Various: American Polyphony (Q&A - BBC Music Magazine, 2015)

Stephen Layton tells Rebecca Franks how he came up with an all-American programme for his choir Polyphony.

What inspired this programme?

It was the realisation that the latest American choral composers, such as Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre owe everything to the real giants before them: Copland, Bernstein and Barber.  I have performed Barber's Reincarnations many times.  There aren't many Copland pieces for choir, so we've often performed those early pieces he wrote in Paris.  Curiously the piece I haven't performed very often is the famous Agnus Dei. But I knew it, as we all did, and it was an inspiration to think, dare I say, what one might do with that wonderful score with Polyphony singing it.

Is there a specifically American choral sound?

My approach to American repertoire is identical to English: I'm trying to bring across the poetry, particularly for Barber's very fine settings.  It's the colours of the vowels and sounds that are entwined with the emotional content of what we're doing and the sentiment of the poetry that's always going to be the most important thing.  So I can't honestly say there's something distinctly American that I'm trying to find.  I'm sure, though, that you could listen to the Copland Motets, say, and hear an openness in texture, which we hear in so many of his later orchestral soundscapes, where one might conjure up a view of the prairies.  There's a simplicity of harmony, too, which leads us to find something clean and direct about it.

And what about the Bernstein and Randall Thompson works?

Bernstein was one of the great tunesmiths of our time.  One feels with his Missa brevis that he's excited to make rhythms live and dance: it follows that 20th-century rhythmic tradition that comes out of Stravinsky.  Thompson, in a way, looks forward in the way he uses just one word in his 'Alleluia', almost like spiritual minimalism long before Arvo Pärt or John Tavener.  In North America it's one of the best-selling choral scores of all time, so I was aware that everyone would sing it in their choir and that it would represent North American choral music for many.

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