Authenticity is a two-way street:
being true to the music and true to yourself

Singing in a variety of styles without trying to mimic the sound of original performers
Interest Session presented at the American Choral Directors Association Eastern Division Conference,
February 2008 in Hartford, CT

Thomas Lloyd - Haverford College
with The Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges

Our choirs sing music spanning several centuries as well as from what is now a very large variety of world cultures available to us.  As a result, we often talk about how to sing distinctively in these different styles so that they don’t all sound the same. 

To do this, we search for musical “authenticity” – how did the original singers perform their music when it first came about?  What was the cultural situation out of which the music arose?  What did the music mean for those people? 

However, in our search for authenticity, we often fail to go beyond trying to imitate an idealized model of a particular choral sound.  When we do this, we risk losing our own choir’s authenticity by pretending to be a choir that we’re not.  

We may sing Renaissance music trying to sound like a men and boys choir when we’re really a mixed choir of college or high school students.  We may try to sound like a folk ensemble native to a particular international culture when we’re really a culturally mixed choir of polyglot Americans.  We may try to sound like a black choir when we sing African-American spirituals even when we’re obviously not. 

What we hope to demonstrate this morning is that the music itself can often show us the way to be true both to the music and to ourselves.  The search for “authenticity” is really a two-way street. 

After doing everything we can to absorb the music, to understand the music on its own terms, learn its history, its cultural context, and its defining musical characteristics, we must also try to connect the music to our own cultural identity, to our own time and place. 


Renaissance music

We’ll begin in the Renaissance, with the sacred motet Mater Christi by the early-16th Century English master John Taverner.  The text for the first parte of this motet is::

Mater Christi, sanctissima,
Mother of Christ most holy,

Virgo Sacrata Maria,
blessed virgin Mary,

tuis orationibus  
through your prayers,

benignum redde filium,
may your son look mercifully upon us;

unica spes nostra Maria,
Mary our only hope,

nam precibus nitentes tuis
relying on your radiant petitions,

rogare audemus filium.
with boldness we pray to your Son.

We know that sacred motets of this period were most often sung by a choir of men and boys.  We also know that the manuscripts and original prints of this music included no indications of expression, dynamics, or articulation.  Just the notes – their pitch, duration, and the words that go with them.  Even in this regard, the manuscripts are not definitive, and we are forced to make various choices, sometimes with only our own musical intuition as a guide. 

Without recordings of the original choirs, the most common model used by modern choirs has been that of the pure sound of a men and boys choir, with as smooth a tonal surface as possible - not only with no vibrato, but with as little variation in dynamics as possible, and with minimal overt expression or articulation of the text.

Listen to this exquisite recording of the opening phrase of Mater Christi by Harry Christopher and The Sixteen.  One of the first things you’ll notice is that they sing some different notes from the ones in the example on your handout.  This is because some of the accidentals were in some manuscript copies and not others – modern performers differ on raising or lowering the 7th degree of the mode, depending on the context. 

If you have perfect pitch you’ll also note that they are singing a step higher than the G final of the original manuscript, as shown on your handout.  Performance pitch was much more variable at the time.  The higher pitch of the recording does make the women’s voices sound more fluty and pure like the boy sopranos who probably originally sang this motet.  

Song File Example 1 - The Sixteen singing opening of Taverner's Mater Christi

Like The Sixteen, we will try to sing with no vibrato, except as an expressive ornament on longer notes.  But we will sing at the lower pitch more comfortable for our singers, and our sopranos will not try to thin out their sound to be more boy-like.  We will allow the phrases to be a bit more overtly expressive, according to the melodic shape of the individual lines.  This is, after all, a fervent prayer to Mary for mediation, ending with the words “rogare audemus filium” (we pray with boldness to your Son). 

Song File Example 2 - Chamber Singers singing opening of Taverner's Mater Christi

Soon after there is a phrase on the words “benignum redde filium” (may your son mercifully look upon us), with very expressive upper neighbor half-steps and a very surprising lowered 6th degree of the mode on the word “filium” in the soprano (as indicated on your handout).  In the performance by The Sixteen, there is an effort to minimize these rather striking expressive gestures to keep the texture as smooth as possible. 

Song File Example 3 - The Sixteen singing from Taverner's Mater Christi

While the subtlety of this performance is truly quite beautiful and of course a valid interpretation, it should not be considered the only authentic model.  In fact, its purity may have more to do with modern taste than with what might have come from the exertions of a typical choir in a cavernous sanctuary in Renaissance England.  In our performance, we’ll lean into these gestures a little more, though hopefully without distorting the line.

