Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Blog #2, Bill of Rights - Performance Options

Many people all over the United States have downloaded my setting of the First Amendment. I am delighted with the widespread interest in this composition. There were downloads first from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont: i.e. the readership of the Hartford Courant and the New England network of Sacred Harp singers. But word has spread about this project, and there have been downloads from California, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin, and even the US Virgin Islands. That’s twenty of the “fifty nifty United States” plus one of our territories. Downloads in 40% of the states and the web site has only been up for a month! Help spread the word about this site and the FREE SHEET MUSIC on it—let’s aim for at least one download in the other thirty states before Thanksgiving.

Some of you have been asking about performance options for this piece, so I am writing about that in this, my second blog. First of all, it’s a piece in the Sacred Harp tradition and I suggest that it be performed that way (if you are unacquainted with this style of music check out However, if you would like to sing it in a more refined manner, like mainstream American choral singing, or in another style altogether (gospel for example) that is fine too. Singing the Bill of Rights is more important than stylistic nicety—i.e., in the endless controversy “which is more important, the words or the music?” in this case it’s the words.

Second, this First Amendment setting is written in imitation of the music of the United States at approximately the time of the Bill of Rights itself, so certain conventions apply. Specifically, directors should remember that the melody is in the tenor—bring that part out, loud and clear. Also, it is in the style of this music to double the soprano and tenor parts at the octave, so feel free to do that if it’s appropriate to your ensemble and if you like the sound. (This is also a good way to achieve the proper balance if you don’t have enough tenors.) And in the late eighteenth century voice parts in such compositions were routinely doubled by instruments, if instruments were available. (Sacred Harp singers no longer do this—the music, as heard today is 99.44% a cappella.) I suggest the following doublings, all of them completely stylistic:

  • Soprano: doubled at the same pitch by a flute
  • Alto: doubled an octave higher by a clarinet (believe it or not, an authentic practice of the time)
  • Tenor: doubled an octave higher by an oboeBass: doubled at pitch or an octave lower by bassoon, cello or contrabassTenor and
  • Bass: played at pitch (or the tenor an octave higher) on the organAnd ANY combination of the above.

Not quite as stylistic as these suggestions, but effective musically, would be doubling the parts with a string quartet. I’m not sure brass instruments would work as well, but if the players are available go ahead and experiment. I don’t think the piano sounds good with this kind of music, but organ sounds wonderful (harpsichord too).

Third, many of you have written asking about the suitability of this composition for different choral situations. This warrants more extensive discussion. When I wrote the First Amendment my “sonic image” was a moderately large chorus, SATB with balanced parts. I attempted to “write easy” so that amateur choruses could sing the piece without an enormous effort, though clearly some rehearsal would be required. In all this I feel I was successful. The First Amendment is a piece of cake for professional singers, a bit more work for a good community chorus, and well within the capabilities of a fine high school choir (willing to do some woodsheding, of course). As the set of motets progressed I became a bit more adventuresome—there are some hard spots, but nothing which is substantially more difficult than I have described, just a bit more work to make it happen.

That leaves a lot of choral situations which are common, for which the First Amendment is not specifically designed—treble choirs, church choirs without any tenors, male choruses, etc. But my goal is to have the whole country, the whole world singing the Bill of Rights! So all of these choral situations need to be accommodated. Consider some of the possibilities, case by case.

Treble choirs: It’s hard to imagine this work sung by young children. However, preteen treble voices can do it with some work, and singers high school age and above certainly can perform it. Unison treble singers should sing the tenor line, up an octave. Instruments can play the other parts or not, depending on availability—if there are none, leave out the rests in the fuguing sections. Two-part treble choirs can sing the tenor an octave higher (you always need the melody) and the soprano. Three-part choirs add the alto, four-part choirs add the bass.

Church choirs without any tenors should have women’s voices sing that part an octave higher. The organ doubling the tenor and bass parts (or more, if your organist can manage it) sounds fine. Other instruments doubling the appropriate parts (see above) will also be a fine effect.

Certain choirs have no basses, i.e. they are SAT ensembles. I have encountered these forces in a number of situations—choirs of teenage boys, black gospel choruses, and certain Latin American ensembles. In these cases I strongly urge the use of at least one bass instrument, but even if that is not possible sing the upper parts without it! Remember, it is better to sing the Bill of Rights than not to sing it.

Male choruses should put the highest available voices on the alto part (baritones singing in falsetto are great for this purpose) and sing the soprano down an octave. It can be a good idea, depending on the size of the chorus and the number of mature male voices, to transpose the music down a step or even a minor third.

There are probably more situations to be considered—if your kind of choir is not covered in these comments feel free to experiment. I know from personal experience (years of work in church music, and especially adapting the choral music in my piece CONVERGENCE to a multiplicity of circumstances) that all of these suggestions work and can be very effective. Contact me directly if you have questions or comments.

No comments:

Post a Comment