While I am always looking for accessible choral music, I am also constantly seeking pieces that stretch and teach singers. After all, too much simplicity can get boring very quickly! So music with challenging rhythms, meter changes that adapt to text, and surprising but logical harmonic progressions usually moves right to the top of the pile. This week’s post examines two modern pieces that are complex and musically interesting yet accessible to intermediate-level SATB choirs and beyond.
The first is “Song of Kabir” by Elizabeth Alexander. This stunningly elegant setting of a mystical text by 15th Century Indian poet Kabir is written for a cappella SATB voices. Alexander bows to the text, allowing it to dictate meter in a largely homorhythmic texture. The piece starts diatonically in F major but begins to move gradually down by whole steps, as if to paint the notion of immanence the poet speaks of. She then returns to F major, repeating the opening text (“You are in us, and we are in You”) and melodic material before closing in the key with “Blessed are all who see You”. Though the harmonies shift throughout the piece, they make perfect sense to the ear, helping singers to more easily find notes. Ranges in all four voices are very moderate, and there is only brief split in the soprano section. There are a few conducting challenges (if we are going to keep our singers on their toes, why not stretch ourselves as well?) due to meter changes and phrasing, but the song is to be sung “fluidly”, giving you some room to let the piece breathe as you feel appropriate. “Song of Kabir” is published by Seafarer Press and is available here.
“I Lift My Eyes” by Joan Szymko is another example of a work that is extremely satisfying and impressive yet attainable. The text includes words from Psalm 121 and a meditation by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. With no fewer than six key changes, one might think this piece a bit of a stretch (your accompanist will certainly earn his or her pay and then some!), but the modulations are so logical that they are sometimes easy to overlook. It begins with a solo line and leads into a simple chant that quickly becomes polyphony before voices sing in unison the words, “I am free”. As the piece moves on, the harmonic texture becomes thicker, with a couple of divisi notes here and there. Right before its climactic ending, the voices cut down to a piano dynamic to enter one by one, with each successive voice easily finding its pitch from the part before. This happens again and again, growing dynamically and increasing in pitch to the finish—once more, “I am free”. With its rich accompaniment and sustained notes, “I Lift My Eyes” is probably best suited for a somewhat larger choir, but you will quickly find how easy it is to teach and sing. This piece is published by Santa Barbara Music Publishing, is also available for SSA, and can be found here.
Do you also seek out music that is both challenging and accessible? What pieces do you recommend? Please share in the comments, and, as always, feel free to e-mail me ideas for pieces you would like to see featured in “Music Within Reach” at .
Brandon Moss is a choir director, teacher, and composer/arranger living and working in Central Ohio. He teaches at Central Crossing High School, directs the Chalice Choir at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, and serves in leadership roles with the Ohio Choral Directors Association and the Ohio Music Education Association. He is currently working on the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Conducting at The Ohio State University.