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Instrumentation: SAT choir

I've made several aborted attempts to write for choir. MONO was originally planned as a vocal piece (the late Professor Jeremy Peyton Jones, my postgraduate personal tutor, looked distressed when I shared my plans with him and diplomatically informed me of the difficulty singers have in holding the minor seconds on which that piece heavily relied) and Humming was supposed to lead to something more ambitious.

Earlier this year it became apparent that I had the opportunity to write for a women's choir, and so I set about immersing myself in as much choral music as I could find, drilling myself in counterpoint exercises, and getting to grips with the techniques of a select few composers (I didn't manage to get through my Palestrina book but this article on Morten Lauridsen is now one of my favourite pieces of musical writing ever and Paul Hillier's Arvo Pärt book in particular has provided hugely helpful insights into the ways a musical language can be developed from a composer's interests and ideas) in the hope that some of it would shape my subsequent writing.

I planned five or six small-scale 'practice' pieces each loosely based on a gestural or structural feature of choral musicbut didn't get far beyond the first one:

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While it was a helpful exercise for bridging the gap between theory and execution (not to mention exposing the flaws in my technique), I found that my interest in writing in this style faced a steep drop off indeed. I traced this to the challenge of trying to maintain creative motivation while writing in somebody else's language—in this case, the musical language of centuries-old church composers, which is necessarily restrictive when removed from the context for which it was intended. While there is plenty of room for innovation, and pure musical interest alone makes gaining dexterity with these techniques rewarding enough, for my personal expressive and creative purposes I had to answer some questions and solve some problems.

First was the role of text: while the short Latin poem and others like it I used for the above piece provided a good training ground, it's all too easy to revert to ye olde Latin/sacred canon as a jumping-off point. My research suggested that the alternative to this if you want to compose in English generally tends to be either folk-ish stuff a la Vaughan Williams or stuff that sounds vaguely Broadway-ish like Sarah Quartel's work. The latter in particular (choral music in English of this particular ilk), while wonderful and clearly of the highest technical excellence, struggles for me to rise beyond the platitudinous, and my hand will simply not allow itself to be guided to impart such material on to a page.

Yet, I do have a taste for the 'sacred' (maybe somewhere else on this site I've given my little spiel about the appeal of art being precisely the fact that it isn't real life and you can exaggerate and amplify feelings and ideas), and much of my music contains attempts to overwhelm and snatch the ability to listen passively from the listener as I've decided happens when we're confronted with the 'sublime'. My task, therefore, and my circle-in-need-of-squaring from which many creative discoveries are born, is to answer the question of what a secular, humanistic, or indeed atheistic 'sacred' might be.

Privately, I have a bone to pick with religion or so-called spirituality that I promise won't descend (degrade?) into the standard new-atheist tirade if I attempt to explain it to you. As someone who is not religious and finds the word 'spiritual' more difficult still, and who is into like maths and books and Microsoft Excel and correction episodes of sceptic podcasts and stuff like that, I'm frequently irked by what I detect is an assumption that I must therefore be mechanistic, blind to the many marvels of nature and barred forever from accessing the inner sanctum of the human psyche where all the best emotions and insights are kept. I don't believe that crystals can cure your back pain, therefore I must want all puppies and kittens to be murdered immediately. When presented, perhaps, with something funny, I utter a deadpan 'humorous' while looking straight ahead instead of actually laughing; or upon witnessing a perfect Himalayan sunrise surrounded by people I love, a child there for good measure both to amplify and counterpoint the sanctity of the moment, birds chirping cheerfully and little rodents all rubbing their eyes in the first of the morning sun in sickening displays of cuteness, all I can offer is: 'I sure am partial to photons'. Unmoved by the poets, disquieted by laughter, waiting until all the facts come out before I decide my stance on the benefits of fun. That lady from Futurama, basically.

But nothing could be further from the truth. I have the best feelings, a lot of people are saying my feelings are really perfect, in Trumpese. I dislike the idea that religion and its counterparts have copyright on matters of the profound. And, if you want to go there, I might even argue that certainty and having definitive answers to complex questions disables your capacity for discovery and wonderment. I'm on the side of Boulez who said he did not agree with the cliché that the emotional and intellectual cannot go together (I can't find a source for this quote but I have it written down, so possibly misattributed).

