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22 October 2018

Composing 'polychoral' music

Detail from the <em>Woefully Arrayed</em> album cover (Navona) Image: Detail from the Woefully Arrayed album cover (Navona)  

Jonathan David Little is one of three finalists in the 'Distinctive Work' category for the 2018 CHASS Australia Prize - highlighting exceptional achievement by Australians in humanities, arts and social sciences - for his two-year project involving research, composition and recording of polychoral works. The related CD release, Woefully Arrayed (Navona) has received positive reviews and multiple international awards. A review in America's Audiophile Audition (August 2017) stated, 'Little achieves unique and beautiful effects through spacing and arrangement of vocal groups ... Little's techniques are well grounded in both very careful construction of harmonies and voicing as well as in acoustics and the physics of sound.' In this blog article, Little summarises the reception to the Woefully Arrayed album and explains some of the background to his work, as well as its future direction.

During 2015-17, I undertook the first new, large-scale polychoral music research, creation and recording project of modern times. Works produced involved intricate, multi-part, multi-divisi and unusual spatial 'split choir' effects (or cori spezzati) - reimagining ancient techniques in contemporary contexts, all captured via cutting-edge recording technology, and promulgated worldwide. The sound is strikingly contemporary, yet also intertwined with choral traditions of the past.

This project employed the latest audio technology to produce remarkable results - capturing how different sub-choirs and/or vocal soloists could be placed in various arrangements around and above the audience (i.e., on balconies), and at different distances, too. The aim was to revive techniques largely forgotten since such works reached their acoustical zenith in the late Renaissance and early baroque. Ancient techniques were reinvented, derived from those once so brilliantly employed to create extra depth for choral performance in large spaces, so realising live 'surround-sound'-like effects. In order to aid both performers and listeners, specially commissioned diagrams showing the disposition of all the vocal forces involved were printed in the CD booklet (available online here).

While acoustical phenomena in certain venues have long been one of the first considerations to help trigger a composer's musical imagination, in more recent decades (or even centuries), some of the very cleverest skills in this regard seem to have been lost. In fact, while some baroque polychoral music may, on the page, look somewhat staid (and even boring), in actual performance it can, by contrast, prove to be extraordinarily acoustically lively, generating all sorts of completely unexpected results. As the Italian webzine Kathodik (2 November 2017) noted of Woefully Arrayed, 'the first thing to strike one is the luminosity of the vocal lines … from its "polychoral" Renaissance ancestry stem contemporary "split choir" procedures, which create effects of spatial envelopment'; and the American Cinemusical (28 August 2017) spoke of 'this sense of [the sound] coming into one central space only to go to the far reaches of the space'.

Certainly I did not want to create some experimental, esoteric music, with little contemporary relevance, nearly impossible to perform, and with not much chance of repeat performance. So I was greatly pleased when Fanfare's reviewer pointed out, 'Little is surely adept at writing for voices … It is easy to imagine any one of the selections on this disc becoming a perennial favorite for choirs of all kinds' (Fanfare, Nov/Dec 2017). Broadcasts of works on Woefully Arrayed have encompassed ABC Classic FM (Australia), BBC Radio 3 & Radio Solent (UK), WPRB Princeton & WMBR Cambridge (USA), and Radio HR3 (Croatia).

Nevertheless, all the works that feature on the disc experiment with a variety of choral forces and spatial positions and, in some cases, movement of the singers as well. The setting of the title track, Woefully Arrayed (or Wofully Araide), is, at times, almost rapturous (i.e., ecstatic and other-worldly), unlike every other known setting, which tends to focus largely on the sorrowful, and not on the ultimately redemptive, and life-bestowing, aspects of the crucifixion. See the full score with audio on Youtube.

A review in the North American edition of Gramophone (January 2018) commented, 'Although much of the impact can be discerned through speakers or earbuds, hearing them in an actual acoustic environment would add even more lustre.' In other words, a live performance will give the listener a true experience of how such choral forces 'placed in various configurations and spaces' can best 'achieve the intended sonic and expressive effect'.

Indeed, to create polychoral music that is both acoustically splendid and truly expressive is an enormous challenge - for, in general, the larger and more complex the forces involved, the less expressive such works (at least historically) have tended to be. And while it is early days yet, I have now been able to secure a commitment to a UK premiere of the album's triple-choir title work, with 140 massed voices of the Chichester Singers, and Jonathan Willcocks conducting in the very suitably large and resonant acoustic of Chichester Cathedral.

