So this choir I joined. We just finished doing the Verdi Requiem, which was a lifetime-highlight experience for me. Now we’re in the final phases of preparing for our Christmas concert. Not nearly so thrilling. Not every composition can be on par with the Requiem; I understand that. But doing these back to back just throws the mediocrity of our main Christmas piece into sharper relief.
I know there are many excellent pieces of music out there that aren’t particularly pleasing to sing (Beethoven 9!) but I don’t judge them as bad music. In those cases, you suck up the painfully-high notes that go on and on and on and on and on (hey did I mention we’re doing Beethoven 9 in the new year and we’ve been rehearsing that for a while?) because you know you’re contributing to a whole that you believe in. Or, you could be contributing to Karolju by Christopher Rouse.
To say I don’t like it is putting it mildly. On the one hand, I understand that it’s not meant to be a Serious Work of Stunning Grandeur. It’s even meant to be a bit tongue in cheek – the Carmina Burana riff makes that much clear. Maybe it’s just me, but other than those twenty measures or so, I can’t say I really get the joke. Mostly I just feel ripped off because I’m putting so much effort into something that would have benefited from a bit more thought and effort on the part of the composer. Here’s what Rouse has to say about his composition:
As I wished to compose the music first, the problem of texts presented itself. Finding appropriate existing texts to fit already composed music would have been virtually impossible, and as I did not trust my own ability to devise a poetically satisfying text, I decided to compose my own texts in a variety of languages (Latin, Swedish, French, Spanish, Russian, Czech, German, and Italian) which, although making reference to words and phrases appropriate to the Christmas season, would not be intelligibly translatable as complete entities. It was rather my intent to match the sound of the language to the musical style of the carol to which it was applied. I resultantly selected words often more for the quality of their sound and the extent to which such sound typified the language of their origin than for their cognitive “meaning” per se.
Because you know, composers never collaborate with librettists. That’s just unheard-of. And besides, living in a cultural backwater like New York City, he wouldn’t have had access to writers with abilities in any of those languages who might have been interested in collaborating. (Never mind that in our choir in our small northern city we have native speakers of every language he butchers.) No, as an Artist he had to go it alone and write pages of gibberish with the occasional actual (but generally inappropriate) word scattered through it. Can you think of anybody other than a unilingual, White, American who would think this is an appropriate and respectful thing to do with somebody else’s language?
In an interesting twist, we also sang selections from The Grinch for a Christmas benefit concert. Dr. Seuss is not exactly known for sticking to words found in the OED. And yet, there’s a profound difference between his work and Rouse’s, and it boils down to love for and expertise with the language he uses. Dr. Seuss plays with English like a favourite toy. The words may not be “real” words but they’re fun to say and there’s a certain Chomskian innate grammar to them so you can feel what are verbs and what are nouns. Rouse’s word salad is just that. Actually no, it’s not word salad because salad implies that the contents are all food items and thus there may be some element of coherence to it. It’s so bizarre that if you know the language, it’s hard to sing because your brain is constantly sending out !wtf! messages to your mouth because it can tell that what’s coming out is just wrong.
And then there’s the music itself. It’s OK I guess. Rouse comes right out and says he “elected to compose music which was direct and simple in its tonal orientation, music which would not seem out of place in a medley of traditional Christmas carols.” And that’s pretty much what it is. Simple and cheerful and doesn’t rock any boats. Well, except for our poor vocal boats. Memo to composer, High notes are hard work! Use them sparingly and for dramatic effect! There is a particular sound to voices singing at their upper physical limit, and if that’s what you really want, by all means go for it, but what effect were you going for when you put that simple little melody up in the shriekosphere? It’s not a climactic moment. It’s not one of those things where women singing high and soft sound all ethereal. What are you trying to do? Just because your book says sopranos can sing those notes, doesn’t mean you should necessarily make us do it without a good reason. (He does it to the tenors too, but I’m only whining on my own behalf.)
Yes, I’m whining. I just got over the Dreaded Swine Flu and my voice and my energy aren’t what they should be. And I know post-Verdi-partum depression is contributing to my somewhat unreasonable expectation for Rouse to have Verdi’s gift of writing for the human voice. And I know if I were trying to compose, what I’m currently deriding as mediocre would be beyond my wildest aspirations.
But I still don’t like it one bit. So there.