contrast, instrumental music means, well, itself.  Unless it is an instrumental arrangement of a well-known song – in which case everyone sings along, mentally imbuing the music with a secondary layer of meaning, an emotional/associative layer.

Mountain Landscape with Rocks'  (John Martin, painted 1851).

The presence of words in music parallels the presence of those tiny heroic figures at the epicentre of colossal Romantic landscape paintings – irresistible eye magnets.  Human ears are hard-wired to home in to the lyrics of a song far more readily than to its purely musical elements. Who on earth is likely to maintain attention all the way through instrumental cover versions of Bob Dylan's "Ballad in Plain D"?  Brian Eno in fact recorded several songs with nonsense lyrics specifically to make this point, and jazz/scat singers exploit it with no apparent shame.

David Byrne quipped that "Singing is a trick for getting people to listen to music for longer than they would ordinarily."  Indeed, the music in most popular songs serves as a mere vehicle for their lyrics - which are often crass, unpoetic, and cringingly second-rate. Voltaire commented that "anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung", and Rossini appeared to concur when he joked "Give me a laundry list and I’ll set it to music".

But here, on the other hand, with John Burnside’s succinct poem ‘Choir’, we have a fine piece of literature framing the loftiest of sentiments. All my previous disdainful comments about song lyrics can henceforth be confidently ignored. If I can project John’s poem to the world’s attention by using music as a vehicle, so be it. Burnside’s choral metaphor, if pursued, could save the human race from itself.

Wow. Faced with such a literal Herculean challenge, I decided to unhitch myself from the conventional rigidities and expectations of formal ‘musical structure’ and allow the flow of words and mood to determine what happened from moment to moment during the composition process. Spontaneity, meh! As John Burnside himself put it during his JLF interview – “composing from the lip” – a neat way of encapsulating a non-structuralist worldview.

 As a result my music mostly demonstrates a healthy disrespect for the usual circle-of-fifths musical grammar, conventional functional root progressions and predictable tonal goals.  Mood really does = mode here. It’s a wild ride through some unrelated keys. Heinrich Schenker would doubtlessly blow me a raspberry, but I care not a fig. Chord structures vary from conventional to quartal and crunchy, with shades of dissonance made slave to word intensity and changing mood. And shock horror, Mr Schenker, the piece actually ends on a higher tonal plane than where it started (C-centric lifting to D)... but that neatly parallels the poem’s spiritually uplifting philosophical agenda.

Some house-keeping details:
1. At the mention of polyphony (bar 22), you may detect the stolen opening of J.S. Bach’s Sinfonia No.11 (Three-part Invention, BWV797).  Bach’s dissonances are utterly delicious - my hero. 

2. At bar 20 the canon sequence isn’t a real canon, but hey, I just wanted the yummy colour of those chromatic mediant harmonies – so there, suck that.

3. The recitative fragment (bar 30) should preferably be sung by a suitably extroverted Alto soloist rather than the whole alto section. If there is no suitable Alto volunteer, a heroic Tenor could ride to the rescue with one or two Altos perhaps helping to re-balance the Tenors’ part, if needed.  Find the best solution in your circumstances. A little understated humorous bombast might be entertaining in live performance, perhaps framed by a chorus of bobbed heads at the super-corny cadences of the intro and outro. This solo is perhaps the only spot in the piece where some operatically expressive vibrato could prove a bonus. Otherwise, the wobbles are generally counter-productive to harmonic transparency.

...and speaking of live performance, there is a choice of two endings for the impossible-to-sing word ‘breath’.  Both deliberately make the ‘-th’ audible. See the last page of the score. Neither ending is possible on the recording because the music software can’t deal with a pure ‘th’ sound (as it has no pitch).

PS: This piece isn’t as easy to sing as your average barbershop quartet, so I have prepared four mp3 files (Soprano, Alto, Tenor Bass) as tools for individual ‘note-bashing’ practice prior to group rehearsal. On the Alto track, for example, the other three parts are ghosted into the background a little in order to project the Alto line for learning purposes. By comparison to the proper recording, these tracks are relatively bland, being bereft of most of the nice hairpin dynamic shadings and agogics of the original, but they are, after all, only intended as workhorses to privately assist individual singers. Each mp3 begins with an incipit of a rising arpeggio of the stating pitch cues as usually given by a conductor. If you would like copies of these four mp3s, contact me at and I can email them to you (no cost, as with all my stuff). Just acknowledge me as usual in any programs or announcements as the composer, and focus due attention on Mr Burnside's fine poetry.

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