In this Commissioning Corner article, we interviewed Minnesota choral composers who have recently been commissioned by ACDA-MN to talk about equity and how it impacts their work. We are aware that the process by which theses composers are chosen results in limited perspectives. We need to do better and are actively thinking outside-the-box about how we can evolve the processes themselves, not just the initial conversations, in order to foster true systemic change and broader viewpoints. We hope it will inspire future conversations and allow you to learn more about the work of some of our local compositional voices. All interviews took place between December 2020-January 2021. Composers featured in this article include Elizabeth Alexander, Catherine Dalton, Linda Kachelmeier, Kyle Pederson, Paul John Rudoi, and Timothy C. Takach.
Bryan Blessing and Peter J. Durow
Elizabeth Alexander provides an engaging opening statement about equity by saying, “Whenever I find myself confused about the difference between “equity” and “equality,” I think about what it’s like to shop for women’s dress clothes – something that I’m pleased to say I hardly ever do. Men’s formal garments are sized precisely, based on data like chest size, sleeve length, and neck size, which can be measured down to half-inch increments. Now that’s “equity” – figuring out what someone needs and making sure they can get it. But with women’s clothes you get just a single number, and the odd numbers are often completely skipped. If anything, women need way more sizes than men, given how much their breasts, waists, and hips vary from one another. But you’d sure never suspect it by looking at a clothes rack. This is “equality” – giving everyone the same thing.”
We asked each composer –
What does equity mean to you in creating music and why is it important in choral music?
Alexander went on to say, “Over several centuries, classical choral music developed a one-size-fits-all vocal ideal that can be just as exclusionary. Ferreting out quality concert music suitable for older voices, changing voices, transgender voices, or singers with limited vocal ranges is not an easy task. Fledgling adult choirs wishing to cut their teeth on two-part music scour children’s choir repertoire, hoping to find something – anything – that is not too juvenile. And in many cases altos with very low ranges are still discouraged or barred from singing tenor. Many other one-size-fits-all templates have developed along the way as well, becoming so ingrained that they are rarely questioned. Choir members dress formally, process solemnly, sing voice parts that align with their sexes, and strive mightily to perfect their ever-Italianate vowels. These and other cultural conventions reflect the values of Western classical music, but don’t provide everyone with what they actually need – a mirror on their own lives. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with discipline, uniformity, and traditions! The canon of Western choral music is a priceless treasure, and the above-mentioned choral practices serve that body of music magnificently. But if choral music offers only one type of sound production and presentation…well, that makes for a pretty limited palette. Singing in community with others can and should be nothing less than a transformative, open-armed embrace of all earth and humanity. For that to happen, there must be endless expressive possibilities for every kind of musician and voice.”
Paul John Rudoi
In reflecting on equity in his work, Paul Rudoi said, “Equity is not Equality. Equity is based on need, so it is a way to right inequality. Choral music, like any other music or field, has many inequalities hidden in plain sight, so our goal is to find avenues for Equity that build up anyone who is underserved. Without it, there will continue to be statements about how far we’ve come from those who’ve never experienced significant inequality.”
Thinking about equity in her work, Linda Kachelmeier responded “Choirs, with the right leadership, are uniquely constructed to be places of equity. There are no ‘1st chairs’ or soloists in most choral works. The idea is to combine to something greater than the individual could do on their own. Creating music for a choir means writing so that the singers can all be successful working together.”
Timothy C. Takach
Considering equity, Tim Takach thinks about the ensemble he is writing for, stating, “When I think about equity in the music that I create, I think about the wide variety of ensembles at a school. So often commissioning dollars will rise to the top of a program. Pieces are commissioned for the top auditioned ensembles and the touring choirs, and this often means that people are usually looking for moderately difficult music for mixed choir. I try to circumvent this barrier to entry and find and create ways of writing music (consortiums, grants) for the other choirs: the 3-part mixed, the 9-10th grade TB choir, the un-auditioned treble ensemble. In this way I can create equity by giving access to new music to the ensembles that are on the periphery of a program.”
Kyle Pederson tells us “The arts (including the choral arts) have often been a leading edge in identifying and confronting inequity and injustice. When I think of equity in choral music, I ask questions like: whose voices are heard as the stories/content of the text? Who writes the text, and are diverse voices heard and represented? Do composers of color have the same opportunity to compose, get published, recorded, and performed?”
