Leaving choral music, in order to come back10:35, 15th March 2018
A decade after being suffused in choral commissions, composer Nimrod Borenstein is again writing choral music – and reflects on how the choral writer in him has changed in the interim
Had you asked me in the 2006/7 season what kind of music I compose, the word ‘choral’ would have been high on my list. It was simply a fact. Choral music was keeping me very busy. In that one season I composed no fewer than four pieces for choir; three for mixed choir and organ and one for children’s choir and string orchestra. People were kind about my choral writing, I loved it, and then – an abrupt change of direction. Not for any other reason than that’s how things came about. Commissions in other genres came in, they led to further commissions equally as far from the choral world. During the past ten years I have been hard at work, prolific I think you might say – during that time I wrote six concertos, a ballet, many works for orchestra as well as piano music and chamber music… but still, no new choral works! Finally, after a decade, this is about to change greatly, with many choral compositions in the pipeline and on the 22nd of this month the Ex Cathedra choir will premiere my and there was light opus 79 for choir a cappella, commissioned by the Codsall Arts Festival to celebrate the festival’s 40th anniversary.
Strangely, thinking about this I am taken back to a favourite book of my childhood: Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Bilbo’s description of his quest, as ‘There and Back Again’, is – dragons and Gollums aside – about how a journey and experience change you. And my journey away from choral music and now back to it has changed my writing for choir.
But here’s the interesting thing. I can hear that the evolution in my choral writing is completely in sync with the changes in my music-writing in general and that all the things that emerged in my instrumental compositions over the past ten years, have now found their place in my vocal writing. This might seem strange, given that choral music hasn’t been along for the ride, as it were. Or perhaps not. Music, after all, is music. I remember well having a discussion a few years ago with my Italian wife Elli – who, being Italian, is both knowledgeable and passionate about opera – about the fact that the best composers for voice were the ones that did not write differently for that medium than they did for any other. Usually I tread carefully arguing my points on opera with Elli, but on this occasion I pressed ahead, and when Elli was not entirely convinced I challenged her to give me a concrete example to the contrary. She cited Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin and, selecting a random place in the opera I was able to then give examples of Tchaikovsky’s piano trio, showing how similar was the writing in both works. Quite how similar it was, in fact, was a surprise to both of us!
But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Because while every form has its own demands and requirements, the form itself is simply the medium by which the composer articulates what he imagines to the listener, so it would make sense that Tchaikovsky’s musical identity was clear whether he was writing for piano trio or opera.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t find my writing for choir had changed dramatically in my non-choral decade. Quite the opposite – both I and my music had evolved and I saw that very starkly coming back to a genre I hadn’t visited for such a long time.
So what do I think is new in and there was light? During my instrumental decade I have been very interested in rhythm in general and in particular with what I call ‘suspension’ (I even named my music for ballet, Suspended). There are several several different types of suspensions but the main point of it is the feeling of gliding, like when you stop pedalling on a bicycle and enjoy the effortless ride. It is about creating tension and then letting go. That was something I have been able to bring to this new choral piece, and it works wonderfully with the textures of the choir. There are moments when that effect is achieved by having many voices singing together and then suddenly only one voice emerging, giving that sense of pure simplicity.
At other times it is by using one of my recent favourite (almost trademark!) rhythms: the triplet of minims. It is basically three equal notes lasting as long as four beats, which means that each of these notes are one-and-a-third beat long and so glide above the inexorable regular four beats below, meeting only on the first beat of the bar. Yet another thing I’ve been able to bring to the choir is having melodies layered on top of each other that are variously felt in different meters: what I mean by that is that, even if everything is written, for instance, in 4/4 (four beats to the bar), one voice could sing a motive in three beats to the bar, while another voice sings a different motive in four beats. This way of writing gives the feeling of floating, not least because I set all of these rhythms at a slow speed.
Another novelty for me in my choral writing this time around has been to experiment with treating the choir almost like an orchestra. So sometimes I set the voices in opposition to each other, much as I would use in turn strings, followed by woodwind and then the brass to create a real feeling of contrasts. At other times I use voices as if they were solo instruments: there is a place at the beginning of and there was light where I thought of the sopranos almost as two solo flutes accompanied by pizzicati from the orchestra. Only, in this case, the pizzicati comes courtesy of the tenors and basses!
These are all things that of course work for other kinds of ensembles. But bringing these techniques back to a choir, one experiences them differently. Different textures, different weighting, a different world. But yet, for me, a familiar one, and one I will be visiting again very soon. I can’t wait.
Ex Cathedra will premiere Nimrod Borenstein’s and there was light at the Codsall Arts Festival on 22nd March 2018.