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Choral composition (with live recording!)

Discussion in 'Critique & Feedback' started by Francesco Bortolussi, Jun 23, 2019.

  1. Hello everyone! Yesterday I finally performed this choral piece I wrote back in February with my chamber choir - it was really cool, the audience received very well, I got flowers and everything, and I felt like I'm a real composer :D

    I was able to record the dress rehearsal by quickly putting a couple of mic in the church we performed in. Unfortunately, due to people being sick etc, the sections were somewhat underrepresented, having about 3 people per section. Because of this and because of other external factors, we had some intonation issues. Also, the tenor and the bass sections were farther away from the mic, making the recording very "female-biased" (they sang beautifully, but I could've made a more balanced recording). Also, if you hear a tenor fucking up, that's probably me, as I'm the weakest link in the choir. Finally, there are some notation issues I manually fixed that are still in the score (but nothing too big).

    Enough excuses, I'd love to hear your criticism! It was an experiment for me, as it's my first work for a choir.

    Score: https://www.dropbox.com/s/2fw3s2ese1esv07/Francesco Bortolussi - Glory Oh Lord Savior.pdf?dl=0

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this, Francesco. A great way to start my morning. Congratulations on the performance.

    I'd love to hear more about your experience in terms of writing, practicing, editing, performing this. For instance, did you write with your specific group in mind? How much time did you have to practice? Did you end up revising the piece as you went through practices? If so, what did you revise and learn in the process? Did you give singers a backing track to practice at home? How often does your group perform together like this?
    Daniele Nasuti likes this.
  3. Thank you very much John, very kind of you!

    Great questions!

    Not initially, although I was very much influenced by them as I was rehearsing all kinds of pieces with them. I did write some soprano 1 parts inspired by one particular soprano in the choir - although sadly she was not able to attend the concert.
    I revised it quite a bit after the first pass when I had to present it to the choir, but I decided to keep it as it was after we started rehearsing it. I usually try to not revise pieces after they're done, as it is dangerous to start this vicious cycle of moving notes around endlessly; instead I would take notes on the things that didn't work so that I wouldn't make the same mistake when I write another piece.

    I wrote this piece in a couple of days (probably 7-8 hours of work total), and it was meant just as an exercise, I didn't think it would be performed any time soon (if not ever).

    I learned so much by having this opportunity. If I had to rewrite it, I think the bass part would get the most revision: I overestimated the range of the bass section (especially when some of the bass singers are baritones). Having low notes (F) means sacrificing volumes most of the times. There are some passages where the sound didn't come out the way I wanted it to be (see 1:56).

    I also learned a lot regarding how easy or hard it is to sing some ideas. (Un)surprisingly, the chord at 3:11 turned out to be really difficult to sing. It's very dissonant, and the altos have to both hold the F and the E next to each other. Another passage that created some problems was the modulation at 3:40; it's one of those things that I find myself doing a lot, but I guess that minor third jump is not that trivial to sing without being in my head.
    Voice leading here is extremely important with a choir, and every note has to be placed extra-carefully. It was really interesting to see what people struggled with.

    They had a MIDI file to rehearse at home, although most of us learn and study the pieces during the rehearsals together. We're always very busy with a lot of things outside of music (nobody, me included, is a full time musician - we study/work things outside of music), so we always learn the pieces during rehearsal time. I'd say we probably spent 5 to 7 hours total studying it.

    We are part of a music association, and we have concerts every 4-5 months. It's a combination of chamber choir performance and big choir+orchestra.

    I can elaborate further on any of these points when I have more time tomorrow!
  4. Thanks for the insights.

    Indeed. Watching the struggle points can be really enlightening. I've done some singing with groups this size before but nothing quite this challenging. Your piece is lovely but requires establishing some pretty good confidence in making half-step motions and holding half-step tensions. Well done.
    Francesco Bortolussi likes this.
  5. Congratulations! It's quite something to have your own music performed, isn't it? Was this the first time you had something performed live for an audience? If so, I imagine it was a very special moment indeed. I have to say, I hadn't read beforehand that it was only ~3 people per section, it certainly sounded bigger than that! I think your choir can be proud of itself with this performance, it doesn't sound like the easiest piece in the world to sing and the fact that you wrote this and your choir got it under as much control as they did with fairly little rehearsal time speaks to their talent, and yours.

    While it's true that the recording is heavy on the sopranos and altos, I think you can be pleased with how it turned out. You say you have a concert every 4-5 months? Since I live in The Netherlands as well I ought to come and listen some time. When is the next concert?

