I spent about a half hour this morning on the phone with the Director of Choral Activities at Illinois State University discussing a new commission.
There aren’t a lot of details yet, but it’ll be a multi-movement choral work, possibly integrating an obbligato instrument or a small instrumental ensemble. I’m currently exploring some possibilities for texts that I think would be appropriate; one sequence of poems in particular.
This is one of my two promised “exciting announcements” – Dr. Carlson and I have been throwing around ideas on extended works for over a year, now, and we’re finally starting to make it happen. I’m really looking forward to starting the project – it’s always a joy to team up with my alma mater on new works!
I haven’t written any choral music in about 3 or 4 years, and I’ve really grown and evolved as a composer since then, so this will be a great opportunity to revisit the genre that was once at the center of my compositional endeavors, and which really sparked my interest in the marriage of words and music. Almost all of my choral works were written for ISU choirs. I wrote mostly for the Madrigal Singers – at least one new piece per year – though I also composed two shortish works for the Concert Choir and one (which lies unperformed in the bottom of a box somewhere) for the Women’s Choir. (I’m not terribly upset about the latter. It was a reasonably good piece, but wouldn’t be worth the trouble of securing the rights for the text, unfortunately. I make a point of getting the rights well in advance of writing a piece, but…I was young and stupid. Ironically, the lack of performance had nothing to do with the rights.)
Choral music really shaped the way I view meter. So much choral music is written in straight-ahead four- or three-quarter time, but the average Midwestern choir takes those boring, square measures and messes with the pulse in a really beautiful way. Beats are expanded or contracted wildly – yet organically – to create a living, breathing musical line. Where was once a simple, regular pulse is suddenly an exhilarating rush forward, or a floating, liquid cessation of time. No two beats are exactly the same.
What comes so naturally to these choirs and their directors is surprisingly complex when captured on the page, which is what I did. 4/4 becomes an asymetric 9/8: 1-2–1-2–1-2-3–1-2. Or 11/8: 1-2-3–1-2–1-2-3–1-2-3. Words otherwise lost in a steady pulse take on new meaning and weight. A beat or a half-beat is dropped in to lend emphasis to the high point of the phrase, or dropped out to avoid emphasis on an unimportant syllable. An extra beat of rest is dropped in at the ends of certain phrases for the sake of taking a breath. Why not just leave out the beat and put in a little breath mark? To remove the guesswork: “Yes, breathe here.” Sure, most choirs will drop in that extra beat anyway, but why run the risk of some choir clipping off the end of the phrase in order to maintain the pulse?
All of this, of course, made its way into my instrumental writing. Meters shift just as constantly in my chamber works as in my vocal music; portions of beats are dropped in and out just as often. But everything sings.
I’m really looking forward to flexing my choral muscles again. I’ll post new developments here as they happen.