Sing Awakening: New directions in vocal music

Today's choral composers explore new sounds

Ryan Heller conducted Portland Vocal Consort's 2013 Best of the Northwest concert.

Ryan Heller conducted Portland Vocal Consort’s 2013 Best of the Northwest concert.

Editor’s note: This is the first in ArtsWatch’s two-part look at contemporary choral music. See Bruce Browne’s appraisal of Portland’s choral scene here.


New choral music is hot, no doubt about it. And in Portland, new choral ensembles are hot too. Recent years have seen the inauguration of several top-flight groups such as the Resonance Ensemble, Portland Vocal Consort, The Ensemble, and In Mulieribus. Established groups such as Choral Arts Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers have passed the baton to ambitious new directors, and the incomparable Cappella Romana has expanded forces and repertory. While none of these groups devotes itself exclusively to new compositions, they tackle them regularly and show no signs of losing interest. Portland Vocal Consort even has an annual “Best of the Northwest” show, with music written entirely by living Northwest composers. (Full disclosure: PVC included my “The Sun Never Says” in its 2011 “Best of the Northwest” program.)

On the national scene, publicity genius Eric Whitacre continues to woo and wow the choral singing multitudes, and for only the second time in its 60-year history (the first was only five years ago), the Pulitzer Prize in music was just awarded for an a cappella (unaccompanied) choral composition. Any local composer like me, who has written a few choral works and who wants to write more, or any fan of contemporary classical music, should be excited about the future, right?

Well… it’s complicated. Hidden in all this upsurge of activity are sharply divided opinions on esthetics, aims, and ideals, not to mention simple likes and dislikes. While some composers dream up ever more exotic sounds and ways of combining them, others seem happy to turn out endless slight variations on the tried and true, and the singers themselves come down all over the map. The new and different can be rewarding but also extremely frustrating to put together, requiring a high proportion of rehearsal to performance time. The tried and true may be put together quickly by professionals, and often excites the partisan enthusiasm of amateurs, but it all begins to sound the same after awhile. Of course there’s a wide middle ground: composers striving to find just the right mix that will knock ’em dead at the premiere, stay in the repertory, and though none of them will admit caring, maybe snag that third choral Pulitzer not too many years down the road.

One day last month saw a local spike in all this buzz, as Portland listeners enjoyed a rare double-header of recently composed choral music. In the afternoon at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, The Esoterics, one of Seattle’s top choirs, gave a concert entirely of American music written in the last four years. In the evening, Ryan Heller and the Portland Vocal Consort answered with this year’s Best of the Northwest at First Christian Church. Earlier that week at Reed College, Chanticleer, quite likely the top American a cappella group, packed the house for a program featuring a generous helping of recent works. All the divisions and extremes in play these days were on display, with the possible exception of one which never made much of a dent in choral repertory and now seems to be receding into history: the hardcore avoidance of traditional tonality, as practiced by the Second Viennese School and its descendants.

For that matter, choral music didn’t get much respect from the flowering of 20th century modernism, if the amount of such work the avant-garde produced is any indication. The remarkable flexibility and versatility of the human voice, free of keys, valves, or frets, proved difficult to channel away from the consonant harmonic practice developed over many previous centuries. (String players don’t have frets either, but they are used to skating on the edge of impossibility and took developments in stride.) Nor does rhythmic precision come naturally, not being required for the voice’s main function, communication via language. So the late century craze for pattern and process largely passed choral music by as well. As the American art music community raved over the minimalist experiments of Glass, Riley, Adams, and Reich, the choral music community rediscovered the quaint primitivist Carl Orff and flipped over the unadventurous but effective semi-pop stylings of John Rutter.

Choral Music Gets Contemporary

All that is changing now. A new cadre of art music’s best and brightest, untroubled by old battles about tonality and pop music, is unafraid to engage singers and audiences alike with new ideas tailored to the unique possibilities and constraints of choral music, nor have they failed to notice the relatively large audiences choral concerts generate. One rising star, Mason Bates, has written a six-part suite, “Sirens,” on a commission from Chanticleer, who performed one movement on their concert titled “The Siren’s Call.” (The Esoterics, not to be outdone on their concert entitled “Sirene,” performed the whole suite.) The occasional harmonic progression borrowed from the cocktail lounge may raise eyebrows, but the pervasive aquatic imagery in Bates’s work is well served by inventive variations on a texture somewhere between hocketing (distributing a melody line between alternating voices) and stretto (overlapping the same line in multiple voices). Maybe these techniques unconsciously evoke the marriage of intricacy and coordination in the flow of water.

