Monday, August 29, 2011

800 Words: A Choral Director Who Hates Choral Music

Late August - that blissful two weeks of the year in which the temperature drops, the crickets chirp, and choral directors make their mad scramble to get music ready that they should have spent all summer preparing.

Anyone with the privilege of being paid to perform music should count their blessings. Other people have to tote barges and lift bales, but some of us get to earn our keep by singing or playing or composing or conducting. Even if you’re a part-time choral conductor, as I now am, it’s a great privilege. Even if you’re doomed to conduct John Rutter, Moses Hogan and Morton Lauridsen every week for the rest of your life, it certainly beats selling shoes. Fortunately, I have never conducted a piece by any of the aforementioned, nor do I plan on doing so at any time in the far future. But if I have to, I’ll do so happily. I used to have two choruses, I now have one.

I conduct Kol Rinah, a Jewish chorus of amateurs who live in Baltimore and will be reassembling in a few weeks for their eighteenth season. Over the decades, they’ve sung approximately 300 pieces - about three-dozen of which I can schedule for a performance after a single run through. We’ve performed together in synagogue services, old age homes, ceremonial openings, hospitals, festivals, luncheons, ceremonial dinners and birthday parties. We are a useful choir, and rather than be apart from the community, we’re a part of it.

I try to bring them as much new music as a group which meets once a week can handle. And when I can’t find anything that I think would suit the occasions for which we sing, I make the arrangements myself. Do I like the repertoire they sing? A lot of it, yes, very much. Do they like the repertoire they sing? It depends on the person. Some people love certain songs that other people hate, and vice versa. But we all agree to sing everything, because these are the compromises it takes to keep a group together.

This will not be a post about what was once my other group. Voices of Washington ended almost a year ago, in a fashion as comically haphazard as the entire experience was. It will suffice to say that of my goals for what it could be, I did not achieve even a percentage point of a percentage point. And even if luck had gone VoW’s way, I probably would have still viewed it as a colossal disappointment. My expectations for what it could be were unrealistic. In the fall of 2009, I began with the express intention of turning the model for running a chorus upside down. In the fall of 2010, I dissolved the group thankful that I only had a single ulcer. Such is life.

This post is allegedly about a choral director who hates choral music. I’m sorry to have mislead, but I don’t hate choral music. I just dislike more of it than to which choral directors are supposed to admit. I don’t like a lot of choral repertoire, and I don’t like a lot of performances of the music I do like.

I’m a violinist. Or at least I was. I love orchestral music. I love solo instrumental music. And I especially love chamber music. If heaven would be so stupid as to let me in, I’d be satisfied to spend eternity with my violin and the same five or ten people. And we’d spend eternity reading through all the chamber, small vocal ensemble, orchestral and choral arrangements, jazz, folk, blues, bluegrass, R&B, and rock music ever created. We wouldn’t always be very good, but it would be awesome.

But choral music is not my natural metier. Chamber music is a process in which each member is indispensable. Choral music is a process of resigning yourself to be another cog in a machine. Chamber music is a democracy, choral music is a dictatorship. In chamber music, each person has to discuss and analyze choices together, and speaking one’s mind is paramount. It’s a very natural process for a kid brought up in a Jewish home in a Jewish neighborhood with Jewish schools. Having spent most of my life snickering at conductors from the back of the violin section, being a conductor feels distinctly unnatural. There’s a top-down decision making process in choral music which, even more than orchestral music, feels unnatural to me. Almost Goyish.

If orchestras are 100 years out of date by now, then the idea of the choir must have dated nearly half a millenium by now. The orchestra is like a 19th century imperial army - a gigantic and highly formal display that seems capable of infinite permutations. The chorus corresponds to a medieval feudal model - in which there are only a very few castes and everyone must know their place. You’re either a singer, solo singer or a conductor. The variety of sound you can get from a chorus is paltry compared even to an organ, let alone an orchestra or a good synthesizer.