Admittedly, only two or three of the five main works heard on the Woefully Arrayed disc are quite comfortably manageable by amateur choirs, with Gloria and Wasted and Worn ideally requiring at least some professional singers in the mix in order to ensure a firm and accurate performance (see also: scores for Gloria and Wasted and Worn on Youtube).

So, from here, I am thinking of trying to create some polychoral-influenced compositions of shorter duration, capable of appealing to and being performed by good amateur and even children's choirs (i.e., in largely SATB format with limited divisi and solos, as well as some SSA/SSAA works, but still innovating in terms of spatial configurations). My works of this type published to date are usually too demanding for amateur choirs in terms of the number of parts they require, and their range, so it would be good now to expand the choral repertoire and also to broaden my skills in terms of producing shorter, tighter works, while also responding to a need to allow amateur and children's choirs to enjoy, in much simpler form, easily and quickly comprehensible 'polychoral' works and devices.

Woefully Arrayed: Sacred and Secular Choral and Polychoral Works of Jonathan David Little was released in July 2017 on the Navona label of PARMA Recordings (USA). It is distributed internationally by Naxos (Cat. No. NV6113) and available directly from Naxos, Amazon and other online retailers. For short audio samples and full track and work information, as well as scores, see the AMC website.

AMC resources

Jonathan David Little - AMC profile

Woefully Arrayed - CD details (AMC catalogue). See also: CD details and open-access online booklet on PARMA website, online audio samples on Presto Classical website and a summary of reviews.

Further links

2018 CHASS Australia Prizes and shortlists - designed to honour distinguished achievements by Australians working, studying or training in the HASS (Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) areas (chass.org.au)

'The Profundity of Polychoralism: Exploring the Work of Jonathan David Little' - a feature article by Colin Clarke in Fanfare (November-December 2017)

Jonathan David Little - Wirripang

The atmospheric and evocative music of Professor Jonathan David Little, BMus(Hons)(Melb), ThA, PhD, FRSA, FISM, is characterised by its mystical beauty, intensity, and richness of material. Little was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1965. After initial studies at the University of Melbourne, he completed the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Monash University by research into the development of 'exotic' orchestration in 19th and 20th-century music. Previous posts include Principal of the Academy of Contemporary Music (then Europe's leading institution for students of contemporary music - and the first music education institution to win the Queen's Award for Enterprise), before being appointed inaugural Professor of Music Composition and Music History at the University of Chichester, and subsequently pursuing a full-time freelance composing and writing career in Australia and the UK. His music is published by Wirripang and/or available from the AMC. 


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Go Round Again

Jonathon's insights into Renaissance choral performance practice are illuminating.  In the current musicological practice of studying the score (as the authority on the composer's intended performance) rather than the sound of the music in performance, it is easy to forget the impact of the relative spatial location of the sound production, namely soloists, choir, keyboard, and other instruments.

Interestingly, the 21st century has seen both an explosion of spatialisation in the domestic music market through the development and use of surround sound in home theatre systems and automobile music machines.  Similarly, the increase in private listening in all manner of places enabled by smart phones and earbuds. Apple iPod and iTunes led the way in producing music highly spatialised in stereo space, for example, with the drums in one ear and the singer in the other.

Yet at the same time the loss of sound quality has also become an everyday occurrence through compression algorithms such as MP3 to allow as many tracks as possible to fit into a digital memory, and there are limits to the quality of the sound reproduction in an ear bud or through laptop speakers (which even worse lose the stereo effect very quickly if my laptop is representative of the common lot).

Somewhere in the middle of all this sits Jonathon's so-called polychoral music, because it is for multiple choirs in seperate locations, but only available reproduced in stereo sound, or flatly inaudible in score form.

Spatial Recording and Reproduction

Thanks for your comments. The Gramophone review rightly points out that such polychoral music (whether contemporary, or Baroque, I am inclined to think) is something that is actually - at least to date, in terms of recording technology and its reproduction - only truly able to be fully appreciated in live performance; and indeed, the listener may have a different experience every time, in varying acoustics, and with different configurations of vocal resources able to be deployed in terms of their numbers and exact positions - and also bearing in mind that the listeners themselves might hear differently depending upon where they are situated.

In an ideal scenario, the works might have been captured in some kind of HD surround sound, but even then I wonder if recording technology, good as it now is, would indeed be able to convey all the subtleties that our ears actually experience in live performance, in cases where spatial placement of performers, and directions of sound travel, and their mingling and decay, etc., are paramount. Added to which, it may be prohibitively expensive to undertake - unless a specialist recording company wanted to invest in such to showcase the possibilities of the latest spatial recording techniques. (At any event, I look forward to the day when it is truly striking spatially, in High Definition, and at least affordable/accessible for listeners!)