December 26, 2012

Authentic published choral music—the survey
results are in


by Kurt McKee - R&S Chair for Multi-Cultural Music

Cmckeeontroversy looms heavy over the Northwest Division of ACDA like a dark cloud.  Before you shut down your browser and assume I am making a major work out of a lowly octavo, let me share some other information with you first.  I promise to be controversial at the end of my article.

I recently wrapped up a survey of our division membership that provided some answers that may help YOU in finding the right world music piece(s) for your choir in less time.  

Why did I want to do a survey? 
I realized that many of my own literature choices are driven by my own experiences (concerts I’ve been to) and other by my own professional relationships (other directors I know and trust). 

I started to think that maybe my views on publishers were a little myopic and that it would be interesting to see if any other directors in our division had some hidden gems—a honey-hole of choral music, as it were—that was publishing great editions that many of us may have never seen. 

I thought a survey might work.  So, with that in mind, please understand that I am not a professional survey creator or pollster—this is my first foray into the artful world of survey creation.  For our informal purposes, I’ll first share what the survey covered and then I’ll pass along the results.

Who took this survey?
There were 97 NW ACDA members who responded to the survey, more than I expected.  Those responding to the survey worked with choirs of these types:  Elementary (10%), Middle Level (26%), High School (48%) , Collegiate (22%), Community (30%), Professional (13%), Church (30%), Womens (27%), Mens (22%), Mixed (31%), Childrens (14%), and Adults (22%).  Respondents were active members (57%), retired members (7%), state multicultural chairs (4%), state board members (20%) and division board members (17%).  The percentage of respondents based on what state they were from was roughly identical to the demographics of our division, with Washington having the highest number of respondents.  As you can see, respondents represented a wide spectrum of choral involvement in our division. 

What questions were asked?
The main body of the survey simply posed these questions:  “If you were wanting to find a great multicultural piece for one of your choirs, what publisher would you go to first?” and “Briefly explain why you feel that publisher would be your first choice.“  The survey then asked participants to list their second and third choices and explain why.  The final question of the survey asked, “What elements of a published multicultural work influence you most when purchasing a piece for your choir?”  This was followed up by a list of reasons for choosing a piece, the results of which I will share later.

What publisher(s) came out on top?
Earthsongs was the publisher on which 78% of those surveyearthsongsed relied as their first choice to find the best published multicultural songs.  This was followed by Santa Barbara Music Publishers, Boosey & Hawkes and Walton. 

The reasons for these choices were diverse...such as quality of arrangements, specializing in world music, providing pronunciation guides, providing quality recordings along with the music.

Some pointed out that Earthsongs seeks out great choirs from around the world, records them, and secures the rights to produce editions of their music so other choirs can come into contact with great music in a context they can understand (a published edition).  One critique of Earthsongs that came up a few times was that many of the arrangements were far too difficult for middle school choirs.  Having taught at the middle level myself, I would tend to agree.

What publishers were considered next?
It was interesting that about 30% of the respondents did not offer a second choice for a multicultural publisher and 50% did not offer a third choice.  However, the answers provided to these two questions provide some more depth to the discussion.  Based on the initial results, it is obvious that Earthsongs does what they do well.  But here are the publishers that were next—Santa Barbara, Walton, Alliance, GIA, Transcontinental, World Music Press, Musica Russica, Lawson-Gould, Alfred, EC Schirmer, Bri-Lee, Hal Leonard/CME, SP Muusikaprojekt, Colla Voce, Musica Baltica, Cypress, Moseler Verlag, Carl Fischer, Edition Ferrimonta, and Heritage. 

Many of these publishers were chosen because the conductor was simply looking for a piece from a specific culture and the publisher was from that country or specialized in composers of a specific nationality.

Top five things we as conductors are looking for in world music
Although the list of options was long, here are the top five answers from our membership regarding what elements we look for when trying to find a great piece of world music: 

1) The song appears to be more traditionally authentic. 
2) Pronunciation guide provided. 
3) The song will provide diversity in my choral program.
4) Translations are provided. 
5) The cultural significance of the piece. 

Perhaps it is also interesting what is NOT as important to us.  Here are the five least important elements we look for: 

1) It represents my own cultural heritage. 
2) Price. 
3) It represents the culture of a person in my choir.
4) Composer biographical information provided. 
5) Reputation of the publisher. 

This does not necessarily mean these things are not important to us—just LESS important to us.  It may mean that these things don’t encourage or discourage us from purchasing the literature.

At the end of the last question, I left a space marked “other” in case I missed an element that people were looking for.   The “other” responses surprised me a little—making me realize that sometimes I take myself too seriously.  The concrete/rational parts of my brain often try to dominate the affective parts. 

Some responded, “Text is theologically appropriate/fits scripture of the day/fits within the liturgy.” 

Many others wrote, “I LIKE it.” “Must stand alone as a great piece of choral literature . . . something more than a novelty”, “heard it performed by another group”, and “percussion instructions!” 

I often forget that liking a song is pretty important, especially since we are all going to be living with the music we choose for our groups for several weeks at least.

How you can use these results
I encourage you to go online and check out any new publishers your colleagues included above.  I already found a few new ideas for this year.  Without a doubt, this type of music is an important part of our musical world.  Try to find the best resources you can that fit your singers and purpose.  Many of these publishers have PDFs that you can view and mp3s that you can listen to.  It is a great way to discover new ideas.

Controversy about authenticity
Finally, as I compiled this information I came across a controversy that we all must address if we are to be a part of the choral art.  I was reminded of this when I received some rather lengthy responses to questions I wasn’t asking.  I thought I had been fairly transparent that the survey was gathering information about multicultural PUBLISHERS, and not the entire world of multicultural music.  

But...In a nutshell, some members appeared somewhat annoyed that I was only supporting world music that is published—completely ignoring self-published or music of the aural tradition.  This was not the case, but it raised several questions in my mind.

Are we cheapening the music if we do not perform it in a completely authentic style? 

Are we doing a disservice to other cultures if we try to perform their music through the lens of the Western European tradition (i.e. tone, choir robes, sung from risers, no movement)?

Is it wrong for Midwestern Norwegian Lutheran composer to incorporate elements of calypso in their compositions? 

Is it sacrilege for a contemporary urban gospel choir to perform a Swiss yodel or for a Swiss yodeling and folk choir to sing gospel music as long as they are both trying to be authentic with the musical skills they have? 

Is cultural music of the aural tradition destroyed if someone who, once they hear it, chooses to write it down on paper so a choir somewhere else in the world can experience it and appreciate that culture in some new way? 

The choral artist’s search for authenticity is unending—whether we are trying to sing Bach with appropriate Baroque performance practice or choosing to incorporate some form of movement that would be appropriate for a given piece.  If we want to sing a tune from the Southern Harmony shape-note tradition, is it still music if we perform  it as if we were singing a major work by Brahms? 

SO many questions, SO little time.  I encourage you to think through what your thoughts are on authenticity—I know I plan on using it as the basis for a  future article.

For now, I simply encourage you to explore some new publishers of world music and see if you can find a good fit for your choir. 

For me, I plan to steer clear of any further attempts to create a survey.