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Singing, or making music in general could be described as: Executing movement by means of sound.
Movement in music can be achieved in many different ways:
Going from one tone to another tone (higher or lower) is movement (image 1):

But singing the same tone for a long time also harbours movement, in the duration of the tone (image 2):

Think about what you see here: Every tone moves from the beginning to the end of its duration.
Drawing this observation wider, we can say: Outside its duration, music does not exist.
Or, to focus on what exactly is outside the duration of musical sound, we can even discover that
music moves from the silence that precedes it to the silence that follows it.

Being embedded in silence can be essential to music. Both the silence preceding and the silence following the music can be included in the awareness of the performance, in the execution of movement through sound. Not every type of music needs this, but contemplative music does in my opinion.

Miserere (Have mercy)

These thoughts came to me as I was going through the beautiful Miserere (SATB choir, composed in 2004) by Frank la Rocca (1951, New Jersey). The examples above are indeed taken from the first measures of the alto part (with permission of the composer).
If you don’t know La Rocca’s Miserere, you can hear a performance of it on his website, sung by the Mt. Eden High School Chamber Choir, with or without visual access to the score.
My intention here is not to analyze and discuss the piece from start to finish, but to remind myself and my choir members of the intention or attitude this piece could use to really come alive.

Troughout the Miserere, La Rocca not only tells us about the silence from which music appears and in which it disappears, but he integrates silence as an ever- present element in the music. And not just silence as in “the absence of sound”. It is a living silence, filled with the possibilities of what can become. A silence that needs to be listened into as an essential part of performing this piece.
Besides the silence, all the movements, especially the ‘duration movements’ in the Miserere both have to be sung and listened to at the same time. Because what this music wants to be arises from the duration of its elements. Choir singers should not just count the time or the amount of beats each tone or chord requires, but they should really discover -whilst singing- the time each sound/tone needs to reach the next sound/tone. Or the next silence. Yes, this music should grow in time, for it is growing made audible.

Silence and sound

La Rocca’s Miserere is built upon an immense space of silence, from which it emerges as a questioning and answering sound. But it can only emerge by really listening into this silence. I try to remind my choir singers that they really have to listen into the silence, because it will give them the music. Several times there is a short action in one of the voices, an initial initiative of sound, which is being handed over to the silence or to a duration movement, but also to the other voices, to respond to it. The other voice(s) can only respond to it by listening to the initial initiative first. The first 4 measures illustrate this very clearly, in the alto and soprano parts (image 3).

As you can see, the alto begins with a very basic movement: the major second from b-flat to c, and immediately reversing this movement in the opposite direction, returning to the b-flat tone.

B-flat – c – b-flat

Here lies the first discovery for the listening choir singer: The starting tone (b-flat) is ‘home’, is designation of where we actually are. Like it or not, but the syllable “Mi”, sung here, sounds just like the English word “me”, with which we point to ourselves. From there we modestly reach out towards the surrounding world (the tone c), only to retreat humbly to our own position or location immediately. Put simply, this b-flat-c-b-flat movement says: Me – You – Me. To demonstrate this a bit more, I replaced the text of the above example with these personal pronouns (image 4):

Image 4

Notice that the sopranos also move along the tones f and d-flat, increasing the ‘homing tendency’ of the piece towards the tonality of b-flat minor (the tones b-flat, d-flat and f of course constitute the triad of b-flat minor). Thats’s why it seems justified to share these tones under the syllable “Me”.

Me – You – Me

The ‘You’ in this basic Me-You-Me movement can be anything really: another human being, God, the universe, or just plainly everything that we are not.
Why spend so much words on such a basic, even simple movement?
Because in a nutshell it contains the supplication that a Miserere (‘have mercy’) is: one reaches out from oneself (Me) towards something else (You). It is the seed of the responsible opposition, planted in silence. This seed is the starting point of the composition, and it gradually developes (grows) towards larger movements through the whole piece.

Back to image 3 (see above). In the first 2 measures the alto represents as it were a lonely Me, questing for a You, but returning empty handed for the moment. “Well”, the listening and responding sopranos think in measure 2, “maybe we should look further away: we’ll try it one octave higher”. At the end of their first response, it becomes clear that the sopranos actually repeat the initial alto-movement from b-flat to c, because c is the tone where they finish, whereas b-flat was their starting point. They remain reached out, in ‘You-position’, almost forming the words “Where are you?” Below them in the meantime, the b-flat or ‘Me-tone’ has stayed present in the altos, so the first 4 measures are particularly filled with the color of the interval between b-flat and c, both as a melodic (horizontal) and as a harmonic (vertical) movement. And, most importantly, they end opening up into the first silence.

There are about 14 silences, including the fermata on barlines. As we saw in image 3, the first silence is preceded by just 2 tones. The other silences are preceded by fuller chords (3 or more tones). All these chords sound as if they want to touch or influence the silences they are preceding, if they want to scratch the surface of these silences (that is to say, if silences would have surfaces to scratch), to verify their existence, or to find an entrance into them.

The last silence (in measure 91), before the music ends with a beautifully found ‘modern cadenza’ that evades all likeness to classic cadenzas but still sounds like one (see image 5), is preceded by a D-flat major chord with an added fourth, on the syllable “-bus”. This chord has a very specific sound, that really attracts the attention of the modern listener, who wants to be near it, hearing it out, because it fascinates. This modern listener has also learned to associate this chord with Eric Whitacre’s music, although I seem to remember hearing it somewhere in Alfred Schnittke’s (1934-1998) music. But I’m not sure about this.
To me it was a real discovery that Whitacre is not the only one using it. Besides him and Frank La Rocca, I have found several other contemporary composers from the North-American continent using this chord. It truly is a contemporary sound, and I’m curious to find out why exactly. What kind of quality lies in this chord that makes it contemporary and attractive? Maybe I’ll be able to write about this later.

Image 5

Well, this is as far as I want to follow these lines of thought. Not only because continuing would make this blogpost way too long, but also because music can hardly be described with words. Words follow thoughts in a more linear way, while music consists of many thoughts at the same time, used and abandoned at the same time. It would be possible to start an article on La Rocca’s Miserere from a lot of different angles, pointing to other organizing structures in the music, that could possibly also contradict everything I wrote here.