Friday, January 4, 2008

Battle of the Choirs

Hey there, Kat here, taking over other people’s blogs in order to rant.
I'm a singer, and while not primarily a choral singer, that happens too.

Anyway, an amzing woman named Maggie Jochild recently offered a searing review of NBC’s Clash of the Choirs. I raked Mags over the coals for one sentence: “I learned that choirs don't have to sound like badly homogenized eunuchs (or Mormons)”

Anyway, after demanding an explanation (which was really rather rude of me, but I hope Maggie will forgive), Maggie asked some really interesting questions about the nature of choral music and its origins. I thought it would be interesting from choral and non-choral perspectives because I think a lot of musicians exist in a somewhat sheltered bubble of other musicians, and we forget that the outside world may not look at things the way we do. It’s important to look at things from the other side.

Choralista has considered the shift/decline in interest in choral music, and how that will work with the growing number of choirs (particularly in the Bay Area), and looking at Maggie’s thoughts could be really valuable to us as we plan concerts.

Here were Maggie’s questions:
One thing I realized as a result is that the groups I was comparing the TV shows' groups to, that I've heard in person, were either church-based (which probably have cultural and religious strictures on their sound that have nothing to do with music) or, in fact, actually labeled as choruses or chorales. Without hitting Wikipedia, I'm willing to bet I'm mixing apples with oranges, aren't I?

In addition, after thinking about it, I realize "eunuch" is an extremely poor choice of words. Partly because, on looking it up, I see it refers only to the castration of males instead of what I was (vaguely) aiming for, the removal of earthiness from human voice. Sex is not really the issue. Except -- I'm still confused here, clearly -- it does seem to me that the glorification of boy choirs has a great deal to do with seeing them as pre-sexual males. My mother went gaga over the Vienna Boys' Choir and her comments focused on how "sweet" they sounded, how "pure" and "untouched". Yikes. When, in fact, they sounded to me exactly the same as girls' choirs. What was so special about boys sounding like girls?

I DO want to hear choirs giving me a sound I can't experience another way, but still clearly human, rich, evocative. I'm not sure I know what "one voice" means to you. I felt like during the first performance by the LaBelle choir, where there was a sort of call and response, two halves of the choir singing back and forth to each other, that I was hearing something radically different and vibrant, enough to make me sit up and my blood start pumping. I kept looking for that every time they performed, and found it in between the sections where, yes, it was a soloist doing their shtick and getting back up.

I don't have the language to describe it, but I'm hoping you can elucidate further. Educate me, if you will.

America idolizes the perceived "amateur" but, well, they wind up sounding like Nick Lachey instead of Patti LaBelle, don't they?

But if I'm going to see a nationally televised show, I want to see professionals knocking my socks off.

Sooooo much good stuff to think about and consider. I hope I can shed some light into this, and I’ve taken over Choralista as well, in the hopes that if I leave anything out (or get it horribly wrong), I’ll be corrected.

Let’s start with definitions. In a strict sense of things, “Choir” refers to a group of people singing together, but also refers to the part of the church from which they sing (also spelled “quire”). Hence, choirs are church ensembles. The word doesn’t always get used that strictly anymore. A chorus or chorale is the same concept, of an ensemble of singers, but is more general and does not have the church connotation.

This is a technical description, though. Generally, chorus/choir/chorale are all pretty interchangeable, and refer to groups in which there is more than voice on a part.

The big question seems to be: Does choral music have to be classical or religious. The adverts for Clash of the Choirs said something about wanting to move choral music beyond those definitions. The trouble is that that’s not possible. In the context of Western music (which is the only kind I’m qualified to write about), the Church invented choral music. It grew out of Gregorian chant, in which all the monks/priests/whoever would chant in unison. In the middle ages, a second sung line was added, then another, then another, and eventually you get polyphonic choral music, which is made up of multiple lines all functioning more or less independently while singing at the same time.

We know about multi-part secular music, but off of the top of my head, I don’t know whether there is any evidence of Mediaeval/Renaissance choirs singing it. As far as I’ve read, it would have been printed for home use (got 4 people over for dinner, why not sing some madrigals!). Public performances of secular choral music seemed to come later.

With polyphonic music, all of the voice parts get more or less equal treatment. What Celeste and I were annoyed by in Clash of the Choirs was that the groups would give all the interesting music to one or two singers, and everyone else would stand behind and fill in the blanks. The precedent for that is in doo-wop or girl groups, not choral music. We’re not saying that this style is not legitimate, just that it’s not an accurate representation of choral music. The title conflates two very different styles.

