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On Writing 'The World' for Virtual Choir

The score for The World is now available at GIA Publications for both SATB and SSAA. Click the links to find out more.


Background

In March 2020 all concerts and live performances were suddenly cancelled as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across the globe.


Collaborating with my friends and colleagues in vocal quartet Anchorae: Chessie Mills Smith, Adam Lloyd, and Ned Tennet, we decided to initiate a 'virtual choir' project in which we invited singers from around the world to submit recordings of themselves singing a new piece of music, which would then be mixed together into a final track and video (by the Bristol Film Festival's founder Owen Franklin).


The principal aim of the project was to allow the continuation of music making through the pandemic, as well as uplifting and connecting people.


Writing for 'Virtual' Choir

Historically, I've always written for 'live' performers - that is, music expressly written for performers in a concert or service. The idea of writing a piece of music purely for recording online was a new challenge, and one which I approached with a degree of caution.


Below is a brief outline of some of the considerations I had writing the first of the series of three pieces I ended up writing for what would become the Anchorae Isolation Choir Project. I've divided the following into a few of the main things I was thinking about at the time: Text, Structure, and Rhythm/Melody/Harmony.

Text

I began (as I always usually begin) by choosing a suitable text to be set. Given that the principal aim of the project was to uplift and reconnect people, I wanted to choose a text which resonated with these themes. After a long period of looking through various worthy contenders, I settled upon Sight by the poet Archibald Lampman.


The text focuses on the beauty of the world, and how it is filled with music and "life's innumerable harmonies", which seemed to cry out to be set to music. The words "Could we but tear away the walls that graze our very elbows in life's frosty ways; Behold the width beyond us with its flow, Its knowledge and its murmur and its glow, Where doubt itself is but a golden haze." seemed especially poignant given the situation at the time.


Structure

Once the text was decided, the musical structure of the piece was the next chief consideration (if interested, you can read more about my thoughts on the text/musical structure interface in the article I wrote for Question Journal here).


To make it easier in the mixing process, I devised a structure which consisted of self-contained sections of music. This allowed both the text to come to the fore and also was enormously helpful in the mixing process (allowing me to identify and track progress in each of the tracks). The overarching structure is a gradual trajectory towards the final lines of the text: "Where doubt itself is but a golden haze."


Rhythm/Melody/Harmony

The use of rhythm was an important consideration whilst writing this piece. Complex rhythms were out - it would simply have taken too many hours of editing and mixing to sync up 30 singers who each were singing in quintuplets or septuplets. The music in The World therefore largely adheres to the 4/4 time signature, with minimal use of ornamentation. As a result of this rhythmic simplicity, it was important that it was the melody and harmonies which gave the piece character.


Conclusions

It was really heartening to see the response to The World. Singers from the USA, UK, and Canada came together to record the piece, which was released on YouTube on May the 8th, 2020. The considerations which went into the conception and composition of the piece proved extremely helpful when it came to the mixing and editing process. The lessons learned here went on to shape the writing of Peace and Sisyphe.


If you've got a moment or two, do have a look at the new publications. Happy New Year.


Peter

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