East Meets West: Choral Music Traditions

Published on Author magrath

Going to take a bit of a turn from the economic and political articles and focus briefly on some culture and the arts.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the 2013 American Choral Director’s Association (ACDA) conference in Dallas, TX. This conference brought together choral educators, composers and vocalists for an embarrassment of riches in choral music. Some of the performances were simply stunning, with Pacific Lutheran’s Choir of the West debatably stealing the proverbial show.

However, one of the choirs was markedly different from the rest. It was a girls’ youth choir from the San Francisco Bay Area comprised almost exclusively of first- and second-generation Chinese immigrants. This choir stood out for several reasons. The first of these was their repertoire, which was, with the exception of one song, a menagerie of Chinese folk songs. The second was their attire which was, contrary to all of the other choirs at the conference, not homogeneous. Instead, they were garbed in colorful (and I assume traditional) Chinese costume. It made for quite the visual spectacle.

The greatest difference, however, was their sound. The best way to understand this difference is a basic understanding of what most Americans identify as a choral sound. Vocal music in the Western world developed primarily through churches, beginning with Gregorian chant in the early days of Christianity, progressing to homophonic and polyphonic works during the Middle Ages and European Renaissance. This tradition fixed primarily on recruiting individuals with high degrees of vocal talent and focused much more on bel canto singing (the style most soloists employ that uses flourishes and large amounts of ornamentation). With Martin Luther’s Protestant reformation in the 16th Century, a separate school of sound emerged. The Lutheran choral tradition (the tradition which Washington and Lee’s choirs adhere to) focuses much more on perfection of intonation, blend, diction, and phrasing. As such, you see contrasts in the works written for each, which is the difference between the Brahms and Verdi Requiem Masses. However, even despite the differences in style, both traditions share much more in common with each other than they do with Eastern Music, specifically the Chinese. This is due do the tonal nature of the Chinese language and the tonality of the scale on which the music is based. The tonal nature of Chinese requires many more vowel sounds to be reproduced at pitch. A Chinese word’s meaning changes drastically based on which vowel tone is employed. Thus, emphasizing these tones becomes more necessary in the Eastern tradition as opposed to the Western. This results in a much sharper sound that, to many Western listeners, sounds cacophonic. Thus, while the choir was extremely technically adept and unified in timing, the sound is still very piercing. The sole non-Chinese piece the choir performed, despite being performed by students with complete fluency in English, retained much of the sharp tone. Even though clearly English, the words sounded very strange.

China is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations for choirs touring abroad. One of the traditions when programming for abroad tours is to sing in the language of the country visited. It will be interesting to see how American choirs handle singing in a language that runs contrary to many of the vocal techniques they have learned singing primarily Western music.

One Response to East Meets West: Choral Music Traditions

  1. Interesting – the popular music that I’ve heard loses tonality, or at least a lot of it. At the choral level, any attempt to produce tones must lead to deviation from the pitch, and I can’t imagine doing that in a way that would preserve chords. So is the piercing quality due to being “out of tune” as we would think of it? Or a more nasal performance tradition, in line with folk songs but not perhaps with “classical” music? I suppose you could listen to Chinese opera to look for differences.

    Note one PhD grant proposal to the Japan Foundation was to study kabuki vocal styles, specifically how falsetto is or is not used. There’s also a Noh tradition, and Chinese court music (gagaku) that died out in China but was preserved in Korea and Japan.

    I’ve recordings of èrhú (二胡 fiddle) and pípá (琵琶 lute) if you’re interested.