The Evolution of Choral Concerts: Creating Multisensory Experiences

No longer is choral music constrained to choristers standing on risers at the front of a church or concert hall. In recent years, the traditional format has evolved into multisensory, multimedia experiences.

Numerous Chorus America member choruses are staging productions that combine choral music with an array of other media and art forms, including film, sound tracks, dance, and even circus acrobatics. Their experiences prove that the effective use of multimedia can elevate choral music and its meaning and create an exciting new experience for singers and audiences.

Under the Big Top

Joseph Caulkins, Artistic Director of the Key Chorale of Sarasota, is a big proponent of multisensory choral experiences. In January 2012, the Chorale collaborated with Circus Sarasota to present the second season of its popular Cirque des Voix™, a blend of live choral and orchestral music with the circus performances. 

The show began powerfully with the full chorus and orchestra performing "O Fortuna" from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana along with an opening act of fire-eaters and twirlers. Excerpts from Karl Jenkin's Requiem were accompanied by a balancing act and circus performers. The drama of a high-wire balancing of Tino Wallenda and the Flying Wallendas was intensified by a selection of movie scores—John Williams' "The Lost World: Jurassic Park") and Hans Zimmer's "Gladiator." An aerial duo flew together to Howard Blake's "Walking in the Air" with all musical forces on hand in what one reviewer called "simply mesmerizing."

Cirque des Voix performance imagePhoto courtesy of Key Chorale of Sarasota. Cliff Roles Photography.

Combining art forms in this way is not a gimmick, Caulkins said. He believes it is a way to spread an appreciation of choral music to tech-savvy consumers. “As our audiences get used to this increasing amount of information they process, we can’t always expect that a standard, beautifully performed choral performance will reach beyond our audience base." he said.

On opening night of Cirque des Voix™, only one third of the audience had attended a prior performance by either the choir or the circus. “We’re in the business of performing music that transcends," Caulkins said, "and by adding careful and thoughtful multimedia presentations we can create something new and cohesive that our audiences will never forget.”

Choral Music and Film

In June 2012, Cantate Chamber Singers of the Washington DC metro area, premiered a new work for chorus and small orchestra to accompany the 1928 silent film, "The Wind," starring a young Lillian Gish.

The movie’s story involves a young Virginia girl transported to western Texas, spooked by the wind and forced to fend off the attentions of a bevy of rough cow hands. Written by composer Andrew Earle Simpson, the new score "heightened the film's impact with a recurrent and unsettling wind theme, music that captures the desolation of the arid countryside, the wildness of cowboy life and the abandon of the dance," wrote Washington Post reviewer Joan Reinthaler. "That the choral performance was so embedded in the visual-dramatic ensemble that you can’t talk about it on its own is a testimony to the excellence of the undertaking."

Lillian Gish in "The Wind"Lillian Gish in The Wind

Writing the score to synchronize to the film's action was not difficult, Simpson said. "I composed the score with a software program called Sibelius," he said. "I was able to synchronize the music with the film by importing a QuickTime version of 'The Wind'. So, as I worked, the video appeared in a small window, and I could see instantly how the music linked to the images and could adjust it as needed."

Synchronizing with the chorus and orchestra in real time was much trickier. "When musicians perform a piece of music, they naturally change tempo slightly, sometimes speeding up a little, sometimes slacking up a bit, as inclination or the moment of performance might dictate," Simpson said. Getting the synchronization down required several piano rehearsals with Cantate's music director Gisele Becker conducting as she tracked the progress of the film on a laptop.

"It was one of the hardest things I have ever done," Becker said. "Even though I went through it with the film countless times, it was always slightly different. Having 'hit points' where I knew what should be happening on the screen at a particular point in the music was very helpful. Andrew's piece was written beautifully in this way, as he really did think about ends of scenes and allowing time for such adjustments."

