Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On writing for the voice; or maybe the setting of text

I'm in the process of writing a set of songs for Sirje Viise, the inspiring and intellectually nimble Estonian soprano and neo-plaything of UKSUS, on texts penned by her hand, to be performed and recorded by her and Davorin Mori, the very talented Slovenian-Austrian conductor and pianist. And it has been wonderful. She's a great writer and a fierce collaborator who has taught me many things, and I think the songs are coming out OK, although I would never say that publicly.

In this process, however, we've had some difficulties - or should I say friendly differences about the outcome - which is I suppose healthy and productive and expanding, but there have been those moments when I've tensed up and where I've gone running off at the mouth about My Singing Knowledge vs. Her Singing Knowledge, and what is the Nature and Goal of Singing as a medium. Of course she could be forgiven for her belief that an actual singer would know more about Singing than a composer of Things Sung, but in the name of Her Majesty and the Continental Congress, I have had over the years some opinions about what is Right and Wrong in Singing and since this has all been stirred up, I felt that I needed now to organize and express these Very Important Thoughts.

Thought #1: it is my belief that if one is writing a piece where the text needs to be understood, it's useful to actually make the text be understood. Let's say you go with me to see an opera in English and you notice that they seem to have the supertitling machinery set up and you say to me, "my that's strange, why would they need supertitles if the opera is in the language of the audience." "Well, ha ha, this is the thing," I will say, and continue with "the producers know full well that, even though the opera is in English, and one might think the text is so actually important that it really should be understood, and that this fact is agreed upon by all involved, from the composer to the librettist to the acousticians, the truth is that the text won't be understood by a majority of the audience a majority of the time." At this point you notice that I seem to be heating up and you wonder why, but you go ahead and ask the question "why is that, Erling?" At which point I will start raving about how everyone involved is an absolute incompetent, and how if a composer had one iota of ability she or he or it would make the text understandable by a series of mundane but simple steps:
  • follow the prosody of the text in the setting of it, at least some of the time, or at least in the first repetition of the text, or in enough fragments of the text that one can accumulate the sense of it; 
  • pay attention to vocal ranges and open and closed vowels and etc;
  • write instrumental parts so they enhance the comprehension of the text and don't fight against it, possibly by orchestrating with some awareness of where the voice and its formants lie;
and then he may point out how many hundreds of years ago those building the hall itself should have taken into account his opinions to come and designed it to treat his words with some loving care.  Now, to be honest, even in the application of know-it-all Erling #1's dictates, it is simply harder to understand singing than speaking, and I get it, but supertitles seem like an awfully ham-handed way to deal with that. Better to have buff oiled men with cue cards.

Thought #2: This Erling who appears in thought #1 seems to be the oldest of the old fuddy-duddies, and what about the common modern notions of text, e.g. the deconstruction of text as sonic object and I say yes of course, I love it all, and actually the truth is that I don't even really give a shit whether I understand the text most of the time, and there are really few things I enjoy more than sitting in a comfortable opera house completely lost and half asleep and allowed to ignore the words because, and I say this with some awareness of how this might upset Erling #1, that following a text, to say nothing of an actual narrative, takes way more energy than just lying there and letting the sound wash over me, an undifferentiated sculptural mass of reverberant din.

Thought #3: Going back to the supertitles, I did use them once myself, in Sub Pontio Pilato, because the text was a polyglot monstrosity, and even then I couldn't stand it, and the supertitles wandered off at one point and found their own path to interesting textual commentary rather than be shackled to mere translation. And anyway, it's almost impossible to get supertitles right and to deliver them at exactly the right moment where they don't give away the joke by arriving early or falling flat by arriving late.

Thought #4: And what about coloratura, and by that I mean classical coloratura, not even the melismas so popular in the singing of the USA National Anthem at the USA sporting events of today? I hardly ever write it, in large part due to my text obsession. I admit I have a suspicion of virtuosity in general, virtuosity of the gymnastic or physical kind that is, although I do seem to love virtuosity of the cerebral kind, e.g. rhythmic balderdash and hard counting. But performers love to play things that are good and hard, and audiences, even those consisting of yours truly, love to hear them. Singers have spent countless hours honing their skills, shaping and placing their high notes and their runs and their trills and their skippings about, and of course they want to use those skills lest no one in the universe know they have them.  So I'm doing it, and I'm going to love it no matter what Erling #1 goes on about.

But in the end, I'm working with a glorious singer, whose collaboration is forcing me to do things that I wouldn't normally do, and that's always a good thing. And you know me anyway, right, my inclination toward kowtowing or even prostrating. Hand me a shovel and tell me to dig out the dirt, 6 feet down and just wide enough to lie down in and now, Erling, let me cover you with some clods and hey now, don't get up, just let us do this thing.
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