New Music

Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir and New Music
-- A perspective from Founding Director, Robert Geary
Revised Spring 2017

Our choirs are recognized as one of the leading proponents of new music.  This recognition is a result of our repertoire, our activities commissioning composers to write new music, and our success in international competition. We have commissioned dozens of new works and earned three awards from ASCAP and many more around the world in competition for our work in new music.*
 
The history and philosophy that lies behind these accomplishments is a key component of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. 
 
It is easy to think that music is defined by a couple of dozen great geniuses whose works have become part of the core expression of western civilization but it is completely possible that those composers might be appalled, or at least shocked to find out how much of our resources are dedicated to recreation of their music.  As it was in their time, artistic expression is made through the values, impressions, moods, spiritual perspectives, and currents that are in play at the time of composition.  How could it be otherwise? We commission new music because it is the only logical and normal thing to do and really, we have no choice if we want our musical experience to be part of real life. Living composers create music with the tools available, and through the psychological lens of their time.  
 
Another factor contributing to the vigor of our new music program is the understanding that since WWII there has been a vast global proliferation of children’s choirs.  What was previously the largely uncontested province of the church based boy choir tradition has been overwhelmed with a global array of community based children’s choirs.  Because history left very little music written for children’s choirs, an extensive repertoire doesn’t exist.  The need for new music for children’s choir is real.  Without it, we would be singing music rearranged for children’s choirs rather that music specifically oriented toward the skills and outlook of young people.
 
The young voice itself is well suited to new music.  Rather than try to make young people sound like older people, we work to establish a natural vocal sound that is supported in a variety of ways.  Young voices don’t have vibrato.  Vibrato is a fluctuation of pitch. Dissonant harmony is a characteristic of much new music.  The clarity of the young voice is a tremendous advantage for tuning the complicated harmony.     
 
Over the years, our approach to new music has evolved.  Initially, it was driven by two impulses; wanting our students to have the opportunity to engage creatively with the composers themselves; and supporting the idea that we in the U.S. had an enormous amount of work to do to help our melting pot culture begin to find its musical voice as distinct from that of Europe.    
 
Then, as our capacity to perform more challenging repertoire grew and our touring and competing experience gave us exposure to some innovative and amazing music being written for children’s choir in places like Estonia, China, Canada, Finland, Sweden, and Slovenia, we began to embrace new music in a more comprehensive way.  Performing St. Luke Passion under the direction of Polish composer Krysztof Penderecki at the Oregon Bach Festival 1990 and our performances of the music of Mark Winges starting in 1991 with Magic Strings, the Swedish composer Arne Mellnas, Slovenian composer Lojze Lebic, and Finnish composer Pekka Kostiainen were all launch points for what has turned into adventures into the more creative and less well known.  
 
In our current season we are presenting premieres of new works by five composers.  Students Kyle McDonald and Bryn Lawson have written pieces for Ensemble and Ecco respectively.  We have also commissioned Mark Winges to write for Ecco, Eric Tuan to write for Ensemble, and Anne Hege to write for Ancora.  
 
Looking ahead to  our 2017/18 year, we have commissioned three new works that will be performed by our choirs, two of which will also be part of the massed music for the Golden Gate Festival.  Composers are Stacy Garrop, Mark Winges, and Jacqueline Hairston.  The commissioned work by Mark Winges will be a fully staged and choreographed piece for Ensemble.
 
We are engaged in new music in a wide spectrum of activities that includes, but is not limited to Conceptual Art.  Chinese native and Dartmouth faculty composer Kui Dong, Argentina native and UC Davis composition faculty member Pablo Ortiz, Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas, St. Mary’s College (Indiana) composer Zae Munn, Chicago composer Stacy Garrop, and Bay Area composers Sue Bohlin, Eric Tuan, John Reager, Kirke Mechem, Anne Hege, Sue Bohlin, and Mark Winges are some of the composers we have previously commissioned. 
 
Our commissioning partners include the Tampere Choir (Finland), Volti, Washington (DC) Choral Arts Society, Children’s Chorus of Washington (DC), Acalanes High School, Volti, San Francisco Choral Society, and the Peninsula Women’s Chorus.  
 
 
Choregie,  a leading edge of new music
 
With performances of Pekka Kostiainen’s Revontulet and Slovenian Lojze Lebic’s Urok, we began to understand the potential of using movement and staging in our performances.  When Ensemble collaborated with Carmina Slovenica in Project Attacca (this was a collaborative set of performances given in Croatia, Slovenia, and in California), we took a huge step forward in this area. We’d seen the work of Carmina Slovenica previously, but the experience of working with their director Karmina Silec, and the opportunity for our kids to interact and create with her and the singers of Carmina Slovenica showed us the potential of multi-dimensional expression of music and movement.
 
This is a relatively new direction and one that I think is significant. Karmina Silec has coined the term Choregie to describe choral performance that includes staging, movement, lighting, and costumes.  For the performers, it is a whole new dimension of performance that requires participation in ways not in play with historical and traditional performance.  
 
For our singers, I think Choregie offers a particularly rich opportunity.  It is an area where art and adolescence interact in a complimentary way.  A key element of adolescence is the development of self-awareness. To assume a character or play a role requires an ability to understand a concept and to internalize it and allow it to be reflected in performance.  To do this in a group requires an ability to get past self-consciousness at a time when self-consciousness can be at a peak.  The success we have had with our students has been inspiring.  The individual growth in many of our singers is sometimes shocking.
 
All music requires internalization and re-creation from within.  The depth and breadth of this requirement depends on the intention of the individual pieces of music.  Happy, dancey pieces can be pretty straightforward.  With the growing presence of more interesting and complex repertoire, we have the opportunity to help our kids find more within themselves and to learn how to channel that energy and focus it for a purpose.   
 
For more than 15 years, the elements of staging and acting have been in play in our music but in the last few years, they have become more pronounced in the music of Elliott Gyger (Dancing in the Wind), Mark Winges (Luna, nova luna),  Kui Dong (Painted Lights), and especially Olli Kortekangas (Ikikaiku).  
 
In 2014, we joined Volti in the world premiere of The Gift of Pandora.  This was a groundbreaking collaboration of composer, poet, choreographer, costume designer, lighting designer, two choirs and conductor.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MjsR-UmMT4
Our performance was named the Best New Music Performance in the Bay Area by San Francisco Classical Voice.
 
Ensemble is performing two works with movement.  The time honored masterpiece Magic Strings by Mark Winges has been choreographed by Erika Chong Schuch and Eric Tuan’s Nagasaki has some staging as well. Both of these works will be performed at the upcoming Mysterious Connection Concert on March 10. 
 
 
Highlights of Competition Awards for Contemporary Music
Since 2000, our successes include a special prize at the Seghizzi Competition in Gorizia (2003) for the highest score among equal voice choirs for our performance of contemporary music; we were the only choir to win three gold medals at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Russia (2008); we won first prize for contemporary music at the Kathaumixw Festival multiple times (2010, 1996, 1992) in British Columbia and at our most recent competition in Bratislava, Slovakia (2013), we won the Grand Prize with gold medals in contemporary music and two other categories.  To date we remain the only American children’s choir in any category to win a first prize at the Choral Olympics or World Choir Games.  This happened in 2000 in the category of Contemporary Music against a field of 360 adult, youth and children’s choirs.  A more complete record of our competition successes is available on the website. https://piedmontchoirs.org/honors-and-awards