On the Road with Colin Holter

On the Road with Colin Holter

In pursuit of my ongoing Kuraltian campaign to know America firsthand, I checked out a concert last weekend in Hector, Minnesota, a hamlet of around 1,200 souls located two hours or so outside of the Twin Cities.

I don’t think I’m jiving the Hectorians when I say that performing arts venues in the immediate area are few. However, the town does include a church that hosts concerts with some regularity. I happened to be there for a performance by the Svenskarnas Dag Girls’ Choir, a group that specializes in Swedish traditional music. The program was well received; the ensemble drew a sizable (well, sizable enough to fill the sanctuary of this church, anyway) and enthusiastic crowd.

Naturally my first thought upon leaving the show was how the music-making of these dozen or so diminutive Swedish-American lasses could be subverted to my own advantage.

Dig, if you will, a picture: You’re sitting in a concert hall with a scrim over the stage. You can’t make out whatever’s behind the proscenium. Suddenly, a wave of sound sweeps out. Electronically produced signals are detectable, certainly, but they surround and embellish a core of unmistakably biological noises: gasps, growls, clicks, fricatives, plosives. Assume a 5.1 setup in the room: You are assailed on all sides by disquieting utterances. The scrim begins to rise, and you are shocked to realize that this cacophony has in fact been emanating from a small group of tiny, bespectacled blondes in quaint Scandinavian attire. Check and mate. The piece is automatically successful.

To my knowledge, no piece for Swedish girls’ choir has ever won anybody a Pulitzer. The same goes for Balkan folk groups, hillbilly bands, and polka outfits. But I’m tantalized by the thought of partnerships with ensembles like these that are more or less off the concert music radar. Getting them on board might take some doing, but that’s what grants and commission-donations are for. I’m confident that mutually beneficial arrangements could be reached in most cases. Does anyone have experience working with “outsider” groups that they’d be willing to share (the experience or the groups, that is)?

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2 thoughts on “On the Road with Colin Holter

  1. mdwcomposer

    Well, yes, I guess choirs in general are somewhat “off the radar” in terms of how much they get written about (Chamber Music America seems to have a higher profile among us composer types than Chorus America). Accordion virtuosos get less ink than piano virtuosos (by the way, try to get your hand on the James Crabb/Geir Draugsvoll duo accordion version of Petrouchka). But in the time and effort it takes to generate interest in an orchestra piece (or even a large chamber piece that requires conductor) – let alone compose the piece – you might be able to write and promote and get a performance of two or three choral pieces. There have been comments from time to time on NMBx (and elsewhere) about band literature and the opportunities there.

    To take your specific instance of hearing a treble choir, that’s a really strong tradition with a lot of challenging and interesting music from the last 25+ years. The more complex music is more prevalent outside the US: Tapiola Choir (Finland), Carmina Slovenica (Slovenia), Adolf Frederik (Sweden) are some superstars in this world. It’s like all the rest of our musical worlds – local talent, regional talent, national talent, etc., varying levels of musical sophistication, varying amounts of interest in new music and varying levels of success in the interaction between composers and performers.

    But here’s something that struck me about your post, Colin. Did you approach the conductor and introduce yourself after the concert? I would bet that it’s much easier to get significant face time with the conductor of a good treble choir than with the conductor of the last orchestra concert you heard. Sounds like an opportunity waiting to happen, the grant / donor part of the process aside.

    My teacher, Arne Mellnäs, once commented to me that it seemed like when he travelled (which was a lot – he was president of ISCM for a while), other musicians would mention his Aglepta, a piece for treble choir, when they met him. Not that he hadn’t written an opera, several big orchestra works, lots of chamber music (much of which is recorded), but this “off the radar” piece might have been his best known – incidentally, it’s a wonderfully inventive piece including spoken sounds, “effects” and it’s by no means simple in terms of it’s pitch content. The text is an ancient Swedish curse. He never mentioned it to me, but I’m sure the income from the copies sold and the performance royalties were a nice thing to have too. And hey, two performances of it on YouTube (as of this morning, anyway).

    As far as personal experience, getting Winges notes heard in Europe, Japan, China, Canada and South America has been a result of my choral music, not my chamber or orchestra music. Recorded multiple times? Again, choral.

    So yeah, I’d have to say you’re on to something here by playing the “niche market”.

      &nbsp — Mark Winges

  2. Colin Holter

    Thanks for your thoughts, Mark. That’s an encouraging story.

    I didn’t go introduce myself, mainly out of timidity; I didn’t have a pitch prepared. Maybe next time. . .


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