female chorus
On Being a “Choral Composer”

On Being a “Choral Composer”

When I finished graduate school for composing nearly six years ago, I decided to structure my life and livelihood around the pursuit of a full-time composing career. I took stock of where I’d had the most success with composing, and at that time, I was selling the most scores and hearing the most performances of my choral music. Maybe assessing the commercial viability of my music sounds crass, but my motives weren’t purely financial. Writing vocal music comes fluidly and enjoyably to me, for the most part, more so than writing for (non-vocal) instruments. Given how much I love working with language in music, too, I often find vocal music the best medium for what I hope to express through my composing. I find an easy grace in writing for the voice—and by “easy,” I mean this: all composing is still work, of course, but this is the work I most love to do.

Structuring my life post-grad school, then, it made sense creatively and financially to focus on writing for voice, and more specifically on writing for chorus. I knew I’d eventually return to writing for instruments; I just didn’t know when or exactly how it would happen.

In the years since I decided to pursue writing for chorus, I’ve been asked if I consider myself a “choral composer.” I do, and I don’t. I’m happy to use that label if I’m in a situation—say, a choral conference—where I’m pursuing more opportunities to write for chorus. Other times, I find myself resisting the term, defensively reminding someone that I write for other instruments, too. Sometimes I get the impression that contemporary choral music is perceived as “lesser” than new instrumental works, at least within the new music community. When asked what kind of music I write, I usually mention my instrumental writing first and add that I compose often for voice, almost as if there’s something shameful in being defined primarily by my choral writing.

Over the last six years, I’ve written more than twenty-five works for choral ensembles, ten or so art songs, two pieces for voice with chamber ensemble, one piece for speaking chamber ensemble—there’s text, yes, but not singing—and five pieces purely for instruments, with no vocal element whatsoever. I wrote three of these non-vocal works within the last six months, in an effort to return to writing chamber music, and the transition has been a bit rough. Writing instrumental music doesn’t come quite as easily to me as writing art songs and choral works. My chamber music is not as well-known as my choral writing, and to be perfectly honest, sometimes I wonder if it’s not as good. To be fair, at some point in the process of writing every one of my compositions, I’ve been convinced that the piece in question is absolute garbage—it’s an unfortunate part of my process, not a reflection on the music itself.

All of that said, do I regret structuring my last six years around writing almost exclusively for chorus? Not a bit. I’ve accomplished the goals I set for myself when I graduated: several of my choral pieces have been accepted by and are now available from major publishing companies, and I’ve found viable ways to self-publish my other works as well. I’ve worked with several professional choruses and excellent conductors and released an album of my choral works. I know how to negotiate a choral commission, and I feel confident in my rate and the value of what I write. All of this feels like success.

I’d urge any other composer contemplating a full-time composing career to ask the same questions I considered six years ago: What work do you most enjoy doing? What work of yours have others already recognized as excellent? What medium or mediums stand out as the best fit for the ideas you feel compelled to express in your music?

For me, the answer to each of these questions is still choral music. It’s only when I find myself working on several pieces with a similar instrumentation in a row—say, three pieces for high school-level a cappella SATB chorus, all four to six minutes long—that I start to question my decision to focus so intently on choral composing. I’m sure I’d have the same feeling writing two works of similar length and style in a row for orchestra or for string quartet. Worrying that I might be repeating myself within my work and running low on innovation is what feels tiring, not the genre itself in which I’m composing.

As a result, I’ve found “niching down”—composing in one specialized field for a number of years, in order to build up a reputation and career in that field—to be a solid career choice, yes, but also a complex one. The question of whether to settle in one genre for a year, for a few years, or for an entire career comes down to this, I think: There’s only so much room to grow in your art if you’re not continually pushing yourself.

To avoid burning out and for my work to evolve, I need to seek out projects that don’t conform to what I already feel most comfortable creating. It’s good to stay a little uncomfortable when it comes to creativity. I need to look for variety in the projects that I take on, staggering similar projects across a wide span of time. And as long as I feel compelled to write vocal and instrumental music, I need to do both.

I’ve been considering all of this as I set long-term goals for the next few years, too. I very likely can’t continue to build a career as a “choral composer,” write and record an album’s worth of solo piano music, and compose two new works for orchestra at the same time, or even during the same year. Over the span of a few years, or a decade, or even a whole life spent writing music, though, there’s more than enough room for all of these goals to co-exist. We can focus on one field of music, then branch out to another. We can “niche down,” and we can embrace one identity (“choral composer,” “band composer,” “film composer,” etc.) for however many seasons that identity serves us, as long as we remain open to whatever music—in any genre—calls us to write it next.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “On Being a “Choral Composer”

  1. William Osborne

    I would guess that Eric Whitacre is by far the most widely performed living choral composer, and yet he meets with a good deal of critical disdain from a considerable part of the musical establishment. What are your thoughts about this? Interesting that in spite of his wide success he’s never been presented in these pages — or I don’t think so. Nothing seems to show up on google.

    Ed Note: Actually I did a huge talk on NMBx with Eric Whitacre and the three other composers who together formed the BCM International collective back in 2004. (Thanks to browser updates, the video footage for this currently doesn’t load but we will update that and reload it in the not to distant future.) And more recently, Sabrina Peña Young wrote about his large-scale YouTube projects in an article for us we posted in September 2012.–FJO

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