Ever since high school, I have adored choral music. Like many young musicians, I idolized the composers and decided I wanted to compose choral music, too. Indeed, new choral music has a big market!
But, as an atheist in a field often inextricably connected to a religious community, there is an element of cognitive dissonance that’s a running theme in my career. When I tell someone that I sing in professional choirs and compose “mostly” choral music, it is uncomfortable, even alienating, when they make the assumption that I do so for spiritual reasons, that I am a “believer,” that the music that I compose is for worship, and that it has been sung by choirs, in the strictest sense, not choruses.
Why do so many people assume “sacred choral” music when I say just “choral” music? Religion, like music and especially choral music, at its best brings people together for a common good. That is the reason I sing in choirs.
That's a reasonable question, not a rhetorical one. Why do so many people assume choral music is sacred? Well, the answer that maybe all music is sacred doesn't quite get at the peculiarity of a secularist in the realm of choral music specifically, or maybe even vocal music in general.
Even though since the time of Beethoven instrumental music has been held by some to be the transcendental music that expresses universal values this has hardly been the case in reality. To put it another way, the thing is that we don't tend to sing about things we're indifferent to. We sing about loves and hatreds. More to a practical point, when you get a dozen or more people to sing about the same thing at the same time this tends to only happen, it seems, as an act of veneration. The conundrum of being a secularist in the realm of choral music is that more than any other musical idiom in the history of humanity choral music as a performance tradition affiliated with veneration and if the veneration isn't explicitly religious it will tend to ALSO be or alternatively be collective, which is to say political. It will be in praise of something more often than not, even if that praise is in some place you wouldn't normally think about.
For the person who never sets foot in a church and was raised with no religious background what's the most unavoidable point of contact for hearing a group of people singing together in praise of something?
Let's step back and think a bit. Even in a film or a TV show you may not hear any choral music but you will at some point have heard a bunch of people singing a jingle for a promoted product on a radio ad or a television ad. There are plenty of other ways a person can be exposed to choral singing in life that don't involve advertisements but humor me for a bit. It seems that if you're trying to explore a tradition of choral music that is completely secular and not tied to any kind of religious belief, personal or civic; but if you're also trying to avoid anything overtly or implicitly political or nationalist in a neo-nationalist variety then what have you got left? Well, basically, advertising jingles.
There could be a proposal at this point that composing choral music that isn't dependent on a text could be a path to take. Sure, but this gets to the question of whether or not people will be on board singing about music that doesn't commit to being about anything and whether, further, people will shell out money to pay to hear choral music performed that does not commit to anything other than music as an ideal unto itself. I mean, there could be some truly fantastic choral music based on neutral vowel tones that doesn't depend on any text painting or textual enhancement ... but at this point we do have to raise the reasonable and emotionally compelling question of why people who are in search for that musical ideal would be choosing a choral work with no textual concerns when they could be listening to instrumental music.
The conundrum of being a secularist in the tradition of choral music may be most acute and feel weirdest because it's in choral music that we are most unavoidably confronted with a tradition that is founded on the human history of veneration of a god or a ruler or a state or a political ideology that establishes a social identity. In Ted Gioia's book on the history of the long song he paraphrased a quip that said that while 90 percent of all the songs in the history of rock and roll were love songs 90 percent of rock criticism as a literary tradition disproportionally focused on the ten percent of the rock songs that weren't love songs. Take out the element of love and veneration in the vocal music tradition and you're left with ten percent, so to speak, even for music written for a soloist. Take out the element of love and veneration in the choral music tradition and, well, what if all we're left with that we can remember off the top of our heads is a set of product endorsing choral jingles? It seems that choral music more than other forms of music traffics in adoration and worship of stuff. I'm not saying there isn't a tradition of secularist choral music. Xenakis has written some pretty killer choral music, for instance. It's not stuff everyone will thrill to listen to, but I'm just pointing out one case among many for choral music composed by atheists. It's out there, it's just that it's such a recent development in the history of choral music the body of work is taking shape.