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The "new" Battle Hymn?

Friends & Colleagues:  Anyone have a clue who arranged the new setting of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" sung at the Presidential Innaugural by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir?  (I'm sure it's posted somewhere on the web, and equally sure I could never find it!!)
 
I suspect that it will have a brief half-life of popularity, much like some Super Bowl settings of the National Anthem, and generate some healthy sales figures if it's published quickly, but kind of doubt that it will join the traditional Wilhousky and Ringwald arrangements as "classics," much as those Super Bowl arrangements have faded away in favor of more traditional settings.
 
It was very well written and beautifully performed, in spite of the cold weather and the difficulties of outdoor performance, and likely performed live and not prerecorded.  (And very impressive, of course, because it was written to be impressive.)
 
And that's exactly why I don't think it will have a lasting impression.  As an arranger I understand much of what goes through an arranger's mind, when presented with the need to create a new setting of a very well-known piece, but I also understand how easily that can lead to over-arranging, which is what I heard in this.  Very much like a lot of the Contemporary Christian music and albums of the '70s and '80s, it's an approach based on a perceived need to use every trick in the book on every single arrangment, which ends up in their all sounding alike, all requiring a 6-red-light ending, and if you messed up and left out a couple of Manheim Rocket string runs you'd better go back and find a place to stick some in!
 
But that's an arranger's reaction.  How about those of you who sing, or conduct, or plan programs whether for church or concert?  Did you enjoy it?  Did it speak to you?  Is my reaction wrong, or too old fashioned, or just too reflective of my own taste?  I'm really curious. 
All the best,
John
P.S.  I have to admit that I feel very different about the beautiful and tasteful backup arrangement of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" played by the U.S. Marine Band with Kelly Clarkston, leaving her free to attempt and bring off her own fireworks.  But then that's what I expect from the highly professsional arrangers who serve our top-of-the-line military musical organizations, and would be immediately squashed if they offended anyone in their chain of command.  And the grand finale arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner" actualy WAS impressive, and combined the new and the traditional in an almost perfect way.  (In the key of F, in case anyone cares, with soaring horns in the tradition of Carmen Dragon.)
Replies (32): Threaded | Chronological
on January 21, 2013 10:23am
A quick Google search revealed this, from an article in the NY Daily News:
 
"Carol Cymbala [the conductor] and keyboard arranger Jason Michael Webb wrote a breathtaking arrangement with soaring harmonies and gospel-style riffs."
 
 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 21, 2013 12:31pm
I agree with everything you have said.  I would have much rather heard the Wilhousky arrangment.
 
A friend and I were discussing the musical choices at the inauguration.  Again, I found the Battle Hymn arrangment to be over arranged and forgettable.  I was very suprised that Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir didn't utilize the Marine Band as Clarkson and Beyonce both did.  Cymbala and her choir are more a P&W team though than a traditional choir.
 
I did like Beyonce's rendition of the National anthem.  However, in our discussion I wondered why the "official" DoD version wasn't used.  I kind of feel like official state ceremonies ought to be free of artistic interpretation when it comes to the National Anthem.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on January 21, 2013 2:55pm
Jason wrote:  "I did like Beyonce's rendition of the National anthem.  However, in our discussion I wondered why the "official" DoD version wasn't used.  I kind of feel like official state ceremonies ought to be free of artistic interpretation when it comes to the National Anthem."
 
Each of the top military bands has its own private arrangement of the National Anthem, all extremely musical and classy.  My father was one of the first band directors in the Pacific Northwest to bring in the U.S. Navy and Air Force Bands on tour when I was in junior high and high school, and I remember being blown away by the quality of the arrangements (as well as the playing, of course) way back then. 
 
Agreed that for normal military maneuvers the generic DOD arrangement would probably be played.  And I'm sure there's a matching choral arrangement for it although we use one that I wrote.  But a Presidential Innauguration is NOT a normal military maneuver, it's run by a Committee rather than the DOD, and everything needs to be larger than life.  And that's especially true when recording artists are specifically asked to sing and we KNOW they're going to stylize it!  But my guess is that the Marine Band Arrangers did the "Beyonce" chart, and it isn't hers in any sense at all although it was perfectly fitted to her voice and was probably a one-off for that event.  (And they probably put it together in one rehearsal at the most!) 
 
And I'm relatively sure that both the soloists were singing completely live and not lip synching, unless they are MUCH better at it than your average recording artist.  All the muscles were working exactly as they should have been.  It did look very much as if she pulled something out of her ear rather quickly in the middle of the piece, like maybe an earbud, so maybe the audio mix of the band they were sending her was bothering her and not giving her what she needed.
All the best,
John
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 21, 2013 3:18pm
I was distracted by the pre-recorded accompaniment and multiple key changes. I actually preferred James Taylor's rendition of America the Beautiful because it was live music and musically it was more interesting.

I was glad that Beyonce didn't turn every single note into an aria during the Star Spangled Banner.I enjoyed her performance.

Applauded by an audience of 4
on January 22, 2013 4:24am
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir could not have used the Wilhousky or Ringwald arrangement, as they sing soprano/alto/tenor (SAT). No basses in this ensemble. I know because I attended one of their annual October conferences for music ministers and church choir directors to learn some of their secrets of effective choral music ministry, and have purchased some of their choral books for my choir. The Brooklyn Tab. Choir participated in the conference, demonstrating how the music is taught to them (many can't read music) and they are divided up into soprano, alto, and tenor parts and sing in 3-part harmony. I have tried their arrangements with my church choir, and have to either completely leave out the basses, or transpose the music down by at least a perfect fourth to accommodate their range (even the baritones need it lowered); but then the brilliance of timbre just LEAVES the music with everything else lowered so much. There are occasional bass notes written in as optional notes, but this part still goes high (up to an E above middle C, which baris can get but true basses, unless trained, strain to reach). Their higher pitch/timbres associated with that pitch is part of their signature sound. As Jason said, it's truly more of a "praise team" than a choir. Praise team music is typically voiced SAT, in my experience.
 
Listen carefully to the Inauguration Day performance, and see how much bass sound you hear! My guess is: very little!
 
