About simplicity in music

I am currently writing a choral piece called The Immigrants that is going to be performed in Minneapolis by several choirs in different concerts: A professional choir, a community choir and a high school choir. One of the most difficults aspects of writing this work is writing it at a level of difficulty that the three ensembles will find both doable and interesting. This is tricky because you can write something that is too difficult, which is kind of easy to do, at least for me, or you can write something that is too easy, which has more chances of being performed but, at the same time, might not be attractive for choral ensembles at the upper end of the spectrum; or to you, as a composer, for that matter.

In choral music, consonant music is always easier to perform than dissonant music and conventional music is easier to perform than avant-gard. I love to write music that is somewhat dissonant but I know that it will not be performed as often as more conventional music. Actually, the first two choral pieces I wrote have not been performed yet, as the idiom in which they are written is difficult. I like the works, though, and I show it to conductors every now and then but, so far, no luck.

That taught me that you cannot do whatever you want in a choral work. And yet, recently I did a very simple work which I wanted to be even simpler, with almost all the choir singing in unison. I did this because Pre-Columbian music in Mexico was not based on harmonies, like Western music, and the conductor was a little taken aback by the simplicity of the piece. After I explained my ideas, the piece was performed and well received, but I also found out that too simple doesn’t cut it.

So, back to Minneapolis. The piece I am writing will be 12-15 minutes in length for choir and piano and I am writing it more with the High School choir than with the proffessional ensemble in mind. I am tempted to introduce some difficult elements for variety’s sake but I am refraining from doing so because what I want the most is the stories of these immigrants (I interviewed 25 immigrants for the text) to be known and the piece to have broad exposure. It is a bit risky as it may sound too much like other works from other composers but I am trusting that the melodic and textual elements will pull it through. That’s my bet right now.

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