“Breathing Together”—Modern Technology in Harmony with Traditional Music: An Interview with Matthew Curtis
Matthew Curtis has the soundtrack for your spiritual life—and it sounds heavenly. Curtis is the founder and director of Choral Tracks, an online service for musicians which, as the organization’s website notes, “provides professionally sung rehearsal tracks for choral singers of all levels, promoting independent, accurate, and expressive singing.”
Founded in 2012 and headquartered in Onalaska, WI, Choral Tracks is only the latest endeavor for Curtis, whose storied career began in La Crosse, WI, and carried him to the heights of professional choral singing with the world-renowned, three-time Emmy-winning Chanticleer choral group. But celebrity hasn’t daunted Curtis in what he sees as his main mission—providing sacred music for the masses—and for Mass.
Adam Bartlett is president and editor of Illuminare Publications of Littleton, CO, which produces and publishes sacred music resources to assist parishes in celebrating the liturgy beautifully and authentically today. Bartlett sat down with Curtis to discuss the current state of choral music both inside and outside the liturgy, Curtis’s own work in developing Choral Tracks, and the ways in which parishes can provide traditional and enriching music for the liturgy (an easier task than some might think!).
Adam Bartlett (AB): What is your musical background and experience as a singer?
Matthew Curtis (MC): I began training at age seven, singing in the La Crosse Boychoir in La Crosse, WI. I sang with them for seven years, and the experience provided me with the solid foundation of technique that has set me up for my entire singing career. I attended Viterbo University, also in La Crosse, majoring in Vocal Performance, Music Education, and Church Music followed by some graduate study at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. During this time I also auditioned for my dream job, singing with the world-renowned choral group Chanticleer.
I joined Chanticleer in 2009, and I sang for three seasons with them, becoming their Assistant Music Director in my third season. It was the experience of a lifetime performing at the very pinnacle of the choral music art, touring all over the world and performing in the world’s finest concert halls and churches. I left Chanticleer in 2012 to pursue fully my work with Choral Tracks.
Since Chanticleer, I have continued to sing with various professional groups regularly, both inside and outside of the liturgy. Liturgical singing, in a number of excellent sacred music programs across the country, has been a pillar of my career and has shown me the highest pinnacle of musical artistry for liturgical choirs.
AB: What is the difference between a choral singer and a liturgical singer?
MC: I think that the two are connected and related in many ways. To me, one of the core purposes of music as a fine art is beauty. A liturgical singer is devoted specifically to enhancing the beauty of the liturgy, and to foster a prayerful experience for both the singer and the congregation in the context of the worship of God. For a typical choral singer, choir is a passion—but it does not necessarily have a sacred purpose, at least not in the way that liturgical music does. It’s a social and artistically moving experience, creating this beauty and art with others.
In general, music has a mystic divinity to it. It is a universal language that exists beyond our own personal realm of experience. When we come together to make music, it is a deeply spiritual experience, full of emotion and that which draws us to the divine. The act of a choir breathing together and combining each other’s voices to create something bigger than ourselves as individual performers is an incredibly moving experience. A liturgical singer at church is using this art in a more specific, sacred way in the liturgy, but a typical choral singer is also having a similar “religious” experience and is sharing that with an audience.
I have sung in many church choirs as well as secular choirs in my life. I have encountered many wonderful people who sing in Catholic church choirs who are not Catholic, including self-proclaimed atheists and those who very much disagree with aspects of the Catholic Church. But the love of the music and the act of sharing it together is infectious, often transcending these incongruences. In these cases, I still always encounter a respect for the liturgy and an appreciation for the liturgical origins of Western music history, largely due to the transcendent beauty of this music.
AB: What kind of influence, in your estimation, has the Catholic choral tradition (namely Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, etc.) had on the choral music world of today in general? Do you sense that influence remains strong?
MC: It is certainly true that the entire Western Music tradition is built on the liturgical music tradition of the Catholic Church. Today’s young choral music composers are absolutely continuing that tradition. Eric Whitacre, for example, has not composed typical sacred music with sacred texts, but was certainly influenced by all past composers of sacred music such as Claudio Monteverdi and Anton Bruckner and many others in his studies.
Use of the Mass, including the Requiem Mass, as an artistic vehicle for masterworks is still very prominent today. Composers such as Ola Gjeilo, Dan Forrest, John Rutter, and Kim Andre Arnesen use these masterwork art forms in very innovative ways. John Rutter composes in a more traditional manner, directly setting the Mass Ordinary texts as well as the traditional texts for his Requiem. He has also composed a Gloria and Magnificat in these traditional ways.
