c3la performing Fahad Siadat's Hymn to Aethon
The Future of Choral Music
The Contemporary Choral Collective of Los Angeles in performance

The Future of Choral Music

Here’s a common experience I have as a publisher of choral music: I’ll receive a piece with all the hallmarks of a composer who knows what they are doing. The piece is well engraved, follows the rules of voice leading, is idiomatically written for the voice—and is dull. But then I’ll do a little sleuthing and find samples of this same composer’s instrumental music, which will often by contrast be lively, engaging, and innovative. Nothing drives me battier than to see this separation between the two mediums, and I’ll often write an impassioned reply to the composer asking why they are so apparently willing to stifle their creative voice when it comes to choral music. Nine out of ten times, they respond with something akin to “thank you for giving me the permission to write the music I want to write.” These experiences have lead me to the belief that while there is plenty of newly composed music for choir, it is not part of the same contemporary conversation around new music as its instrumental and solo counterparts.

Highly chromatic or atonal music is rarely written for choirs.

It’s no shocker to say that the choral and instrumental worlds have evolved quite separately over the past century. Highly chromatic or atonal music is rarely written for choirs, and the deep exploration of timbre found in instrumental pieces from later in the 20th century has mostly been ignored in favor of the pervasive choral sound inherited from the English cathedral tradition. Not only have the two worlds evolved separately, but their cultural importance is weighed differently as well. Using the Pulitzer Prize as one limited metric, it’s worth noting that, until The Little Match Girl Passion in 2008, an a cappella choral piece had never won the prize. This fact is confounding if we consider that choral music is thesingle most popular activity among adults in America. It is estimated that 32.5 million adults in America sing with a choir on a weekly basis and that ensemble singing is the most popular arts activity among adults in the United States. While the majority of choirs are religious or school ensembles, it is conservatively estimated that 12,000 of US choirs are community and professional groups. That’s 10 times the amount of community and professional orchestras in the United States. It’s entirely possible that the Pulitzer committee shares the same perspective as much of the new music world, that choral literature is not in the same “high art” category as its orchestral counter-part. And to be fair, the largely avocational nature of choirs contributes to the cultural sense that, as a whole, it need not be taken as seriously as instrumental music.

Choral music performers are hungry for new types of exploration.

Thankfully, choral music in the 21st century is undergoing a cultural renaissance. More and more ensembles are bringing together musical innovation in the choral world, and ensembles are performing music that points composers in a new direction. These composers are exploring and expanding what is possible in the choral medium without being stymied by the avocational nature of many of the performers. There has, perhaps, never been a better time to make a national, and even global, impact with choral music. The choral world is one of the most accessible avenues for the public to stay connected with “classical” or “concert” music, especially when it comes to the work of living choral composers, where there is still a mass appeal from the young to the elderly. The medium is hugely popular, it is being taken more seriously than it has for the past hundred years, and the performers themselves are hungry for new types of exploration.  There is a wonderful opportunity to use choral music as a way to expose a wide swath of Americans to the adventurous side of today’s new music conversation by getting people involved as performers, not just passive listeners.

In the series of articles that will be posted here in the coming weeks, I will explore: how the choral world is changing artistically, logistically, and creatively; what factors into that change; and where we all might be headed. I’ll also describe how technology is changing the social and business world of publishing and what methods composers can employ to bring experimental musical ideas to a wide demographic of people without alienating the majority of avocational singers in the choral world.

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Fahad Siadat creates interdisciplinary storytelling works, folding together words, sound, and movement into mythic narratives. He is an advocate of innovative and adventurous music, particularly for vocal ensembles and approaches this advocacy as a performer, composer, conductor and entrepreneur. Fahad maintains a robust schedule of solo and ensemble performing including performances at SASSAS, the Hear Now Festival, Tuesdays@MonkSpace, and the Masters in the Chapel Concert Series. He sings with C3LA: The Contemporary Choral Collective of Los Angeles, a group dedicated to contemporary choral music, and HEX Vocal Ensemble, for which... Read more »


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.

11 thoughts on “The Future of Choral Music

  1. MWnyc

    The difference – and Fahad alludes to this, but it really is key – is that new instrumental music is, and has been, generally written for professional instrumentalists (or at least conservatory-level students), while new choral music was (until very recently) written for non-professionals.

    Now that professional choirs and vocal ensembles are beginning to thrive, with some (The Crossing, Roomful of Teeth, Conspirare, Seraphic Fire, Trinity Wall Street) even achieving a level of fame, composers can be freer to write music that might be challenging to perform.