So they pretty much had to create their own arrangement to accommodate their unique choral voicing.
 
For me, yes, there were a lot of key changes, but I found so many of them to be unusual and intriguing that frankly, I was on the edge of my seat just waiting for what would come next! This was truly something different and out of the box! I enjoyed the key changes and reveled in them. Regarding the arrangement generating lots of sales, with the key changes and many of them unusual ones, I doubt many church choirs would wish to attempt this arrangement, and even many nonauditioned community choirs. However, I woud be surprised if they put the arrangement out as an octavo. All of their music, to the best of my knowledge, is sold only in collections which are lifted directly from their recorded albums. I went to their website just now, and they don't seem to be offering "Battle Hymn" for sale. One would think that if they had planned to do this, they would have it available by the day after the performance.
 
The Brooklyn Tabernacle is a very spiritual place as far as I can tell, and I would have actually been surprised had they tried to capitalize with quick sales of the arrangement. While they welcome donations and support, I don't believe they are out to make money. Their focus really does seem to be ministry. They reach out to the homeless, those in prison, the drug-addicted on the streets, prostitutes, and many of these people get out of those lives and end up singing in the choir, alongside  professional singers and a whole range of singers in-between! That joy you saw on their faces yesterday was real joy - they always sing with this infectious joy. It doesn't need to be coached.
on January 22, 2013 10:52am
Cherwyn brings up an important and interesting point, which I'm ashamed to say I did not pick up on myself.  That is, the voicing of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir's music, and the origin of their sound.  And please forgive the dissertation that follows, but she's made me think about it.
 
Firstly, this SAT voicing featuring the high registers and a brilliant sound is not traditional choral writing, but it certainly IS traditional African-American Gospel Choir singing, and I should have recognized it as such.  And of course an intrinsic part of that sound is the concerto-grosso-like contrast of sound between worked-out choral backup singing and improvised and stylized solo singing, a sound that has leaked over into pop music but not nearly so much into classical music.  And teaching by ear rather by written music also seems to be part of this tradition, although in theory that should not affect the sound except for making certain standard "licks" common just because everyone knows them.
 
But secondly, to take one step back, our typical SATB writing is not really traditional choral writing, either, or rather it has become traditional only recently historically speaking.  The use of both men and women in choral music, and the assumption of equal high and low voice parts in each gender separated by roughly an octave, are both 19th century developments, which means that out of 2000 years of choral singing (defined as you like) it's only about 200 years old, or only 10% of that time period.  True, it's OUR time period, so we assume that it's somewhere in the footnotes to the Ten Commandments, but in fact it is not!
 
And thirdly, the further back into history we go, the less we know about music in general, how it was created, how it was performed, and how it was listened to.  But what we DO know is that while people have been writing ABOUT music for over 2000 years, there was no stable and understood musical notation until the early 11th century A.D., so about 90% of all music every created was improvised, and another 9% was passed on strictly by ear AFTER being improvised, and we've lost all but about 1% of it.  And since the one institution that had a reason and a need to preserve its heritage was the church, most of what we know about early music applies specifically to church music and we know very little about all the OTHER music that was certainly filling people's lives.
 
So, a very quick and dirty review of music history.
 
For the first 1400 years of the Christian era, most music was unison chant.  And it was sung by men alone (a practice inherited from Jewish practice, I believe), or in convents by women alone, but never mixed.  From about the 9th century on we find evidence of attempts to figure out part singing ("organum"), and from about the 11th century on there did exist a notation to preserve a small fraction of that music, but it was considered to be additions to the existing chants ("tropes") and it seems that its performance was improvised at first (and probably much later than we are led to believe!) and reserved to soloists rather than the "choir," even after a notation existed.  In fact one choral scholar states flat out that part singing by the choir did not start until the 15th century, and even then women were required to "keep silence in church" although the use of choirboys slowly caught on.
 
So the earliest music that we recognize as choral music was conceived for men's voices, with the possible addition of boys in a high treble part.  (In fact the "treble" clef came into use in the 15th century specifically for those boy trebles!)  So "choral" singing was for low men's voices, medium men's voices, and high men's voices (plus sometimes boys' voices).  And that's why renaissance music is often difficult for modern SATB mixed choirs, because they are not the instrument the music was written for.  (Don't forget that "altus" or "alto" means "high"--a high man's voice rather than a low woman's voice!)
 
Palestrina wrote for a choir of boys and men.  Bach and Handel wrote for a choir of boys and men.  Mozart and Haydn wrote for a choir of boys and men.  (Beethoven I'm not so sure about, but he would NOT have assumed women's voices for his church music.)  Women snuck into the choir through the stage, with the development of opera and opera choruses, along with the job description of "prima donna"!
 
So to return to the 21st century, I'm reminded of how many complaints there have been right on this List about the difficulty of recruiting boys to sing, the difficulty of finding men to sing, and so on.  And it IS a real problem when the bulk of the music we revere was written for SATB voices (whether mixed or all male) and more-or-less requires an equal balance of parts.
 
But the African-American Gospel approach simply sidesteps the entire question, rejects the very NEED to sing "traditional" SATB literature, and had developed a new and sustainable "tradition" of its own based on three part harmony:  a lead line (almost always in the highest voice), a middle harmony line (almst always sung by women "altos"), and a low harmony line (usually using the few men who are available and using them in a range that carries and a sound that rings).
 
So here's the question I'd like to slip in here:  Is it really worthwhile to insiste on staying with an ideal of equal-voiced SATB choral music when it's become so difficult to find boys or men to sing,  just because that's BECOME the tradition?  Or since more girls/women than boys/men seem to be interested in the performing arts (although that's also changing with more women's sports), should choir directors, composers, and arrangers go with the times and start developing a NEW esthetic ideal of accompanied 3-part writing that uses the voices that are actually available in the proprtions in which they are actually available?
 
I don't have the answers, of course, and please don't get tangled up in confusing a particular STYLE with a particular kind of VOICING in which the harmonic bass is not included in the voice parts.  But the question might well be worth thinking about.
 
