Shawn Crouch and a Renaissance of Choral Music

Dec 8, 2015

Composer Jason Carl Rosenberg interviews SFCA 2016 Composer-Not-in-Residence, Shawn Crouch, about trends in American choral music. They also discuss Crouch’s new work, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, which was commissioned by SFCA for their December 2015 concert series, Tales from Wales: A British Christmas.

Jason Carl Rosenberg: I’d like to start with a big question about the state and direction of American choral music. Having served as the Founding Director of Seraphic Fire’s Miami Choral Academy and now on the Board of Directors for Chorus America, you have a unique perspective on the topic. How would you describe the changes in choral music in the past decade and where do you believe it’s heading?

Shawn Crouch: Great, and tough question. We are currently living in what I call a renaissance of choral music. In America this is due largely to two factors. First, choral singing exploded in the late 20th and early 21st century with thousands of community choirs and many new professional ensembles having been formed in the past two decades, so there is a real interest in choral music and a thirst for new choral music. Second, in the composition world, three recent Pulitzer Prize winners have won for choral works; David Lang, Caroline Shaw and Julia Wolf. When I was an undergrad there was a clear distinction between “choral composers” and “instrumental composers.” Sadly, many choral composers were not taken as seriously as their instrumental peers. We live in a different time now when composers write in both mediums. Furthermore, many composers now are allowing their instrumental and computer music to influence their vocal music. This has had a profound effect on expanding the choral repertoire sound and there are many new choral ensembles who are championing this type expanded style of writing, including Volti SF, Chanticleer, Cantori New York, Seraphic Fire, The Crossing, Conspirare, and the SF Choral Artists to name a few. The choral music that I am most interested in hearing is often by composers who write in other mediums and not just “choral composers.”

There is also the current American choral sound, which owes much of its influence to Scandinavian composers of the mid 20th century, and to the grandfather of American Choral Music, Morton Lauridsen. Almost every composer of my generation writing choral music today has been influenced by Lauridsen’s music, myself included. Much of the music that I hear by today’s younger composers is trying to replicate his sound instead of using it to develop their own unique voice. I feel the new generation of composers writing in a choral medium need to move beyond the easily digestible sustained diatonic cluster chords and give the singers and listeners something to dig into and grapple with. This could include challenging harmonies/sonorities or incorporating counterpoint into their music, something that I feel much contemporary choral music is often lacking. I have found that if done correctly, listeners and singers are hungry for the challenge.

There is also a second trend that I have watched in America over the past ten years. Namely, the explosion of programs inspired by “El Sistema,” which have opened music-making to children from many diverse communities across the US. When I started the Miami Choral Academy with Seraphic Fire, we talked about creating an instrumental program rather than a choral program. We came to the conclusion that a choral model would be far more accessible for other communities to replicate because of the low barrier for entry. We all carry our instruments with us as singers. Organizations such as the Pacific Chorale, the Atlanta Music Project, and Cantare Con Vivo are turning many young students onto choral singing.

JCR: I know it’s notoriously difficult to “place” one’s creative output into a cultural context, but, broadly speaking, how do you see your own choral music relating to these changes and trends?

SC: I have found my music contains two different sound worlds. My instrumental music is often technically challenging, highly rhythmic and often quite dissonant. Due in part to the limits of the voice, I have found my choral music to be more conservative. Still, with each new piece I attempt to push the boundaries of what the singers are comfortable with, yet, having sung in and conducted choirs for many years, I am careful to make the music idiomatic for the voice. The direction in which I push the ensemble depends on the group I am writing for (for example, a community or children’s choir compared to a professional ensemble). I have always wanted to write a series of pieces that is similar to Bartok’s Mikrokosmos for piano. I imagine a set of developmental choral works that incorporates contemporary choral techniques and gives singers, over the span of the series, the tools to tackle increasingly more challenging rep. It would start with works for children’s choir and end with professional level works. In that way I’m always thinking as an educator and new music advocate as well as a composer.

JCR: The commissioned work that will be performed in the upcoming concert series uses excerpts from “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas. Though the text still retains Dylan’s usual linguistic flair, it’s also more personal and less bardic than most his output. How did you approach the setting of the text?

SC: This is a unique work for me as it is my first holiday composition. I love the Thomas text and the pictures he paints. For this project I very much wanted to be in service to the story and create a musical setting that conveys the narrative. I was also very careful to set the work so that it can be understood in real time. I want the story to be told as the listener is hearing it, and not as they are reading the text. This is very different from the second piece I have written for SFCA, which uses an ancient text found in the Apocrypha from the “Forgotten Books of Eden.” The new piece is titled “Invocation.” In “Invocation” I deliberately rearrange the text so that it is incomprehensible at first, but over the course of the composition I put the words back together so that by the end the words become intelligible.

JCR: This piece marks a stylistic departure for you, perhaps because it’s a Christmas piece, which has a long and rich tradition. What were the joys and challenges for you in writing a work for the holiday season?

SC: Building on the previous question, this piece was a lot of fun to write. (Although strange to be writing it in the middle of summer in Miami! I literally surrounded myself with Christmas pictures in my studio as I was writing it.) I wanted to write a work that was colorful, even tuneful at times, and a piece that would use quick harmonic shifts to help paint the changing settings of the story (going from outside in the cold to inside a warm house, for example). I also wanted to create a Christmas work that was fun to listen to and sing, yet did not fall into any holiday music clichés. (We’ll see how successful I was in this.)