Catherine Dalton explored equity in her work by stating, “Equity, different than equality, is making it possible for everyone to be successful in a given realm. Equity in choral music could take several paths. For example, equity could mean that singers feel valued, that texts reflect poets with a variety of backgrounds, or that composers with different life experiences have a chance to hear their music performed. In providing for equity, there is the realization that different groups of people and individuals need different things to become successful and/or feel valued. With the goal of equity, stakeholders might ask if singers and audience members see themselves in the music. Do they see themselves in the composers, in the texts, in the style of music sung, in what the performers wear for performances, or the use of gendered language in choral settings? Equity might look like a choral conductor taking a chance on a new composer or seeking out repertoire in new places. Depending on the choir, other questions might include the centering of one religion to the exclusion of others. Equity will look different for choirs in educational settings, professional choirs and church choirs. Each choir will have different ideas about their highest values as they look towards equity. A choir’s highest values might be the perfect sound. For another it might be having fun and a feeling of connection or signing music from a variety of cultural traditions. As a composer, I often wonder what programming looks like to aspiring composers. Do they see themselves in the music programmed? Is music by composers who look like them held with a high value? Is the music that they would like to compose held at a high value?”
Continuing our conversation, we asked –
What are some creative ways that new music can engage under-represented choral musicians and potential choral participants?
Alexander responded, “While it’s always a thrill to compose a no-holds-barred piece for a professional chorus, an equally important part of my mission is to write emotionally ambitious works for musicians who have limited technical abilities. While meticulously planned entrance notes and intuitive vocal lines may not sound like a profound way to address equity, they matter tremendously to new choristers for whom group singing feels like uncharted territory. When the singing itself is not a struggle, singers can get on with the vital work of entering the music on a deep level.
Another passion of mine is choosing and writing lyrics that lean toward the vernacular side of American English. It’s important to me to invite the visceral, corporeal and gritty parts of language to resonate with as much glory as Baroque oratorios, Gregorian chants, and settings of Shakespeare.”
Takach thought of the ensemble as well, stating “Composers can think about different ways that music can be taught and learned. If we are expecting everyone to sight-read and learn from a printed score, then that will dictate the types of ensembles that can succeed with that music. What if we created music that was meant to be taught by rote, or performed by call and response, that had room for the singers to improvise harmonies? We could create music for under-represented groups by meeting the abilities of the performers.”
In a similar vein, Kachelmeier said she reaches out “By giving each person a voice and empowering them to explore their own voices in a safe and nurturing environment. By giving everyone the tools to be successful. By giving all of us words to sing that inspire and teach us.”
Thinking of the people in the ensemble, Dalton states “People engage with music when they feel connected. I was recently commissioned to write two new works with text by Hmong writers for the Osseo High School choirs. Their director, Margaret Sabin, wanted to program music that reflected the students in her choir and in her school. If students feel valued and included, they may be more likely to start or continue their relationship with choral music, either as a participant or audience member. Because my music often touches on the human condition, I have to be careful when setting texts from lived experiences that are different from my own. As a white woman, I am still finding my way and I need to be careful not to cross the line. Therefore, I was grateful to have conversations with the choral students at Osseo High School prior to working on these pieces. I want to always be listening and learning. When looking for texts, I began by reading through many Hmong poems through the lens of equity. I wanted the text of these new works to reflect Hmong culture, but to also be universal. I set two texts by one of my favorite local writers, Kao Kalia Yang. The text for “From the Sky I Would Come Again” is a traditional story of how babies choose their life as they look down from the sky seeing the course of human lives before them. The second is a text from her book, “The Song Poet,” about her father and uncle making an interesting decision as young boys in Laos to start a boulder rolling down a hill towards a neighbor’s house, and how love won in the end. My hope is that the choirs will have a chance to meet in person with Kao Kalia Yang in the near future. (Note: Both premieres have been postponed due to COVID-19.) Both pieces still bring tears to my eyes because they speak to the trials of life. I hope that the choirs who sing these pieces and their audiences will see themselves in the songs and that choral music will feel more equitable to them. But I also hope that the songs will allow everyone who hears them to feel connected to each other, because at the core, we all need connection. It’s what binds us together as people.”
Composers and local groups come to mind for Pederson, who says “I immediately think about the work of leading composers like Melissa Dunphy and Andrea Ramsey, who courageously seek to give life to unheard, discounted voices in their texts and compositions. They are a model for how composers can work with people from underserved communities as we seek to create meaningful work that can open eyes and hearts. And anybody not familiar with Minnesota’s own VESOTA (VocalEssence Singers of this Age) needs to run to their website and check out the amazing things Phillip Shoultz is doing. The choir has created a dynamic, inclusive community that works across a variety of performance genres (dance, voice, theater, spoken word), has collaborated with some of the best talent in Minnesota and beyond, and truly represents and celebrates diversity.”
