What Can Choral Music Be?—Text Setting as Derivative Work

What’s up, people.
Miggy Torres here.

In my previous article, we discussed two aesthetic problems that traditional text setting presents — namely,

  1. That information in the original text is lost upon musical recontextualization, and
  2. How the axiom of serving the text is inherently in conflict with both the unknowability of the poet’s authorial intent.

In this article, we’ll tackle the third, final, and largest of my issues with text setting. And that is this: at the end of the day, whenever we set another artist’s work to music, we are creating a derivative work.

Alright so like.
It’s your music.
But, if your goal is to “serve the words of the poet…”
What are you saying?
—or better yet—
What are you saying?

The poet had the artistic impulse. The poet had all of these artistic ideas that they’ve arranged into an intricate symbolic web of textual metaphor. You (the rhetorical “you,” not you-the-actual-reader “you”) are just piggybacking off those original ideas and saying,

I agree.

Imagine. You’re in a salon. Idle chatter nearly drowns out clattering silverware and the subtle creaking of wobbly chairs on an old wooden floor. From flecks of green spattered sparsely about the dimly lit room, the scent of anise rises and wafts. Faces of artists, philosophers are rendered indistinct by the smoky air, and from a dark corner, like a dissolving mirage played backward, a face materializes. The person stands up on their chair and the room falls silent. In a confident voice, the person speaks, saying, “[some original artistic thought].”

Now you get up and walk slowly to the front of the room. As you pass through the labyrinth of tables, the other sophisticates turn their heads to look at you. Time slows down more and more with each new glance. You finally arrive at the front of the room, turn to face les autres salonneurs, open your mouth, and, in resonance with the faint ripples in pale green pools of absinthe dotted about the room, you say,


You (again, the rhetorical “you”) had the opportunity to put your own original artistic ideas out into the world, or even make a contribution that builds upon what someone else said. But instead you just kind of say, “Yeah. I agree. What they said.”

Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. But if that’s all an artist does every single time — just reiterates what another artist already said — then are they really expressing their unique authentic self? It seems to me that in the above scenario, the visionary, the artist, is the original poet, is the one who took their own experiences and created something completely — well, “completely” original. I suppose we could sit here all day arguing whether originality is “real” or whether it’s “not real.” My personal opinion is that everything is at least a little bit derivative.

But there’s a difference between building substantially on pre-existing ideas, building slightly on pre-existing ideas, and just reiterating pre-existing ideas. “Illuminating” a poet’s text through music, in theory, should fall under the slightly category. After all, the composer is essentially just decorating another person’s work of art with — ideally — well-written, thoughtful, and original music. In practice, however, we find that the music that many composers use to “illuminate” these poems carry little to no musical originality either. So in the end, all they do is combine a reiteration of one artist’s words with a regurgitation of another artist’s music — like a photographer whose art consists unironically of applying Instagram filters to pictures of famous sculptures.

Even if the setting is really well done, however, the fact that remains that it’s been created by ornamenting or enhancing another artist’s work. In this scenario, then, the composer runs into some artistic trouble, as they are then completely at the mercy of that work of art.

At the Mercy of Another Work of Art.

When a composer selects someone else’s poem to set to music, in the traditional way where they’re pretty much just adding music to the poet’s words, they render themselves at the mercy of that poet’s ideas. The composer is at the mercy of the text and all they can do is shape it. Many of the foundational artistic decisions that make up the work have already been made by the poet, and default settings have been picked! While the composer may have a good amount of musical freedom, they’re limited textually by the poet’s words — words that, generally speaking, form the structural backbone of the entire piece.

One could argue that in the act of carefully choosing to set a certain text that reflects their own ideas, the composer has expressed them. But — however much a text shaped by refractive musical environs — it’s still someone else’s words, someone else’s ideas and subject matter, someone else’s sounds and linguistic symbols. And if those sounds and symbols don’t quite get at what you want to communicate, you’re kind of trapped — at least insofar as you’re operating under the serve the text paradigm. If you’re collaborating with (commissioning?) a poet to create a work based on your ideas, you might be able to have more control over how the artistic backbone of the work is structured.

But in a situation where you’re alone in front of your laptop late at night, basking in its pale melancholic glow, surfing endlessly through Wikisource, corneas burnished dull by page-after-page of public domain texts to set to music,¹ finally stumbling upon Something-or-Other by So-and-so, and you think, Seems settable. Subject matter’s okay. No weird words. Short enough. Rhymes. Basically what I had in mind. Similar to the last one I did. I’ve already been on here for three hours. Good enough, then you may wish to take a step back and ask yourself whether it actually expresses what you have to say, or if you’re just settling for that particular text because that’s all you can find and don’t know what else to do.

