Thursday, September 07, 2006

Will The New Renaissance Choral Music Always Be Tonal? -- Thoughts By The Dutch Composer Samuel Vriezen (b. 1973)

... "Great topic, great discussion, here is my contribution:

(1) I used to sing in an amateur choir that specialized in New Music and we got very, very proficient at learning complex chromatic harmony efficiently. Funny thing was that with our advanced ears, many of us had unexpected trouble when we were presented with renaissance music which is supposed to have 'simple' harmony.

(2) The choir was quite good at certain sorts of new music, we had very good reading efficiency for an amateur choir, but we never got deep into typically choral fineries. The mix of voices was very odd, some being admitted on the basis of vocal technique and others (like me) more on the basis of more "theoretical" type of proficiency and a good understanding of new music esthetics, and a willingness to work. While we did work with some of the most important orchestras and ensembles in my country (Netherlands) including the KCO and the Schoenberg Ensemble, Lux Aeterna was simply too ambitious for us at the time we did it. Ligeti's music simply happens to be *extremely* demanding, and I'd say the harmony in the piece is among the least problematic issues.

(3) It can be extremely exciting to sing a discord, *if* you hear your voice contribute to a sensational sound, if you *feel* you're making a difference.

(4) So any harmony - atonal or tonal - has to be very balanced towards a clear individual contribution of every voice. This means that texture considerations may be more important if you write than harmonic style considerations.

(5) in fact, the human voice tends to have a quite "thick" texture of its own already I find - also, of course, depending highly on the vocal style employed (vibrato or non, timbre, etc etc). Classical choir style is usually quite thick. Most vocal styles will be 'thicker' than the sound of a couple of strings being struck by a hammer. Add to that the often quite reverberant spaces where choirs tend to perform. Often when I hear modern choral music - whether "atonal" or "tonal" - I find that the composer has not taken all this into account.

(6) There's another aspect when you compare choirs singing a chord with a piano playing a chord in atonal music. If you write in a strict 12th-root-of-2 type harmonic language, this will usually come out very nicely on the piano - because of its transparent timbre but also because it's perfectly happy to do those intonations. But if you require the human voice to more or less sing the major thirds one seventh of a semitone wide, it may come out quite stiff. In a vocal piece, intonation should matter.

(7) There's a disc of extremely thick dissonant "atonal" music that I think relativizes what I wrote above, it's the Xenakis disc by the New London Chamber Choir, which is just amazing. Do note that they employ a vocal timbre that doesn't really sound like classical choirs but which makes those extremely dense harmonies in fact very transparent.

(8) Note that Xenakis' harmonic techniques often have a modal basis although the modes can be quite strident, but the relative stasis of a modal design (when compared to the transpositional/modulatory business of much 12-tone pantonalism) makes for more interesting possibilities of intonation."

Dutch Composer and Pianist Samuel Vriezen comment in Sequenza21 Composers Forum August 25, 2006

Text (c) Samuel Vriezen

Laundry in ex-convent
El Camino Real, Oaxaca, Mexico, 16th Century.
[Slide No. 102]

Photo credit: History of Architecture from Renaissance to 20th Century (CD1). University of Southern California. With thanks.


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