Many Show Choirs have already gone all-female.  (For one thing, girls tend to have had dance training while boys are involved in sports, although that it definitely changing as well.)  And if such a choir DID have a few boys they would still not have enough male dancers to partner all the girls.  And even at the college level, while I managed to maintain a balanced voicing with 11 couples, the competition and ability level was clearly higher for the women than for the men.
 
So, my classes start this afternoon, after a semester off on medical leave.  Wish me luck!!!  (And we'll be talking about some of these exact things in class this afternoon.)
All the best,
John
Applauded by an audience of 2
on January 22, 2013 6:04am
I'm really pleased that the "assembled ears" of ChoralNet have come up for this discussion.  I, perhaps "typically" in a number of my friends' (and not) views, was moved to tears at several points.  And I have very mixed feelings about a presidential inauguration, and what it should be.
 
I understand that for many people, the "entertainment" value of the event, the stirring, the soaring, the larger-than-life elements, are a celebration.  And that's what the country wants and, perhaps, needs.  Thus, the music reflects that.  In that light, the music presented by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, Kelly Clarkson, and Beyonce fit that optic perfectly.  Senator Schumer's reaction after Kelly's rendition was, probably, typical of many there and many watching - "Wow!"
 
Yet, here we are at a time of economic difficulty - which, if you listen to one side of the argument, we're coming out of, and if you listen to the other, we're headed to rack and ruin BECAUSE of those economic decisions by this and the previous administration.  We have just had a heart-rending event in Newtown, CT (to which the poet Richard Blanco referred to in such a way that only the stoniest of hearts would not have responded - "twenty children recorded absent - forever" (I paraphrase)), and the many people who have died between then and now by human violence enabled by the ease of obtaining guns.  We have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, still affected by Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey.  We still have an uncontrolled national debt and no serious discussion, truly, on how to handle it.  I don't know that a I'm not suffering from a profound sense of unease about the sheer "chutzpah" of the overall event, of which the music is only a part.  There's something hubristic about it all.
 
I'm being a contrarian, and not necessarily addressing the issue of this thread.  I'm not a really fearful sort; but I wonder if "entertainment values" haven't grabbed our eyes and ears so fearfully strongly that our brains have stopped functioning.  Part of our mission as musicians is to reflect the fullness of an event, of a time, of a nation's soul.  John is absolutely right in this:  this is designed by committee (mostly politicians); the military bands do as they are required to do (after twenty years' service on my own part and being around military musicians, I have nothing but the highest regard for them - ALL of them - and they are a constant target of "cost-cutting" as though they contributed nothing to the nation's defense - but that's a whole 'nuther topic), and have frankly little input as to the "feel" of an event; and this isn't a typical event.  And, indeed, some may say that the solemnity, the reflective part was perhaps best captured by Richard Blanco, and that we need contrast to that, that it can't all be down.  And yet, even as I was moved by elements, the whole thing left me wondering....
 
One of the newscasters (an interesting word, rather reminiscent of a fisherman "casting" a net or line with bait attached - hmmmm.....) asked one of the people involved in the inauguration how much money had been spent on security alone, and the quoted figure given to her was in the low nine figures - like $100 million or so, and she answered that it was at least in the high eight figures.  Much of that didn't need to be spent when Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden took their official oaths of office the day before.  What happened yesterday was a "spectacle for the people" - "bread and circuses."  It was high distraction for a distracted nation - but is it good?
 
Again, I want to comment that the music was terrific, from a musician's standpoint - I did, in fact, wonder where the BTC's arrangement would be going, and while I found a few of the changes a bit confusing, overall the effect intended was reached.  But I have to agree with Austen's comment about James Taylor - it was NOT over-produced, over-arranged, and over-the-top - and that's more what I had in mind.  It wasn't glitzy, overpolished, overdone - and we've lost a lot of that gentle and straightforward approach to our public music (excepting when the military bands, orchestras, and choruses perform for a public occasion NOT the Inauguration).
 
Maybe it's just post-Inauguration blues, but does anyone else wonder about it, as I do?
 
Chantez bien!
 
Ron
on January 23, 2013 12:35pm
Very interesting discussion.  Here is my "two cents."
 
From a musical standpoint, I thought the performances were great. I would like to share my thoughts on the Star Spangled Banner.  We start every concert with the National Anthem.  I preach to my students that our National Anthem is intended to be a group sing.  It should not be a performance.  Our role is to lead the members of the audience in singing it. Therefore we should:
1.  Sing it straight so people can sing along.
2.  Don't sing it too slow.
3.  Don't add notes.
4.  Don't change the time signature.
 
I thought these beliefs were actually rules.  MENC once printed "The Code for the National Anthem of the United States of America" adopted by the National Anthem Committe, April 2. 1942.  I try to follow that.  My favorite quote from the "Code" is, "It is inappropriate to make or use sophisticated 'concert' versions of the National Anthem."
 
 I appreciated Beyonce's emotional performance.  I appreciated that she did not add too many notes.  I thought the arrangement was beautiful.  However, it seemed to me that it was not intended for people to sing along.  With all those politicians on the podium, I could not find one singing along.  I feel like as a nation we have given up on our National Anthem.  "It is too hard to sing.  People are not going to sing along.  Therefore we should not even try."  I wholeheartedly disagree.
 
If I had my druthers, we wouldn't use famous singers to "perform" our National Anthem.  We would have strong singers lead its singing.  Thanks for reading.  
 
Applauded by an audience of 7
on January 24, 2013 4:57am
Glenn - You're hitting on something very close to the point of my prior posting.  Whatever happened to doing something as written, for its own sake, as intended?  Yes, things move along in time, but it seems to me that, even though this is now a piece in the public domain, it has a character other than that of something interesting to fool around with.  I wonder how many people realize that the "Vice-President's March," for example, is "Hail, Columbia!" - a grand and rather elderly piece of music harking back at least to the end of the 18th century.  It's surely in the public domain; but there's no need to change it.  Ditto "Hail to the Chief", the President's March.  How about leaving the National Anthem alone, and as a piece ALL can sing?  Why don't we start doing that, teachers of choral music, in our schools - especially in middle and high?  I'm sure there are "straight" renditions of it that has the other three parts joining - but with one of the students encouraging the audience to join in?  Oh, yes, I've heard about all the complaints about it's too high or too low or too something or other - but it is, until otherwise changed, OUR national anthem.  Puts me in mind of the comment from a dear and now departed chaplain friend of mine, who said once at Mass that "God gave you the voice you've got; that's good enough for the rest of us."  Well, this is the national "hymn" - I don't recall seeing anywhere written on its pages "To be performed ONLY by those who are completely apt, musically."  No such dedication exists.  Yeah, it's a little piece of communitarianism (I know, such a dirty word in this politically fraught time!) - but it might do us a little bit of good.
 
