The role of melody in choral music

I have observed that many choirs include arrangements of popular songs in their programs. This has always sparked my curiosity. Having such a broad catalog of works written for choir, why include pop songs in a concert? Well, after some careful thought and observation, I think  there are two answers to that.

The first reason has to be familiarity. People like to hear things they know. A good arrangement of a song that is already in the general public consciousness can be very effective, as the arrangement of Africa that the City Angel Chorale took to the American Idol competition demonstrated.

The second reason must be melodic interest. Choral works, in many cases, rely on polyphony, that is, several melodies going ot at the same time. At first, it is easy to  follow the melody, but as you have 3 or 4 voices going on at the same time, you can easily get confused and lost in the work.

I don’t think most people like the feeling of being confused and although there are many beautiful moments in polyphonal works, where being submerged in a great deal of sound produces an aesthetic feeling all of its own, the thread that a melody weaves through a work is missed by the listener in many cases.

So I have focused, in many works, to provide this melodic thread above any other consideration, even at the risk of seeming simplistic, just so the listener can connect with the work on first hearing and enjoy a recognizable melody in successive listenings . The idea is to provide melodic choral repertorie that would eliminate the need to import pop songs into choral concerts and provide a complete experience to the audience that would encourage them to keep coming back for more.

 

 

 

 

On Practicing the Piano

Recently, I got back to the piano because I may want to play some of my works in recital soon. And  as I was playing my old pieces, I realized I was hitting some wrong notes. “Well, it’s the lack of practice”, I thought.  But as I continued practicing I realized I was hitting the same wrong notes all the time, as if I had actually practiced to hit the wrong notes. And then I realized that I had practiced these wrong notes by allowing myself to hit them without correcting myself,   playing at random times, without having the notes in front of me and without paying too much attention either.

I just got sloppy with my practicing.

So I took out the scores and started to read them again and I saw that there were other notes that I didn’t even realize that I had been playing wrong.  So I had to slow down the playing and read the music note by note and practice it slowly until I was playing all the right notes again, and then gradually raise the speed to get to the performance speed.  It was almost like having to learn the pieces from scratch! And it became obvious to me that this was the price I had to pay for sloppy practicing.

So I have spent months practicing only with my full attention,  always placing the notes in front of me  and playing the pieces slowly until I am hitting all the right notes again, speeding my practicing only then and gradually, at that. And now I feel I am getting to play them better than ever.  What a lesson to learn at the stage of the game!

A change of pace – On Common Ground

Well, I have been doing a podcast for a couple of years now, but I have not written much in my blog. And I usually use my blog to talk about a musical concept, explain some of my musical ideas or deal with creativity issues. But today, I am going to share with you a poem that I wrote for our times. I think certain groups and  individuals have been trying to divide us for their own particular benefit. And I wrote my thoughts in a few lines. Here they are.

 

On Common Ground

We are all different /And yet we stand/On the same ground

We eat the fruit/Of the same soil

We share goals/We want peace/ And love/ And life

 

We stand/On common ground

We love our kids/ We want them/ To grow

To thrive/ To make a life/ For themselves

 

We want to earn/ To have enough

To have friends/ To have respect

 

There are many/Much too many

Things we share/That we all want

You are not my enemy/How could you be?

We share the roads/And the stores

And the meat/And the hospitals

 

We share the shows/And the books

The papers/And the air

 

I breathe it/You breathe it

The water/We drink it

All of us

All the time

 

And the differences?/Well, there they are

So what?

We can talk/We share a tongue

We share ideas/More often than not

 

Let’s share more/Swap viewpoints

Understand/Grow a bit

Grow together/Let’s just hear

And listen/And see

 

We stand/On common ground

It’s ours/Let’s figure it out

We have, in the past/And we will

Again

Inevitably

Again

On having a podcast

Well, this is a continuation of my previous post in March of last year. I had been consumed with the problem of how to get my music to reach more people and suddenly I was struck by the realization that it is not all about me. As a composer of classical music, I form part of a group that are trying to get their creations out in an environment that is not very receptive to classical music. And I admire many of my colleagues and I thought that instead of worrying all the time about me, it would be nice and, to some degree, liberating, to start focusing on doing something for others. And so I decided to start a podcast introducing other musicians and chatting with them about music, a subject that always interests me. So I started doing it.

My podcast is called “Let’s Talk About Music!” and so far I have done 12 episodes, each about 40 minutes long, talking with composers and presenting their music, or with professors and conductors, playing the music they teach or conduct. Only in the first episode I didn’t include any music. The chat was lively and interesting but I decided to try and use music along with the chat and I think I liked it better that way. You can listen to any of the episodes of the podcast by clicking here. Let me know how you like it.

Marketing versus Composing

One of the basic problems that a composer has these days is the necessity to market themselves to get more work while continuing to compose. Marketing and composing are two diametrically opposed activities. Composing requires total immersion in what you are doing and leaving the world behind. To really reach a place where your creativity fully emerges you need to be submerged in what you are doing. And it is hard to get out of that space to do other things, when you are really into it. Even when I take a break, sometimes my attention is still in the work and I can be poor company if I go on a social outing and I leave my work in the middle of a phrase or a section or when I was addressing a poblem. So it takes a lot of concentration to bring out what you are creating within. Marketing is the opposite. You have to be thinking about what is happening outside, about contacting people, about posting things interesting to others while using social media, the phone, email campaigns. And I, for one, don’t have the ability to switch modalities in an instant. Actually, sometimes it takes me a full day or two to get into a new piece. So in composing you are looking within and in marketing you are looking withot. And you have to do both things. It is easier to do this when you are writing small works (like 3-4 minutes) but a big piece is a beast that commands respect and if you want to create something with some personality you have to commit your time to do it. And that is one of the biggest problem that I face on a day to day basis.

