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Contemporary Choral Music

Choral music is enjoying a cultural renaissance. It’s hugely popular and taken more seriously than in recent times, and the performers are hungry for new types of exploration. For more information, click the Contemporary Choral Music to proceed.

Among the most popular works is Path of Miracles by Joby Talbot, which celebrates the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago. It’s a work that incorporates non-Western singing, medieval and Renaissance styles, minimalist procedures, and lush contemporary harmonies.

Choral Studies - Shorter University

  1. Path of Miracles by Joby Talbot

In Path of Miracles, Joby Talbot has created a work for choir and orchestra that is a meditation on the Camino de Santiago. Talbot, like his textist, Robert Dickinson, has walked the pilgrimage, and their shared experiences inspire the work. It consists of four movements, each named for a staging post along the route that goes from Roncesvalles through Burgos and Leon to Santiago. The piece combines influences from Renaissance church music, European folk, and “holy minimalism.”

The result is a fascinating amalgam of styles, one that can be interpreted as a sort of rapprochement between modernism and traditionalism. The singers themselves are often used as instrumental sound sources, and the use of minimalist development techniques on a micro level gives the work a definite sense of direction. But the tuneful melodies and harmonies of the piece also point to a past that is never quite fully revealed.

This sense of timelessness is also what sets Path of Miracles apart from many other recent large choral works, even those that employ similar aesthetics. For instance, composers such as Morton Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre use pan diatonic scales that could not be more familiar to a classical musician, but their harmonic structures still feel grounded in an older musical world. By contrast, Talbot – along with his spiritual cousins Arvo Part and Olivier Messiaen – invents new ways of arranging familiar tonalities.

Tenebrae, a chamber choir directed by Nigel Short, gave the local premiere of Path of Miracles. The ensemble features professional singers and this year’s vocal fellows and is a formidable force to be reckoned with. Their performance was stunning, and they handled the incredibly difficult 17-part score (SATB) with ease and beauty.

  1. First Light by Judith Bingham

The choral world is much more widely appreciated than ever, with new works being churned out year on year. The success of television programs such as The Choir and royal events have done a lot to elevate the status of choral music, but there are still hidden gems out there that deserve more attention. Judith Bingham is one such composer who has a rich and varied catalog of work. She is equally at home composing for orchestral forces such as Chartres or writing chamber music, and her choral work is no exception.

On this Naxos release, four of the five pieces are choral, including First Light, a setting of Martin Shaw’s poem about the incarnation. The piece opens with a nocturnal scherzo with slow-moving homophonic writing for the choir and fascinating organ figurations. It’s a stunning piece that explores the idea of what might have happened in the garden after Adam and Eve were expelled and also includes horticultural references.

The other choral piece is Awake and Sing, which uses a setting of words from the Song of Songs by John Tavener. This is a more contemplative piece with an almost mystical feel to it, especially in the final movement where the chorus sings “and there is silence” with the accompaniment becoming increasingly sparse and droning until it finally fades away.

The disc concludes with a brief brass work, The Snows Descend, which is actually a paraphrase of Bingham’s Gleams of a Remoter World. Again there is some powerful brass writing but the real strength of this re-working is the way in which Bingham combines passages of genuine poetry with explorations of brass sonorities. The BBC Symphony Chorus and Fine Arts Brass give a fine account of this demanding material.

  1. Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine by David Whitacre

As the 20th century drew to a close, new large choral works started to appear with more regularity. This new wave of ‘holy minimalism’ – the movement toward simplicity that avoided extreme use of dissonance – attracted fresh audiences with its serenity and austerity. It was led by composers such as Arvo Part of Estonia, John Tavener of the UK and Henryk Gorecki of Poland who incorporated ancient musical traditions into their works. In this way, they managed to sound both very old and very new.

Today, there is an abundance of choral music being written by household names who are regularly performed around the world. However, there is also an equally exciting array of talented composers who are less well-known and deserve a greater following. They bridge the gap between world music / singing for the terrified type of choir and a classical choral society – with their work often being a mixture of both.

One such contemporary choral composer is Matthew Emery of Canada, who “writes with an honesty that enchants”. He’s known for his operatic compositions and cabaret songs but has been composing for choirs for 25 years now. His music blends a classical tradition with popular American styles and is performed by professional, university, community, church, and children’s choruses.

Magnus Lindberg of Finland has a similar musical style, with an edgy chromatic palette and a fascination for the clash of old and new. He explores a sense of mystery in this work, which is based on the vandalism found in Roman cities such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. The sung text of the work is derived from this and is set alongside complex polyrhythmic patterns that reach an exhilarating climax when they are unitised in force by the choir’s voices.

  1. Second Eve by David Gjeilo

Having been trained as a chorister and member of the King’s Singers in his native England, composer Bob Chilcott became a contemporary hero of British choral music when his anthem Wherever You Are, written to accompany the BBC television program The Choir, reached Christmas number 1 in 2011. He’s built up a huge catalog since then and works with choirs in more than 30 countries.

Another well-established name on the US choral scene, Gjeilo has made his mark with large-scale compositions. Second Eve, which takes the form of an interweaving set of ethereal movements, was written for chorus, orchestra and organ in 2009. It begins with an echoed contour of the words “Time, like the tide, keeps on going round; And I, I am launched through endless deeps”, then shifts to pulsing string arpeggios reminiscent of the vivace movement from one of Harvey’s string quartets. The climactic double-choir sections are impassioned and fiendishly difficult to sing.

The piece ends with a distorted ode to scribbles found in the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, a clash of old and new that’s a thrilling encapsulation of the whole work.

Contemporary choral music is alive and well in community choirs, church groups, and choral societies the world over. It’s a genre that’s often overlooked in favor of the symphonic or the operatic, but its ability to speak directly to a large audience remains unmatched. It’s worth exploring the diverse range of styles that choral music is capable of, and these five works are a good place to start. The Boosey & Hawkes Contemporary Choral Series brings together a selection of the finest works for chorus of all types, voicings and levels from both established figures such as James MacMillan, Karl Jenkins and Einojuhani Rautavaara alongside the best emerging choral composers of today.

  1. Happy Song by Se Enkebayar

In the world of choral music, there is a lot of drama to be found. While many modern composers have produced music that is awe-inducing and beautiful, some have taken the opposite approach and created dark and dramatic works. This music is a bit harder to find, but it can be equally as moving and enjoyable as other choral masterpieces.

Choral music has enjoyed a significant resurgence in popularity over the past thirty years, thanks to the rising standard of school and community choirs across the globe. With more tonal music being performed and a wide variety of styles, choral music has become even more accessible to the average listener.

As the 20th century drew to a close, composers began exploring minimalist techniques that avoided the use of dissonance and created a sound that was both contemporary and familiar. Works by composers like Arvo Part of Estonia, John Tavener of the United Kingdom, and Henryk Gorecki of Poland created works that incorporated ancient musical traditions into a style that managed to be both old and new.

Se Enkebayar is one of Mongolia’s most popular contemporary composers, and his choral music has helped to modernize traditional musical ideas from his homeland. His compositions often incorporate throat singing and long song, creating a unique and contemporary idiom for the genre. His piece, Happy Song, is no exception to this and combines musical elements from the traditional khoomii and curtain due with a Western harmonic language. The result is an incredibly fun and engaging piece that would be the perfect opening for any choral concert.

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