They have Messiah we have I have a little dreidel – choral music

And Then There’s Choral Music: 

It’s impossible for me to be objective about choral music because I have so many miserable associations with it. From the earliest age, I wanted to be a conductor, but for a variety of reasons, I couldn’t break into orchestral conducting, and I could just barely break into choral conducting. I wasn’t bad at it, I’m a good musician and I’m confident enough in my musical abilities to know that I knew more about what I was doing than many professional choral conductors. Still, there was hardly anything about it I didn’t hate.

I’m an orchestra geek. Heaven is an eternal break in an orchestral rehearsal. A hundred musicians in various impromptu circles jamming out – a duet playing the Beatles on bassoon and French horn, 10 violinists playing the Bruch violin concerto in unison while the concertmaster and the last desk second violinist go outside on a smoke break (a break I’ve bitersweetly not taken in more than four years…), the conductor and the principal oboe swapping bad musician jokes near the podium (and there are thousands), the brass blasting out of tune John Williams hits, the percussionists trying to imitate Keith Moon or John Bonham on the timpani or snare drum, the second bass and principal flute sneaking off to another room for a quickie and thinking nobody noticed, the last desk cellist putting out a spread of homemade brownies and cookies, the third horn snuck in a flask of scotch into the rehearsal room and the orchestral manager takes a belt, the tuba player has nothing to do for the first hour except for the first five minutes so he leaves the room comes back into the rehearsal room completely baked and wreaking of what he just smoked.

Hell is an eternal fifteen minutes before a choral concert – there’s usually no intermission. The responsible ones are doing vocal exercises very loudly, half of them off-key. The popular sopranos and gay tenors are in the corner gossiping, talking smack about all the nerds in the alto and bass sections they deem ‘different,’ one singer (usually me) is yelling at the conductor about everything he’s doing wrong, the jock basses who joined the choir to meet women are dating the popular sopranos but simultaneously falling over each other to talk to the alto with the lowest self-esteem, and even the singers who become friends come to despise each other by the time of the concert. As far as I could often tell, if two singers ever liked each other, they were usually in love, and the affair was over a week later. This is the world which I fell into as a conductor, because what well-credentialed musician could ever want to conduct a choir if they could avoid it?

Today, I neither play in an orchestra nor sing in a chorus. Semi-pro or amateur classical concerts are a sad, sad place to be. 90% of the audience is friends and family who are there as a favor to you, the rest is retired octogenarians who can’t hear what you’re playing. The only time I’ll ever be caught dead at an amateur performance again is if I have friends or family playing in it or I’m too busy conducting to look at the audience. So many memories of playing in classical ensembles are just too painful that it’s impossible to get much joy from it anymore. But I will forever remember the best moments of playing in orchestras growing up, and how very much more I always loved it than any amount of singing. Perhaps the biggest thrill of my life was the moment I was twelve years old and I sat in the back row of New England Music Camp’s ‘Symphony Orchestra’ to play Meyerbeer’s Coronation March. It was the first piece of music I’d ever played in an orchestra, and even from going to orchestral concerts at an age much younger than that, I never knew that a thousand musicians could draw a sound as enormous as the sixty-seven of us did (I counted). Being around that sound was what I wanted to do with the whole of my life.

Instrumentalists are craftsmen first, performers second. The difference between singers and instrumentalists is the difference between actors and theater techies. The formers make pretense to camaraderie to cover up that everything between them is really a competition, the latters have specialized skills which take years to master, and depend upon each other to create something none of them could do alone. If you’re in an orchestra, even as a violinist, you’re almost invariably there because you love music more than you love performing – anybody who can carry a tune can pick up singing whenever they like, but learning to play an instrument requires commitment to activities that are extremely unnatural to human facility.

The reason to play an orchestral instrument is because 95% of orchestral repertoire is so f*cking good that anybody who plays it inherently realizes that the music is so much better than we can ever play it. Any good choral singer can usually sing 1/4th or 1/5th of the music by themselves, but even the best orchestral players are sometimes only 1/100th of the musical tapestry. Every great symphony is an emotional journey so complex that by the end of the forty-five minutes you can’t possibly be the same person you were at the beginning. You don’t just feel an instant emotion conveyed by a three minute verse-and-chorus song, you feel the process by which your emotions evolve from one instant to the next. To play the best of Beethoven and Brahms, Haydn and Mozart, Schubert and Schumann, Mendelssohn and Wagner, Bruckner and Bach, and dozens of other greats; to learn about the offshoots of this very mystical and metaphysical German art – French sensuality, Russian emotionality, modern asceticism, is to feed your soul with a journey through the greatest glories the world will ever know: a journey like one’s encounters in English poetry, Russian novels, Italian art, Spanish dance, French food, American movies, Greek philosophy, Roman history, Indian cosmology, Islamic decorative art, Egyptian architecture, Japanese gardens, Chinese cities, or for that matter, learning about the vastness of the astronomical cosmos, or to master calculus, or the microsopic world of atomic theory, or the diversity of biology, or the miracles of chemistry, or learning a foreign language, or memorizing the greatest passages in the Tanakh – the universe becomes so much bigger by your knowing about all of them. You are no longer merely your own self, you realize that youare a mere infinitesimal fraction of forces so much larger. Our lives become more justifiable to live when we realize that we are part of something greater.

And then there’s choral music. Half of it is about God, half of it is about love, and the sentiments of it are so unbelievably banal and instantaneous to understanding that there is nothing left to contemplate.

