Saturday, May 06, 2006
Writing for Amateur Ensembles
Antonio A. Celaya writes:
Dear Sequenza 21 Editors (or whatever the title is for blog keepers),
I hope that you won't find it presumptuous of a mere lurker about sequenza21 to suggest a topic for one of the discussions chains. Please forgive me if it's been done.
I think that an excellent topic might be whether New Music circles have injudiciously ignored writing for amateur ensembles. While this is not 19th century Vienna and we have fewer folk who gather on Saturday evenings to play string quartets, the largest portion of the musical ensembles active in the United States are people who perform together for fun. There are probably many times as many amateur choirs in the country as there are paid orchestras. There are smaller numbers of orchestras and wind ensembles filled with doctors, engineers, janitors and carpenters who love to play.
I am a composer, albeit a composer unburdened with those pesky problems of commissions and frequent performances, and I recognize that writing for highly skilled performers allows one to stretch one's skills and expression in directions not possible with less skilled performers. However, there are a hell of a lot of ensembles out there that are strangers to much in the way of new music.
Getting those groups to play new music is no easy matter. This is especially true with choirs. There seems to be long established enmity between many a New Music milieu and choirs. Many composer friends have told me that they hate vocal music and in particular hate choral music. There is a ton of great choral music from the last 30-40 years, in particular there's an impressive body of works from the Nordic countries inspired by Eric Ericson's virtuoso ensembles and those of his students.
If sequenza21 readers don't know works like Ingvar Lidholm's "Arriveder le stelle" or Per Norgaard's "Wie en kind" or his "Frost Psalm" then they are missing out. I sing with various ensembles and it is true that many singers long ago closed their mind to anything written after Elijah. It's also true that a composer has to compose a piece for amateur choirs that is simple enough that amateur singers can get their pitches. Some genres of New Music may just not be able to crossover in that "unknown region."
There is an organization in England dedicated to commissioning and collecting new music for amateur ensembles. Ought the United states have similar organization advocating with ensembles for composers, and encouraging composers to write for amateurs both talented and not so talented?
Some of the distance between the New Music world and the amateur musical world arises from the New Music world's excessive anxiety about whether one is a "professional composer." The fact is few composers make the bulk, or any of their living, off their compositions. More power to those who do. I wish I were among them. They have my admiration. The goal is to get composers' music played, and only then can we begin to worry more about who's getting paid. The less relevant we become the less likely anyone is to get paid for their compositional life.