Choral music – re questions


Occasional Writings

Response to Choral questions

Background in choral singing? Family? Own religious/church background? Is that important – now/then?

As a family a lot of our life revolved around the church (Christ Church Congregational), as was the case for a lot of people living in a small town where any activity was entirely self-generated. There were no orchestras, concert organisations, theatre companies, dance companies that ever visited Goole. I sang in the church choir as a boy and my father had sung in the choir (which I remember hearing though he died when I was 9 which was just before I started singing in the choir). My uncle (on my mother’s side) was the organist and choirmaster and other relatives also sang in the choir and were prominent in the church’s administration (the Congregationalist had a democratic structure involving active Deacons and so on). My mother ran the children’s Sunday School and I would be at church three times every Sunday – for morning and evening services and for afternoon Sunday School. In my teens I played piano for my mother’s classes, which involved lots of sight-reading (even when I became less regular as a churchgoer in my later teens)

We led the singing of hymns, of course, but also sang anthems (rehearsing every Friday night) and chanted Psalms (which I enjoyed). My mother was very strict about Sundays – not allowed to buy anything for example – no ice cream, and I never read a Sunday paper until I went to university!

I knew the repertoire inside out and can still join in singing hymns from memory. We also regularly performed the oratorio repertoire – Handel, Mendelssohn, Stainer. My mother also played cello in the local amateur orchestra and joined up with the amateur operatic society, usually for Gilbert and Sullivan (my dad, a baritone, did a lot of solo singing for this).

This was an important to me at the time, and the memory of it is still important – and I still retain some of the values.

Tradition (RVW, etc) of non-believing or non-Catholic composer writing for the liturgy?

Not consciously doing an RVW. In fact my impetus to write a sort of choral music came from having worked with the Hilliard on my first piece for them – Glorious Hill. It was Bill Cadman’s death that triggered it. I was very badly affected by Bill’s death, more so even than any in my own family (except perhaps that of my father) and I felt a quite desperate need to do something about it. Writing an obituary for The Independent helped in a way, but I did want to do something more and decided to write a Requiem. I felt that the form of the Requiem, like the formalities of the funeral itself, helps to settle things down and for life to return to a semblance of normality – whether one is a believer or not. I remember the profoundly unsatisfactory funeral of Cornelius, which was both secular and completely unmanaged (“shall we bury him now? No let’s sing another song. Now? No, I’ll read a poem..etc). Cadman Requiem led me to examine the structure and content of the form in a critical way. Many of the traditional texts seemed inappropriate to the way Bill had died – threats of hell-fire, asking for forgiveness and so on – and I was left with only two texts: the Requiem/Kyrie and the Agnus Dei. I felt OK about In Paradisum which, though strictly from the Order of Burial, does appear in a number of Requiems. I did edit the text here slightly by removing the word “Jerusalem” and just leaving the more neutral “Holy City”. This still only gave me three movements, which is not enough and so I added the two forms of Caedmon’s Creation Hymn (because of the family name) – one being Bede’s Latin version and the other the seventh century Northumbrian original – but as solo pieces.

Differences in tradition – English/Anglican, Catholic/French, Orthodox/Baltic – approach to voicings, etc.

My first purely choral commission came from an Anglican source – a Psalm for Edinburgh Cathedral to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the addition of girls to the trebles. I was acutely aware that this was for a very specific choral context and related to a choral tradition, and to a break with it. Although this is not exactly the church choral tradition that I grew up in, there is quite a lot of Anglican choral music that I enjoy. I went, for a time, to services in Sheffield Cathedral when I was a student, although that was because my girl friend at the time went regularly. This was a bit at odds with my loose agnosticism acquired in my teens and reinforced by the philosophy department
at Sheffield. But I did enjoy the music (John Potter and I share a great love of Balfour Gardner’s Evening Hymn).