Ron
Applauded by an audience of 2
on January 24, 2013 6:01pm
Hi, Ron.  I basically agree, but I'd have a hard time justifying "for it's own sake, as intended" in the case of the Star Spangled Banner.  The original is usually described as a drinking song, Anacreon in Heaven, which might not be a totally fair characterization but does point to its "as intended" origin.  But trading new words for old in any number of songs was part of 18th century musical culture, and no one thought it was anything strange.
 
Even the version first published in 1814 with Francis Scott Key's newly grafted-on words is not the exact version that seems traditional to US--perhaps not in any huge way, but therhythmic and note differences are immediately obvious to any musician.
 
No, our "as intended" goes back approximately as far as our own childhood, and the way it was done then, and I agree with you that as a national "anthem" (although an "anthem" with a vocal range of a 12th that baffles so many singers is hardly an "anthem" at all by any useful definition!) it should unquestionably be sung by everyone present (who happens to have a vocal range of a usable 12th in the particular key the band chooses to play it in!).
 
But by the same token the "as intended" for the younger generations fully embraces the shift to using it as a soloist's vehicle, even if they're too young to remember the fierce reaction caused by the original "artists" to do it as stylized solos, Jose Feliciano and (Lord help us!!) Rosanne!!!  And the generations of Orange Bowl and Super Bowl "artists" who have had their way with it in the intervening years.  To a great many living people, that IS "as intended"!
 
My own choral arrangement has been used very succesfully both a cappella and with any standard band arrangement in Bb.  It's traditional, but interesting for the singers, and doesn't attempt to stay in 4-part harmony all the way through, but goes through different textures for suitable variety without playing games with either the harmonies or the rhythms.  And while our community band went through several years of trying "modernized" arrangements, we now use the absolutely four-square, Department of Defense-approved arrangement, and invite people to sing along (although we do usually have a lead singer, and quite often our audiences no longer feel that they SHOULD sing along, unfortunately).
All the best,
John
on January 25, 2013 6:01am
I have to chime in with 2-cents worth (aka pet peeve).  While we're all singing the original anthem as intended, could we please get beyond the first verse?  We must be the only nation on earth who's anthem "ends" with a question mark - the 19th century equivalent of "Can you hear me now?"  It's not a rhetorical question or an exclamation.  Francis Scott Key was reflecting on the very real possibility that the Americans of Fort McHenry had surrendered during the night.  He asks "Does the banner yet wave?", and the question is answered gloriously in the second verse.  But, of course, by then we've already thrown the first pitch.
 
Peace to all.  And another bootless vote for a change to "America, the Beautiful".
on January 26, 2013 7:04am
 
 
In 2012 and 2011 my choir had American choirs perform as our guests in the small Languedoc village of Alzonne.  As a trinute to their coming, and to welcome them, I made an arrangement (with descant) of America the Beautiful, and before handing over the platform to the visitors, the Alzonne choir finished its audience warm-up with the unannounced singing of the arrangement.  They sang it well.  I could feel that the audience were particularly still.  In the miiddle of the piece I got a surreptitious signal from one of my choristers to look behind.  I did so.  The American choir to a man and woman were standing, hand on heart.  It clearly meant more than just a friendly welcome to them.  And it was a moment that greatly affected us too.  So perhaps there is a case for switching the US's national anthem to America the Beautiful.  John Ward may well have a point.
 
On the other hand, the arrangement I made of The Star Spangled Banner is very popular, and I quite often get emails asking for permission to use it.  There is a range difficulty, to be sure.  I ducked this by switching the tune into the alto line until the tessitura resumes a manageable singing level for the sopranos (Who could forget Roseanne Barre' difficulty?), but nobody has ever complained about this line switch.   (BTW, if anyone is interested, the arrangements are available of Score Exchange.)
 
My personal view is that a country's national anthem is on par with its flag: it demands respect and reverence in its singing.  And yes, it should be sung by all.  A choir should only lead the singing.  It should not be a concert performance to be applauded.  I would hold, in fact, that part of the singing of a national anthem should be a brief moment of absolute silence and stillnes when the last note has faded.
 
David Monks
Choeur d'Alzonne
France
on January 25, 2013 6:20am
John - Thanks for reminding us of the origins with "An Anacreon to Heaven" (or whatever its title is) for the National Anthem, as well as the rhythmic and some note variations from the version as originally sung.  I guess I just miss the full-throated (if not always accurate) belting out of the tune at baseball games and so on.  Maybe what I'm really mourning is the loss of a sense of community, which you point to at the end of our thoughts - that the audiences "no longer feel that they SHOULD sing along,...."  We've gotten so blastedly individualistic (and as a student of history, I realize that's the great point of tension in our history as a nation - the individualistic vs. the communitarian impulses) that anything which even so much as dares to ask us to "sing along" to an admittedly challenging piece of music is ignored - disdained, perhaps.  On the other hand, crowds will happily roar out - accurately or otherwise - "Hallelujah" from "Messiah."  Maybe that says more about the piece than it does about us as a nation....whatever.  Somewhat interestingly, last night I was at a Mass at George Mason U and one of the "signature tunes" of my generation, "Here I Am, Lord" was poorly sung by the attendees - and there were over 120 young people, college-age folks, in the small church attached to the GMU campus.  I'm singing away, even if I recognize all the little problems involved with this piece of music - and darn near felt I was doing a solo!  (I tend to follow my late father's prescription that, if you plan to sing, sing!)  Okay, that's not this generation's gig; BUT, on the pieces that were more "contemporary" to them, it still wasn't full-throated singing (I admit to not knowing either of the other songs we sang, but within a little bit, I'd figured out where they were going, generally speaking, so while I wasn't singing out as much as I had before, I was still offering my two cents' - well, maybe penny-and-a-half - worth).  I just have to wonder what's going on - while I know that many of us Catholic musicians complain that the congregations just don't sing, and that it's partly because until Vatican II "the people" were almost expressly forbidden to sing, at least in this country (not so elsewhere so much), one of the things we admired so much in Protestant worship was the full-throatedness of the singing.  Is that not true anymore?  Anyway, give me the four-square DoD arrangement any day.
 
