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Blogger in Residence: Rory Johnston

Rory Wainwright Johnston is a conductor and composer from Bradford-on-Avon, based in Manchester. He joined ORA Singers as our one of our ‘Bloggers in Residence’ in 2018, eager to share his experience of choral writing, singing, directing with the next generation.

About Rory...

Rory is a composer and conductor based in the rainy city of Manchester. Having just finished his Masters in Composition, he is gradually forging a path in the professional world of music.

Growing up within the English choral tradition as a treble at Bath Abbey, Rory’s musicianship was formed by composers like Howells and Byrd. Luckily having been played plenty of Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers on cassettes in his parents’ car as a kid, his taste broadened to encompass more than just the classical sphere. Nowadays, Rory enjoys listening to Renaissance polyphony and contemporary art music alongside R&B and 90's hiphop.

Rory is passionate about encouraging people to engage with contemporary music, opening their ears to new possibilities and sound worlds. He admires the ORA Singers for their commitment to new music and is thoroughly looking forward to working with them.

Exploring musical textures

The voice is one of the most versatile of instruments. Aside from the standard singing of words on a melodic or harmonic line, there is plenty that a singer can do to create interesting sounds, whether it’s playing with vowel sounds, vocalising syllables, or even singing overtones.

Luciano Berio, one of the giants of 20th century contemporary classical music, wrote a collection of pieces under the title Sequenza. Each piece was written for a different instrument and was an exploration of the extremes of pitch, timbre and technique that the instruments could handle - often he would find sounds and possibilities that many had never thought feasible. One of the most well known pieces in the series is the piece for voice, Sequenza III:

Many people studying A Level or IB music will have come across this at some point, as it’s regularly on the syllabus. Now, this isn’t a blog about contemporary singing, or even extended compositional techniques using the voice, but more a blog about thinking outside the box when it comes to writing for choirs.

It’s very easy to sit down to write a choral piece and have lots of nice chords and beautiful words, but end up with something that is purely homophonic, not exploring any of the vibrant possibilities of texture and timbre that come with a group of people singing together…

Don’t get me wrong, homophony can be an effective tool in a composer’s arsenal and some of the most beautiful pieces of choral music are purely homophonic, but let me give you a few examples of my favourite uses of the voice in modern music that create new and interesting sounds:

Bubbling under the surface:

In my opinion Gabriel Jackson come up with some of the most imaginative and creative textures in all contemporary choral music. His setting of the Requiem is an absolute treasure trove of sounds, but one of my favourite moments comes midway through the movement Epitaph. After a repeat of the initial motif the altos, tenors, and basses are all set off individually singing the word ‘weep’ (elongated to ‘we-ee-ee-ee-ee-eep’ etc) creating a shimmering surface of motion. Above this, the sopranos sing a gentle melody that juxtaposes the energetic movement of the lower voices with its simple serenity. Later on we get an even wider cacophony of sounds: As a soprano and tenor solo sing the melody in canon, the rest of the choir vocalise different vowel sounds. This mixture of ahs, ees, ehs, ta-ka-ta-kas, and ohs, all combine to create a rich tapestry of sound.

A manufactured resonance:

The ORA Singers have commissioned a lot of music over the last few years, but my absolute #1 piece that has been written for them is Roderick Williams’ Ave verum corpus Re-imagined. When you have a lot of voices to play with, you can achieve beautiful textures like the one achieved here. The piece, which is a reimagining of Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, uses the same opening chords as the renaissance gem, but in his re-imagining Williams uses three separate choirs over-lapping to create a human version of a piano playing with the sustain-pedal pressed down. This effect emphasises the harmonic movement of the chords, as we get to hear - as the chord shifts - how they relate to each other through the overlapping notes.

Homophony with a twist:

Einojuhani Rautavaara, a Finnish composer who died in 2016, wrote Missa a capella in 2011. This piece’s opening is incredibly magical. The Kyrie starts with the Sopranos and Altos split into three parts each, singing the words ‘Kyrie eleison’ over and over again on the same chord in a chant-like fashion. ‘But Rory’, you say, ‘I thought homophony was vanilla and boring’ – well, if we take a look at the score we can see much more going on than just regular old stacked notes. Even though the chord stays the same over many bars, Rautavaara creates a magical effect by cycling the notes of the chord around the parts. This means that all the notes in the chord are always sounded, but by a different voice at each moment as the semiquavers flow on.

Syllables on loop:

Nico Muhly a big name in current American classical music. His choral works both typify a certain American style, but are also incredibly original and creative. My favourite piece of his is I cannot attain unto it, which is an energetic and driving work that still manages to capture the beauty of its text, Psalm 139. Throughout, Muhly uses isolated syllables of the word ‘attain’ to create a looping machine that gives the music lift, direction, and a very unique texture. This isolation of syllables can be found in lots of American choral music, but it seems likely to have started with the brilliant David Lang, whose the little match girl passion won the Pulitzer prize in 2008. Another great example of the use of this comes from young, up-and-coming American composer Sarah Rimkus in her 2018 piece Uprooted.

 What I’ve listened to this week: Well… if you’ve made it this far you’ve done plenty of listening already – I’ll give you the week off!

Written by Rory Johnston

ORA Singers