My work with Baltic choirs (started in 2003) came some time after I had been composer in residence at the Hilliard Summer School (1997) where I wrote two choral pieces, one of which is for 51 solo voices (though essentially 10 groups). These were the pieces that the Latvian Radio Choir chose to perform when I was touring the Baltic with my ensemble, which played in each capital: Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius. I performed separately in ~Tallinn with the NYYD Ensemble, and the came back at the end of the tour for two concerts with the Latvians. One had the two Hilliard pieces (And so ended Kant’s traveling in this world, and Three Poems of Cecco Angiolieri) and the other had On Photography as well as some laude sung by Anna Friman, alone and with two sopranos
from the choir. I became friends with the two conductors Kaspars Putnins and Sigvard Klava and became aware of a quality of choral singing that I had never experienced before, except perhaps in working with the Hilliard, though one to a part there. There was a remarkable blend of voices, though with some outstanding soloists; there was extraordinary intonation and phrasing with breath lengths that I found hardly believable. The dynamic range is also something that I have never heard elsewhere.

I subsequently worked with the Estonian National Male Choir as Kaspars was artistic director there for three years too. I found the range of the choir quite stunning – the very low basses, the effortless high tenors – and the sheer size of the sound. Interestingly Kaspars was always very critical of the choir and felt that they never approached the level of the Latvians, though for me they are simply very different. With all these choirs I was able to indulge my love of divisi choral writing, which is one reason why many find my choral music quite difficult (Strauss and Grainger share the same problem).

Quality of voices here vs Estonia, say; allow you do different, more ambitious things?

Much more – see above (and below on divisi)

Any specifically Catholic commissions.

No, though we did d the Lockerbie Memorial Concert in Westminster Cathedral in 1998, and they were incredibly helpful and god to work with.

Was Ars Photographica your first SATB writing? – why then? happenstance?

Apart from the choruses in Medea, this was my first choral piece. When I was working with Bob Wilson on The Civil Wars I did a lot of research on text as Bob is notoriously casual, even indifferent, to the content of text. I devised a number of texts for arias and pursued this research to some length (I remember constructing an aria for Mata Hari from various things that she had written or said, and then had them translated into late 19th century Javanese, the language that she claimed to speak, and even had someone from their embassy to read them for me on to tape!). One of the areas in one of the scenes I worked on involved characters from Jules Verne and I had found that he had met Leo XIII, when he was still a cardinal I think, in 1883 exactly one hundred years before our work on Civil Wars. I found the poem Ars Photographica which the then Cardinal Ricci had written in 1867. As Susan Sontag was about to join the team of writers for the project I decided to welcome her with a poem, in Latin, dealing with the same subject as her first major book. The piece was rehearsed by the choir of Sudwestfunk in Baden Baden (German radio was an initial sponsor) but never performed as they pulled out of the project, and the piece was “lost” for 11 years until I was clearing out my office when I stopped teaching in 1994 and found the returned scores in a large jiffy bag behind a filing cabinet…

How you approach texts and – version of old, boring question – does the music reach to meet the poetry/music of the text, or does the text come along to fit a particular structure?

Finding the right text is the most important aspect of writing vocal music for me, whether this is an opera libretto or an existing poem or piece of prose. I know what I want to write in terms of subject (e.g. I want to set a Psalm; I want to write a choral work which can appear in a liturgical context or not; I want to write a series of madrigals etc). So for me the music is led by the form, imagery, rhythm, cadences, of the text. It can be a single word that makes me reject a text. For example, I want to set many of Edwin Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland. There are 40 of them but I find that there are only 16 that I can be sure of setting, four more which I might set, and I would struggle with the rest.

Do you think in terms of cycles of compositions for voices – again out of creative need or circumstance?

Compositions for voices tend to end up in cycles though don’t always start out that way. With Adnan Songbook for example, I had set one of the eight love poems from Etel Adnan’s set of poems (for Mary Wiegold and the Composers’ Ensemble) a couple of years before writing another two (commissioned for the BBC Fairest Isle year in 1995). It was only when I had these three that I decided to set all eight – and some were less comfortable to set then others. The first one I had set – number 5 – was the one which felt the most natural, some of the rest needed to be written to complete the cycle.