Chantez bien!
 
Ron
on January 25, 2013 6:32am
I have downloaded a video of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir's inaugural day performance of "Battle Hymn" and there's something conspicuously missing--choir mics! I saw just *one* on a boom and then the soloist had her own. Yes, they were singing live, but NO, that's NOT what was being heard by the vast majority of the viewing audience, both on the national mall and on TV. They had a few playback monitors so that the conductor and choir could stay with the pre-recorded track, but it's entirely clear, from reviewing the audio and video evidence, that they were most certainly lip-syncing. Should others do as I did and browse some of the YouTube videos of this performance, you'll hear an overabundance of "bass"--but not in the choir. It sounds as if some rather poor audio engineering was taking place somewhere between the recorded tracks and what some of the networks broadcast, because the effect heard in a number of the YouTube videos is of a "boom box" with a "mega bass" control turned up to eleven (the electric bass on the track is WAY too predominant). All said, I enjoyed the arrangement and their performance--a few of the key changes caused me to wince, but I liked the way it gradually got more "gospelly" as it went along. But "live"? No way!
on January 25, 2013 10:34am
David:  I didn't notice the things you did, and I'm certain that your interpretation is correct.  Thanks for that.  But just to put things into perspective ...
 
I had members of my university show ensemble who participated in the 2nd Reagan Innaugural in '85.  The festivities for that had been planned and organized by Bob Jani, who had been my boss at Disney the two summers I directed "The All American College Singers," and my kids were wild about the invitation to participate.  (I was not there, since I was with my wife during her cancer treatments at Johns Hopkins, but my kids were well chaperoned and extremely gung-ho about the oppotunity to participate in both the parade and several of the Innaugural Balls, and the presentation was choreographed by Disney and ex-Disney people.)
 
But you may remember that that was the Innaugural when it was so miserably cold that it was deemed unsafe to have the parade at all, and it was cancelled.  And my kids felt crushed!  But I was delighted because it almost certainly saved their health.  (Later that same year they participated in the Easter Egg Roll at the White House and, with the same music and choreography, in the International Boy Scout Jamboree Opening Ceremonies at Ft. A.P. Hill.)
 
And I'm pretty certain, knowing the Disney approach to creating realistic illusions, that there were professionally-recorded tracks available, and quite probably used in both situations.  (And in fact we were REQUIRED to provide accmpaniment tracks for the Egg Roll because they couldn't give us enough time for our Showband to set up on the stage, although we NEVER performed to accompaniment tracks otherwise.)  Disney's attitude was that their presentations required one-hearing acceptance, and that no performance should ever be less than its very best.  And I can't say that I disagree with that attitude, although others certainly may do so.  Bob Jani was also involved in planning the L.A. Olympics Opening Ceremonies and a number of Orange Bowl halftime spectaculars, and the Disney folks understood exactly what the problems involved in large-scale and outdoor performances are with time lags measuable in seconds and coordination sometimes impossible.
 
But the two summers I directed their shows were also the only two summers in the program that did NOT use prerecorded tracks, and we did every show every day completely live.  And more than once we went on stage will fewer than the staged number of cast members, and our wonderful Swing couples saved the shows!  (We were also the guinea pigs for pioneering THAT concept, which has since become standard for most theme park shows.)  So I've seen both sides of this "controversy" (which really shouldn't be a controversy because it's comparing apples and pomegranites!), and there are perfectly legitimate reasons for making choices based on the particular situation, not on some overall philosophy that doesn't apply to every situation.  Lip synching is a skill like any other, and requires actually singing along (which means being able to hear the tracks clearly in real time).  But since Janet Jackson popularized the hairdo-mic, it can be pretty hard to tell when someone is in fact synching, and really, why should we care?!!
All the best,
John
on January 25, 2013 8:04pm
I don't have an issue with it having been "faked" (as it undoubtedly was), I'm just a little surprised that my colleagues didn't notice. :-)
 
I grew up on Southern California, and was tempted to audition for the All American College Singers, but I think my hair was probably too long for Disney. I seem to remember that it was "Kids of the Kingdom" before that? I had a friend from Cal. State Fullerton performing at the parks in one of those programs, maybe even with you, John. I also remember choreographer Marilyn Magness, who student-taught at my high school and then did a LOT of work for Disney.
 
One last thing about the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir performance--NY Senator Chuck Schumer's joke upon introducing them was priceless! :-)
on January 26, 2013 8:32am
David:  As I remember the sequence of events (as it was told to me) at Disneyland, in the early '70s they experimented with an independent young show ensemble that may have been called "The Young Americans" or something like that.  (One of the members of that group was Craig Fields, who later was on our faculty here as choral conductor and voice teacher.)  The experiment worked so well for them that they formed their own show ensemble, "The Kids of the Kingdom," probably in about the mid-'70s, and they were on year-round professional contracts in both parks.
 
The group I directed, "The All American College Singers," was an entirely separate program with educational objectives, aimed specifically at college students.  It was summer season only, they would not audition anyone younger than 18, and it was a requirement that the kids have at least one year of college left so they would take back and share what they learned.  In fact Disney would not give them a professional audition until a year after they left the program.  And once the show was up and running, they spent their mornings in workshops with top-notch professionals in all aspects of the entertainment business, and the afternoons or evenings doing shows on the Tomorrowland Stage (which we shared with the Mouseketeers early in the day and the Kids of the Kingdom later in the day).  But of course the program was also a wonderful recruiting tool for Disney, and I believe Marilyn Magness was an early alumna of the program whom they brought back to do choreography for them.
 
