Friday, September 16, 2011

Choir or not?

(Note: there are a lot of videos embedded in this blog post, and you really need to watch them to "get" it. If you're on an e-reader or you got this via email and it didn't have the videos, click here:

One of the most surprising things Tim discovered during his study of Choral Conducting was that academic choral music is still tangled in the knots of "What IS this discipline, anyway?"

You wouldn't think the study of choral music would be in any kind of identity crisis. I mean, a choir is a group of people who sing together. Pretty much everyone agrees on that definition.

But it turns out that it's a huge issue. Part of it is the discipline trying to distance itself from the sacred tradition. They don't want to define "choir" as "a group of people who sing together, usually in church" (which is how most dictionaries define it) because there is a LOT of fantastic secular music out there, and, let's face it, academia is pretty anti-religion right now. No problem, though, because choral music has always had two faces: a secular (Rennaissance Madrigals, songs of love and death) and a sacred (religious, church music like masses).

That's not the big issue actually. The big issue is what counts as a choir!

Nobody disputes that this is choral music:

That one is clear-cut.

But what about this? It's obviously still a choir, but the music is...comedy.

Actually, it's still pretty clear-cut. That's accepted as choral music.

But the lines can start getting really muddy.

Choir performance. Not a choir song, traditionally. But it still sounds pretty choral.

But what about this. Same choir.

Or this. Same song. Now we're pushing the limits....

And now this one (same song) crossed the line, even though it sounds better than the previous example.

Interesting that contemporary a cappella is not included in choral music even though it is produced by a group of people singing together (fits the definition of "choir"), and even though contemporary a cappella can be traced in a direct, straight line all the way back to Rennaissance Madrigals, which are totally acceptable as choral music now (even though when they were being performed originally, they functioned, culturally, exactly how contemporary a cappella functions today).

Choral programs everywhere (except BYU) are constantly bemoaning the fact that the programs are shrinking and they can't get kids to sing--because those cursed a cappella groups are taking all the singers.  So they try to ban a cappella groups, when the more reasonable approach would be to incorporate them into the program. But that completely shakes up the definition of choral music that they've set up for themselves. And, even though they won't admit it, it puts their fine, elite art into the hands of amateurs who doggedly insist that they can do it themselves--and, if you judge by the number of singers involved, do a better job at furthering "harmony singing" than any choir program (except BYU, where they have actually incorporated the a cappella groups into the program...funny thing.)

The problem is, while there aren't a lot of casual street-bassoon groups out there, anyone can sing, and there are thousands of street choirs (we call them a cappella groups, barbershop singers, gospel choirs, boy bands, folk ensembles, but they're all choirs by the dictionary definition). So while it's clear who the experts are with woodwinds, the people who want to be elite, to be the experts, with vocal music are having a really hard time holding on to their status. If anyone can sing, and anyone can sing in a group, and anyone can put together a group, and the "anyones" are getting more singers into the groups, and more people out to the concerts...well, where do the elites stand? In quicksand.

But they're fighting for their status.

Because, darn it, this CAN'T count as choral music:

Even though this probably does:

And this totally does:

And even this does:

I KNOW--now we're on shaky ground. But it's a show choir. So it's obviously choral music. Even though this isn't:

And no, it's not that there's a soloist. This is choral music:

and so is this:

It's as though choral music's traditions ended in two places, stylistically: the "choral" music that we all recognize as choral, which descended from religious music, and all this other stuff, which descended from the secular music. And the academic discipline of choral music is trying to straddle the fence, without exclusively embracing the origins of one or the end-point of the other. It's not that they are rejecting the religious music--they still embrace that. It's just that they also want to include secular choral music, and even pop, jazz, and folk music--but only on their terms. If someone else--like some kid who wants a bunch of guys to sing Lady Gaga songs--is in charge, somehow, they can't embrace it all as choral music. It's an identity crisis.

Really, though, I think they're asking antiquated questions.

Instead of wondering if groups of people singing pop music really are choirs or not, they should be wondering if a single person using technology to create multiple voices singing in harmony counts as choral music or not.

Does this count?
(Sorry, there's no video of these songs yet, so you'll just have to listen to the link)



Stone on Stone (excerpt).

Those were written for choirs. They sound choral. But the performances are actually all Tim's voice, multi-tracked in the studio and layered together electronically. But it still seems like choral music.

So what about this:

It's all voices....There are no instruments in there. Tim  used the same techniques he did in the previous example, both in the songwriting and in the recording, layering many voices in the studio--like a choir, except all the voices were his.

So then what about this? What if he does the exact same thing live, layering voices to create music with many voices, all singing in harmony? Does it matter that there's only one person on the stage? If he functions as a choir, can he, by himself, be a choir? Or is that going too far?

So what if we put more than one guy on stage, but they're still singing multiple parts themselves:

No? You're pretty sure that's not choral music, aren't you.

Well this counts, unequivocally, as choral music:

Not so different....

(And if that counts, then what about this:


Now THERE is a space for scholarly inquiry.

1 comment:

Catherine Jones Carlson said...

The line for me is at individual sound amplification. If each member of the group has a mic, then they aren't blending together in a traditionally "choral" way. They are all individual performers singing at the same time. Not a perfect definition by any means, nor does it give a name to groups who sing with each member amplified. But that was what came to mind as I went through your examples.