In this modern day and age, do we have to have choral music that is religious or classical? Well, actually, yes. You’ve either got classical (Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the 9th symphony, Mahler symphonies, madrigals) or religious (the masses of Mozart and Bach, Gospel, hymns, praise songs). Pop music has really not created any real choral music. There are ensembles, but mostly small ensembles of soloists, not lots-of-folks-on-a-part choirs.

What has happened, as “classical” and “popular” music have grown apart and the audience for “classical” has shrunk, is that choruses have tried arranging pop music for their own purposes. In high school the directors always give you Billy Joel or someone, arranged for 4 part harmony so that you’ll stop complaining about all the god references in the rest of the music. There’s a ton of pop songs that have been taken apart and reworked for a choir, which has always struck me as kind of strange. If I want to listen to Billy Joel, I’ll do that. I won’t put on Chanticleer-singing-Billy-Joel…

Moving on to the issue of homogeny within a choir: Ideally, you want each voice part to be made up of singers who sound similar. You want voices that “blend.” This usually means voices that are clear in tone, “pure” as opposed to dark or muddy. Generally, you also want voices that have little vibrato, which supposedly obscures the purity of a note (I’m more opera centric, and may or may not agree with this, so I’ll just move on). Why do we need this?? Well, if you have people with really individual, unique (not eunuch!) voices, that’s what you’ll hear. The effect will be of the voices themselves, which will obscure the over-arching lines and effects that the composer wants from the group as a whole. The best choirs seem to be made up of colorless voices, so that the color and tone of the group and of the composition, can come to the forefront.
In my opinion, the modern Scandinavian choirs are tops at this. There are some really innovative, avant-garde composers up there who take choral sound to the outer reaches of what you thought possible with vocal music.

The Anglophile Cambridge lovers will undoubtedly flog me for that last paragraph. I’m an alto, though, remember that before you try to beat me down!!!!

You can listen to an opera chorus (group o’ big voiced opera singers singing something like the “Anvil Chorus”) versus any group directed by Eric Ericsson for the differences between ensemble singing and choral singing.

This is what your Mum was probably referring to, Maggie. The Vienna Boys Choir (and just about any other boy choir) tout their singers “pure” voices as a way to convey the composer’s brilliance, rather than the brilliance of a particular performing artist. The focus is on the creation rather than the interpreters.

So, the boychoir issue. I saved this one for last, so as to rant more. Originally, in the early days of Catholicism, women were forbidden from singing in church. The exception would have been convents, but for the outside world, it was “screw you and your X chromosomes.” This presented music-minded clergy and choir directors with a problem. They wanted multi-part music, but couldn’t get women to sing the higher parts. So, in order to replicate the high voices of female singers, they brought in young boys. The started a really long tradition of boys singing in church. It spawned the British Cathedral School tradition, in which the large churches would use students from their schools in the choirs. I know several male singers who grew up in cathedral choir schools and are still dealing with the consequences as adults. We all know about the horrors committed at many a British boys’ school right? Well, add to that being in the choir and getting special treatment from all the teachers (like not having to take sports and having loads of free time while others are in classes), and imagine how they were treated by their fellow students. Loads of bullying, to say the least. Plus, the choir traditions don’t do anything in the way of actually teaching vocal technique, so these guys have tons of vocal problems, as well. They’re held up as having been professional singers since they were kids, but are not nearly as good, technically, as singers who started as teenagers or even young adults.
Anyway, aside from my friends’ experiences, there’s the sexism issue as well. Supporters of boychoir traditions insist that somehow boys’ voices are higher, purer, generally more special than girls’. And yes, Maggie, they frequently sound exactly the same. The first British cathedral choir to include girls (and even then, I think there are separate girls’ and boys’ groups, I don’t think they’re mixed) only did so in 1991.
“Tradition” is a great excuse, and gets attached to all sorts of silly practices. At some point, and I’m not sure when, some church dudes realized that if you castrate little boys, their voices never change, and they can sing high for all their lives…don’t ask me how they decided this was a good idea, I’d rather not think about it…anyway, castration prevented the larynx from doing whatever it does when boys go through puberty. The voice would stay high, but would change in other ways. Apparently, castrati had the small, very flexible vocal chords of children, but would grow to be very tall and barrel chested, so they would have lung capacity for days as well as high notes…their voices were said to be quite unique and interesting, which would have been a far cry from the colorless, “pure” sound of boys. So you do get your eunuchs, Maggie, but apparently they were really thrilling to listen to.