In the case of Madrigals I consciously decided after I had written four, which became the first of the First Book of Madrigals, to write a book of madrigals. In fact I decided to write seven books because of the coincidence of these first four having been written on Mondays – the rest of the book were also written on Mondays and then each of the second book were written on Tuesdays, the third on Wednesdays and so on. I have now done two of the Fourth Book and have plans for the first two of each of the fifth and sixth books. With the fourth book, as these are much longer poems (Petrarch’s sestini rather than sonnets) I can’t finish them in one day so I make sure that I a least start and finish them on the correct day of the week………….

Similarly the Psalms, for example, have become a sort of grouping simply by adding another to the set as the time appears right to add them – I may add a fourth shortly.

Range of languages you’ve set and differences/difficulties?

I started out deliberately avoiding English as this had, for me, connotations of Britten/Pears, as well as forcing me to be alert to “word painting” – either to avoid it or to follow it. So, my first opera was in Greek (though with some words in English originally, which were subsequently reset in French). I set Japanese and French for Civil Wars. Phrases in Esperanto, Japanese, German, French, Latin for Invention of Tradition. I only started setting English when Blake Morrison did a prose text for the concert piece Doctor Ox’s Experiment (Epilogue) in 1988 where the whole story is told in flashback.

I found French and Italian easiest to set for a long time and still enjoy setting Italian (Petrarch is a constant source and I am setting more Petrarch this year as well as Bronzino). I find Latin very straightforward and English has now become more common, though always with great scrutiny (there was a great deal of too and fro with the librettos which Blake did for Ox and G for example).

I actually found setting the Synge translations of Petrarch into a kind of Irish prose/poetry quite hard at first, though once I got going I loved it.

In the last few years I have set Russian (for the bass concerto), 10th century Icelandic (for From Egil’s Saga), Faroese (Trondur I Gøtu), Gaelic (for Iarla O’Lionaird) and so on. None of these have caused me much difficulty, though I usually get someone to read the texts a various speeds for me. Incidentally, according to people in Ireland I may be the only English composer to set Gaelic texts, and certainly those that are as old as I used (from the 9th to the 16th century)

On a partly personal note (which they seem to encourage) what about the piece for our wedding. Integration of voices and solo instrument – internal references.

Writing pieces that have some personal connection is always one of the most pleasurable things to do. In the case of the Psalm for our wedding there was the perennial question of which text – and there were very few which struck me as plausible. The idea of having an obligato solo instrument made the piece less “abstract” for me as it enabled me to have a solo voice, which was not a singer. And that solo voice has the possibility of adding a loose reference to jazz, with the use of a mixture of an open sound and the harmon mute alluding to Miles Davis of course. The trumpet, emerging from the overall texture, also
Makes the sound world more free and joyful. Of course I also gave the “tune” a title – just as hymn tunes have titles to enable them to be used for more than one hymn. My choice of “Bohanon” is one that has a meaning which would be noticed by few people. I always enjoyed George Bohanon’s solo feature on the Chico Hamilton album which had a bass player who interested me (Albert Stinson) when I was looking carefully and selectively at the post LaFaro world of bassists.

The title of the Bohanon feature seemed to me to have a direct and personal relevance for the context of your marriage to Sarah. And I was acutely aware of the way in which marriages had become shaky, and even failed, after I had provided music for the wedding! I had already used up the only lines in the entire Bible (Proverbs ch. 5 v15-19) which celebrate the joys of sexual love, sung by Trio Mediaeval at the wedding of Anna Friman’s brother.

The Psalm that I wrote to celebrate John’s birth, and which has yet to be performed, has a pizzicato double bass part which, again, was to refer to jazz (though there is nothing jazz-like in the music, simply that the bass has a jazz, not an orchestral, pizzicato sound). Charlie Haden always used to say that he always wanted to play bass with a choir, and Gary Karr always says how well basses and choirs go together.

