Friday, January 4, 2008


(Choir LaBelle performing on first night of Clash of the Choirs)

Today, for the first time, I have a guest blogger, Kat from Berkeley who comments here frequently. Kat has many talents and interests, one of them being choir/chorale singing, another opera, and a third ranting about her interests. She had a strong response to an earlier post of mine about the recent Clash of the Choirs on NBC, and our exchange led her to write the post below. Even more exciting, this has been cross-posted at Choralista, a wonderful blog of "Guerrilla choir-nuts in action" dedicated to chorale and classical music, run by Celeste Winant and Lisa Hirsch. Hop back and forth, and enjoy! Many thanks to Kat for her effort and clarity. -- Maggie


"But: I broke my oath last week to check out the first night of Clash of the Choirs. Because, my god, it was Patti LaBelle heading up one of the choirs. I have to say, she definitely did not disappoint. Michael Bolton and his Connecticut milquetoasts were an embarrassment, and at least the country-western guy was honest in admitting he didn't have a fucking clue about anything except kicker music. But Patti blew them out of the hemisphere. I got hooked, in spite of myself. I learned that choirs don't have to sound like badly homogenized eunuchs (or Mormons), and I was fascinated with the all-too-brief glimpses of how Ms. LaBelle formed her musical judgments and pushed her pupils to perform dazzling displays above the rest.

"I wound up taping and watching all five nights (taping was essential because I really couldn't sit through Bolton & Co.) And every single night, LaBelle's crew mopped up the floor with extremely original, ambitious, outrageously moving performances. But: the format relied on the standard "let the idiots with cellphones make the final decision" and even my cynical self could NOT BELIEVE IT when Nick Lachey (Mr. Jessica Simpson) was named the winner.

"Gag me with the patriarchy. Gormless white boy beats out Patti LaBelle? Yeah, you just convince me it wasn't all those hip-hop-lovin' racist pasty-skinned suburbanite testosterone-poisoned BOYS who couldn't bring themselves to vote for a 50-something black WOMAN. I was utterly disgusted, most of all with myself for giving it a try.

Back to my oath."

(Patti LaBelle after hearing her choir had lost -- (Thanks to LogandLiz blog for the image)


Hey there, Kat here, taking over other people’s blogs in order to rant. I like ranting, just so you know, and often wonder why it seems like I’m ranting alone. I firmly believe that “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” I’m not actually outraged, today, though, so ignore the last couple of sentences.

Anyway, Maggie 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." (end of Maggie's questions)

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!).

With all of this 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, etc) or religious (the masses of Mozart and Bach, most Renaissance polyphony, Gospel). 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 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. 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 as a whole, and of the composition, can come to the forefront.

In my opinion, the modern Scandinavian groups 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 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.

(Vienna Boys Choir)

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.

This 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….

Original commercial touting Clash of the Choirs
LaBelle Choir sings "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands", stealing the show at the end of the first episode -- check out the "call and response"!
LaBelle Choir on day two of Clash of the Choirs singing "We Are The Champions"
Patti LaBelle and her choir singing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"
LaBelle Choir on day three of Clash of the Choirs
Finale from Clash of the Choirs on YouTube


letsdance said...

Nice squabble, Women!

Personally, I don't like the smooth (invisible voice) choirs like the boys choirs. I want some variation, some interest, some fire!

kat said...

For sure, Jan.
I really don't enjoy listening to blank sound.
The best adult choirs are able to create color and timbre from the group as a whole.

There are choral groups that manage to have interesting voices as well as good blend and stuff.

If you don't mind listening to religious music, there's a wonderful recording of Claudio Monteverdi's "Vespers of 1610" by the Boston Baroque.

Monteverdi wrote in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and wrote the first extant opera. He was also the choir-master at St. Mark's in Venice. He used lots of word painting, and what we might call "sound effects."

There are really cool contrasts between the big rousing chorus pieces and the little, intimate solos or duets. The voices tend to be smaller, as is standard for 17th century repertoire, but they're very colorful and evocative.

plus, you've gotta love that the duet "pulchra es, amica mea" ("you are beautiful, my love, a sweet and comely daughter of jerusalem...turn your eyes from me, for they have put me to flight!") is set for two women!!!

Let me know if you're interested in other recommendations, actually, so that I don't just verbally vomit all over the place....

kat said...

So, someone on Choralista linked to a log by a high-powered choral/orchestral conductor. He wrote about clash of the choirs as well, from a (dare I say it) snobbish perspective. But. He also pointed out some things about television production that I hadn't even thought of. Apparently, the dude's father was a tv producer or something, so he let's the cat out of the bag in terms of backing tracks and pre-recording supposedly "live" shows.

It's interesting.

kat said...

oh, man....the choralista chomments were forwarded to a prominent conductor. who has devoted his life to the whole "boychoir" bullshit.....and kat plants her foot in it yet again.....


A second conductor chimed in, though, explaining Scandinavian choirs further. That was really cool, cuz he pointed out that the model up there is to use bigger, more expressive voices and still achieve a cohesive sound.

So, the Swedish Radio Choir may be another recommendation. One that I've heard live that blew me away was the chamber choir at Upsala College (also in Sweden).

They sang at an enormous SF church a couple of years ago, and it was quite an amazing experience.

oh yeah, I said I wasn't going to vomit up recommendations.....oops

kat said...

Rousseau's our homeboy:

from some writings by Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
je ne crains point de dire, malgré la prévention des Italiens, qu'il n'y en a nulle d'espece comparable à celle des femmes, ni pour l'étendue, ni pour la beauté du timbre ;

translates as:
but of all these high voices, I can only say, …that none compare to those of women, not only in terms of vocal range, but also in terms of beauty in timbre.

He goes on to say:
Children's voices are inconsistent and have no low extensions. Eunuchs really only shine in their highest range. Falsetto is the most disagreeable of timbres of the natural voice. All one must do is compare the voices which sing the top musical lines between the [all-male] sacred choirs of Paris and those of the [female-embracing] opera.