So what else is sacred? That's an excellent question and I'm glad you asked. I'm aiming for something that puts the human being at the centre rather than something super-human or extra-human, and treats 'feelings'—something we all share the capacity for and which are deeply personal and meaningful—and natural phenomena with seriousness bordering on reverence. I'm engaged in a pursuit similar to that of the composers profiled by Michael Nyman in his book, who, it's posited, were attempting to eliminate the notation step of the composer-idea-process-notes-performer route to delivering music to listeners by making the process itself the delivery mechanism. In a kind of analogous way, I'm attempting to go directly from material to feeling, removing the need to pass meaning through the restrictive filter of tradition, shared understanding and cultural pre-knowledge (much as I believe sacred music does already—since millions of people worldwide enjoy it perfectly well without even understanding Latin or Italian, for example—but overtly and formally so).

This is not that piece, but it is a step towards realising my aim. My struggle to identify something that constitutes a 'sacred' text outside of religion (at least one that makes for good musical material—you might struggle to move a crowd with your setting of the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights) led me to turn more towards works that use things other than words as their organisational basis, and in that respect I think Stimmung is about as near a perfect work of art that there is. Jonathan W. Bernard's analysis of Ligeti's Lux Aeterna could easily provide you years' worth of ideas to work with, but I found my way forward to returning to the just-intonation lattices I copied out while working on MONO

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I sketched out a loosely-improvised form that modulates upward by successive syntonic commas, with the original intent of spanning a full minor-second (or the closest possible approximation) throughout the piece.

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Having a frame like this to work inside frees up your imagination and brain power, which you can then direct at making stuff that is musical. The rule I was following was very simple—find a route to D+ on the D pitch lattice above (and repeat once D+ becomes the new D)—but there are plenty of ways to do that and plenty of ways to make music from it. This process pretty much demanded a very slow pace to give hypothetical singers chances to find/'lock in' to the intervals I'm asking for, so again a piece starts to take shape from a fairly simple initial idea.

What I found from my listening research, and from the Instagram videos of Eric Whitacre rehearsals and vocalists experimenting with holding unusual chords my singer friend sends me, is that a quick pace often detracts from my enjoyment of this kind of music. For my purposes right now I want to be able to enjoy the textures and listen to the imperfection and inconstance that comes from the sustained human voice, so I wanted something veering more towards a 'vertical' rather than horizontal music.

Harmonically, several instances in my structural outline are clear points of climax. I wanted these and some the more delicious chords to be points at which the music 'stops' (or rather stops moving forward) so that we can stay inside a texture for a little while so that they're not wasted. I thought of ways I could amplify the things that make listening to vocal textures enjoyable and a bit of controlled aleatoricism gave me just the right amount of performer choice and variation between performances to create the kind of subtly complex texture I had in mind. At some point I will study the overtone qualities of vowel sounds in more detail and read more into how Stimmung is organised, but for now varying the vowels used in each texture in any way gives me some control over the timbre of each texture. As I write this, I have no idea how the piece actually sounds or whether all of my somewhat-informed decisions will work, but I'm banking on the fact that at this slow tempo any sustained sound will be removed from its semantic context. Whether I have to review my choices of vowel sounds in certain places later, I don't believe anything can sound 'wrong' since they serve only to vary the overtone qualities of each sonority and no man shall call my overtones wrong unchastised. It's a foolproof plan.

At these instances, I've reverted to the modular/algorithmic notation I used in Variations and developed further in By Degrees. By coincidence or otherwise, this notation gives me the exact balance of control and randomness the piece needed.

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But ultimately this is a choral piece intended to be sung by a choir and I'm not content to dispense with tradition entirely just yet. The title, and the piece's only lyric, came from what I thought was the title of an Adam Curtis documentary I watched which came from a poem of the same name, but which turned out not to be the case (it's actually Loving Grace, not Everloving Grace, which not for the first time means it's technically an original title). This title and its Latin translation are evocative of the choral canon yet contain enough coded, subtle nods to my true intention to satisfy me (if you investigate the poem perhaps you'll be able to figure out why I chose it). Its treatment, in which I fragment its constituent vowels and bring the full phrase in an out of focus continue my work on liminality and subject it to the same treatment the rest of my musical material undergoes of allowing us to experience it 'vertically' rather than horizontally. Through repetition and augmentation we investigate the 'quality' of the word detached from its semantic meaning before it comes back into full focus.

I made a late discovery when I used some light counterpoint to bring the piece to a close. This kind of discovery that seems very obvious in hindsight and possibly to people reading—that you don't necessarily have to choose either textural or forward-moving, lyric-driven vocal music, you could, for example, 'embed' some counterpoint inside a texture—is always better when it comes through practice like this, and I will expand upon it in later work.

Of course this is all words and what really matters is how it sounds and whether all these ideas make for a good piece of music or not. A performance is scheduled for March 2024, so check in for footage and a recording.

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