Basically, I think that children’s choirs are great as an activity for your kid, but there is no surviving reason to maintain the overly glorified boychoir stuff, with all its anachronisms. Oh wait, religions love anachronisms, don’t they…oops…

So, wanting to hear a unique choral sound that still has a warmth and humanity…Patti LaBelle’s group seemed to take its style from Gospel, which does use call and response as a device. I’m not a connoisseur of Gospel, so I can’t give you specific examples to look for. I think that this is where I’ll open the floor for suggestions. What recordings get you all hot and bothered, folks?

My favorite pieces are from the Renaissance, and are polyphonic. Renaissance polyphony allows for some really cool word painting and other effects. Look for Italian madrigals if you want secular. Lots of sexual innuendo will ensue (“The sweet and white swan dies while singing…”)

I hope that I’ve managed to answer some of the questions, and look forward to hearing more from anyone who’s got more info.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming…..


Celeste Winant said...

As far as the genesis of secular choral music is concerned; I can't help but think of homophonic harmonization as a progenitor of choral music- stand out examples are anything slavic/baltic, and of course, Southern (Appalachian) harmonization of Celtic / British Isles songs. Both of these traditions feature interesting "close" harmonies - especially drone-tones (where one vocalist accompanies the melodist in a monotone), as well as the standard 1-3-5-8 palette that we western-continental-Westerners are acclimated to. African harmonization has also worked its way into all musical traditions.

The first reserved written examples Western-western "polyphony" (From the Acquitanian Monastery of St. Limoges) seem based on these drone tones (with small embellishments). In practice, teh "second voice" had less to do than the "first", and relies on the leadership of the "first" in performance (n.2 cant take a step forward until n.1 does).

It is also common that much medieval solo-voice music is performed with a drone, even if such practice was not notated in the primary source (think Hildegard). In fact, not much is notated in the primary sources.

Celeste Winant said...

boy vs. girl vs. boy/girl ("childrens") choir

One need look to further than the bay area for some excellent examples.

We have all of the above, but mostly sex-segregated groups. Piedmont Childrens Choir is one of the few mixed childrens groups that I know of.

I am most familiar with the San Francisco Girls Chorus and the Pacific Boychoir Academy. Each have a gender-specific mission beyond the music. SFGC, in many ways, serves as a Finishing School for girls, as many of the Bay Area's most prestigious families send girls to the school. PBA is the only childrens choir on teh west coast with a full day-school program, emulating the British choirschool model. SFGC does not devote its resources to teaching kids how to sing solo. PBA identifies the most talented kids in its program and gives them that solo training (so that they can sing those wonderfully schmalzy descant solos in all that anglican choir music)

Implicit in this is that the boychoir tradition stems from the british choirschool model. the girlchoir model is very different- perhaps more American?

SFGC was borne, of course, because girls did not have the same choral opportunities as boys in SF. I dont know the history, but I know that boys had the SF BoyChoir long ago, as well as the prestigious, acclaimed Grace Cathedral choristers. When SFOpera and SFSymphony need trebles for their productions, they have traditionally engaged half of the singers from the Girls Chorus, and the other half from the Boys Chorus. Ironically, in the 80's, the boychoir dissolved into different groups, and temporarily were much less prolific and capable than the Girls Chorus, who rose to international acclaim and were the face of SF childrens choirs.

In the last ten years, the disparate boy choirs (some more than others) have had time to develop into capable ensembles. Its not exactly fair to compare boys and girls because the underlying mission and philosophy of each group is so different. Its subjective- some people like one more than the other, no matter how technically trained they are.

I am happy that groups like SFOpera and SFSymphony continue to engage both boys and girls (the Opera's needs are dictated by casting)- but I have also observed that the Bay Area early music scene has become increasingly enamored with using Boys and Men versus mixed ensembles. American Bach Soloists
did an all-Bach cantata program last season using the Pacific Boychoir Academy kids as choristers and soloists as opposed to women (or girls). I don't mean to disparage, because the PBA is an outstanding group, they focus on early repertoire more than any of the other SF kids choirs do, and there is a strong relationship between the PBA and ABS staff. But still, I couldn't help but be somewhat vindicated when the reviews came back saying "you know, women would have probably done a better job than the boys".

kat said...

