Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Songs of Travel

. . . not the RVW song cycle, which was on the radio on the way home, but a brief precis of my journey to exotic Sackville, New Brunswick for the Podium 2008 conference. Events like this always bring to the surface my deep-seated ambivalence to the contemporary choral scene. On the one hand, the standard of performance was extremely high and the immense vitality and diversity of Canadian choral music was on full display. On the other hand, there were only three ensembles which programmed anything resembling standard choral repertoire - including the National Youth Choir, which could hardly do otherwise. Instead, what we heard over and over again was some combination of the following:

1) Newly-composed choral-industrial music, of the sort described here.
2) Folk song and spiritual settings.
3) Gospel repertoire.
4) Arrangements of pop songs, jazz standards, show tunes etc.

Nothing wrong with any of these, but when they make up the majority of all choral programmes at a conducting conference, where one would supposedly expect to hear the most exciting, challenging and unusual types of repertoire, I start to worry a bit. When it means that the sum total of all Renaissance repertoire that I heard performed was a single Morley madrigal and a Handl motet, I start to wonder if this is not maybe, perhaps, presenting a slightly skewed view of choral music? Possibly?

On the other other hand, there's nothing wrong with any of the categories I listed above. I'd be the last person to tell choirs to stop taking chances on new compositions, for instance, and there's a place for folk songs and spirituals in every choir's repertoire. Even the arrangements of new and old pop songs I have no quarrel with, as long as you realize that these pieces are transcriptions, not choral repertoire per se. But on the other other other hand (presumably sprouting out of my back), this repertoire is totally estranged from the kinds of choral music that I'd want to promote. How would a conductor ever have a hope of programming works like Xenakis's Nuits and Messiaen's Cinq rechants when the audience hasn't even been exposed to Brahms and Mendelssohn? That's why the conference bothered me, and why a series of otherwise inspiring and exciting performances were so depressing in aggregate.

If you'll grant me an imaginary fifth hand to make a final point, I'd like to propose the following: composers should be physically restrained from writing for chorus if they have never taken a counterpoint class. When I can sit in the audience and hear voice-leading errors in newly-composed, straightforwardly tonal compositions, someone needs to get their act together.

Enough said about that.

But New Brunswick was nice. And trips like these are the perfect opportunity to discover interests you never knew you had - like Quebec separatist rap music and covered bridges.

1 comment:

diplomatizer said...

I think that a lot more English Canadians would take the separatist movement more seriously if they heard how it's expressed in music. Being introduced to Loco Locass certainly opened my eyes.

I promise, the covered bridge video will be available soon ;)