It is common knowledge among composers that each musical genre is a distinct world unto itself, complete with societies, clubs, associations and groupies. Some of the most robust center around wind bands, educational music, sacred music, the orchestral world, chamber music, music for children, and finally, choral music. Lately, I have become addicted to writing music for choir.
Strangely, choral music gets a bad rap in some circles. Sometimes when I tell people I wrote a new choral work—which I am very excited about, let alone for Volti, a great choir—their eyes glaze over, or they remain speechless, staring at me with an almost condescending, downward glance. Yet the minute I say I am working on an opera, an orchestral work or even a piece for saxophone and marimba, people become excited, almost gushing. Personally, I find this very strange.
Writing for choir is one of the first and sometimes the only method of composing taught in basic theory classes. So if writing for our own voices is so fundamental, why is it so despised by some composers, and even some performers?
Perhaps some composers are put off by the inherent technical limitations you need to work with (or around) to write great choral music. Great voice-leading is paramount. Writing erratic, wide leaps imparts pain and anxiety, at least when composing for most choirs, and frankly, bad choral music with lots of difficult leaps and bad voice-leading just sounds, well... bad.
Plenty of great and/or well-known modern composers have written for choir, composers as diverse as György Ligeti, Aaron Copland, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Arvo Pärt and Morten Lauridsen, not to mention J.S. Bach and all the great, long dead composers. Not too many people would argue that at least a few on this list are great, so what's the problem?
Maybe it is because choirs are so common, and there is so much choral music—maybe too much, and a lot of it not very interesting, in my opinion—that it is looked down upon.
Or, maybe in our scientific, experimental world, one that is increasingly moving from the sacred toward the secular, at least in the United States, those who are non-religious, often science-minded academics are weary of embracing a genre that has been—and continues to be—steeped in religion, and specifically Christianity. If this is the case, it is truly ironic, as we would not have universities and science if not for religion.
For better or worse, probably worse in this case, the general population appreciates cool effects over subtly and finesse, and maybe choral music does not offer enough pyrotechnics—choirs are just not Monster Trucks. You cannot hide behind snap pizzicatos, multiphonics, muted passages or a percussion section, at least most of the time. Choral music is extremely transparent: if a piece is bad, you will notice very quickly. Opera on the other hand, is highly visually provocative, so perhaps that has something to do with it. In a visual age, choirs are not as visually stimulating as operas, or television, except if your friends, relatives or someone you think is hot is singing in the choir.
Finally, maybe it is that unfortunately, many choirs are not that advanced. Typical community choirs are often technically limited, and often do not have strong tenors, low enough basses, strong altos or modest sopranos. I am kidding a little here, but not really. The difference between The Norwegian Soloists' Choir, Volti, Chanticleer and Nordic Voices and many local choirs and vocal chamber groups is night and day. Listening to great choirs is a sublime, almost out-of-body experience. Listening to a bad choir—even in a church—is simply hell on earth.
Whatever the reason for some people's disdain, I can't be bothered with it. I love great choirs and choral music, and I also love when non-professional choirs program new music. I think there is nothing more beautiful than the human voice. Don't get me wrong: I absolutely love writing instrumental music, but to ignore the power and beauty of the human voice is to deny one of the greatest joys in the world: to hear ourselves sing.