Tonight, my collective choral experience comes full circle. I joined Triad: Boston’s Choral Collective* almost as soon as I moved to New England and began a crash course in collaboration. That experience has inspired a dissertation and led to many premieres and performances. Tonight, the original "Choral Composer/Conductor Collective" (more commonly known as C4) will perform my work, Fire and Ice—the first time any of my compositions have been heard in New York City.
This is as good a time as any to reflect on what I have learned from collectivity so far.
When Triad first met in David Harris’s apartment to organize ourselves, there was a lot of talk of changing the world through music. We spoke of workshopping compositions, fine-tuning conducting skills, and generally encouraging one another to become better musicians. We shared a vision for making choral music more egalitarian, emphasizing personal humility in service of great and underrepresented music. In fact, it was this desire to make new music together that drove many of our early decisions.
In the four years hence, I have marveled at the diversity of our conductors, composers, and singers. They regularly suggest techniques I would never think to try, and yet they succeed. There have been many times when we’ve taken up a piece of music, and at first glance I thought, “This will never work!” Then we sing it, and it’s fantastically effective, precisely because of how it deviated from my expectations. Conductors have called upon me to do things I would never ask of a choir, and yet somehow the result is magical. Singers have shared techniques or metaphors that I have never heard or thought of, much less tried, and they make me a better musician. Occasionally, requests fall flat, but I've learned to suspend disbelief and give each conductor my best shot at doing what they request. As a result, my musical toolbox has expanded well beyond anything one could learn from a single training program or school.
I've also learned that each musician has a unique way of expressing both praise and frustration, and sometimes one person’s preferred method of expression doesn’t match another person’s preferred method of reception. In recent years, I've served as the group's conductor-/cat-wrangler, where I manage rehearsal time and match conductors to pieces. In private conversations with other members, I’ve heard both extreme praise and extreme criticism for literally every person who has ever stepped onto our podium (including myself). Often, those extremes will come from two different members regarding the same conductor in a fairly short period of time. I'm never quite sure what to do in those situations, so I just chalk it up to the mystery of collectivism.
In a traditional choir, the member complaining about a conductor might choose to leave in hopes of finding another leader more to their suiting. However, in a collective with up to nine conductors per concert, the odds are there will always be at least one who pushes a given singer's buttons. If that's enough to make you leave, then a collective probably isn't the right setting for you, and that's OK too. Those who stick it out intentionally choose to put up with a few temporary irritations in favor of the greater pleasures we enjoy.
For me, the core mission of our ensemble far outweighs any inconveniences it evokes. I'm making really cool music with some of the smartest, most talented and dedicated musicians I've ever met. So, when we face one of those fleeting problems, I put my focus back where it belongs and redouble my efforts to be the best musician I can be; the best conductor I can be; the best singer I can be.
Collectives require a higher level of commitment than almost any other ensemble. There can be no compromise. The model doesn’t work if one member doesn’t practice the music regularly—we are only as strong as our weakest singer (which admittedly is far too often me). It doesn't work if we lose focus in rehearsal, even for a moment. It doesn’t work if someone phrases criticism inartfully, refuses to accept feedback, or gives less grace to others than they expect to receive. It doesn't work if we routinely assign negative intent or harmful motivation to others' comments.
In fact, choral collectives provide a perfect opportunity to train for living life. As I look around, I see a world desperately longing for empathy, commitment, creativity, vulnerability, and humility. These are essential elements of the collective experience, and if you don't bring them with you, you'll either develop them in a hurry or start looking for another choir to join. I'm greatly blessed to have learned from the best.
Kudos to C4 for getting this ball rolling and setting a fantastic example (I look forward to seeing you on Saturday). Thanks also to C3LA and Inversion Ensemble who are shining this light brightly in new markets. Most of all, thanks to my friends and colleagues in Triad to continue to fill my bucket with amazing new music.
If you're in town, join us June 17 for our next performance!
*If you're wondering what Triad is, we're a choir with no single artistic director. Instead, we make all decisions through conversation and consensus. Members share in executing all administrative tasks. We have multiple conductors, composers, and (of course) singers on our roster—thus the "triad". We perform music written in the past 25 years, much of it composed by our members. C4 provided the model that we use, and C3LA and Inversion are on similar paths. We're all a part of a network, but each ensemble is unique. For more details, click the dissertation link above.