That is a factor in my adding an optional Russian bass voice choir to the double bass concerto (and there will be a mixed choir in the piano concerto I am writing soon). I also added a double bass obligato part to the piece I wrote for the Estonians, setting George Bruce, and using the same instrumentation, apart from the solo bass, as Schubert (violas, cellos basses).

Some reference, I guess, to operatic writing for chorus as well.

With my first opera Medea, the chorus is an essential part of the dramatic structure and so had to write choruses. As I got more and more into the opera the choruses became more important musically and the chorus in Act 3, which is a kind of hymn to Athens, had to have a musical language different from the rest of the opera – the Greek is quite different from the rest of the text, I was told, and the content is too in that we have a sort of inconsequential poem about Athens which is there chiefly to show the different world from that of Corinth, and to show that Medea would not fit in that world. I set something in between Wagner and Grainger….

With the second opera chorus was not so important as I was told from the outset that, given the amount of time available for staging choruses in the rehearsal schedule, a maximum of three would be possible. I did, though, write a 13-part ensemble of solo voices. Verdi had written 9-part ensemble in Falstaff and I got quite macho amount the numbers in divisi in general, though only when it came about naturally. (My piece for the Hilliard Summer School used 51 solo voices because that’s how many here were, although it did top Taverner’s Spem in Alium, at 48). The 24 solo strings just before the last scene is one more than Strauss’s Metamorphosen….

With the third opera, G, I had free rein and Blake and I decided that the chorus would have a big part in the opera and there are many substantial choral sections.

What I learned, though, was that opera choruses are not always that good. I wrote some things which needed a chorus of the scale of the chorus at Bayreuth and 32 singers couldn’t do that – especially when I made so much of the second act as male chorus, effectively half the choir.

Any Tablet-oriented thoughts you might have. I haven’t asked anything ‘technical’ because they seem fearful of that, to my slight disappointment, but if it’s relevant.

There is the ambivalent religious aspect above – my teenage/student agnosticism,
following a strict Christian upbringing. But this is tempered by the Cadman Requiem story I guess. And it was while I was a philosophy student that I got interested in Zen Buddhism (reading extensively Suzuki) since it bypassed all those debates about trying to ‘prove’ the existence of God, which litter philosophy throughout most of its last 1000 years. There I found a form of spiritual activity in which enlightenment (rather than salvation) lay within the individual rather than coming from above, and which did not involve any question of a deity. I spent some time when I lived in London with the Buddhist Society and attended one class given by Christmas Humphries. In the end I found the Society a limiting thing and found it simpler to have some form of personal, non-systematic, spiritual life. The Zen people were always quite open about making connections with other forms of religion – with Christian and other mystics, with some aspects of Sufism. I don’t feel at all uncomfortable in churches and will sing hymns and mutter the Lord’s Prayer without difficulty (though I would never join in with the Creed in an Anglican service).

I remember at school being very fond of Robert Browning and remember his Bishop Blougram’s Apology with its revelation of the doubting high cleric. I remember too, when I was a philosophy student, talking with my two fellow students (it was a tiny department, and one of them was in fact Catholic – much to her discomfort) about the jobs that we could do after graduation. It seemed that there were three: teach philosophy in a university (and one of us, the star, did exactly that); go into the Foreign Office as a career diplomat; or go into the Church. And this latter would work whether one believed or not – one simply had to act as though you did and thereby provide enormous comfort, and structure, to the lives of a great many people, thereby doing immense good.

I have no difficulty in writing music that is designed for the liturgy though, as I have said, there are texts that I would not set.

Favourite colour?

Football team?
QPR, Nottingham Forest, Goole Town, Venezia

Benedict XIV: love or shove?
Too soon to say

Bloody United by David Peace.

In spite of Derrida’s column in the Dunoon paper, doesn’t appear on an initial Amazon search. Will pursue.

Gavin Bryars