Saturday, July 26, 2008


I suppose that when the Toronto Star decides to run a profile of organist-composer Andrew Ager, complete with a video of Ager demonstrating the organ at St. James' Cathedral, it's a bit unsportmanlike for me to spend a blog post complaining about it. After all, without articles like these most people would be completely unaware of Ager's work at the cathedral, or of his well-crafted compositions.

But what's this:
Under his watch, the cathedral has abandoned the old men-and-boys choir tradition that was past its best-before date. He composes tuneful, tonal music in an age when atonality rules. His pieces are in regular performance, unlike the one-off creations of so many contemporary composers.
This is a collection of tired cliches, and none of them pass logical scrutiny. Viz:
  • 2008 is only "an age where atonality rules" in the imagination of journalists. Aside from the more esoteric repertoire offered by the Esprit Orchestra, New Music Concerts and their ilk, the Toronto music scene is fairly conservative. When the orchestra or opera company features twentieth-century music, it's more likely to be music of the more conservative ilk (Janacek, early Messiaen, Takemitsu), rather than anything truly atonal or, God forbid, serial. The Canadian composers prominent today generally write broadly tonal music with subtle touches of contemporary harmony. Even university music programs, for crying out loud, the last bastions of old-fashioned musical styles, have embraced the new tonality, with student compositions showing the influence of Reich and Adams rather than Stockhausen and Maderna.
  • Perhaps in 1970s and '80s academia, atonality was pushed down students' throats - and I've heard enough stories from that era, including Ager's own recollections, to believe that this is true. But today the pendulum has swung in the other direction, to the point that the vast majority of orchestra programs are totally uninteresting to fans of hardcore modernism. For journalists to continue talking as though orchestras were programming Xenakis and Finnissy at every concert is ridiculous. Stop.
  • To me, "tuneful" is off the mark in describing Ager's music. His sacred works that I've heard are characterized by careful craftsmanship, Renaissance-inspired counterpoint, and a certain emotional distance. It's this studied seriousness, I think, that sets him apart from the many other Canadian composers who write choral music in a tonal idiom (Eleanor Daley, Mark Sirett, Ruth Watson Henderson, etc.), and which puts him firmly in the tradition of solid, unpretentious liturgical music, rather than in the camp of the choral-industrial complex.
  • But the absolute most irritating thing in the article is the gloating over the demise of the "old men-and-boys choir tradition". Never mind that the men-and-boys choir at St. James was dismantled long before Ager took up his position - this horribly misrepresents a very complicated situation. Adult women simply cannot blend with unchanged boy's voices, or with the voices of male altos, so there is no halfway measure - either you have a traditional SATB choir with adult female sopranos and contraltos, or else you have an English-style men-and-boys choir. The majority of North American church choirs choose the first option, and understandably so - male altos are thin on the ground, and training boy choristers is time-consuming and expensive compared to simply hiring experienced sopranos. But in a very few churches, the English tradition is still maintained, and with good reason - the sound is incomparable for performing the traditional English repertoire, and the training it provides for a young singer is top-notch. Political correctness, however, rules that this is a smokescreen for sexism, and that our society is tainted as long as even one church in the country has an all-male choir. And so a centuries-old tradition dies, and parents looking for a good choral education for their children must instead enroll them in a children's choir where they can look forward to a steady diet of Rutter and other unmentionables.
Natter, natter, natter. I notice that the feature author is John Terauds, who I railed against for similar issues in his review of the recent Turangalila-Symphonie performance, so this seems to be par for the course. But it's still annoying. And I'm going to go listen to late-period Tippett until I calm down.


Andrew W. said...

Funny, but I posted on this article a full two minutes before you did, albeit far more curtly...

Andrew W. said...

Uh, serves me right for not even reading my own blog! So we're even, you beat me to commenting on a blog about the Star story!

It sure is lonely in this echo chamber...

shereadsbooks said...

