Composer's Laboratory

Choral Composition: the Work of a Musical Dressmaker

Comporre per Coro

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint exactly what lies at the heart of artistic creation and, more specifically, musical composition. To most, what comes to mind is the somewhat romanticised idea of an artist finding divine inspiration (think Socrates’ daemon), wanting to express their inner emotions whilst caught in the throes of a moment of rapture.

By contrast, twentieth century and contemporary art has seen the return of another (earlier) version of the artist. In keeping with the modern-day industrialised and material world, this artist gathers the foundations of his own art and his creative tools from an understanding of the natural world around him, as well as from scientific and mathematical reasoning.

At surface level, the artist’s surrender to his own emotions on the one hand, and his meticulous control on the other, create a radical antithesis. Though seemingly contradictory, these two aspects instead coexist naturally within the framework of the creative process.

Indeed, if taken to their extremes, they inform antithetical myths; the artist-poet vs the artist-scientist, one ruling the other in turn over the centuries. Yet on closer inspection, they seem to complement each other rather well when taken in the context of the more realistic, pragmatic and tangible figure of the artist-craftsman. His expertise combines technical control and eloquence, based on individual personality and character, so as to achieve a credible aesthetic result at the very least.

Buttons: as musical notes to choose carefully!

Of course, it’s important not to forget just how varied and diverse musical compositions can be; classical or pop, absolute or program, music for professionals or amateurs. The specific musical context can hugely influence the aforementioned observations, giving them different meanings as a result.

Most of the time, composing choir music involves writing arrangements for amateur ensembles. It’s also not uncommon to work on a commission basis, or by invitation. In light of this, it is quite fitting to think of the composer as a craftsman, a dressmaker as it were.

After all, their work is primarily about composing valuable pieces that are easy to play, through vocals that work well or, at least, are not overly difficult to perform. When working with a particular choir, a composer should identify and draw attention to the characteristics of the group that make it unique. Composing for youth or school choirs isn’t just about maintaining the children’s attention, but also respecting the fact that their voice is still developing, aiming where possible to make sure the compositions also have educational value. On the other hand, when composing sacred or religious music the composer needs to adapt to the pace and demands of the ceremony, cultivating an appropriate style that is both artistically dignified and, at the same time, addresses the congregation clearly and lucidly.

From what has been said thus far, it seems that any choir composer must, above all, have a solid background in compositional technique, able to adapt to any specific demands encountered.

But being a composer doesn’t mean no longer participating in choral practice. Quite the opposite. A composer should stay well-practised, either as a conductor or singer, so as to keep a solid command and awareness of different voices and vocal potential. Not only will this ensure his compositions are accurate, it also enables him to develop a choral sound of his own. Ample professional experience in the field is also helpful as it will instil him with the confidence and good judgment to avoid unnecessarily complex and convoluted compositions. These are tiresome to both prepare and learn and require unnecessary effort.

In order to personalise compositions and infuse them with artistic dignity, it helps to be cultured and refined by nature, qualities that also come from experience, practice, study and exposure to musical culture. In this way, even if the arrangement per se isn’t particularly inspiring, it will at least sound credible, and be well written; in essence, it should be a work of great craftsmanship.

A composer should resist the temptation to emulate successful models for instant gratification. By doing so, he would just become one more imitator of trendy composers, adding nothing to the legacy of the originals and the collective musical patrimony, while at the same time sacrificing his own artistic individuality.

Forging your own path doesn’t necessarily mean doing it all from scratch or creating a style that has never been seen or heard before. This would be particularly challenging for the modern-day composer, who could easily become overwhelmed by the impressive and centuries-old legacy of Western music.

Instead, it should be about striving for an authentic expression of inner self, avoiding anything overly intellectualised and commercial, and rather blending the musical echoes of the past together to create something original and authentic.

Some might be quick to label this stylistic diversity as a form of mannerism. In reality it’s more than possible to create your own distinctive style by combining strong technical expertise together with a dash of talent and a sprinkle of personality, even if you do take inspiration from compositions of the past. From this perspective, Stravinsky’s highest lesson is almost emblematic. It reveals a distinctive and unmistakable artistic figure that, notwithstanding its varied linguistic-musical path, continues to build on explicit references to historical tradition.

To summarise, an original style doesn’t have to be brand-new, nor developed from scratch. It can come from the fusing together of elements of traditional musical compositions, made unique by the composer’s own personality, technique and eloquence. By using a musical grammar that the choir is already familiar with, albeit with a slight twist, communication between musicians and composer remains uncomplicated, and grants the composer the freedom to express their inner selves.

The numerous national and international choir schools, along with the groups, ensembles, and subsequently diverse array of timbre and sound characteristics within the choral world, create an extraordinarily fertile ground in which such virtuous eclecticism can truly express itself in abundance.

In light of the above, it appears choral composers should be professionally flexible with the ability to adapt when necessary. They should also have a creative imagination, even when not working on commission or for a specific group.

To conclude, let’s now return to the title of this article; a composer must first be a skilled dressmaker, having mastered his craft, able to stitch a robe and tailor it according to the needs of each individual choir. In one way or another, the robe will always be engraved with the unmistakable signature of his creation.

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