Contemporary Choral Music means a lot to a lot of people. Some acknowledged classics touch many souls, including Mozart’s Requiem, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and Britten’s Chichester Psalms.
The contemporary choral music scene is thriving, and local choirs and vocal ensembles are churning out new works every year. Here are some that deserve your attention.
Choral music has been with us for over 1,000 years, and despite the many household names that compose it, there are still composers whose work is less well known. Thankfully, the current day is a time when communal singing thrives in local choirs and choral societies, and there is an ever-growing body of new works to delve into.
Whether their musical background be classical, jazz, folk or other genres, contemporary composers have brought their flavor to choral music. Some, such as Will Todd, are best known for their choral pieces, with his 2003 jazz mass setting Mass in Blue having been performed over eighty times by choirs across the country. Other notable choral works include his anthem Stay with Me Lord, commissioned by The Sixteen and the cycle for double choir of the same name exploring seasons, birth, love, sex, death and renewal through texts from various religious traditions.
Another contemporary choral composer of note is Stephen Leek, who was educated at the Canberra School of Music. He has written numerous choral pieces, including for the choir of Margaret College and the Phoenix Singers of Shrewsbury. Having been a chorister himself, he has a great affinity with the voice, and his compositions explore a wide range of expressive emotions through vocal colorations.
Then there are those who have made a name for themselves in other areas but whose choral music shows their supreme understanding and love of the voice. This includes opera composers such as Will Todd and Jonathan Dove, but also composers such as Paul Hillier, who has an international reputation for his choral works, and Ko Matsushita, whose compositions embrace chansons, instrumental pieces, sacred music, theatre, and dance as well as a rich catalog of choral works.
For those looking for something more challenging, there is Joel Thompson’s America Will Be, a set of ten songs that celebrate the resilient spirit of women in music from the 11th-century abbess Hildegard von Bingen to a number of contemporary female composers. Using a range of choral textures and effects, the piece is a stunning exploration of harmonic colors, taking the listener on a journey from dissonant unpredictability to consonant inevitability.
The texts used by modern composers for their choral works often have a religious or spiritual resonance, but many also deal with broader cultural or civilizational themes. This is quite different from the great majority of classical music, which, since the middle of the 20th century, has been largely driven by technical complexity for its own sake. One of the most interesting developments in contemporary choral music has been the emergence of what some have called “holy minimalism” – a movement towards simplicity that avoids the extreme use of dissonance that had become the norm in much of modern “serious” new music. In the past few decades, this has enabled new choral works by composers such as Arvo Part of Estonia, John Tavener, and Henryk Gorecki to attract large audiences with their serenity, austerity, and sense of mystery.
In addition to these more contemplative religious gems, the world of contemporary choral music offers a rich feast for secular and celebratory occasions. The Boosey & Hawkes Choral Series includes a wide range of pieces for choirs of all sizes, voicings and abilities, ranging from the best-selling works of James MacMillan, Karl Jenkins and Einojuhani Rautavaara to more recently composed works such as Calliope Tsoupaki’s meditative religious gem Totus Tuus or the mystical and serene St Luke’s Passion by Randall Thompson.
Likewise, the Carus Contemporary series provides an opportunity to explore some of the most compelling contemporary choral compositions from a number of well-known international composers who specialize in writing for choirs. Their familiarity with choral music and the way in which they consciously exploit the tonal colors of singers’ voices leads to fascinating possibilities that can be explored musically.
This is particularly the case for a number of British and American composers who, thanks to television programmes like The Choir or high profile royal events, are now better known beyond choral circles. Eric Whitacre, for example, is a household name thanks to his ethereal music that keeps listeners guessing with its shifting tonalities and mesmerizing textures. His work Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine, based on the poetry of Edward Esch, is a perfect example; its final chord is truly transcendent.
Although most people think of choral music as old, boring harmonies that died with kings, this genre has been undergoing a fresh revival. A thriving community of local choirs, choral societies, and churches is producing remarkable new works that seem likely to endure.
Contemporary choral composers use many different forms. They often draw on the sounds of other eras or cultures and combine them with modern musical techniques. The result is often a distinctive new sound. For example, Path of Miracles by Joby Talbot celebrates the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela by using modal melodies, minimalist procedures and evocative harmonies that are both ancient and contemporary.
A number of modern choral works were originally composed for solo singers, including oratorios, verse anthems and masses. The use of a choir allows these pieces to be performed without the need for virtuosic solo performers and gives amateur musicians the opportunity to perform music that would otherwise escape them.
The composers featured in the Boosey & Hawkes Contemporary Choral series range from established figures such as James MacMillan, Karl Jenkins and Einojuhani Rautavaara to exciting young talent like Paul Mealor and Will Todd. The music spans a broad range of styles, from the jazz-influenced world of Will Todd’s Mass in Blue to the tranquil beauty of James MacMillan’s Ave Maris Stella and the energetic jubilation of Gareth Treseder’s Blessed be That Maid Marie.
Choral ensembles also perform music that was written for other instruments, such as orchestral concertos and baroque motets. In addition, they may perform music that was conceived as a solo performance, such as a madrigal or an early Renaissance chant.
One of the most interesting developments in choral music has been the use of non-traditional choral voices, particularly sopranos and altos. These voices can be used to enhance or replace the lower voice parts in a piece, creating an almost orchestral effect. Alternatively, they can sing in alternation with the traditional soprano and bass line, giving the sound a fuller and richer texture. In this way, the a cappella voice can give a sense of unity and power to a large choir that is more than the sum of its parts.
Choral music has long had a reputation for being difficult to perform. But the 20th century saw a proliferation of new works that were both accessible and compelling to audiences. A number of composers, including Arvo Part of Estonia, John Tavener and Henryk Gorecki of Poland, tapped into ancient musical traditions to create pieces that sounded both old and new. Others embraced minimalism, avoiding extreme dissonance and instead creating a sound that was modern but still evoked the emotions of the piece’s texts.
Today, a new generation of choir composers are building on these foundations, making their own contributions to the tradition. They are exploring different compositional techniques, writing music that speaks to current social issues, and embracing the power of communal singing to bring people together.
For example, American Jake Runestad’s 2006 work, “A Song to Sing,” is a playful exploration of the voice. By using words that he invented himself to produce a range of sounds, Runestad demonstrates that the voice can be used as a tool for dramatic effects. Designed for male vocal sextet, this piece also plays well with mixed ensembles.
American composer Joel Thompson’s work “America Will Be” takes a similar approach, using compositional techniques to explore the ways in which America has changed over time and what it means for people of all races to be one nation under God. The piece uses a wide range of harmonic colors to create an emotional journey that goes from unease to urgency to steadfastness.
Another American, Donald Nally, writes choral music that is both evocative and engaging. His work is performed around the world and has been featured at ACDA conventions. He is a regular collaborator with creative artists and leading orchestras, and he often addresses social and environmental issues in his music.
If you’re interested in performing contemporary choral music, look for opportunities to participate in international choral festivals like INTERKULTUR. These events allow you to showcase your skills in front of an international jury of judges. They can give you a platform to develop your career as a choir singer and also help you to expand your repertoire of songs.