Oh My God, It's a Duck!

Most babies are cute. They're a little useless, but they provide hours of entertainment and bring fulfillment and joy to the people who are charged with their care. I want a cute little baby someday.

Now, with that said... not all babies are cute. 

On the rarest of occasions, you peer over into the stroller and see what can only be described as a tiny eggplantine creature, purple skin (not feathers!), with two different sizes of googly eyes glued onto the opposite sides of its head, its pringles-shaped lips quacking back at you like mallard who did NOT get as much bread as he wanted at the lake that day. And in that moment you have to stifle the urge to go: "Oh my God, it's a duck!"

Why can't you say that? Because it would be rude. Nobody, in their right mind, is ever going to tell another human that their baby is a duck, even if everyone can clearly see that it's a duck. The fact is, that parent, simply by virtue of being its parent, loves that duck. That parent thinks that the duck's purple skin is beautiful, and finds it endearing that it can't look at anything straight on because it has the optical configuration of a walleyed pike. Whether that parent made that thing from scratch or adopted it as its own, the duck is its child, and that is the end of the discussion. 

(By the way, that's wonderful! Love and respect for all life on earth is a great and noble virtue, and there is nothing more sad than a parent who doesn't love their child.)

But what happens when that duck goes out into the world? I know we'd like to assume that every duck finds its place, but the fact is, there are people in this world who simply will have nothing to do with that duck. And fair enough, I suppose. When you're looking for a friend or a mate, there are a lot of choices out there, and people want to make the best one. Life is short--why waste your time on a duck? So that duck goes about its life, living lonely and sad, with no one to talk to. That duck's parent knows it's an amazing duck, but yeah, at this point, we've all pretty much accepted that it's a duck. Eventually you can't lie to yourself anymore. The hope is always there though, that somewhere out there, there will be someone who sees that duck and goes that's the one for me. It can happen! It's just... pretty rare. 

Now, don't freak out and try to draw conclusions that aren't there, because we're not really talking about people here. We're talking about compositions. Musical ones, specifically. 

I recently looked at a new piece by a composer who's struggling to get a work performed. I won't name them here, because it would be really unfair, especially after everything I just said about ducks. And to be fair, "the piece" that they've written is probably not a true duck (more on that later). But it does have some definite issues. 

1) It's way too hard for 99% of choirs out there today
2) Even for those who could do it, it's not terribly idiomatic, so it would feel more like an exercise than real music making. 

The problem is, he's had a hard time getting a straight answer out of anybody about this. Which is where I have a huge problem.

Long story short: we need to start telling composers that their works are ducks. Tell them about their terrifying children, and tell them why they're so terrifying. Because the good news is, unlike with so many parents and their children, we as composers get to make as many works of art as we can, and we expect them to get better over time! But we can only do that if we get thoughtful, reasoned critiques from people whose opinions we respect. I know it's exhausting: I just reviewed a different 8-minute work for someone, and even just giving it the once-over is tiring. But if we as artists (singers, composers, conductors) are going to further our craft, we absolutely depend on each other for it. 

I'll start. Here's my biggest "duck." It's called Assurance, and there are several things about it:


  • The text by William Stafford. Amazing. Too bad I can't take credit and the permission to set at this point has expired. Whoops.

  • The unfolding of parts in m 2-4. 

  • Love the way that key change sounds in measure 16!

  • Great "crunchy" bits in the midsection, (measure 22, etc)

  • Nice and challenging for a very advanced choir! 


  • An 8-part split (much less marketable for non-collegiate groups)

  • Mixed meter (almost impossible to conduct)

  • Confusing entrances (very hard to count)

  • Poorly written counterpoint

  • WHAT is that key change in measure 16?!

  • Okay, how many modulations are we going to have? 

  • Okay, measure 45 is just stupid. Who writes that?

  • Also, a 3-part bass split in measure 49? One of those is a LOW C? Only Rachmaninov is allowed to do that. 

  • Choir is constantly having to think intervallically to navigate the multitude of tonal centers with no support. Also, there are multiple times where a passage repeats, but in a different key, so the choir can't use prior knowledge and essentially has to re-learn another section. 

  • Phrases are also extremely long and sustained, which means that having to deal with extremely complicated tonal and occasional rhythmic issues, they also can't breathe naturally while they do it. 

Any one of these cons by themselves may not be a huge deal. But if you put them together, it's obvious what you have. 

One final observation: many of the "Pros" are the same thing as "Cons," just viewed in a different light. So maybe someday someone will program Assurance... but I'm not holding my breath. In the meantime, try to take this as a good-faith gesture: if you ask for my critique, from now on, you'll get it. There's not much else I can do to fix this issue!