For Rudoi, it was creating consortium opportunities – “I started an organization around the idea of new music reaching those who need it the most, so I’ll focus on that side of things: I believe consortiums are the way in which we get new music experiences into under-represented communities. The general problem of cost for new music isn’t because it’s overpriced, but because it’s based on an outdated concept of one benefactor paying a composer for music. Society no longer functions this way, so new music shouldn’t either. Think of all the choristers, musicians, and humans that couldn’t (and still can’t) afford new music experiences but whose lives could (and hopefully will) be transformed through that experience! Once composers and conductors get past the vanity behind having a “premiere,” we can all benefit from music written specifically for a group of ensembles, making the cost much more accessible while keeping the excitement around someone living creating a work of art before choristers’ eyes and ears.”
In closing, we asked each composer to share with our readership an existing (or upcoming) work from their catalogue that reflects their thoughts on equity.
Alexander responded, “In recent years I’ve written a whole series of flexibly-voiced pieces which allow choirs to decide for themselves how many voice parts to divide into. I’m particularly excited about “No Other People’s Children,” a song of reconciliation that affirms the worth and dignity of anyone we might be tempted to see as “other.” The flexible voicing allows it to be sung by a 2, 3 or 4-part choir, or even in unison – and listeners may be invited to sing the final refrain along with the choir.”
Dalton offered “I am so excited to be working with spoken word poet, Joe Davis, on a third commissioned work for Osseo High School Choirs. The verses and chorus for “Love is Welcome Here” are a setting of a text that came to me this summer during the protests following the killing of George Floyd. Joe will be writing spoken word poetry for the bridge! A video of the piece will be coming out this spring!”
Takach said, “A few years ago I wanted to write music for that elusive beast, the middle school tenor and bass choir. I took a famous poem and tore it apart, turning it into a choral Mad Lib, and created a way for those young singers to have ownership over their music, not the other way around. I figured if we can get them to have fun and buy-in at that age, we might keep them as singers for life. The resulting piece is called “A Red, Red (Noun),” using mostly Robert Burns’ poetry. “I will (verb) thee still, my (baked good) While the (plural noun) of (noun) shall run.”
Kachelmeier added, “”Each Of Us” was written for the 2017 ACDA-MN mixed honor choir under the direction of Lee Nelson, with powerful words by Walt Whitman. It speaks to our shared humanity and rights, the responsibility we have to the earth and its blessings, and our limitless human possibility. In 2019 I was asked by Emily Ellsworth to arrange it for treble voices and that version was premiered by the National ACDA children’s honor choir.
Rudoi said, “I wrote a concert-length work for The Boston Cecilia called Our Transcendental Passion, taking the writings and correspondences of the Transcendentalist movement and turning it into a Passion in the form of J.S. Bach’s passions reworked with Sacred Harp tunes as chorales. The goal was to create an American passion to analyze the Transcendentalists for all they did for our current thinking. Ultimately, though, I was struck by how limited the Transcendentalists were in providing paths toward true Equity even though many were very vocal about Equality. The easy work is providing evidence that Equality is valid, but the hard work is breaking down real barriers for access while building up new paths toward change.”
Pederson offered, “Several choir directors have indicated that my arrangement of Soon We Will Be Done has provided their choirs a helpful jumping off point for exploration of issues of justice and equity. Students are invited to discuss what inequalities and oppression they hope our world ‘can be done with,’ and then join voices to commit to a better, more just world today—-a world of inclusion, radical kindness, compassion, love, and grace–a world where we have the courage to champion the inherent dignity and value of all people. Choirs are even encouraged to craft their own spoken word section in the piece based on their exploration and learning.”
Bryan Blessing is the vocal music teacher at Oak Grove Middle School in Bloomington, MN. Bryan received his Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education from Saint John’s University, his Master’s in Music Education from the University of St. Thomas, and is pursuing National Board Certification in Adolescent Music. Currently, Bryan is on the advisory board of the ChoralQuest series through the American Composers Forum and is the Chair of the Commissioning Task Force for ACDA-MN. He is a baritone and the Music Adviser for The Singers-Minnesota Choral Artists.
Peter J. Durow is a conductor and composer working in the field of music education. He began his tenue as the Artistic Director of From Age to Age, a chamber choir of young professionals based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2016. Dr. Durow has taught at the Secondary and University levels and as worked as a church musician in Minnesota, Texas, Indiana, Florida, New York, and Missouri. Peter’s compositions and arrangements are published in the Henry Leck Choral Series and Rodney Eichenberger Choral Series with Colla Voce Music, LLC; the Peter J. Durow Choral Series with Heritage Music Press; MusicSpoke; The Sacred Music Press; and VocalEssence Music Press in the Graphite Marketplace. Peter enjoys serving ACDA-MN as the managing editor of the Star of the North. He lives with his wife Jodi, and their two children in Maple Grove, Minnesota.