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Diversifying repertoire: some practical considerations

In 2018, I set myself the challenge of programming a week of daily services, for my choir at Christ Church Cathedral, which would feature only music by women. The hope was that we’d find some music to introduce into our core repertoire. In this post I write about why I thought that was worth doing, how I went about it, and what I learned from it.

I think I knew, in abstract terms, that bringing in compositional voices from different backgrounds to musical genres was a Good Thing – that art being representative enriches the art form, and therefore culture more widely. But it wasn’t until a friend pointed it out that I realised I, as a director of several musical groups, was probably in a position to put this into practice myself.

I’m not going to spend long on the arguments for diversifying repertoire; others have done so much more articulately than I could. Instead, for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that it’s probably a good idea, and go through how I tried, in a somewhat limited way, to implement it.

Suffice it to say that, as I understand it, it’s a kind of positive discrimination. We give an artificial bump to a particular demographic to correct a historical imbalance, with the aim that future generations have a level playing field. For now, we assemble the musical equivalent of ‘binders full of women’ so that in the future, it won’t matter.

I decided that the way to jump-start this process in my own creative world was to see if it was possible to mount an entire week of choral services consisting of music by women. At Christ Church Cathedral, I’m responsible for the music in those weeks of the year when the choir I direct, the Cathedral Singers, is ‘in residence’.

Several factors complicated this process, and I think they reflect a number of reasons why musical organisations sometimes find it difficult to broaden their repertoire, even when the will is there.

Challenges

In the British cathedral tradition, we generally have about 45 minutes or so to rehearse an evening’s music before performing it in the context of a service. This particular choir faces the additional restriction that it has a flexible membership – it can be an entirely different group of singers from one evening to the next. It pretty much means that anything we perform has to be either already well-known, or rehearsable in a very short amount of time.

Instantly, that knocks out a certain quantity of contemporary music. It means we lean heavily into the traditional ‘canon’ of Anglican choral music, which clusters around the 19th century and Tudor periods, and accordingly consists with few exceptions of music by white men. We’ve come to rely on the institutional knowledge of those who’ve been singing in parish, cathedral, and college choirs since they were children.

I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of reconciling these limitations with the need of any group to expand its repertoire and skills. But, as you can see from the following box diagram, it forces a number of restrictions on would-be innovators:

And there’s a further box, really, which is ‘good quality’. If the music fits in all the other boxes, but isn’t actually any good, then it’s not doing it’s job in the liturgy (not to mention the singers won’t want to sing it).

Resources

Finding music within this small box means casting a wide net. There are web resources, curated like Cecilia’s List (now a little out of date), open to all like CPDL or IMSLP, or publisher pages for more established composers, like OUP, Boosey & Hawkes, and Edition Peters.

Immediately frustrating was the lack of score samples across many of these. Publishers are improving, but it’s far from consistent across the board. It’s hard to know if a piece is right if you can’t see the score. Additionally, the ‘rehearsable in a short amount of time’ constraint inevitably led me to simpler music, much of which wasn’t very good – it’s much more difficult to write simple music well, and it is much more the preserve of amateur composers writing for amateur ensembles.

Conclusions

In the end, our success rate was about 89% – all the music we sang was by women, except for the hymns and the mass setting, used twice that week. Music included Amy Beach, Margaret Rizza, Sarah MacDonald, Debbie Rose, Stephanie Martin, Sarah Rimkus, and Eleanor Daley, almost all of it new to the choir.

We bit off slightly more than we could chew on a couple of occasions, but the singers had prepared well. Several of the pieces have, as I’d hoped, found a place in our regular repertoire.

Here are my main takeaways from the project:

  • Non-standard repertoire doesn’t come to you; you have to seek it out, and this takes a lot longer than you would think

Conductors are used to piles of unsolicited scores arriving in the post, or in their inbox, but in my experience it’s been rare for these to be from women. Instead, it means a lot of trawling on the internet

  • Constraint breeds creativity

I knew I wanted to use Beach’s lovely Nunc dimittis, but it doesn’t have a doxology, or a Magnificat partner – standard requirements for evensong repertoire. We paired it with a plainchant Magnificat, and I wrote a Gloria for the Beach using the music from the opening

  • Composers, especially early in their careers, need to put score samples online

Finding appropriate repertoire took so long that I ended up instantly dismissing composers whose scores I couldn’t see. Recordings aren’t a good substitute

  • If I made this work(ish), within the limitations outlined above, then those programming with fewer constraints can too

I don’t always, or indeed often, manage the amount of inclusion that I should, and I’m very aware that much of my programming falls short in this regard. But the fact that I did it once reminds me that it is possible.

What I hope to do now is help enlarge the size of that small box, in the little ways that I can, be it by competitions, commissions, or simply recommendations. Hopefully, we’ll end up with a situation of unconstrained choice, which can only be good for us.