    The only feedback I can give (and I'm a little reluctant to give, since I don't mean to take away from your accomplisments here) is that I felt the music stayed a bit too much in the upper registers which made it sound a little strained in places, to my ear at least... but this could've been the recording as well, since you mentioned the mic was further away from the tenors and basses. Regardless, I very much enjoyed listening to this piece and I'm not sure how I managed to miss it when you first posted it close to two weeks ago.

    Well done, you have a lot to be proud of here.
    Francesco Bortolussi likes this.
  6. God bless you @Francesco Bortolussi for creating this beautiful work. I love it. Love the harmonies. The voices sound wonderful. Yes, there are a few performance issues here and there, but overall the impression is heavenly. Excellent counterpoint. Thank you for your notes about lessons learned. I am looking forward to hearing your next composition.
    Francesco Bortolussi likes this.
  7. Yes this was indeed the first time! Really a special moment, I'll definitely remember it for the rest of my life!

    Thank you very much, it really means a lot! I was really proud of all the singers, lovely people and great singers!
    Yes although I doubt there will be anything original being played in the next year and a half. It's a student orchestra+choir, and it's mandatory to have big classical composers names to attract people. I don't know yet when the next concert is, but I believe it will be in Leiden around December.

    That might be because of the recording, but I understand the criticism. It's rather difficult to make singers happy if they're not singing most of the times, hence it's difficult to leave sections out for an extended amount of time to refresh the colors. I've studied many pieces for chamber choir in the repertoire, and I think this piece is really average in terms of balance and vocal range for the different sections. I wish I had more tenor/bass presence, but I had to really rush the recording process this time.
    Matthias Calis likes this.
  8. This is a really beautiful thing to read, you're amazingly kind! Thank you so much, I'm incredibly flattered. You're a brilliant composer and this comment means so much to me.

    I'm really overwhelmed by the feedback that this piece got, both here and by some people that approached me after the concert, and I'm incredibly happy that I was able to successfully communicate some of my emotions through my music.
    Paul T McGraw likes this.
  9. Man, beautiful piece! Would love to hear more about the process, influences and even see a score if you're willing! Such a valuable opportunity to learn from fellow members here.
    Francesco Bortolussi likes this.
  10. The score is already there, on the first post! The version that we sang had some corrections done on paper, but I've never went back to fix the digital version. However, it should be close enough.

    When I have more time I can describe what my thought process was when writing it, but I'd be afraid to disappoint you, as a lot of it was just instinct! Once I figured out what the main melody was going to be, it was really easy for me to manipulate the material.

    But I'll definitely elaborate more in the future!
    Paul T McGraw likes this.
  11. #11 Rohann van Rensburg, Jul 13, 2019
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2019
    Silly me. Somehow missed that and thought the dropbox link was to the piece, for some reason.

    So you essentially approach it, harmonically and otherwise, like any other composition? Two-handed piano, see what fits and feels good, etc?

    Your insights into dissonance and the like is quite interesting, not something I would have considered. I'm not sure how Eric Whitacre is regarded around here but he seems to pull off dissonances quite well so I wonder what he does differently. Would splitting a dissonance between alto and tenor be more viable?
  12. #12 Francesco Bortolussi, Jul 14, 2019
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2019
    Yes, that is spot on. With this experiment I was trying to prove that writing for choir would result in a similar process to writing for any other instrument. However, there were some key differences:
    • Voice leading is even more important when writing for the human voice. You could get away writing non-optimal voice leading for instruments, but if you do that for the human voice you get poor performances and unhappy singers.
    • Most singers would like to be singing most of the time: efficiency of orchestration dictates that you should achieve the most with the least, which translates in making the least possible amount of musicians play at any given moment. In choral music, you don't wanna leave people out from the party; you want most people to sing for almost the whole piece. This is true with "a cappella" music, and a bit less true when an orchestra supports the choir (then it's okay to leave sections out for a good amount of time). This means that you have to manage the colors differently, for example you can play around with: different dynamics, different registers, different syllables (or words with different qualities), etc.
    • Preparing a climax with an orchestral setting oftentimes means that you increase the dynamics and you widen the registers covered (you bring the low bass in, and you expand on the higher octaves with strings/woodwinds). With vocal music you achieve the biggest sound by having triads in the middle register. The lower you go with your basses, the less sound you get. You could also get bigger by pushing the sopranos upwards, but it's a very specific sound, and you want to use it sparingly.
    • Some passages are easy to sing, and some other passages just aren't, even if they seem to have the same performance difficulty on a piano (for example). If something is hard to "visualize" in your brain - because it reaches weird and unintuitive notes (e.g. notes that are far from the key center) - then it will be hard to sing. Can you hear a C chord in your head and single out an E? This should be fairly simple. Can you hear a C chord with a Eb and a Bb on top? Probably waaay harder to do. Another example: can you sing a C major scale? Now, can you sing a whole tone scale? It's harder to do the latter. To sum it up, what is easy and what is not easy comes from experience once you start singing more and more.
    • The simplest choral passages are the most effective. Can't really figure out why yet, but it seems like harmonic simplicity and simplicity of motion is the key for an effective piece of choral music.
    • Breathing of course is extremely important, and you should be aware of where the sections are breathing for the different musical phrases. Taking a breath together as a choir can have a powerful impact. On the other hand, "choral breathing" can also be a powerful tool for dragging out musical phrases without stopping, by making individual players breathe at random places. You have to be extremely mindful of when singers have to breathe in a piece. It's almost as important as the notes themselves, it can totally change the piece.
    And there is probably a lot more I just take for granted after being a member of a choir for many months. For this piece I found all my ideas on piano, but at any given moment I was aware of what would be given to all the parts, and I made sure that voice leading would be the priority. I made sure to sing all the parts one by one when composing (along the way). I'm not gonna lie, a knowledge of the repertoire for chamber choir was mandatory for writing at least at this level, and I wouldn't have been able to do it with my orchestral knowledge alone.

