Composer Create speaks to ORA Singers’ Artistic Director and Founder, Suzi Digby OBE, on her experience of commissioning, directing and programming choral music.
You’ve been commissioning new works for over 30 years, what do you think the secret is to a good choral composition?
It all stems from the text, and also the usability of the piece for the circumstances of the performance! It’s very important, in order to get a top quality piece, that there is a new voice. Composers, who are able to really climb into the text and bring to the audience, at first listening, something powerful and beautiful…
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I’ve commissioned such a range of compositions; some of them are atonal, some very tonal, and some cross-genres, but there are still basic elements that still comprise a good piece of music, and until you’ve tried it out with the singers it is hard to make that assessment.
When I look at a work for the first time, I can usually get a sense of the ‘singability’ of the piece, in other words, has it been written well for the voice? Does it lie within the voice well? Is it going to be a piece that needs an undue amount of rehearsal? The ideal piece is a piece that is challenging, because I think that if there is something new to say, something implicit in that is the technical and musical demands. But this does need to be within the allocated rehearsal time.
When you are then rehearsing it with the singers, the feedback from them is most interesting and valuable. A top quality commission tends to be one that the singers enjoy and they recognise the quality of it, but also a work that we know the audience is going to appreciate, and bring them something that will resonate and stay with them. If I premiere a piece and an audience member, two months later, says that they don’t remember anything about it, that’s not necessarily a good sign! But if a composer can find a voice that is individual, accessible, and speaks something very profound with respect to the text, that to me is a successful commission.
Composer Create asks Suzi Digby…
What advice would you give to a young aspiring choral composer?…
What final advice would you give to those writing for choirs?
When a composer is looking at a piece of text, they need to work out where the real kernel of that line is, so that the listener is really guided to the centre of that line. How are you going to achieve that, and balance that in the piece? What is the fundamental message or emotion, and how are you going to portray that in your writing? I think simplicity is sometimes undervalued. Sometimes to write a beautiful melody is the hardest thing!…
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Every composer has their strengths. Some composers are brilliant at writing melodies, but they might not have the equipment or technique to write a whole Opera. Some are brilliant at writing miniatures, but for a more extended work they don’t have the ability or even desire to. It’s very important to analyse composers, particularly those prominent in certain areas, and find out what is it that really makes that piece of music successful. Are you a composer that is very good at using harmony to evoke emotions, or to tell a story, or to get to the heart of the text? Or are you a composer that is very good at using texture, or dramatic moments? Every composer must find what they are good at, which can be trial and error. Composers can change their styles, particularly over long periods, and so it really can be a process of evolution.
A final thing could be to go to the choir you are writing for, and listen to them! When you are writing you should have them in mind, so that is it something that they can manage technically, they can enjoy and that they will be able to communicate. One of the great pleasures of commissioning is being able to match the composer with the forces that they are writing for to create a harmonious pairing and to produce the highest quality of work.
More about Suzi…
SUZI DIGBY OBE- Artistic Director & Founder
Suzi founded ORA Singers on her belief in the relevance and power of choral music, and with a desire to capture and create a new ‘Golden Age’ in choral music. Described as ‘the mother of all music’, Suzi directs the 18 singers of ORA and is intricately involved in all of it’s commissioning.
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Suzi Digby OBE is an internationally renowned Choral Conductor and Music Educator and she has trail-blazed the revival of singing in UK schools and the community. Suzi founded and runs the following influential national arts/educational organisation: The Voices Foundation (the UK’s leading Primary Music Education Charity), Vocal Futures (nurturing young audiences for classical music) and the London Youth Choir (a pyramid of 5 choirs, 8-22, serving all ethnic communities in London’s 33 boroughs). Suzi is also a visiting Professor at the University of Southern California (Choral Studies) and in 2014 launched her Californian professional vocal consort, The Golden Bridge. She was even recently awarded an honorary Doctorate of Music (DMus) degree by the University of Aberdeen.
As a conductor Suzi’s 2011 Vocal Futures debut performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion were met with outstanding critical acclaim: “Choral wizard”, “The mother of all music”, The Telegraph; “Sensitive and accomplished conductor”, Musical America; “A serious force for good within Britain’s music education system”, New Statesman, and the follow up production of Haydn’s Creation in 2013 garnered similar reviews. She completed her Vocal Futures triptych in 2015 with sold out shows of Handel’s The Choice of Hercules.
Suzi annually conducts 2,000 voices in the Royal Albert Hall in a scratch Youth Messiah which was awarded Best Classical Music Education Initiative Nationwide by popular Classic FM vote. Suzi has conducted many major choral-orchestral works with ensembles such as BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Mozart Players, The English Concert and The Brandenburg Festival Orchestra. On the lighter side of music she has provided choirs for the Rolling Stones at the O2, Glastonbury Festival and Hyde Park, amongst other venues worldwide.
Suzi has been a Trustee of Music in Country Churches, among other music and education charities. She is Past President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, and was Acting Music Director of Queens' College, Cambridge (where she founded and now runs the Queen’s Choral Conducting programme). Amongst many TV appearances, she was a judge in BBC1’s hit show, Last Choir Standing with over seven million viewers. As part of her commitment to the creation and support of contemporary music, Suzi has also led a programme of active commissioning of new compositions. As a prolific commissioner of new music, her founding of ORA Singers fulfils a lifelong ambition to create a historic legacy of recorded and published choral repertoire that creates a bridge between the great Renaissance Golden Age with that of the current era.