"SFGC does not devote its resources to teaching kids how to sing solo"

maybe not, but they get voice lesson-type things in the upper levels, don't they?

"Each have a gender-specific mission beyond the music"
-->well, yes, but my take is that those are pointless and anachronistic. The SF girls chorus mission was good, originally, since equal opportunities are good, to continue to keep the groups separate based on some crap about "well, boys can sing higher" or something is just like saying "boys are just better at math" or "boys are just stronger than girls. They can't compete with each other."

aren't we past that crap yet?

This grates especially when the boychoir model is applied to musical offerings which have no historical basis for it.

kat said...

"Its not exactly fair to compare boys and girls because the underlying mission and philosophy of each group is so different. Its subjective- some people like one more than the other, no matter how technically trained"

The actual sound (when you close your eyes, or listen to a recording without knowing the group) is so similar that preferences are mired in sexist conditioning.

Richard said...

I think one of the extraordinary things about the Scandinavian choirs Celeste mentions (and those of Eric Ericson--who's still at it and 89 years old) is the quality of the individual voices, especially in professional groups such as Eric's Chamber Choir or the Swedish Radio Choir. The amazing thing is that they can sing with a fantastic sense of ensemble and blend, even given big voices. You realize just how good those voices are when you hear them up close. And the size/quality of voices with their ability to sing fantastically well in tune, allows them to sing big pieces with orchestra with relatively few singers (48 for a Brahms Requiem, for example).

I didn't see any of the Clash of the Choirs, so can't comment. You'll find a comment on

I enjoy the blog, Celeste!

Richard Sparks

Celeste Winant said...

ahh, yes- trying to be 'equal-sided' (and not tick off any pro SF-boy choir people who read the blog), but I am of the personal opinion that the best kids choir is mixed choir, and that aside from the fact that boys are forced to retire from treble singing at an early age, there _should_ be no differences in the pedagogy.

I probably wouldn't send my girl to SFGC if I was still under my present impression that it is a Finishing School for SF's Society Girls. On the other hand, I know that SFGC does an outstanding job giving scholarships to families who couldn't afford to send their girls to the choir, otherwise.

I am a big fan of the Piedmont Children's choir (mixed).

SFGC doesn't single kids out the way PBA does and coach them on solos. Both choirs, however, do teach all of their choristers vocal technique at a high level. The PBA has been a source of solo treble singers for groups like ABS, UC Berkeley Music Department events- I never see SFGC members individually engaged for similar events.

Celeste Winant said...

Richard- thanks for your comments! One small correction- I can't claim credit for writing the post about Eric Erikson's group. That credit goes to our newest contributor, kat.

kat said...

yay! Finally someone who agrees with me on the Scandinavian choir front! I think we're relatively uncommon around here...
My college chamber choir director studied with Ericson, so we were fed steady diets of contemporary Scandinavian music. Hard as hell, but really interesting.
Also, a lot of us had what might be called "bigger" voices (at least big for a choral setting). We were chosen partially on how well our timbres complemented each other.

I think that there are big old myths about big voices not being able to sing in tune. There are examples of it, of course, but there are just as many of small voices being out of tune. I guess it's less apparent on a smaller voice.

Celeste--I've never gotten the "finishing school" impression from SFGC, although it wouldn't surprise me if SF society moms send their girls....I went to school with several SFGC girls, and it seemed really intense and life-consuming, if anything. Hm....maybe musical finishing school, if such a thing is possible. How to stand when you sing, how to keep your eyes engaged, that kind of thing...

kat said...

"The PBA has been a source of solo treble singers for groups like ABS, UC Berkeley Music Department events- I never see SFGC members individually engaged for similar events."

-->I think that has more to do with the Boys vs. Women argument. ABS, etc. could be using adult women in most of those cases, ja? It seems like that's the choice, rather than "we're definitely using a child, now which kind should it be"

John Brough said...

I have to chime in a bit on the boy choir question. Considering my Masters thesis "The Challenge of the Boys' Changing Voice" and my Doctoral dissertation "Choral Music at Christ Church Cathedral Ottawa, Canada", it is a topic I am well versed. I haven't blogged about this topic yet over at Podium Speak , perhaps one of these days I will.

Long story short, I am a product of the boy choir school, in Canada though, although I've toured the UK three times.

