Name That Tune

I recently had three premieres of On The Day The World Ends, a new piece commissioned by the San Francisco-based Volti choir. The texts consist of three poems: A Song On the End of the World by Czeslaw Milosz, Life's Tragedy by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Do not stand at my grave and weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye. The title came from the first line of the Milosz poem. I find coming up with titles one of the most difficult parts of the compositional process. Sometimes I give pieces abstract names, like Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, or String Quartet No. 1, but more often than not, I try to come up with something creative, compelling, and less pretentious-sounding. However, I like coupling abstract titles with movement titles that are more evocative. To me, it's like opening a present wrapped in plain paper: you may not have a clue as to what is inside, but when you open it, you are pleasantly surprised—hopefully by the music, but also by the titles of the movements.

(That aside, I like to think that I will have an opportunity to write at least one more violin sonata, and hopefully a few more string quartets. Implying that there will be a Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano and String Quartet No. 2 may be a little presumptuous, but I am hopeful that I won't die too soon.)

Back to this piece: I borrowed the title On The Day The World Ends from the first line of the Milosz poem, but I was never happy with it. As my lovely wife Victoria puts it, it sounds like the title of a bad B movie—or, perhaps like The Day The Earth Stood Still—and it also really only reflects the first poem, not the other two. When I received a couple of mixed comments from audience members, including a gentleman named J'Carlin, that did it: I was convinced; I had to change it.

This isn't my first time trashing a title: a work I wrote called Symphony in Three Movements used to be called Chamber Symphony, until I decided that there's really nothing chamber about it, and it even uses spatially-placed trumpets. Since this technique is not that effective in a small space, and since the ensemble is really more a Mozart-sized orchestra than a chamber group, I changed the title.

The new title I finally settled on for On The Day The World Ends is Eternal Reflections. The word 'eternal' implies forever, which I like (birth and death being a continuous cycle), and each poem reflects a different take on finality. The Milosz poem supposes that the final day of the world will be like any other; the Dunbar poem describes how we judge what we have achieved by what we haven't achieved; the Frye poem is a meditation on how life springs eternal.

Finally, Eternal Reflections just sounds like a choral title. It's not Bang on a Canned (no offense meant, I admire all three of them)—there's nothing living, breathing lying, stealing, cheating, sweating or anything else with "ing" in the title—and it's definitely not hip, sexual, confessional or  world-music-y, but it makes me think of something grand—like a beautiful choir in a large, resonant space. This time around, that's all I wanted.

My composer friend Jonathan Newman wrote a blog entry about this subject. Here's a formula he came up with for how composers come up with titles:

some descriptive word or phrase +  a) "Music"  b) "Dance(s)"  c) some specific kind of music or dance (i.e., "Gavotte" or "March") 

I think composers use processes like this without even thinking about it. It's like a genetic defect, or maybe an unspoken marketing plan. "If I title it like he/she did, maybe people will like it." Some composers get around this by using funny symbols, dashes, no caps and so on, but I think we all run into the same problem: how to come up with a convincing title that means something, looks cool, sounds compelling, and doggone it, will make people like you.

Maybe all those dead composers who wrote blandly titled symphonies and sonatas had it right: it's the music that matters, not the title. As with any great piece, you should be able to appreciate it on it's own merits, stripped of program notes, venue, the level of performance, and, dare say it? Even a cool title.

My Choral Addiction

Volti Concert at City Hall 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 CoplandEinojuhani RautavaaraArvo 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.