Two Countries, Divided by a Common Notation System

Two things are generally true about choirs as compared to orchestras. Orchestras don’t breathe, and choirs don’t count. Specifically, it is rare for the entire orchestra to have a lift or hesitation for a catch breath. The brass and woodwinds might, or they might just take turns grabbing oxygen. Choirs usually have musical cues written into their scores, or a piano reduction for practice, and so don’t count constantly the way most instrumentalists do. It is very unusual to see the markings for, oh, a 12 measure rest, then a time-signature change, a three measure rest, and then choir notes.

That is, unless an orchestral composer writes something with a choir in it . . .

I was reminded of that recently, when grousing about crazy key signatures with some symphony members. The composition we had performed had, at one point eight sharps. [Waits for music people to finish face-palming]. There is no such thing as a key with eight sharps, as normally written. If you need something that odd, you toss in a few accidentals (notes that are raised or lowered a half-step temporarily) or just use the key that matches the sound you want. This led to grumbling about “composers who are showing off,” and use way too many keys in their music. Key changes are not, in themselves, bad. Changing which notes are sharp or flat, oh, say, nine times in a six page church anthem for choir? Not a way to win friends from either the choir or the organist.

So . . . Some years back, the choir I sang with got the choir parts for a joint forces exercise, er, choir with orchestra, composition. The composer was not used to writing for choirs, and thus did as she would do with instrumental parts and just put in a bunch of resting time before the choral entrance. And a few key and time changes, but nothing too wild. However, there were no hints for the choir (or accompanist) as to when we came in or what our cues were.

Predictable chaos ensued the first time we rehearsed it with orchestra. After perhaps ten measures of no choir, the conductor (who is primarily a choral conductor) realized that four parts were missing and stopped the orchestra. “Come in this time,” came the order. Fifty pair of eyes glowered down from the risers, because we had neither cue nor clue. “I’m starting seven before the choral entrance.”

Right. The handful of us who had some orchestral experience started counting under our breathes. One of the others held up a hand behind the music folder and gave the folks behind a count down. Four measures. Three measures. Two measures. [Rather like the start of a Tour de France time-trial, actually]. Launch.

After the third run-through, I sorted out some cues and where they were in relation to the choral entry, and marked that on my music. It helped. But I still had to spend — a while — counting like mad.

I’m not sure some of the alti ever forgave the composer for that. We sopranos had our own beefs. (“We’re not violas – that’s LOW.”)

Dies Irae and a Red Moon

Oh, and howling cats. Monday evening was a touch creepy.

My chorus is doing a run-through of the Mozart Requiem in order to see who knows how much, where (new) trouble spots might be, and to get everyone used to singing from the same edition, since not all of us have used this particular publisher’s edition. It’s not a “serious” note-by-note work through, but more of a refresher so we can all get a sense of where we are and what we need to woodshed on our own before next fall.

By popular demand we finished the rehearsal by repeating the sequence that concludes with the Lachrymosa. This includes the Dies Irae. (The basses enjoy sounding grim and scary. They enjoy it a wee bit too enthusiastically for my comfort.)

So, we wrapped up just after sunset and scattered to our respective abodes. I drove home, checked the Day Job e-mail, and got ready to flop into bed. However, I glanced out the window and beheld a dark red moon. This is . . . not the normal color for said orb.*

I went to a different window (as one does) and looked again. A very creepy red moon remained caught in the still-bare branches of the tree. I informed Mom and Dad Red that there appeared to be a bad moon rising. They were rather impressed by the color.

As I got ready for bed, I heard howls. OK, this is where my imagination went into overdrive. 1) Singing about the Day of Wrath and Judgement, 2) with a red moon in the sky and 3) howls and wails greeting the moon. I wasn’t quite to the “on my knees reciting the mea culpa, Kyrie, and three acts of contrition” stage, nor was I diving for my silver knife and the garlic jar, but I was Not Happy.

The howling changed to a yowl, followed by a different feline yowling back. It was two cats disputed right-of-way on the fence. That’s normal. Very normal. I started to relax. When I looked at the moon again, it had faded to a tan-cream. I calmed down, told my imagination to go jump in the lake, and called it a night.

*A forest and range fire in New Mexico sent smoke over us, which tinted the moon. The rational part of my brain knew this. The brain stem and very, very old part of my brain completely ignored the rational bit.

Spare-Sounding Rock Music

I was listening to Floodlands by Sisters of Mercy a few days ago, and thinking “Wow, there’s not much sound depth.” Then realized that the same is true for the Clash, Queen, the Police, and other pre-synthesizer and computer bands. I’ve been listening to Nightwish, Avantasia, Xandria, Seven Spires, and classical works. When you go back to the big three plus vocalist (guitar, drums, bass guitar), the quality of the three or four musicians really makes or breaks the group. Continue reading