I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts the fact, and it is a fact, that group singing is the number one most popular activity for adults in America. That’s true now, it was true last year and the year before, and it will likely remain true well into the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, like almost every other industry, ours has been massively affected by the coronavirus outbreak. I recently attended an online conference held by Chorus America, the American Choral Directors Association, and the National Association of Teachers of Singing concerning the future of choral performance. I wish I could report good news, but alas, I can not. The truth is that singers are major carriers of the virus, because of the deep breathing and intense air expulsion that’s required to sing properly. They’re anticipating that choirs will not resume normal operations for at least another year. That means no in-person rehearsals, performances, or church services.
So naturally, many choirs are now turning to the virtual choir model. For many of us it’s completely new territory. Performing and rehearsing a piece over Zoom presents some unique challenges. For one thing, you can not rehearse everyone at once, since Zoom (or indeed, any video-conferencing software) has a delay, the result of the time it takes to process digital data over the internet. What this means is that singers have to record their own parts, and then the “choir” has to be assembled through video editing. As any of you who have been part of this kind of process know, this way of making music works better for certain kinds of pieces than others. Pieces that have lots of tempo changes, that rely on the stretching of certain phrases from a conductor, are difficult to make work. Music that has a constant tempo and can be done with a click-track is easier for a singer to rehearse and put together on their own, and thus better for virtual choir. On the opposite end of that spectrum, music that has a completely free sense of time, where the specificity of entrances and exits is not important, also works well, since singers don’t have to worry about recording a take ‘exactly right.’
In light of this new reality that the choral world is facing, we here at See-A-Dot are going to be promoting pieces in our catalogue that we feel work well for virtual choir. Here are some selections from our catalogue, along with links to their pages on our website or recordings on YouTube:
Demon, by Matt Brown — this a graphic score with elements of indeterminacy in both the pitch and rhythmic material. There are sectional divisions that usually would require a conductor’s cue, however you can easily get around this by simply having the singers record each section independently.
Of all of them, by Drew Corey — a beautiful minimalist piece featuring two soloists and a cello line in addition to the standard SATB. The cello line is the harmonic backbone of the piece, and could be easily prerecorded. Singers can record their individual parts using the cello as a guide rather than a conductor track.
O God, Thy Sea…, by Sarah Rimkus (not out yet, but coming very soon!) — this is a beautiful minimalist setting of a single line of text that is composed almost entirely of one and two-note cells. The text is revealed over the course of the piece very gradually, allowing the rich harmonic texture to envelop the choir and listener. Each cell in the piece is sung independently, making a virtual performance easy to record and assemble. Towards the end of the piece, sections are giving longer melodic lines (still sung independently), resulting in a warm and dense texture that is a great showcase for what virtual choirs can accomplish.
Kyrie, Ethan Gans-Morse — another minimalist piece, this one operates using a few simple musical cells of different lengths, resulting in different composite patterns with each repetition. It’s extremely simple, and the repetitive nature of the piece makes it easy for singers to record on their own.
Love is Anterior to Life, by Bettina Sheppard — similar to the aforementioned Kyrie, this short piece uses a few distinct cells of differing lengths. This piece, however, is fully notated, with clear entrances and exits for each part. The tempo is constant, meaning it can be easily done with a click track, and the modal nature of the material makes it easy for singers to learn their parts without needing the context of the rest of the choral texture.
Ceremonial Burning, by Nilo Alcala — a little trickier to put together than the other pieces on this list, this work combines two interconnected solo lines with indeterminate percussion and choir. The music contains sections that are metricized and some that aren’t, but almost all of the musical cues in the indeterminate sections come from the solo lines. If the soloists are recorded first in place of a conductor track or click, the choral parts should come together smoothly. It’s a challenge, but a very rewarding one.