I got the job because Randy Booth, who directed "The Young Ambassadors" at BYU and had directed the shows at Disneyland for a couple of years, had to drop out to take his college group to China on tour.  And I was asked to handle the national vocal auditions the following winter, and came up with a way to test for the ability to learn and retain a harmony part accurately rather than some kind of spurious "sightreading" test that tested no such thing!  (And it should come as no surprise that those who were best at it were those with lots of choral experience, while those who did worst had lots of theater experience but very little choral experience!)  And we were also tasked to pick one "Swing Couple" out of our cast who were to learn every track in the show and be prepared to go in to replace anyone on a moment's notice, and the following winter we actually auditioned for Swings and were able to select some really amazing talents.  And of course we were auditioning for singer-dancers, not just some who could sing and others who could dance. 
 
Once the show was up, our Swing Couple went in for a different couple every day.  The first time around, the couple replaced were to observe the show from the audience and give notes to the cast.  (Amazing, how much you can learn doing that!!)  After that, the couple would work that day in various parts of the park to show them everything that had to be involved in producing shows like Disney's.  Until, of course, illness and injuries caught up with us, and our Swings actually had to replace people who were too sick to perform or who were waiting for medical clearance to go back on stage.
 
But for my two summers my shows were done 100% live, with no prerecord at all.  And by mid-August of our first summer our cast was still putting out high energy and were still exciting and alive, while the videotapes we saw of the cast in Florida (where they WERE working with prerecorded tracks) showed a cast that looked half asleep.
 
So Disney did not NEED the college program, unlike other theme parks that hire college students to BE their professionals.  They already had their professionals on full-time contracts.  And it really was conceived and carried out as an educational program.  But when the accountants were looking at the expense of building and starting both Tokyo Disneyland and the European Disneyland the college program was cut back, and I believe that lately it has only involved instrumental ensembles.
All the best,
John
on January 25, 2013 7:44am
My penny and a half - I agree with all who said our national anthem SHOULD be participatory.  I wonder if any other countries have theirs performed rather than communally sung.
 
Some might find thislocal blog post interesting:  
 
 
David
on January 25, 2013 12:35pm
David & Colleagues:  Interesting that the blame in that blog is put on pop music and only on pop music.  Especially since the origin of this particular kind of melismatic ornamentation can be legitimately traced back to 16th-18th century Italian ornamentation using divisions of longer notes into shorter notes, something singers--especially opera singers--were EXPECTED to do just as singers in SOME pop styles are today.  But the direct influence, unless I've missed something along the way, is through African-American Gospel style, in which a number of excellent singers grew up and then "graduated" into pop music while taking their stylizations along with them.  And I'd hazzard a guess that even those white country singers who use a similar style picked it up largely from church music.
 
And in fact the "pop" singers of previous generations did NOT overstylize, although they did find less obtrusive ways to make each song their own.  The crooners didn't, and the more traditional country singers didn't.  What they DID do was play with the speech rhythm and melodic rhythm, especially singers like Sinatra who obviously loved the sound and feel of words in his mouth and loved to play with them.  (True confessions here:  While I did not finish my Ph.D, one of the dissertation studies I was considering would have been a comparison of 18th century vocal ornamentation with modern ornamentation used by a certain core group of country singers.)
 
But the general argument seems to be that the esthetic imperatives that are current in classical singing should also be applied in styles that have very little in common with classical singing.  And when you look at it that way and uncover the undersying assumption, it doesn't look quite as self-evident any more.  All I'm saying is that the esthetic judgements applicable to one particular genre or style cannot and should not be assumed to apply equally to ALL genres or styles.  I look back to the several tours I was privileged to play with Henry Mancini in his string section.  Many of those with me on the stage right side listened to the jazz players on the stage left side and couldn't understand how they could play the solos differently every night.  While the jazz players listened to us and couldn't understand how we could stand to play exactly the same notes every night with no creativity!
 
No, I do NOT like overstylized "Star Spangled Banners," but that IS a style and it DOES make sense to a lot of people.  And on what basis should that dislike be extended to songs that are NOT official national anthems, like "My Country 'Tis of Thee"?  It does seem to take a certain level of arogance to claim that everyone who thinks such stylization is acceptable is wrong, and only we are right.  And of course it's all too easy to ignore esthetic changes in long-ago generations.  When Martin Luther wrote "Ein feste Burg" he wrote it in a lively dance-like rhythm alterntaing duple and triple time subdivisions, but by the time Bach got his hands on it it had devolved into a square quarter note approach.  So which of those should be the "traditional" interpretation, and which should be considered the "composer's original intent"?
All the best,
John
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 27, 2013 4:49am
Hello Listers:
 
Much time and thought has been given to this latest round of inaugural music and the result has made for interesting reading.  Allow me to throw in the thoughts of Duke Ellington who said, "If it sounds good, it is good."
 
Steve
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 27, 2013 5:53am
Thanks for the quote, Steve. BTW, much of the music at the 2009 inauguration ceremonies was *also* "canned" (pre-recorded). Here's an interview of Yo-Yo Ma about his "faking it" (in a piano trio by John Williams with Itzhak Perlman and Gabriela Montero)--even more fake than Beyoncé or the Brooklyn choir, in that the piano hammers were disabled and they didn't rosin their bows:
 
on January 27, 2013 12:43pm
David - I have to raise some protest at the phrasing, which you may not have meant to be so harsh, but which conveys an unfortunate idea - "even more fake than Beyonce or the Brooklyn choir" etc.  Sorry, fake is fake; there is no such thing, truly, as MORE fake.  The reasons Ma gives in the NPR interview are that of a thoroughly professional and committed musician who is confronted, as were the others, with the reality of playing instruments NEVER MEANT TO BE PLAYED OUTDOORS IN THESE CONDITIONS (except perhaps the clarinet - and even then I can see the reed being a real problem, never mind the keys sticking or just flat not functioning) acting responsibly and insuring that a positive image of musicians and musicianship at a time of high national interest and celebration would be transmitted.  Do we become upset when pop stars lip-synch?  Well, yeah; but we expect it.  But the sense of your note seems to be "how dare classical musicians claim to be great artists but do this sort of thing?"  If you listen carefully to Ma and his interview, he points out that the Marine Band, the President's Own, does this as well - because instruments don't do well in sub-freezing conditions.  So, would the solution be either playing it over a loudspeaker system without human "intervention" or "participation," or not even have music at all?  Realities intrude, unfortunate as they may be; and because of our technological advancements, we can "fake" this sort of thing rather convincingly.  Should we think less of Ma or Perlman or the other two?  No, I don't; nor should we.  Would you really want to see a six-figure Strad cello crack in those circumstances (I strongly suspect Ma didn't even have his usual instrument there, though that's not the issue - but it IS a concern he should have)?  I don't think so.  If the Inauguration were held in a downpour, I don't think we should be particularly disturbed if they "fake" the playing in light of the damage which the instruments themselves should suffer otherwise.
 