That’s not to say that choral music didn’t used to be amazing, but most of the best stuff lays virtually unsung by most choirs. They don’t have the technical ability to handle it, and frankly, my experience is that a lot of the singers are not curious enough to learn about it. Those rare moments when singers get it right are so incredibly awesome that you realize that the recapturing of their essence is an essential musical project of our time, and also how far we have yet to go. Listen to a bit of the recording of the Mass by Guillaume de Machaut. Most singers who specialize in Medieval music sing it as dully as dishwater, as though the notes were to be sung with as plain a straight-white tone as anything in an Anglican church. But this is something totally apart from that, the spontaneous eruptions of ecstatic flesh and blood beings attempting to transcend their earthly surroundings so as to shake the divine throne.

The true Medieval spirit is not European as we today understand Europe, the Europe of 1200 is at one removed from the Arab world.  You hear these spontaneous melismas and you realize that this sacred music is just one removed from the Arabic call to prayer, and was spread by the only Western conduit of its time whose presence was truly international: Jews. This musicmaking is so close to Chazzanus that I doubt anybody listening to this recording could ever miss the affinity.

So I can understand loving choral music of 8-400 years ago, from Machaut to Palestrina, when summoning of contrapuntal lines was the height of the world’s invention, and the luminescent ingenuity of it must have felt as though we were summoning a divine essence who created a world so perfect that everything in nature fits together like pieces of a puzzle too vast for us mere mortals to ever reconstruct anything but a small corner. But even after so much research and so many performance reconstructions, we still have so little idea how to perform them properly that the results only properly lift the listener to the heavens a few times in every decade of listening.

And I can understand loving the semi-choral music of 4-100 years ago, from Monteverdi to Elgar, those orchestral-choral hybrid Leviathans that take forever to play and sing and a second forever to listen to. The oratorios of Handel and the passions of Bach, and the seemingly one-mass-each of all their greatest followers, a token nod to the great forms of classical music’s baroque past. So many composers poured their most profound selves into this music, if far from their most fun. The ecstasy which one must have felt from Rennaissance music is gone, but there always needs to be a place in the world for the solemn and serious. The real ecstasy was in the concert hall, or even in the domestic chamber where skilled amateurs can commune with the metaphysics of Beethoven sonatas and string quartets. The best of that period was metaphysics – neither quite religion, nor quite science, but speculations about a truer, purer world behind this one. Sacred choral music of that period always spelled it out too clearly that the answer to all these questions was Jesus. The Holy Trinity was the lightsource to which you’re feeling connection, and therefore there is no need for further speculation because every other answer was, ipso-facto, wrong.

But then you arrive at the turds described as music you hear from so many choral groups today. The pseudo-classical music of Eric Whitacre, John Rutter, Morton Lauridsen, Karl Jenkins, Bob Chilcott, Rene Clausen, Paul Mealor, Alan Bulard, Stephen Paulus, Daniel Pinkham, David Dickau, Craig Hella Johnson, Kurt Bestor, Eric Barnum, John Leavitt, John Tavener (he’s admittedly a slight bit more serious…). The classical equivalent to soft rock and new age, monuments to diabetically soft-a** sh*t. And then there are the ways they diversify the programs:

The culturally appropriated arrangements of gospel songs, sung by high school and college students who have never heard a gospel choir in their lives before they go out into the world and do their part to oppress gospel singers in the work place. Victorian partsongs and Elizabethan madrigals that describe love in language so banal that these emotions could not ever be felt by any but the most shallow of human beings. A few pieces of serious choral music where the pitch inevitably goes a half or whole step flat. Early American hymns meant to be scream-sung by rough people who never heard of voice training now sung by half-trained white people who’ve lived lives so smooth that they can’t possibly have an idea what these hymns express. Politically correct arrangements of African songs that inevitably come off sounding more offensive than inclusional. And, of course, the inevitable excursions into the worst musical abuse ever perpetrated by white people on an unsuspecting audience of their family and friends: a cappella: pop standards with mouth percussion of the ‘doo-doo’ and ‘dum-dum’ variety, white kids singing black music in the whitest, ‘prettiest’, most uninflected and unemotional way that would make Barry Gordy and Phil Spector throw chairs into windows. And, of course, the yearly Christmas concert where the most goyisher singers in the world put on music that could only be loved by the most goyisher audiences in the world.

Every university has one of these choirs along with their half-dozen a capella groups, Ivy League universities have half-a-dozen of these choirs and a couple dozen a cappella groups, Yale and Oxbridge have well over a dozen of these choirs and a couple dozen of these a cappella groups. The students from these schools who have the highest ratio of talent to intellectual capability end up taking their vacuous talents to the King’s Singers, Chanticleer, Voces8, Polyphony, the Cambridge Singers … At best, these groups are musical imperialism: animatronic singers of utterly cold technique that loot the world’s best music of their context and sound like computer programmed versions of music that should be sung by real human beings. At worst, these groups display the taste that’s really going on in their heads and hearts with treacly song after song of towering banality.

And this is the world I so briefly and so risibly ended up in….

About the Author
Evan Tucker, alias A C Charlap, is a writer and musician residing in Baltimore. He is currently composing music for all 150 Biblical Tehillim. A Jewish Music Apollo Project - because "They have Messiah, we have I Have a Little Dreidel." He is currently on #17. Evan also has a podcast called 'It's Not Even Past - A History of the Distant Present' which is a way of relating current events to history and history to current events. Most importantly, he is also currently working on a podcast called Tales from the Old New Land, fictional stories from the whole of Jewish History. The podcast is currently being retooled, but it will return.