Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Choral Music Revolution- no more junk food!

It still seems so strange to me that music publishers think that composers should always color inside nice, neat lines and provide a constant source of predigested music for their masses. They hope we will consistently give them what they want (speaking in the choral publishing world for now, as that is what I do the most): a formulaic 3-4 minute piece, with a simplistic text, very limited tessituras, NO DIVISI ("divisi bad, bad, bad"), and a happy ending (and, oh yeah... high sales figures). An easy to sing piece that parents gurgle a contented "ah" to when they hear their grade school or high school child sing in concert. And, btw, dear composer, don't forget that anything with drums sells, and anything touchy-feely and dedicated"to the children"or "for the sake of our children" sells & sells (like an Energizer Bunny).

So... here is what happens. Some of us do write pieces sort of within some of those parameters. But it just kills me though when the publishers only expect that product to arrive in their submission inbox and the only thing they say over and over is, "Well we love your music, so write your very, very best music, find that fabulous text, create art on the very highest level.. but just make sure it is (and here all composers cringe)... accessible". Ah yes, the dreaded "A" word.

My reaction to this is as follows- to set out on purpose to write "accessible" music will usually result in blandness and lack of creativity. Nor will these purposely mediocre pieces ever challenge a choir in the ways many of them want to be challenged. Where is their opportunity for growth if all we ever feed them is pablum? There are choirs out there who want to sing music with divisi, yet no publisher believes this to be true.

Better to write a good piece of music that just happens to be "accessible" within certain parameters. Composers should write pieces with creativity and then, if they choose, gradually craft some of them into age-appropriate or choir type-appropriate models. It is fun and rewarding to do original pieces and arrangements along these lines. But the creative spark has to come first and remain foremost. Better to listen to that inner creative voice than to print out a banner in screaming CAPS to place over your piano that says "PLEASE THE PUBLISHERS AT ALL TIMES- BE ACCESSIBLE" and have that as your motivation.

I will always write my off the wall stuff and I encourage every other composer to do the same-- keep writing amazing pieces you want to write even if you already know they aren't mediocre and predictable enough to please the average publisher-- the pieces that are not formulaic, are longer than four minutes, are musically and textually challenging, aren't a tidy ABA form, contain divisi, and so on.

How can we make a major shift in our musical world? It's really pretty obvious- directors and composers need to work together more directly, and stop relying on the mainstream publishers to set values. We need a new era where composers and directors collaborate far more and stop accepting the junk that the mainstream publishers and retailers think we want for our choirs. In other words, we need to rebel- composers need to stop writing to mainstream publishers narrow standards of so-called accessibility, and directors need to stop buying garbage from Hal Leonard and the like and stop blindly purchasing whatever JW Pepper and other music mega-retailers are telling you to buy. If a Jamie Oliver can start a "Food Revolution" in this country and work his tail off to quash junk food in our schools, why can't we band together and start a choral music revolution?We really do owe this to ourselves AND to our children to start turning things around. We need to stop looking for an EASY button when it comes to how we write music, teach it, and choose repertoire.

Dear directors, I have an idea for you: think of doing this-- that composer whose published music you already know you like-- e-mail or phone them and ask them what they have in manuscript that the publishers won't touch (you know, the pieces the publishers would cringe over and treat like proverbial red-haired stepchildren if they were forced to take them in). Ask about the pieces a quality creative composer has in ms that "won't sell", but of which they are especially proud, and that probably have gotten zero or just a few performances. You would be making a composer or two very happy if you would seek out their so-called "unpublishable" music and consider it for your program.

Dear composers, get out there in the real world more and form more personal relationships with choral directors and their choirs. We as composers have got to be far more visible and more approachable for directors and choirs of all ages and types. And start asking directors what they would like to see you writing and work together with them one on one. I assure you that doing this will be very rewarding as a composer and as a person.

Let's get rid of the junk, start fresh, and work together a whole lot more!

Thanks for reading,and I do feel I need to go on record at this moment and state that I do have a wonderful relationship with the Roger Dean Company and their editor Scott Foss, who has always treated me with respect and honor.