This past week I attended the MA ACDA convention in Wenham. I feel sort of obligated to blog about it, and besides I've had a number of people ask me how it went, so here goes. The short answer is that I'm glad I went. Next year I will make an effort to attend every day; this year I had to miss Monday because I was teaching at Lasell Village, and I wish I hadn't had to miss the Monday sessions. The clinicians, Dr. Judy Bowers and Dr. Kenneth Fulton, were excellent; Dr. Bowers is a powerhouse, and you have to just hang onto your hat and go with the flow! And I enjoyed watching Dr. Fulton conduct, and discuss gesture; I wish there had been more time for gesture-work. I really liked the way he used his arms.
But it was a little dispiriting that the conference seemed geared towards music in schools, and didn't really focus on any higher levels, not even community choruses. And, of course, most of the people there were music teachers; I didn't see any of the conductors of Boston's many excellent choruses there. I suppose it's a chicken-and-the-egg problem, but I would have loved for every GBCC and university conductor in MA to have gone, and I also would have loved for at least some of the conference to be pitched toward conductors of higher-level groups.
I was also disappointed with the music in some of the reading packets. (Reading packets are the highlight of most choral conferences - you get a big stack of new music and you all read through it together so you can figure out what you like.) But this too is a complex problem - the conductors can only choose from what the publishers are willing to give them for free for these conferences, and the publishers who are happy to give out free music tend to be the ones who are trying to push schlocky stuff, and good luck getting Universal Edition to give you copies of an Arvo Pärt piece to read through at a convention b/c that's just not going to happen. There was, of course, some new stuff I was happy to be introduced to in the reading packets, such as Shvedov, Trotta, Guillaume, some nice works and arrangements by Andrea Ramsey, and I was glad there was a good scattering of world music. But on the whole there were a lot of major seconds, and while major seconds can be done beautifully, they are currently the scourge of schlocky new choral music (this is an example.)
The thing that got me thinking most was a comment one of the attendees made during the very last Q&A before we all went home. I don't remember who it was, but someone raised a hand and made a sad comment about how all the "real composers" (not my words!) were not writing for chorus nowadays. Well! This stirred up a lot of thoughts in me, as you might imagine.
On the one hand, he had a point. If you look at the list of Pulitzers won in the last 10 years or so in music, half were awarded to symphonic works. The others were awarded to an opera, 2 chamber works, 1 jazz album, and 2 choral works. The argument that symphonic music is still (sadly) considered more serious than choral music is valid, and although the times are changing, there is still a feeling that if you want to be considered among the greatest composers you have to write something symphonic.
On the other hand, I had just presented two lectures on contemporary choral music at Lasell Village, and the notion that we are not getting great new top-notch choral music is ludicrous. But there is this sad divide between the professional classical/new music circles and the choral director circles, and I don't think choral conductors really realize what is going on out there. I mean, if you are a choral conductor and you haven't heard David Lang's Little Match Girl Passion yet, then that's too bad. And I get it why it's hard - I'm a fan of new music, and yet I still hadn't heard Lang's piece until this summer when I listened to it during my lecture prep. With the amount of work we have to do to make a living, it's no wonder there is no time to pay attention to what is going on in the wider world of music. 5th graders WEAR YOU OUT, man, and don't I know it, and trying to keep up with what's on the cutting edge of choral music is close to impossible if you are a teacher, or trying to hustle and make your living as a musician.
But despite the nigh-impossibility, it is still important to do. It is not acceptable to me that choral conductors think new music means Whitacre and Z. Randall Stroope, and don't know the works of Wheeler, Betinis, Lang, Reed Thomas, Sametz, Argento, Bolcom, Ashalomov, Finney, Stucky, Rands, Long, Tann, Harbison, Pinkham, Sierra, O'Regan, Paulus, Walker (which one?), Hawley, Yi. There is so much out there and we have to bridge the divide.
My good friend Amelia Nagoski was also at this conference, and she has developed an interest and expertise in mind-body work, and how it relates to conductors. (I highly recommend her blog Thoughtful Gestures.) She will be presenting tai chi workshops at the Eastern Division Conference next March, and I mentioned that I was still trying to figure out if I had a niche or specialty that I could present at conferences. "Well," she said, "I think you should do modern music. Unlike a lot of other people, you really love it, and we all need some help figuring out what's out there." And I think she's right. It's intimidating, because there is so much out there and it's hard to be dive in without the judgement of history; with new music one must rely exclusively on one's own taste! But doing research on new music would be right in line with the original purpose of this blog, which was to force me to engage with the wider choral and musical world. Amelia's blog is there because she has passion for her ideas and needs to express them; my blog is here because I needed an impetus to focus my gaze out beyond next week's rehearsal.
So, I hereby announce a new feature on this blog. One to two times a month, I will feature a piece of new choral music that I think everyone should be aware of. It will be music I consider fresh and fulfilling and worth performing. And hopefully it will be a tool to help me find all kinds of great new choral stuff. We are going to bridge the new music/choral divide! Are you with me?