Song File Example 4 - Chamber Singers singing from Taverner's Mater Christi

We’ll now sing the whole first part of this beautiful motet.  Using our own college-age voices, we will try to give distinctive shape and articulation to the different phrases of text as the composer has set them, but hopefully without loosing the overall sense of line.

Song File Example 5 - Chamber Singers singing Part I of Taverner's Mater Christi

As a second example of this approach to music of the Renaissance, we’d like to sing the funeral anthem “Sleep, fleshly birth” by Robert Ramsey, a much more obscure English master from almost a century later.  This anthem employs even more vivid contrast from phrase to phrase. 

One of its most common devices is the use of the suspension for expressive purposes in the middle of phrases, rather than just at cadences.  I’ve marked the suspensions Ramsey uses to color the word “doleful” in the example on your handout. 

We’ll first sing this phrase trying to avoid drawing any attention to the contrapuntal tension and release of the suspensions.

Song File Example 6 - Chamber Singers singing from Ramsey's Sleep, Fleshly Birth

This time, we’ll allow the voices involved in the suspensions to lean into the middle of the point of greatest tension – we’ll call it the “sweet spot” of the suspension – before giving in to the resolution.

Song File Example 7 - Chamber Singers singing from Ramsey's Sleep, Fleshly Birth

Now we’ll perform the whole anthem, trying to bring out the expressive contrast that is not explicitly notated in the manuscript, but can be intuited from the music itself.

Song File Example 8 - Chamber Singers singing Ramsey's Sleep, Fleshly Birth, complete


International music

When it comes to choral arrangements of international music, the printed page gives us even less information about how the music originally sounded.  However, unlike with music from centuries ago, we usually do have access to current choir from the culture represented.  But even then, we risk sounding like poor imitations of the real thing if we only try to mimic the surface of the music. 

Each language itself has particular “flavors” to its diction – the distinctive way words feel in the mouth, just like the texture of different foods from that culture. The good news is that the music takes care of what makes someone sound most like a fluent native speaker: the rhythmic stress and inflection of the words.  All we need to do is try to add the flavor or color of the sounds to our personal sound vocabulary.

We’ll be singing a choral arrangement by Ruben Colon-Tarrats of the Catholic University in Ponce, Puerto Rico, of a popular 1950’s song by Bobby Capo called “Piel Canela” (“Cinnamon Skin”) We brought this back from a recent choir tour to Puerto Rico. We started learning it by having one of our students, Tommy Bryan, a native Puerto Rican himself, speak the words for us.  Try repeating after Tommy:

[Tommy speaks the first line of words, then the audience repeats]
Que se quede        el infinito       sin estrellas

Now what Tommy is speaking is obviously authentic Puerto Rican Spanish.  But if we just try to imitate the unfamiliar sounds at conversational speed, we’re likely to end up with a neutral language we might call “Blandish” rather than Spanish.  

If we slow down the words and sustain them the way we have to when we sing [demonstrate Que se quede el infinito sin estrellas with sustained even vowels], we can begin to bring some of the “flavor” of Tommy’s pronunciation to our singing – the forward placement of the softened but clear consonants, and the brightness of the vowels.

Looking at the music itself, the notation of the rhythm of the first phrase doesn’t immediately make sense to us.  Try speaking it on “da” once after my count:

we’ll even do it a little under tempo - 1, 2, 3 – [audience speaks rhythm for first two lines]

We need to find the rhythmic “groove” for which the notation is only a one-dimensional shorthand. (this really applies to many Classical styles as well, but it is a more obvious need in international styles)  In our case, we had a live recording of the piece from concert we shared with the arranger’s own college choir in Puerto Rico. After listening to them sing the first couple of phrases, we begin to feel the rhythm only hinted at by the notation.

Song File Example 9 - Catholic U. Ponce choir singing Piel Canella, opening

Since this song is also based on two dance rhythms, first a salsa bolera and then a cha-cha-cha, we can also learn how it moves from watching someone dance it.  Tommy was able to come to our aid here too!  Though unfortunately we don’t have time or a proper dance floor for him to demonstrate here, we all tried the dance steps at one rehearsal long enough to be able feel the movement of the rhythm.  Instead of choreographing the steps while we sing, we’ll try to let our bodies move independently with the groove of the rhythm.
If this works, we can sing a piece like this without rushing.  We won’t sound just like the choir on the recording, but hopefully we’ll have internalized the language and the rhythm enough to make it our own. 