Sexism? Piffle. I wish there were many more male-voice choirs around. I heart them. And perhaps ironically, I don't really like the female sporano voice... in fact, I think in most instances that it is extremely distasteful.

I adore the male-choir sound. I have a CD of liturgical chant from Russia, which I blast whenever opportunity arises. It's amaaaaazing.

Osbert Parsley said...

Christine: Perhaps we could start an advocacy group - Sopranos against Sopranos? I dunno. Myself, I've found that the sopranos I'm most taken with are early-music performers, who tend to use almost no vibrato and a much lighter tone. Certainly that sound is much more compatible with the English choir ideal than an operatic voice.

Andrew: Great minds think alike? Or, more broadly: great minds object equally to poor proofreading?
And re. my greater verbosity: guilty as charged! I had great difficulty cutting my scathing critique down to four bullet points and suppressing the various side points I wanted to put in (eg: in the video, Ager says that air from the windchest causes the organ pipes to vibrate. In reality, it's the air column INSIDE the pipes that vibrates to produce organ tone - if you wanted to make the pipes themselves vibrate, you'd just hit them with a mallet.) Clearly I have too much time on my hands.

Andrew W. said...

That's funny, although I'm not an organist, when I heard him say that about the pipes, I raised my eyebrow...

As to the length of your post, I was commenting more on my constipated post than your verbosity! And no one is verbose when they write well, as you always do.

But to hammer my own pipe, why is it that we feel somehow bad for pointing these errors out? And how do we remedy this?

I suppose one could correct things in the "comments" of the article itself, but that will only wake whatever troll happens to be guarding the arts section to tell us that pointing this out just proves what insufferable snobs we are.

Osbert Parsley said...

I think we "feel bad" for pointing out errors because everyone assumes that doing so is somehow small-minded and elitist. It's a perpetual conflict between people who insist that factual correctness is a good in itself and people who reply "But it doesn't matter!"

Myself, though, I'm bothered less by the factual errors in articles like these and more by the snarky tone and habit of constantly taking potshots at atonality, modernism etc. You don't win a prize for critiquing artistic movements that most people don't care about. ("Hey Dad - remember how you said that you don't know anything about Elliott Carter? Well, the Star says that's a good thing!")

The only remedy I've found is that of the proselytizing performer - you go out into the world and play contemporary music, and change one mind at a time. Bad criticism can't convince you not to like music you've already heard - it can only convince you to avoid music you haven't.

And on that note, I'm off to church, where I'll be playing all Messiaen this morning. :P

Sondra said...

I'm a former opera singer (soprano) and presently conduct a vocal ensemble that includes children and teens ages 4 -18 (girls and boys with unchanged voices; boys with changed voices sing in another ensemble). From time to time we also perform SATB pieces with adult singers. We all sing with vibrato and we don't worry about blending. The vocal production (Italian Bel Canto) and placement are the same. The result, according to those who hear the treble choir: "They sing like angels." I understand your preference for men and boy choirs. It's a shame there is not enough money and/or support for SATB and Men and Boy Choirs. Perhaps those whose hearts soar when working with and hearing men and boy choirs might consider starting their own community choirs like I did.
Sondra Harnes
Founder/Artistic Director
World Children's Choir

Osbert Parsley said...

Hi Sondra,
Nice to hear from you! Of course there are many different approaches to choral singing, and having heard similar ensembles to yours in the Toronto area, I know it's a sound that can be very effective. As far as choral blend goes, I'd argue that having uniform vocal production and - especially - placement of vowels will take you a lot further than "trying to blend".

The problem faced by proponents of the men-and-boys choir tradition, however, is that this tradition is inextricably tied to the Church, and to a tradition of liturgical worship. If the Church will no longer support this choral tradition, then we may have to start community choirs along the same lines to fill in the gaps, but I don't consider that ideal. The men-and-boys choir tradition was created by the Church, and that's where it belongs.