Other currents sampled by Chanticleer included world music, represented by Chen Yi’s “I Hear the Siren’s Call,” which made effective use of glissandi and nasal timbres, and American neo-Romanticism, represented by John Corigliano’s “L’invitation au Voyage.” The latter was one of only two works on the whole program that seemed to give the group any trouble, despite its lack of extended techniques such as glissandi, overtone singing or noise (as in “shhhhhhhh”). Complex harmony can create an exquisite pleasure nothing else can, but it’s still hard to tune even in the 21st century.

The Esoterics filled out their program with the conservative but fluent and very attractive “Voices” by its director, Eric Banks, and two recent works by the socially conscious (or exploitative, depending on your perspective) Brooklyn composer Ted Hearne. Hearne has taken an eclectic approach, combining materials from a wide variety of musical currents. For example, the first movement of “Privilege” combined classic riffs from both minimalism and mid-20th century modernism to create its own distinctive personality. In the fourth movement, “we pretend to need them”, another current fashionable of late – short, slightly varied repetitive phrases separated by silence – was tightened into compelling rhythmic focus. I found the work absorbing and enjoyable overall.

Much less successful was “Ripple,” on a short text from an Iraq War military log, dragged out and shredded beyond any hope of creating what would seem to be the desired emotional impact and reaching its nadir in an interminable passage on the word “occupants,” in which the same repetitive technique used in “we pretend to need them” was stretched into almost painful flaccidity. It was all I could do to keep from busting out laughing, during each awkward silence, at the obvious effort expended by the choir to avoid pronouncing the isolated last syllable like an article of clothing.

What’s going on here? The snarky answer is that David Lang has a lot to answer for. The Bang On A Can co-founder has been instrumental in shaking American art music out of its ivory tower of mathematical abstruseness, building on the work of the aforementioned minimalists and also Morton Feldman, and no doubt deserves a Pulitzer Prize for some work or other, but it seems to me the Pulitzer committee made a particularly infelicitous decision in giving the first ever prize for an a cappella work to Lang’s “Little Match Girl Passion” in 2008. My first experiences listening to excerpts put me off so much that I was discouraged from listening to the whole work. In particular, long sections in which repeated similar phrases are broken up by silences had about the same effect as what is sometimes called Chinese water torture (no doubt by people who aren’t Chinese). When I did eventually listen all the way through, I found sections which drew me in also, though the work still seems tedious overall and the “torturous” sections still try my patience. Millions of years of evolution have trained humans to treat a pause of a certain length as a portent; I’m not sure what Lang and Hearne hope to achieve by treating it as just another purely abstract musical phenomenon. Maybe for their next trick they’ll have someone in the choir shout “LOOK OUT” every five seconds for several minutes.

And this is not the only distancing at work in both the Passion and “Ripple.” Long sections with little variation in volume, speed, or pitch set, can too easily feel like an assault on the senses, if we are even awake enough to care. At least Lang’s text tells us how we should be feeling. Hearne’s doesn’t, which is admirable in itself, but in that case the music needs to show us the way to empathy, and it doesn’t.

Northwest Voices

If Portland Vocal Consort’s program was any indication, composers here in the Pacific Northwest are fishing in more fertile waters. True, some of the works harked back to Rutter’s 1970s heyday, and though not without considerable beauty in places, offered little that the audience hasn’t heard countless times before. They risked nothing, and I found it difficult to care about them either.

But most were compelling, riding one or another of the various musical currents of new choral music – sometimes many at a time. Portland composers David York and Bryan Johanson offered well-made takes on American neo-Romanticism. York’s setting of Psalm 100, notably, built to a powerfully moving conclusion. Eugene composer Robert Kyr’s kaleidoscopic harmony in “The Singer’s Ode” draws from this same current, but ultimately flowed in its own highly personal way. Young Composer Contest winner Derek Sup of Salem visited many shores in his dense yet satisfying work “Angels.”