But then, that goes back to my question earlier:  has the Inauguration as a celebration lost its way?  How about it, folks?
 
Chantez bien!
 
Ron
on January 28, 2013 6:31am
Sorry you took it as harsh, Ronald--I don't think it was, and I'll explain. On the topic of live performance with electronic amplification/reinforcement, there is indeed such as thing as varying degrees of "fakeness," in that there's a variety of possible options, ranging from using only a recording, with musicians (including singers) not making any perceptible sounds, to a mixture of live with pre-recorded (an increasing practice, enabled by improved technology), to a singer's pitch being corrected in real time (using "auto tune"), to entirely live (although if there's compression and/or equalization involved in the amplification, that too will alter the perception of the sounds make by the live singer/instrumentalist). Here's an interesting article that gives some "insider info" about the practice of using pre-recorded elements in otherwise "live" performances:
 
 
Like many things in life, this isn't a dichotomous ("black or white") issue, in that it has shades of gray (but not necessarily "50"). So, although it was a bit of an "apples and oranges" comparison, stating that the instrumental trio's performance in 2009 was "more fake" than Beyoncé's is defensible and accurate, and wasn't meant to criticize the venerable Mr. Ma in the slightest. In less than two weeks, I'll be attending the 55th GRAMMY Awards and I expect that *most* of what I'll hear there will include live, rather than pre-recorded vocals, but to paraphrase the successful Clairol advertising catchphrase, "only the sound engineers will know for sure." :-)
on January 28, 2013 4:23pm
Point made, David, and I thank you for the clarification.  I guess you're right; there are degrees of fakery.  And don't that say all?  I suppose I should've kept in mind Mr. Clemens' dictum of "There are three kinds of lies:  lies; damned lies; and statistics."  And which of these is this?  I read the article; and I guess that's where I part ways with a goodly part of the "music industry" ('industry' is right - should we be surprised if it, like salmon, is 'canned'?).  We've become a society who wants perfection at all price - any price - and the almighty dollar is driving it; and if a good deal of flummery is involved, well, as is attributed to P. T. Barnum, "There's a sucker born every minute."  I know; it's not anything that I or probably any of us can change.  And yes, I've spent my time cringing at poor performances throughout my 60 years; but give me a live performance that doesn't rely on trickery, flummery, fakery, any "-ery," but is clean and honest and upfront - and whose results are sometimes so breathtaking that no amount of amplification or engineering would improve it.  And maybe that is exactly what is wrong in general with the society at large...but that's a whole 'nuther topic, and not likely an acceptable one here.
 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 29, 2013 5:26am
I'm confident that most of us agree with your "give me a live performance..." statement, Ron. :-)
on January 29, 2013 6:13am
Regarding all the comments about "faking it" and how instruments were not meant to be played in the cold and outdoors, etc.....have you ever tried to sit in the freezing cold for a few hours and then get up and sing?  A singer's instrument experiences difficulties as well as any other instrument when exposed to extreme weather.  I feel sure Beyonce decided at the last minute to use a pre-recorded track as she was at the end of the program and had been sitting there for the entire ceremony.  I thought she , Kelly Clarkson, James Taylor,and the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir were all terrific.  I don't think the Marine Band had anything to do with Kelly Clarkson's performance other than playing their version - she just did her own thing which she does so beautifully.  As far as singing with the national anthem, no one ever does sing along really so why not have a fantastic version from a major singing star that is current with the direction and youth in our country.  As for the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, it is my opinion that they were performing live ( particulary the soloist) and I was very moved by hearing something new.  I think the Wilhousky arrangement is tired at this point and hearing something that incorporated not only the diversity in the choir but in our nation, was wonderful to me.  And good grief, it's the inauguration, what's wrong with a big ending? 
As Lamar Alexander said about the words Alex Haley lived his life by, "Find the good and praise it!".  Personally, I loved the whole thing.  But I was listening with my heart, first and foremost.....
on January 30, 2013 5:00am
Don't get us wrong, Catherine, I think most of us loved it too. Commenting on the minutiae doesn't imply dissatisfaction with the end result. Yes, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir was singing, but no, what we heard on TV and what the audience heard wasn't "live" as there weren't microphones in place to capture their singing. Still, they sang along with their recording very convincingly.
on January 31, 2013 5:25am
David,
To sing along with their own recording, they would have all had to have monitors in their ears and they did not.  Otherwise, with the delay of singing outdoors to a recording coming from speakers, they would have all been off and not matched up to what came across the TV, right?   I really want to solve this mystery because I'm convinced it was live.  How could all  of those singers been lip-synching exactly right?  One singer lip-synching is far different from a hundred or more.  I"m just curious more than anything.  Watching the soloist for BTC convinced me it was live.  Here's my other question I would love solved.  If Beyonce was singing to a recording, how could it match up to the Marine Band playing live?  They would both have to be pretending to sing/play to their dual recording from the studio?  How else could this be matched up?  Quite often, when performers sing to a recording, they actually do sing along with themself but what the audience hears is the recording they are singing along to, not their voice.  I"m sure you know that. 
I appreciate your response to my earlier statements.  Would love more help clarifying this whole issue.
Thanks,
Catherine
on January 31, 2013 9:36am
Catherine:  Not to put words into David's mouth, but answering from my own experience.  The answer to both of your questions is the same.  In order to lip-synch properly, it is NOT necessary that they "all had to have monitors in their ears," nor it is necessary for them to try to synch with speakers that are far enough away to create a time delay.  What IS necessary is that they be able to hear the prerecorded tracks in real time and simply sing along with them, and that meant that they have to have monitor speakers that they can easily hear.  And those speakers can be very small and at floor level, and would have been effectively invisible.  As to whether or not WE heard their singing live, David is quite correct that in order to do so there would have had to be quite a bunch of mics in evidence, and there were not.
 