A translation of the song is:

Let the universe be without stars
Or the wide sea lose its immensity
But don't ever let the blackness of your eyes die
And keep the cinnamon of your skin as it is

You are my everything
You and you alone are all that matters

Song File Example 10 - Chamber Singers Ruben Colon-Tarrats' Piel Canella, complete

Our next International piece is Zbojnicki, a truly riveting arrangement of a traditional Polish “mountain” dance by the Polish composer and conductor Jacek Sykulski.  We sang this piece under his direction two years ago in Poznan, Poland with his Academic Choir of the Adam Mickiewicz University, and again when he visited Haverford with his choir last November. 

Of course, the language here is quite different from the Latin American Spanish we were just singing.  However, taking time with the words in the same way we did with the Spanish we can again capture the flavor of the language.  Polish spelling is very difficult, so I wrote out a phonetic version of the text in their scores. 

We also had the help of a Polish faculty colleague who was able to speak the text in a sustained way for us:

Song File Example 11 - Polish pronunciation

The vowels are on the bright side, like in Spanish, but the consonants are much more vigorous. 

One important aspect of the sound was also not in the notated music.  When the women first sang the melody printed on your handout, we sounded like this:

Song File Example 12 - Chamber Singers sing from Jacek Sykulski's Zbojnicki

But when we arrived for our first rehearsal in Poland with the choir for whom the arrangement was written, they sang it like this:

Song File Example 13 - Chamber Singers singing same passage in chest voice

This chest voice technique is common to singing of folk music of several Eastern European cultures.   But even here, we try to sing in chest more within the boundaries of the technique we use for most of our other repertoire, that is, not quite as pressed-down or forceful as a singer in a folk ensemble in a Polish village would probably do.

Here then is a Polish folk-dance piece, “translated” into the sound of a college choir: 

Song File Example 14 - Chamber Singers sing Zbojnicki, complete


The African-American Spiritual

Last, we come to the African-American Spiritual. 

More than once, both at ACDA conventions and elsewhere, I’ve heard white choir directors like myself suggest that to sing the African-American Spirituals the right way, predominantly white choirs need to try to “sound black” – this is generally meant in a respectful way, suggesting that a richer, “darker,” sound is needed, maybe with a wider vibrato than the “pale” sound we associate with “white” singing.  

If this is the case, what exactly is the “black sound” appropriate for singing the Spirituals?  I’ve selected some short samples of recordings by six different choirs made up entirely of singers of African origin – two historical choirs from the 1930’s, two recent choirs, and two from Africa itself.  Which one of these choral sonorities represents the “black sound” we should emulate?

Song File Example 15 - William Dawson – Tuskegee Inst Choir

Song File Example 16 - Tema Youth Choir, Ghana – Ebenezer Allotey

Song File Example 17 - Hall Johnson Choir

Song File Example 18 - Ladysmith Black Mambazo – South Africa

Song File Example 19 - Moses Hogan Chorale

Song File Example 20 - Fisk Jubilee Singers – Paul Kwami

 

While we may still be sure we can tell a black voice when we hear one, these recordings force us to admit that there is no such thing as a single “black sound” for either the Spiritual or African music.  In fact, there is probably more variety of sound among these six “black” choirs than among all the mostly “white” choirs we’ve heard at this convention (which I think probably has more to do with a pervasive conformity of musical taste than with anything truly related to objective artistic standards.)

Following the emancipation of the slaves, the spirituals were first introduced to the outside world by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and then by other Historical Black College (HBCU) choirs.  Though I had heard the spirituals sung at many ACDA conventions, I had never heard them sung by one of the HBCU choirs.  So we went to visit Fisk and perform shared concerts with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their wonderful current director Paul Kwami.

Late we also shared a concert with the Howard University Choir, directed by the esteemed J. Weldon Norris.  One of the songs the Howard choir performed on that concert was Hall Johnson’s I’ve been ‘buked.  This is one spiritual that I had always felt should be off-limits to predominantly white choirs because its words speak so directly of the brutality of slavery.

But something changed when we heard the Howard choir sing it.  It felt like thay had somehow shown us the way, had shown us “how the song goes.” We started working on it on our own at our next rehearsal and felt like we had been offered a special gift.  It was not that we had somehow been made worthy of assuming a sufficient amount of suffering to sing the song - it was instead that we had recognized through the Howard Choir’s committed performance the common humanity we shared with the people who originally created these songs.

After all, one could say that it was that very denial of the common humanity of the African people by white European and American settlers that legitimized slavery and still defines racism in our world today.

With this in mind, we’d like to ask your support as we offer a somewhat unusual demonstration.  We will alternate verses of “I’ve been ‘buked” with the Howard University Choir singing from their recording Our Heritage – Negro Spirituals and Work Songs.  Our goal will be to have our singing be influenced by the essential musical and expressive elements of the Howard choir’s singing.

