The best choral music you've never heard

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Why it was time for an a cappella work to win the Pulitzer Prize

  • August 9, 2013

Fahad Siadat – Friday, August 09, 2013

The history of the Pulitzer for music is predictable. The prizes traditionally go to well established composers in contemporary classical music (and for the last few decades jazz) typically favoring large works for opera and symphony along with the occasional chamber piece. This year’s award is remarkable for a number of reasons. Caroline Shaw is one of a handful of women to earn the Pulitzer, she is the youngest composer to win, and the first who is yet to be published. What stands out most, however, is that her Partita for 8 Voices is also the first work for a cappella ensemble to take the prize.

It’s not news that certain forms of concert music are considered less serious or sophisticated than others. Instrumental music is more academic and vocal music comparatively plebeian. If an artist incorporates string quartet into their rock band it’s an innovative twist, if they use a wind quintet it’s downright bizarre. Having a vocal quartet in a pop group, however, is an embedded part of that pop tradition. Vocal ensembles have a flexibility and diversity which make them ubiquitous and accessible to just about everyone. Wide access might mean less consistent performance quality (unlike the virtuosic performance of Shaw’s piece by Roomful of Teeth), but it doesn’t make the genre less legitimate.

One can learn to sing, and do it well, without any formal training or even knowing how to read music. The instruments are free for the singer and the size of ensemble adjustable to any number of performers. The egalitarian nature of choral music makes it no surprise ensemble singing is the most popular extra-curricular activity in America among all age groups.
The overwhelming popularity of choral music isn’t new, so why has it taken so long for the Pulitzer to reflect this? It may, in part, have to do with the small percentage of choirs willing to perform brand new music. There are certainly some champions of new choral music: Volti, The Esoterics, C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, The NY Virtuoso Singers, and Chanticleer (and others!) all of which regularly commission and premiere new works for choir. But they are dwarfed by the vast number of ensembles who won’t venture into the world of new music. Those few contemporary works that do get widely performed typically maintain the status quo in terms of style, harmonic language, and singing technique.

These often performed pieces, sadly, do not reflect the outstanding and adventurous work being done in the vocal arena, and that situation has created an unfair association between choral music’s accessible nature and a lack of artistic depth. Innovators like Meredith Monk and Toby Twining have crafted careers from a profound exploration of voices in harmony, and their music beautifully connects intellectual interest and emotional accessibility. And it’s fun. And these composers are not alone. There’s a whole world of composers doing this work, building a repertoire of great stuff that will rarely see a second performance.

Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 voices lands squarely in this tradition and is a shining example of what choral music has become by showcasing the legitimacy of choral music in the serious art world. It also reflects the cultural shift in 21st century American music making, in which more people are empowered by potent and accessible tools to make great music without years of study and training. This growing democratization of concert music can only be good for the classical world increasing composer, performer, and audience participation, through a wider range of accessible and excellent music, and that certainly isn’t bad.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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