    – – – – –

    By the way, Fahad: In the second paragraph, the actual title of the Pulitzer-winning piece is The Little Match Girl Passion.
    (Frank, isn’t there a copy editor to catch stuff like that? If not, hire me. ;-} )

    [Ed. Note: YIKES, I was that copy editor and I should have caught it since I know and love the piece. Doing too much stuff at once as per always, but it’s fixed now. Thx for the eagle eye – FJO]

    Reply
  2. Torkjell Hovland

    You should check out Norwegian composer Ørjan Matre’s work with Oslo Chamber Choir and Norwegian Soloist Choir. He brings his timbre focus from his orchestral music to his choir music. On the album STRID by Oslo Chamber Choir (Oslo Kammerkor), norwegian folk music arrangments and classical works are mixed in a very special way that result in this weird new third thing. PS: there’ll be a new record out from Matre and Oslo Chamber Choir some time in 2019.

    Reply
  3. Fahad Siadat

    Torkjell,

    Thanks for the recommendation! Choirs from Northern Europe have, in my opinion, been on the cutting edge of bringing wonderfully innovative sounds to the choral world. And I’m always excited by something that can only be described as a ‘weird new third thing’. :)

    Reply
  4. Fahad Siadat

    MWnyc,

    You’re absolutely correct about the avocational vs. professional issue and when looking at the professional ensembles there is a lot more of adventurous music being written in the States. My main interest, however, is how we can bring innovation and experimentation to the avocational ensembles, and this set of articles will predominantly explore compositional methods that can be explored without making the music necessarily more challenging.

    Reply
  5. Jon Corelis

    This article, and the subsequent comments, consider what composers want, what choral directors want, and what the Pulitzer committee wants. Is anyone giving any thought to what the audience wants?

    Reply
  6. MWnyc

    So?? Hire me, Frank!

    FJO responds: In an ideal world, we’d have the budget for a much larger staff, but we do the best we can with the resources we have.

    Reply
  7. MWnyc

    The Crossing, Roomful of Teeth, Conspirare, Seraphic Fire, and Trinity Wall Street seem to be giving some thought to what the audience wants, since audiences have been responding positively to them.

    (And concentrating on what choral conductors want only makes sense for composers who want to get their music purchased and performed, since conductors are the ones who decide that.)

    Reply
  8. Jeff Wall

    I would also posit that conductors don’t always know what we want until we see it and hear it. I don’t always like the polyphony of Bach (I know, shame) until after I have done the work. Then, I love it. My natural inclination is to trend towards what is accessible and can be prepared to the level of detail I require with the amount of time I have between concerts (what sounds good). Perhaps I, as a conductor, need to rethink how often I perform with my choirs to allow for the adequate preparation of progressive, atonal works that I SHOULD BE doing with my choirs. As with everything, all things in moderation, but I have recently enjoyed stretching outside my “box.” I do write from the perspective of a university conductor and separately, a pro-level conductor, but I taught junior high and high school in another life. I think I would try to find atonal things appropriate for them as well if I were still in that situation.

    Reply
  9. David Lipten

    I hope you’re right about this new direction. While, your’re certainly correct that the choral world is accessible for the majority of people, the opposite seems to be the case for composers of new choral music, unless their new compositions adhere to the qualities you decry (i.e., those that drive you (and me) batty). I realize that there are a number of good reasons for this state of affairs, ranging from the purely practical (like to ability for a group to tune well or the amount of rehearsal time available to learn a new piece), to the cultural (is the piece familiar to the group and/or the audience and will it draw them in?). But, chorus also seem to be averse to risk, whether the chances are in the music or just in the programming of new music, and I’m not sure where this tendency arises from. Perhaps this is something you can address in your discussions, that is, if you agree?

    Reply
  10. Fahad Siadat

    David,
    Your comment about risk aversion resonates strongly with me. I’ve done some recent experiments with my collegiate group at CalArts, putting music in front of them that might be more challenging than their level of experience warrants. What I’ve found is that the students LOVE those works in particular, and enjoy the challenge of something just out of their reach. When push comes to shove, I discuss with them the possibility of cutting the piece from the program, and often the next rehearsal shows substantial improvement. But here’s the thing: Sometimes I keep the piece on the program even if it means a mediocre performance. In a low-risk environment like a school concert, why not focus more on the experience of the singers than that of the audience?

    In addition, we do a LOT of student work at CalArts. About 1/3 of each program is written by the students, and they are often the most challenging pieces, both for singers and audience. I’d much rather compromise on the quality of performance than not allow those pieces onto the program. Such risks don’t always work for a community choir with a paying audience, but integrating risk and adventure into the collegiate ensemble will better prepare our future listeners.

    Reply

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