We will try to reflect in our own way some of the spontaneity and directness with which they shape the melodic line in relation to the text.   At the same time,  we won’t be trying to consciously alter the basic “color” of our sound, or sound like anyone other than who we are, here and now.  

We will also incorporate some traditional elements not in the printed score that Prof. Norris passed on to us from his personal experience with Hall Johnson – by repeating the first verse again at the end, only softly this time, and then concluding with one last time through without words.

Song File Example 21 - I've been buked - verse 1 - Howard U Choir
Song File Example 22 - I've been buked - verse 2 - Chamber Singers
Song File Example 23 - I've been buked - verse 3 - Howard U Choir
Song File Example 24 - I've been buked - reprise - Chamber Singers

Our second Spiritual is from another of the great early arrangers of concert spirituals, Jester Hairston.  We will sing his setting of Hold On! using the words for “Keep your eyes on the Prize” which many of you may remember from the PBS documentary series of that name.  During the civil rights movement of the 1960’s it was common to sing the spirituals, sometimes with their traditional words and sometimes with new words growing out of their political struggle. 

Many of these new lyrics were written and sung by the black and white college students who were members of SNCC – the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.   Singing this spiritual with these revised lyrics helps reinforce the connection of the songs of the slaves to the lives of American college students. 

This activist role of the spirituals as civil rights songs also connects the spirituals to their origins as songs of action, intended to both motivate and guide the slave community to freedom.

As an up-tempo spiritual, this also gives us a chance to talk about a purely musical element of the spiritual, the solid underlying pulse and its relation to movement, similar to the groove we talked about with Piel Canella earlier.  When modern choirs sing the up-tempo spirituals we often tend to go as fast as we can without any sense of a solid rhythmic pulse in the midst of our excitement. 

The up-tempo spirituals probably grew out of the traditional “ring shout,” a sacred dance ritual that the slaves brought with them from Africa. Here’s an example of a ring shout, sung by the McIntosh County Shouters from the South Sea Islands of Georgia, where the traditions of the slave communities have been preserved unbroken since Emancipation.  If you listen you’ll hear that underneath the faster subdivisions, there is a solid slower pulse, which is the primary pulse we need to feel.

Song File Example 25 - Blow, Gabriel! - "ring shout"

In Hold On! there is an very strong underlying pulse that comes just once a bar.  If we feel that pulse in our body, our singing will tend to stay more grounded, and find what we could call its “groove.” We certainly don’t need to try to “move black” any more than we need to “sing black” especially in a choreographed way – but if we sing the fast spirituals standing in perfect concert posture without somehow feeling the underlying pulse in our bodies, we’ll miss not only the music, but the spirit of the song.

  Song File Example 26 - Keep your eyes on the prize - complete - Chamber Singers

We’d like to close with an arrangement that incorporates both a Spiritual and a traditional African song.  I wrote this for our trip to Ghana in hopes of better understanding the African connections between the old and the new world.  The two texts both talk about staying connected to those who went before and the pressing anxieties of the future:

The spiritual sings about crossing the Jordan River to the promised land of freedom:

Stan’ still, Jordan, I can’t stan’ still. 
I got a mother in Heaven, when I get up in glory!
Jordan River, chilly and cold,
It will chill’a my body, but not my soul.

The Gbolo text from a wedding ceremony of the Ewe tribe in Ghana says:

Today's riches have made you forget yesterday;
Send cloth to your mother in the grave.

The middle section was freely derived from a field recording:

Song File Example 27 - Ghanain Gbolo song - field recording

When we sing it, we will use more of an “outdoor” voice for this middle section, but without actually trying to sound like the Ghanaian singers. 

As we found out later from Kofi Agawu, the Ghanaian-born scholar who made the recording, what this traditional ensemble is singing is itself an arrangement by a Ghanaian composer so as we will often find, we are usually at least one or two layers farther away than we realize from the “authentic” “original” version of any song. 

International musical culture is the very definition of fluidity, and there really is no such thing as musical “purity.”   In the end, authenticity means both learning as much as we can about the music and its original cultural context, and then “translating” that truth in a way that our choirs can make their own.  In that space between the past and the present, the self and the other, lies a wealth of opportunity for us to expand and deepen our understanding of what it means to be part of the human family.

Thank you for attending our presentation.

Song File Example 28 - Stan' Still, Jordan - Egbe Nukpowo - complete - Chamber Singers

 Return To Top

Please contact me by phone (610-896-1006) or email tlloyd@haverford.edu if you have any questions.

Follow this link for more information on Choral Music at Haverford and Bryn Mawr