Other composers may have collections of poems by favorite poets that inspire them, and they may set these works to music as a kind of homage. Nothing wrong with this, but again you’re relying on another artist to build the structural and thematic vertebrae of your piece. And I mean that’s kind of what an homage is, so. If you stand up in the smoky salon from nine paragraphs ago and say “I agree with Octavio Paz or whomever,” then you’re not really trying to say something original, you’re just “doing service to the poet” again. On its own, perfectly acceptable, but perhaps troubling to the composer concerned with self-expression if they find that that’s all they are able to do.

What I find alarming is that there are some composers who literally cannot write music without an external text. For some reason, they find it impossible to be creative without someone else’s artistic scaffold off of which to base their piece. The only things they can create are decorations of other people’s work. Even in my Master’s I ran into graduate/professional-level composers who have openly admitted to “needing a text” before they can begin work on a piece. There was one composer — who shall remain nameless — who claimed sometimes to spend months at a time searching for an appropriate text to set. It was a point of pride for them that they were extremely picky with the poems they set, and could know very quickly after reading whether a certain poem was “settable” or not based on its subject-matter, word choice, length, and other properties.

I’m sorry, but.

What an absolute waste of time.

The composer in question was so trapped by other artists’ work that they wasted months of their life with every piece trying to find something that said exactly what they wanted to say, but that happened to have been written by another artist!? Shit, dude. Look, if the text doesn’t say exactly what you need it to, I suppose you can always just go and change it, poet-be-damned! In fact, why stop there? If it’s public domain, change most of it! Change all of it! You know exactly where this is going: if you already have an idea about what kind of poem you want, if you already know what you want it to say and how you want it to say it, if you spend literal months reading and (ostensibly) studying poetry anyway,

Stop wasting your life beholden to other artists’ works, and — for the love of God:

Write. Your own. Text.

Why would rhetorical-you spend months trying to find something that someone else has done that somehow mostly matches ideas that already exist inside of you? I know this sounds like the part in a late-90s coming-of-age movie where the main kid realizes — after going through all manner of tribulation — that everything they needed was inside them all along, but it’s true! Why would you deprive yourself of the opportunity to explore, extend, and express your own original, authentic thoughts? If you’re so interested in literature that it underpins every work you create, if you spend months out of the year immersed in poetry anyway, then stop looking for other people’s work to set and start writing your own text.

“But I’m bad at writing.” Of course you’re bad at writing. You’re just starting out. You were also pretty bad at composing at some point, too— as were we all— , but that didn’t seem to stop you.²

“But I’m a composer, not a poet.” I don’t care what you call yourself. Many composers are poets; they call themselves songwriters. The two skillsets are most certainly not mutually exclusive, and if text means so much to you that you can’t write a piece without one, then you better become a poet because the alternative, as described above, has the potential to be artistically paralyzing.

“But I don’t have time or money to go back and get a degree in poetry.” You don’t need a degree in poetry to write decent poetry. If you spend weeks or months not writing music because you’re looking for poetry, you have time to learn on your own. You already know how to study an art form: you’ve done it already with music. Read and analyze as much poetry as you can from diverse sources, write as much as you can, think critically about your writing, and keep doing this until it doesn’t suck. Moreover, you already know how to work with temporal art in an abstract sense. From a technical point of view, there is tons of overlap between music and poetry. Things like gesture, motif, pacing, dramatic trajectory, rhythm, rhyme, form, timbre, parallel structure — you already have a head-start with all of these concepts, because they exist in music as well. I’m not saying it’s easy, but if text-setting is an important form of self-expression for you, then it beats sitting around on Wikisource for three months.

“But studying poetry will take energy away from studying music and my music will get worse!” Please. You know what will make your music worse? Binding it to the limitations of other artists’ work. Besides, studying extramusical things doesn’t suddenly make you bad at music. If anything, literary studies will improve a composer’s music, especially if they’re already interested in working with language in a musical way. They’ll learn new ways of thinking, new ways of organizing thoughts, new ways of conceptualizing language, new ways of conceptualizing music! Get out of the bubble of music and self-actualize as an artist!

“But — ” STOP. Making excuses. Listen to me:

If text is important to you. If you love writing music that uses text. If you are an artist. If your soul is parched by the implacable need for authentic self-expression. Then you can’t keep relying on other artists to do all the dirty work, to lay down what amounts to the foundational, structural artistic substrate of your work. If you love the expressive directness that text offers the artist, if the beauty of language enraptures you with Nabokovian glee, don’t limit yourself to working with readymades! Take your life into your own hands! Put pen to paper, and carve out words that could only be released by the unique, authentic, potent artistic impulses of your soul!