Let's be careful not to generalize abuse to boys to boy choirs! Yes, unfortunately, there are cases where this has happened, and Canada is not exempt. A tragic story from Kingston Ontario through the 1970's and 80's is the most famous example of this sort of atrocity. But the abusive use of this type of authority is equally present in the world of minor sports as well. It is also not exclusive to boys, but exists in mixed groups of children as well.

One problem in choirs across the world is a lack of mens voices - with a few exceptions - most of these exceptions appear in places with a strong Men and Boys choir tradition... This is not a coincidence. Mixed choirs at a young age favour the girls. It is a gender issue - segregation has always proven to be a viable solution to this problem.

Oh, and on the topic of poor technique? How do you explain the likes of Daniel Taylor, Gerald Finlay, and Ben Hepner - all products of boys choirs? The directors who discourage changed voices from singing after they leave the boys choirs are to blame for those who don't go on to do this for a living (and perhaps some have other interests anyway).

To generalize that all boys who grew up in the Boys Choir tradition have left with a negative outlook on choirs and music is a rather large assumption. If it were not for this tradition, I would not be in this profession myself.

Celeste Winant said...

I may be conflating SFGC with the SFGC summer opera program- the latter definitely has a finishing school element to it. so, my apologies.

most of the girls and women whom I know who went through SFGC are amazing musicians (although I admittedly only know the people who had a positive enough experience with the group to continue singing into their adult years).

kat said...

I wasn't making a generalization (in cases of abuse or poor technique), but rather speaking of specific friends' examples. If it came across that way, I apologize. I should have been more clear.

Celeste Winant said...

no offense taken. :-)

John Brough said...

no offense taken here either - it was a very good post - I do think something I will write about on a later date - it is a topic which is very close to me.

Richard said...

So, Kat, where'd you do your undergraduate work and who was the conductor who studied with Eric? I'm always interested in knowing who else has worked with him!


kat said...

I'm a little apprehensive to say, actually, because some folks there were suspicious that maybe the director inflated his experience or importance.

here goes, though:
I started undergrad at UC Santa Barbara. The chamber choir director was a Canadian, Michel-Marc Gervais.

I didn't graduate from there. I ended up transferring to the SF Conservatory. Chamber Choir was a great experience, though, and even though I didn't like the school, I learned a lot from being in the group.

Chris Rowbury said...

Great post Kat! However, I do take exception at one of your points:

"In this modern day and age, do we have to have choral music that is religious or classical? Well, actually, yes."

What about choirs that do so-called "world music"? i.e. music from traditional sources such as the Balkans, New Zealand, etc.? Libana and Kitka from your side of the pond spring to mind. And, of course, my own UK choirs WorldSong and Woven Chords (plug! plug!)

From the front of the choir:

kat said...

you're absolutely right, Singing Man. Kitka is a great example.....why didn't I think of that??

Jen Y said...

I'd like to note that there is a whole subculture of choral groups that do nothing but barbershop pieces. I wouldn't count that as classical, even though they use standard music notation to write down their arrangements. I've been to a few of their concerts because my uncle is a barbershop choral singer. They alway sell out the huge halls where they perform, and their audiences are very enthusiastic. This tradition of choral music, though from an earlier era, is alive and kicking.

Also, @Celeste: unless you're thinking of a different concert than I am, the American Bach Soloists' all-cantata concert last winter used PBA boys for the sop/alto solos and women for the sopranos in the chorus (I was one of the sopranos). I think the chorus alto section was mixed men/women, but can't quite recall.

Michel Marc Gervais said...

Dear Kat: I came upon these blogs quite by accident, and I could not help but chuckle about your comment about me: "...some folks there were suspicious that maybe the director inflated his experience or importance." Ever heard of the internet? If you look up my name, you'll find pages and pages of information you need to ascertain who I am, and what I have achieved during the last 35 years of my career (Canadian Encyclopedia, press reviews, CD reviews, etc.). (By the way, Richard Sparks, with whom you were corresponding, is my successor at Pro Coro Canada, the professional choir I founded at the age 25. And yes, Eric Ericson has been a mentor and very close friend for 32 years now. He is now 90 years old and he and I speak over the phone at least every month or so.) I find it very interesting that, in all of these blogs, you keep your identity quite secret. Now why is that? Michel Marc Gervais, Faculty, University of California at Santa Barbara

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