Seattle’s Karen Thomas and Portland’s Ethan Sperry, both directors of fine choral groups themselves – Sperry being one of the ambitious new Portland directors mentioned above – offered strong works. Thomas’ “Yonati” wasn’t flashy, but every subtly shifting element contributed to make it soar above the ordinary. The flash was in Sperry’s “Mantra,” which made evocative use of overtone singing and played it off against the ringing of various bells. I must also mention Greg Bartholomew’s work, though I found it somewhat frustrating. It opened dramatically, clusters in the piano contrasting with beautifully spaced voices. But the rest of the piece wandered, never giving us the rest of the musical story. I would strongly encourage him, and others tempted down the same path, to consider every sound a vital contributor to the whole musical fabric.

For an example, I would point to possibly the most interesting work of the night, and likely the most challenging to perform, John Paul’s “None,” setting the Christina Rossetti poem “None Other Lamb.” (Full disclosure: John and I are both on the board of directors of Cascadia Composers.) At the climactic line “nor place to lay my head”, the devout poet’s nightmare of a comfortless earthly life is evoked in a rhythmically chaotic passage built on an extraordinary quadruple dissonance. Yet the dissonance is no mere effect; it’s created by refracting a theme which has become familiar in the predominantly minor-mode work, and it’s the means by which the exalted final line “Nor home, but Thee” becomes illuminated by the ultimate transformation to the major mode. It is, in short, absolutely vital.

Broad Horizons

An even finer example, perhaps, for all choral composers is this year’s Pulitzer winner, “Partita,” by New York-based newcomer Caroline Adelaide Shaw. (She is in fact the youngest person ever to win a music Pulitzer.) In this work, most all of the currents in contemporary choral composition are blended with the traditional choral sound to create an endlessly fascinating, frankly beautiful work. In particular, a wide range of extended techniques are employed with rare sensitivity to musical logic and pleasure both. In this, Ms. Shaw has no doubt been greatly aided by her membership in the premiering choir, the breezily named Roomful of Teeth. And yet there is no substitute for a fine compositional ear and it seems to me this work shows that she has it.

In all this enthusiasm for local and American work, it would be naive to imagine that we have the only, or even the liveliest, choral music hotspots in the world, or that their history has run elsewhere as it has here. In particular, the Baltic region of Europe is justly famous for the quality both of its choral composition and choral performance. Chanticleer gave Portland an intriguing sample in Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s “Canticum calamitatis maritimae,” commemorating the disastrous 1994 wreck of the cruise ship MS Estonia. 

Last weekend, Ethan Sperry directed the Oregon Repertory Singers in a moving performance of “Passion and Resurrection” by the acclaimed young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (who was actually present, and charmingly easygoing about the whole affair). I came away with a high opinion of it, but I was bothered by a few questionable moments, including the very end. While visually arresting, with the soloist walking slowly out of a circle of other singers and on out of the performance space, musically it merely replicated a standard pop track fade out. It could have opened up to the heavens! The composer is certainly up to it, as the rest of the work abundantly shows. He is not afraid to draw on a wide variety of materials – sweet harmonies, edgy dissonances, soaring lines, special sound effects – and combine them in an uncomplicated and continually absorbing whole. And the performers, including the well-focused strings from Classical Revolution PDX and the visually and musically radiant soloist, Vakaré Petroliûnaité, would have followed him anywhere. Overall the work was a great example of the excellence being pursued far beyond our shores.

So, yes, after hearing this extensive sampling on Portland stages, I am excited about the future of choral music. All around me are examples created by composers who marshal a wide variety of musical phenomena for the pleasure and inspiration of their audience. (As well as a few examples which, maybe, are object lessons in what to avoid.) Traditional harmony and melodic line, often warmed by the expressionist sound of the early 20th century, new applications of old contrapuntal devices, special effects unique to the human voice, and vocal traditions from the non-Western world, are just some of the currents in a great river of fascinating new music. Care to join me in a swim?

Jeff Winslow is a composer, pianist, and a founding member of the Cascadia Composers.

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