Taking a breath here (lmao) there is, of course, as mentioned above, nothing wrong with using someone else’s text. To be clear. I don’t mean to rail on people who draw upon pre-existing text. I do this. Everyone does this. The idea, rather, is that we should be aware of the artistic limitations inherent in using a pre-existing work. Artistic limitations are often — if not always — necessary in creating any work of art. But if we find those limitations to be more stifling than inspiring, we should, as artists, have means at our disposal to break free from them.

Everyone’s process is different, but, zooming out a bit, one thing I’d like to share is that — with regard to the digging-though-public-domain-libraries-looking-for-texts-to-set scenario described above — I generally don’t do this. I used to do this. Now, I don’t do this. I guess in a pinch that sort of thing could come in handy. If I had an assignment or something that I’ve left for the last minute and I just need a text and don’t really care that much what it is (although I can’t really imagine not caring about the text, but whatever). But, generally, I don’t do this.

And this is mainly because — as described in Stop Writing Choral Music — I write all sorts of music, and I only write a choral piece when I feel that it’s the best medium to communicate whatever artistic idea I’m thinking about at the time (or if I’m commissioned to write one). I don’t consider myself a “Choral Composer” (more on the Double-C-Word in an upcoming article). I consider myself — without getting too pretentious — an artist (yikes!), or at least a composer. So if I happen to have an idea or come across a text that is begging to be a choir piece, then great! Let’s write one! But more often, I usually try to come up with my own subject matter. And if the best way to express that is using text, and if the best way of setting that text is as a choral piece, then I’ll write a choral piece. In cases like this, writing your own text can come in handy — because then you’re not searching all over, hoping there’s something somewhere that someone has written that you can use.

Slight aside: a lot of the texts I’ve seen used in choral music today (many exceptions) seem to revolve around pre-Modernist subject-matter, or were written pre-mid-20th-Century (I’m not advocating for the superiority of any particular genre, this is just a observation). I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but I submit for your consideration one possible contributing factor: much of the Modernist-to-Contemporary stuff is still under copyright. So if the only stuff that’s public domain is earlier stuff, then it’s just logistically simpler for composers to set older things rather than write or secure permission to use something contemporary, thus flooding the community with pre-Modernist sensibilities. I could be way off-base on this one, but it’s certainly something to think about.

Finally, and this topic probably deserves an article of its own, if I do use pre-existing text, a lot of the time I use it as a citation or a quote. You know what I mean? Like, if I have a piece that quotes *NSYNC, or something, then I’m relating the work to, not just that quote, but to what that quote represents, including the complete song it’s from and all the cultural baggage that comes with it. It’s like you’re breaking off pieces of other realities and affixing them to your own: découpage musicale, windows to other worlds. The piece as a whole interacts with the text critically, commenting on it or using it to comment on some larger idea. This is different than the traditional way of setting text to music, where you’re trying to serve the text to communicate what you think the poet meant. In the quotative case, you’re using the text as you would in a paper or essay or something. Again, probably worth an article of its own. And, of course, the technique itself is neither here nor there: this sort of thing can be executed very well or very poorly. Rather than prescribing this or that treatment of text, it’s just another way of thinking about it.

Incidentally, I’ve seen a lot of music by various composers lately that uses a handful of texts in one piece, sometimes interweaving them.³ I’m sure you can imagine (you-the-actual-reader “you,” not the rhetorical “you”) how the composer may still run into some of the same problems discussed above, but I suppose if they’re emphasizing the intersection points between the various texts, they start to act more like citations in support of an overarching original idea.

In the end, while traditional text setting has its place, to me, the goal of the artist is to say something for themselves. In speaking to a star — some distant sun quivering alone in the cold dark — Frost, once again said it best:

Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.⁴



¹ Choral people love the word burnished.

² I hear this excuse extremely frequently from composers. Suspiciously, however, it is often the case that they then turn around and choose an uninteresting, superficial, clichéd, one-dimensional, almost obsequiously limp text for whatever choral work they happen to be composing. To these composers I suggest, “Consider that you’re not bad at writing poetry. Consider that you just have bad taste.” 😘

³ To be fair, composers have been doing this for a very long time. This practice brings to mind Medieval (Mediæval?) motets in which several different texts—sometimes in several different languages—were sung at the same time in counterpoint with one another.

⁴ Frost, Robert. “Choose Something Like a Star.” Come In and Other Poems. 1943.




Composer | Artist | Smashing realities together since 1992. www.miggytorres.com I write about music, aesthetics, and the creative process.

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Miggy Torres

Miggy Torres

Composer | Artist | Smashing realities together since 1992. www.miggytorres.com I write about music, aesthetics, and the creative process.

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