(Machaut never came to life for me until I heard the Mass sung by Ensemble Organum)

The most innovative choral composers were all of an age so remote from us that it’s exceedingly difficult to make their music accessible to our ears. For the last hundred years, musicologists have spilled entire wells of ink in an attempt to reconstruct the performing conditions of the distant past. But it’s all guess work. With 19th century music, we at least have recorded examples of the style in which the music was played, and even if most performers don’t follow the recorded examples, we at least know how to make this music compelling.

But for all the scholarship that goes into performing the ‘greatest’ choral music, it produces results of incredible banality. I simply cannot believe that the rigid, regimented style of most historically informed performance (HIP) is anything like what the great performers of centuries past did. The audiences would fall asleep. As in any genre, there are some performers of real imagination who can transcend its limitations. But unlike most healthy cultural environments, there is fear of terrible accountability if one takes ’ahistorical’ risks.

For all the research that’s gone into it, we still don’t have a plausible vision of how the music of 500 years ago was played. In lieu of discovering the key to their style, we must invent one of our own. And when early music musicians choose to perform without embellishment or individuality, that is as much a stylistic choice as any other. But in keeping one’s own personality out of the music, they are mistaken if they think they’re giving us something more akin to the essence of the composer. Instead, we get performances with an extremely 20th century mindset, which causes the music to sound like Stravinsky or Boulez without the dissonance.

Though maybe the problem isn’t the music or the performers. Maybe the problem is me. I’ve listened to and sung choral music since I was a teenager. And a lot of it still blurs together for me. So much of it is either too serious or too silly, too sweet or too sour. There are simply too many pieces I don’t like for me to go into specifics.

In many ways, choral music still feels to me stuck in the 17th century. To this day, it never underwent the enlightenment that broke it away from the church. So whereas orchestras get all the glories of Beethoven and Mahler, music by which the whole universe can be contained, most choirs are stuck singing about ‘God is Great’ and the ‘sweetness of my love’ and similarly banal subjects.

All you have to do is compare the emotional range of certain composers’ choral music and compare it to their other music. Listen to Mozart’s greatest operas and compare them to his greatest choral music: the difference in their emotional range should be obvious to anyone. Yes, the Requiem is a very great piece in its way and very dramatic. But there are no thoughts of anything individual or personal, and not a single gesture that is meant to be anything but super-profound. Mozart’s Requiem, like most of what’s considered great choral music, doesn’t quite feel human. There is something about choral music that inhibits composers. In their ambition to write the grandest possible work, they banish any sentiment that might allow individuality and intimacy into the music. It is now 2011, and we still await a composer who can liberate choral music from the confines of the church and the drawing room.

Obviously, all these gripes - and the very fact that I feel comfortable saying them so freely - does not endow me with the glad-handing diplomat style of conducting which can be so important when facing a certain kind of ensemble. But fortunately, the singers are impressed by my skill, even if I’m not. They think I’m funny and are generally wowed by my Rainman-like knowledge of music. And to my amazement I’ve found myself in adulthood become something resembling a patient person. It’s much easier to be patient when you are the person in control. The truth remains that I’m both too introverted and too outspoken to have the personality of a naturally gifted conductor. But in spite of myself, I’m surprised by how well I’ve done with them. For reasons I don’t quite understand, they really seem to like me.

Addendum: Here is a list of ten works which could point the way towards a ‘choral enlightenment.’ This is music whose effect on us is human level, rather than spiritual one. The music which affects us is in our real world, not just more music that points us toward the ethereal sounds of the beyond. Even among these, the only ones without religious connotations are La Battaille and the Monteverdi Madrigals. I could certainly include another ten on this list, maybe another twenty or thirty. But more than that?...

The Glagolitic Mass by Leos Janacek

La Pasion Segun San Marcos by Osvaldo Golijov

The Creation by Joseph Haydn

Les Noces by Igor Stravinsky

La Battaille by Clement Janequin

Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein

Rejoice in the Lamb by Benjamin Britten

Le Roi David by Arthur Honegger

Israel in Egypt by Georg Frideric Handel

Madrigals of War and Love by Claudio Monteverdi

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