Dan Forrest, who is not Catholic but is a devout Christian, used a more traditional form and text for his Requiem for the Living several years ago. Recently he has been more innovative with his works Jubilate Deo and Lux: The Dawn From On High. In these masterworks he uses a similar macro form of a traditional Catholic music masterwork but then is looser in the texts chosen and music composed for each of the individual movements. Gregorian chant, which is the font of all Western Music, still has an immense influence on new music being written by young composers.
AB: How did Choral Tracks come about? What is its aim? How is it being received, and who constitutes your typical user base?
MC: I started ChoralTracks.com officially in 2012, but began testing the concept as early as 2007. I record educational rehearsal tracks for choir and solo singers to help them learn their parts. The recordings are real singing and designed to be the highest quality and most valuable rehearsal tracks on the market. I got my start on the project by recording Gregorian chant, which helped me learn the process and software and caused me to set up a website. I recorded all of the Mass Propers and Ordinaries found in the Gregorian Missal, amounting to over 700 chants in total, as a summer job in between school years.
Choral Tracks has since grown to a catalog of over 13,000 pieces of choral music along with the Gregorian chants I began with. My catalog is broad, containing both sacred and secular music which ranges from the great masterworks of the past such as Handel’s Messiah to the newest arrangements of pop music today and everywhere in between. I work with high school and middle school choirs, children’s choirs, church choirs, and community choirs all over the world.
The majority of my customers are community choirs and high school or middle school choirs. These organizations generally have more money to invest in a product like mine than church choirs do. Church choirs are also a bit more complicated from a budgeting standpoint as a lot of budgeting comes from a parish’s larger liturgical budget, and a product like mine often is not as high on a parish’s long priority list. I look forward to getting to a point where I can invite more church choir singers to use my product.
My strategy for this expansion includes a new website and mobile apps which I launched this past spring (2019). They are built on an audio streaming subscription model where an individual singer can sign up and access my entire catalog. I hope that this expansion will give my customer base broader access to Choral Tracks content where perhaps a full choir can’t afford to sign up but individual singers can pay and participate if they so desire.
AB: What kind of developments have you seen in Catholic sacred music during the time you have been building Choral Tracks?
MC: My own Catholic sacred music experiences are perhaps more limited than those fully immersed in Catholic music; however, I do have a bit of insight into this question. From my vantage point I see a growing demand for older traditions in Catholic music and a movement towards an ethos of devotion that much more directly aligns with the liturgy. Simple English chants seem to be rising in popularity from composers like yourself and organizations like Illuminare Publications. Sacred polyphony is treasured like never before and especially prominent in the work of current composers like Ola Gjeilo, Frank La Rocca, and Kevin Allen.
There seems to be a movement toward the Catholic music tradition of chant and polyphony in this way, in contrast with the music that has been prominent in recent decades which has been a broader mixture of Protestant and more modern pop music traditions. These musical genres can bring beauty and meaning to the Mass, but are perhaps more appropriate outside the liturgy whereas chant and polyphony directly correlate with the Mass itself. With the recent, continuing decline in Mass attendance in the United States and other places around the world, it seems that those who are staying in the pews are increasingly desiring simplicity and are drawn to the traditions that specifically make us Catholic.
AB: How can your efforts help Catholic parish music programs today?
MC: Choral Tracks empowers singers to practice choral music on their own. For each piece of music, I provide a few different track options. A Balanced Voices track contains all voices and instruments in balanced volume to provide a full choir, professional recording perspective. Part Predominant tracks for each voice part isolate a voice part in a much higher volume with the other parts still in the background volume for reference. Accompaniment Tracks play only the instruments at a high volume with no voices in the recording mix. These tracks help music directors encourage and enable singers to practice on their own and to assign that learning time at home.
Too many choir rehearsals are spent pounding out notes instead of focusing on achieving musical artistry. Choirs often learn the notes and rhythms of a piece just well enough to get by and then go out and perform it at Mass. Choral Tracks simplifies this note learning experience, enabling more meaningful artistry to emerge, which is better for everyone. It allows for more work to be done on conveying the actual text and its significance in the Mass and also on communicating the nuance of the composer’s perceived intentions. Choral Tracks also gives choirs more time to achieve a better blend and choral intonation. In effect, it is a tool that can empower parish choirs and enhance the entire musical experience of a parish.
To hear samples of Matthew Curtis’s ChoralTracks, click to listen to Crucifixus a 8 by Antonio Lotti (1667-1740), Ave Maria by Franz Biebl (1906-2001), Agnus Dei (Adagio for Strings, Op 11) by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), Alleluia by Eric Whitacre (b. 1970).