choir music musings

I’m writing my first choral work for a group out in Los Angeles to be performed this spring, and the piece is bringing up some concepts i have in my head about flow of text versus music that i thought i’d share.

I know from having sung in choirs for most of my high school and undergraduate years that it’s not unusual for passages of text to be repeated for emphasis, as an extension, or for musical playground purposes. I can’t think of great examples right now other than works that can go on for minutes on “amen”.

i’m not the world’s greatest prose/poem author, but i like to think that i’m not bad at it, and i know that when I write something with that sort of artistic intent, there’s a craft not just in the choice of words for their intent but also for their pacing: how words move from one to the next, how the weight of the words and meanings behind them carry as the piece is being read, whether out loud or just in the mind of its reader.

There’s a part of me, therefore, that feels that repeating, modifying, echoing text in a musical setting mucks about with the author’s original intent. If the author wanted those words to repeat, they would have repeated it.

Except that prose and poetic works don’t have that sort of paradigm. Thematic ideas can certainly repeat, but an author doesn’t repeat an exact passage if it’s more important. The importance of the passage sticks out in the way that it’s constructed and the context that surrounds it.

So what makes music different?

Instinct tells me that it’s because music has a capability that reading text does not: the ability to manipulate and warp time. At its base level, text in music is typically stretched out in a way that would be looked at as absurd if read. Try to read some text at an open mic night but in the rhythm of how it would be set in a piece of music and you’d get a lot of bemused looks, particularly with long whole note passages. The expectation with text set to music is that the pacing of the music and the text are in harmony with each other; it’s not music set to text pacing nor is it text set to music pacing, it’s its own pacing, defined by how its musical creator chooses to define it.

Still, it’s one thing to manipulate time by stretching out words which still keeps the text in a linear time context; it’s another to capture a particular passage of text and decide that time linearity can be broken by repeating or echoing or even retrospecting something from before.

But this is another aspect of expectation of music vs. prose, because music relies upon that sort of repeating, echoing, &c to help give it tangible shape and meaning since most music conceptually does not have meaning without its own context. If i play an F major chord, that means nothing without a context, and particularly with a non-tonal vocabulary, repetition provides that context in a way that nothing else can. It’s true that words can mean different things out of context too, but there’s nothing mistakable about, say, the harshness of the word “fuck” or the phrase “fuck you” whether you have context or not.

(And yes, certain chords or non-chords can have that context too (tritone vs. major vs. minor vs. cluster), but that doesn’t carry the same sort of weight that words do. That’s a separate discussion.)

So then maybe the real questions when it comes to trying to find the right marriage between text and music is to approach it exactly as a marriage; that as two individual entities they function differently than how they are together, not in a contradictory way but rather in a complementary way. And as with any relationship there are times when one entity is more dominant than the other and vice versa, but ideally one never overpowers the other to such a degree that the others needs are completely ignored and vacant.

That sounds right to me.

Mendel Lee

I'm a composer, musician, and music educator residing in New Orleans, LA.

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