You do NOT try to synch with the big house speakers and fight the time delay and bouncing reverb off the back wall of the auditorium or off outdoor buildings!  And that's true indoors, outdoors, in a TV studio, on a movie set, or any place else that lip synching is used.  This is a technology that's as old as the movie business, and has just gotten better and more sophisticaled over the years.  No one would have even known that Beyonce had an ear bug in her ear if she had not grabbed it and gotten rid of it--it was completely invisible!
 
On the other hand, one of the reasons the Beatles gave for stopping doing live shows and turning to the recording studio was that the monitor technology of the late '60s was not good enough for them to hear THEMSELVES on stage with the audience screaming, so the technology HAS changed and improved over the years.
 
And it doesn't work if you "pretend" to sing or play.  You have to be able to hear the tracks and then you have to sing or play along with them.  *IF* the Marine Band was playing live, they had to hear the tracks as well.  And their monitors would have been equally difficult for the audience to see.  Alternatively, just the conductor might have heard the tracks--did anyone notice whether he seemed to be using headphones?
 
During the two seasons I directed (live!!!) shows for Disney, The Kids Of The Kingdom shows all used prerecorded studio tracks.  At Disneyland the choreographers were in charge of their shows, and there were times when, for example, the men would be singing full voice when there were actually no men on stage!!!  The proportions were probably something like 85% tracks and 15% live, although all the solos were sung live (as I suspect they were with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, although I have no way of proving it). 
 
But at Walt Disney World the Head of Live Entertainment was a former studio singer himself, and he insisted that the shows be more like 25% tracks (for consistency and quality control) and 75% live (again with all the solos sung live), which meant that his choreographers had to carefully choreograph the mics, the mic stands, and the mic cables or they would have ended up in a tangled mess!!  And that's true of ANY live show with active choreography.  We had to do the same with my university show ensemble, or the sound techs wouldn't have been able to keep track of which mics to bring up for solos.  (We never used tracks and used a live Showband, so balance was always critical.)
All the best,
John
on February 1, 2013 6:57am
Everything we heard from Beyoncé (she finally confessed yesterday), the BTC, and the Marine Band (during Battle Hymn, at least) was pre-recorded (I agree with John about not being sure about the BTC's soloist). The only ones who probably wern't making much actual sound would have been the Marine Band--singers aren't loud enough to cause problems if they sing along to tracks, but band instruments are louder than singers. You'll note that the cameras never once showed us the Marine Band during Beyoncé's performance, as the producers/crews were all surely informed how things were working. There's not a delay problem if there's no significant distance that the sound has to travel, as was the case here, in that the recording is both fed to the performers and out over the TV feed simultaneously (although it would be an easy matter for them to introduce a slight delay to better synchronize sights and sounds). A careful inspection of the videos will show several monitors for the choir, placed high on stands so as to get them closer to the singers for this very purpose. Listening to the audio portion of the Battle Hymn videos, you can also tell that the acoustics and mix are not from and outdoors performance. While Broadway choruses do indeed now get individual mics, there's still a reasonable limit of how many wireless signals they can accommodate and 200+ is surely beyond that limit.
 
Nobody is making a big deal about this publicly because of general ignorance about how choirs work, logistically and acoustically, while after years of shows like "American Idol," everyone thinks they're experts about solo singers. :-)
on February 1, 2013 9:10am
David is quite correct that there's a limit to how many broadcast mics can be used at once.  After all, each of those mics, whether self-contained or in a body pak, is a miniature radio broadcast station, and it requires a separate receiver on a matching frequency for EACH mic.  And there are simply a limited number of frequencies available.
 
In the early days of broacast mic use, say in the early and mid-'70s, there were other problems, including far fewer frequencies available for their use.  There were some convention centers, like Detroit's Cobo Hall, where the broacast signals would bounce off the structural steel in the building itself and produce weird results.  And using single antennas contributed to the signals cutting in and out before diversity systems using spacially-separated antennas came into use.
 
I've been out of that side of the business for a number of years.  In my shows at Disney in the late '70s we used 2 wireless broacast solo mics (hand held, not hairdo mics), and the rest of the mics were wired and on mic stands.  In my university ensemble the same, up through the early '90s:  two wireless (hand held) solo mics and 11 (hand held but on stands) cabled mics.  The fact was that the cost of the early broadcast mics was very high, and that restricted their use and required some creativity to get the best use out of them.
 
We do use up to about 20 hairdo broadcast mics for our annual community musical production, but we've acquired them over the years because of the cost, and our actors have to be trained in their proper use and learn when to keep silent back stage!  But since we don't have professional voices we need the reinforcement just to keep the singers from oversinging and losing their voices.  My usual fight is not about that, but to keep the sound techs from putting mics in the orchestra pit, because my feeling is that WE should create the proper balance and not compete with the singers we're accompanying.  But when that gets hairy is when the singers on stage seem to need to hear more orchestra in their monitor mix.  But of course, as Catherine points out, all the singing and all the playing is live, and we're just talking about creating good balances and not lip synching.
All the best,
John
on February 1, 2013 5:43am
JOhn,
Thanks so much for your run-down of how that all works.  As a former Broadway singer, we always sang live.  When I started in the early 80's, we had floor mikes and hanging mikes only.  By the time I stopped my musical theater career in 2000, every person on stage had a body mike - even the chorus!  I have never lip-synched although I remember all the shows at Radio City were done this way.  I"m still not convinced about BTC, but your explanation goes a long way in understanding how it might have been done.  Either way, it was all great to me and a real celebration of singing, both solo and choral.   I completely understand lip-synching outside in January!
thanks again,
Catherine
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