Cantate premiered the work at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Centre in Silver Spring, Maryland, to a sold-out audience that included regular subscribers as well as a new group of film lovers. A repeat performance is scheduled for the Library of Congress's Mt. Pony Theater in May of 2013.

Bring on the Dance

In her role as Artistic Director of the Minnesota Chorale, Kathy Romey has overseen a number of multisensory concerts through the Chorale's Bridges project—an outreach program designed to create musical and social bonds between diverse populations within the community.

For its recent project, "Join the Dance!", the Minnesota Chorale collaborated with both the Courage Center, a provider of rehabilitative services for people with disabilities, and the Dance Exchange, a Takoma Park, MD dance company.

During the Chorale’s performances, members of the chorus and patients from the Courage Center used sign language and movement to accompany the music. The Chorale performed a sampling of this concert at the Opening Night Concert of the 2012 Chorus America Conference in Minneapolis.

The preparations for "Join the Dance!" started early—18 months in advance. First, Romey and her collaborators brainstormed how to use music and movement to highlight the community connections that are the goal of the Bridges program. Romey wanted the audience to walk away with a sense of community, even if that meant shifting the focus away from the choir.  “The music was not the driving force,” she said. “The partnership was.”

Toward that end, Romey chose music with English lyrics and simpler melodies, so as to not distract from the dance elements and the cooperation between the choristers and disabled members of the Courage Center. Members of the Dance Exchange also began experimenting early with Courage Center and choral members who volunteered to dance.

In order to effectively touch the audience, Romey searched out small concert spaces that would make the performance more intimate and accessible. Romey also looked for facilities with ample space and accommodations for audience members with disabilities and wheel chairs.

The result of all of this effort and advance planning were performances that entertained—but also taught something about what it means to reach across barriers of culture, age, and ability.

“The singers all said it was the most powerful and impactful performance they ever participated in,” said Romey. "And audiences were equally moved."

Clip from "Join the Dance!" courtesy of Minnesota Chorale. Videographer: John Walsh.

Words to the Wise

Choruses that have staged multimedia, multisensory performances have learned a few lessons along the way, which they are happy to pass along.

The conductor must wear many hats.

“You need to not only be the conductor but also the technical director,” said Caulkins. “You need to do everything you usually do and be able to add the additional layers of performance that these events require.” That means you must focus on more than just the music. In the final rehearsals, the the choir gets “less of my attention as I need to be concerned with the total presentation.”

Be clear about your technical needs...and expect glitches.

Cirque des Voix™ was first staged in a circus tent—not the standard venue for a choral group, but essential for a show with so many moving parts. “Knowing exactly the technical needs you require in advance can be tricky,” Caulkins explained. “It is essential in being sure your venue and support staff can help realize your vision for the project.”

Even with advance planning, be prepared for glitches. At the Cantate performance of "The Wind," the theater was unable to sync the film to a small monitor. "I had to conduct from the full-size screen," Becker said. "Even though all the performers were on the floor, I mainly had to visually ignore them. And the crick in my neck—ow!"

Flexibility is a must.

Romey found during rehearsals that she had to forgo her self-possessed, “very linear” rehearsal style in favor of a more flexible approach. “I needed to be open to the journey and open to the dialogue,” Romey said. 

While Romey led the rehearsals, her dancing collaborators were constantly shaping and altering the product. “I had to stop and open myself to what everyone was thinking. I had to accept that the process was different than what I was accustomed to."

The buck stops with the director.

Caulkins maintained the last word on all aspects of the concert. "You have to not be afraid to pull the plug when either the multimedia aspect is not professional enough or takes away from the music, or the costs escalate to an unreasonable amount.”

Start small.

It doesn't have to be a circus. Any choral organization can put on a multimedia concert. "Simply start with a fairly small project or concept first so it will be a success," Caulkins said. "Along the way, seek out those technical people that can help you realize your vision and bring their expertise to the various projects you dream up.”


For more examples of out-of-the-ordinary choral concerts, see Out of the Concert Hall... from the Fall 2009 issue of The Voice.