Should we write about the issues of the day or about eternal values?

This is a question that I have pondered since I started composing. One wants to add one’s voice to the chorus looking to identify and resolve the pressing issues of the day and yet, one wonders if talking, or writing music, in this case, about them is the best way to go. Maybe the problems will resolve if one focuses, instead, in the values that are needed to solve them. If you have a corrupt official, do you write about him or do you write a work about the values of honesty and integrity and emphasize that? I have tended, so far to write about the problems themselves and the factors involved. In fact, I just did a piece about immigrants, telling the stories of 25 immigrants I interviewed as part of my McKnight Visiting Composer residency. The piece is not judgemental and it portrays the immigrants in a sympathetic light. So it is not really a negative piece, it’s a narrative piece, of which I am looking to do more. However, with all the negativity that we have seen the last few years, I think we should emphasize now the positive values that we have to aspire to. It appears to me that too many people are pointing out what’s wrong and not enough people are looking for what’s right. And there are a lot of things right, but to see them, we have to start to emphasize them. I will start working on that as I continue working on my Immigrants project. If you disagree with me about the need to bring out the good, go and see one of the latest films about Mr. Rogers. He knew how to do positive right.

Why Classical Music?

One question I have had to answer a few times is why did I chose to compose classical music as  opposed to popular music or jazz. I remember an answer I gave on a TV interview some years ago about the difference between popular music and classical. You may not agree with me but this is what I told the interviewer:

The basic difference between classical and popular music is that popular music addresses the body and classical music addresses the spirit.  That difference has become more marked with the passage of time. Nowadays a great deal of popular music is based on rhythm more than on melody, especially hip-hop and rap. It makes you want to dance. The rock and roll music prevalent from the 60s to the 80s sometimes made you want dance but at least made you want to clap or move to it. The rhythmical part and the beat were already important.

In classical music, the spirit gets addressed. The music, when it comes through, manages to engross your attention and as a result, when you are attending a great concert, you get complete silence. You have 2000 people together and you can hear a pin drop. Everybody’s attention is totally taken by the music and the experience is very personal. You feel it inside. And everything else that your mind was occupied with gets displaced and discarded for the time being.

Probably the first times that happened to me was when I listened to my mentor, pianist Mario Feninger, in concert. I had heard some of the pieces he played, like the Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven and some Chopin waltzes, but the effect they created on me that day was totally different than what I had experienced before. The music took me somewhere else.

And that experience is what I have been trying to recreate for others, first as a pianist, and now, as a composer.  I want to take you somewhere else, forget the corporeal and enter into the spiritual. The piece doesn’t have to be necessarily very consonant or very slow. You just have to feel, after it is over, that something happened, that you experienced something, that it took you on a trip and that, when it brought you back, you were a little better off for it.  That’s the whole idea. And I think it is worth it.

What is a “through-composed” song?

I decided to write about this subject because I am writing choral music and most of my works are through-composed. So what does that mean? It basically means that you start setting a text to music and you write original music until you reach the end of the text without following any particular structure. You just follow the text and use the music to enhance the communication of those ideas, to highlight certain parts and to add emotion and meaning to the message. Schubert wrote 600 songs and they were through-composed, changing the music for every stanza of the poem, according to the mood. Click here to hear”Caminante”, a work commisioned by the Culver City Middle School Choir. It is through-composed.

In the popular music world, most songs have the same music for every verse, with a chorus that repeats. It has other elements, of course, but repetition is an important factor. I like to through-compose works because it allows me to express more fully the sentiments of a poem or a text. That does not mean that I haven’t composed songs that include a repeating chorus. My Hanukkah song, which you can hear by clicking here, A Hanukkah Gathering, has three verses with different melodies and a chorus that repeats after every verse. But I try to give different melodies to different verses even when I have a chorus. It takes longer to learn the song for a choir but I think the variety makes the music more interesting.

Do you have any question about music, especially classical music? Let me know. I’ll try to answer it. Ta-ta for now.

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.

How do I define my music?

I define my music, for music fans, as normal music with more dissonance than usual. The added dissonance adds interest to the piece and is used to emphasize emotional moments as well as to serve as a greater contrast to beautiful segments. In Moses, an Oratorio, for example, in the segment called The Burning Bush, we have the orchestra sometimes in one key while Moses and the choir are in a different key. This creates a clash that the moment warrants. However, if you just listen to the soloist, you realize that the melody is easy to follow.

I refuse to believe that  modern composers cannot use beautiful chords, that the traditional chords are the exclusive property of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. However, I also refuse to write using only those chords, as contemporary music has opened up the color palette of the composer and it would be silly not to use all the resources we have available to create more interesting music. In addition to that, I use devices of my own creation for transitions and many of my phrases end up in question marks.

One more thing. In choral music I tend to be more traditional than in my instrumental music. That is bdue to the nature of singing in a group as opposed to playing instruments. The singer orients himself with the notes of the other singers and the level of difficulty of a piece is raised exponentially if one decides not to use the traditional harmonic system. When playing an instrument you depend more on the written note than on other performers, so it is harder to get disoriented. So I go less far afield in my choral works than in my instrumental creations.