    I would suggest listening to two pieces as examples of good and satisfying writing:

    (This last Tchaikovsky's piece doesn't have any accidentals, which I found fascinating!)

    Now, the biggest mistake I made was starting from the music, and thinking about the text later. This is definitely not the way to go, if you don't intend to write lyrics yourself, as the melody has to fit the text perfectly in terms of flow. My advice would be to find (or write) some text that has a musical flow to it and then write a melody that both successfully utilizes the individual syllables and that is musically interesting. If I had to write another piece I would spend a long time trying to come up with a theme that fits words in a natural way and that has some musical value. I've got lucky in this case because I could rely on the flexibility of the word "Hallelujah", but I won't have the same luck next time!

    I like some of the things that Eric Whitacre wrote, although I'm not familiar with a lot of the pieces he wrote. I've sang Lux Aurumque, which is a good example of something that has some slight dissonances and is easy to perform. If you look closely you can see that all the dissonances are easy to reach for all the voice groups: he lets musicians get comfortable with a note in the scale, and then he pushes the dissonance by altering some neighbouring notes. It's always easier to reach a dissonance with good voice leading rather than making a choir sing one out of the blue. He writes dissonances really carefully, and it seems like he's really successful with them because he spends a lot of time writing good voice leading and comfortable parts for the musicians.

    So to answer your question: it really depends on the voice leading. Of course, splitting dissonances between sections makes things easier; although, singing half-step dissonances within a section should also not be a problem. The problem comes when you have to reach dissonances with either bad voice leading, unnatural jumps, or with out-of-scale notes.

    Here, for example, the tenor part in the first 2 measures is a piece of cake: the chord is established and the half-step movement is easy to sing.

    It would be impossible for me to explain this concept clearly here and I would have to use a lot of unnecessary words, so instead I suggest you to look at the score of my piece and sing along the parts with the audio. You'll see immediately what is easy to sing and what isn't. Sing along the altos in bars 50-52: it's doable, and the voice leading is okay-ish, but it's hard to land on the E against the harmony (everyone else is singing a F minor chord).

    Hope this is helpful!
  13. about this if I can give you an advice when I write songs (music and lyrics) I mainly write before the music and melody and after the lyrics, but when I'm writing lyrics happens sometimes that I have to adjust some notes of the melody.
    Once I have melody I always try not to change it, because the melody is always a linear simple thing, so when you try to chenge sometimes will result in a bit strange thing. This I think because the most important thing in music for reaching people hearts is a beautiful and simple melody, because if it's simple will be ALWAYS memorable (and because I really don't like complicated things :)
    I always suggest to do simple melodies and then maybe to use complicated things in the arrangement/orchestration/composition if one want to... but if you can be simple I think is better.

    However is always a work of blending melody and lyrics changing a bit of both. Most of the time is necessary, even if it was only music without lyrics you never would have changed melody. (I'm speaking always of little adjustments.)
  14. Man, that's super interesting, thanks :)
    Francesco Bortolussi likes this.
  15. That was a really well written post. Thanks !
    Francesco Bortolussi likes this.

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