Tuesday, February 28, 2006


I recently posted a comment to an item at Sequenza 21's Composers Forum about Ned Rorem's new opera Our Town:

Rorem was very wise to limit the size of his orchestra. Modest resources would seem to match the modesty of his subject matter and the economy of means has other practical and musical uses. Personel costs can be real impediments to productions and it's reasonable to assume that the smaller pit will make the piece more attractive. A lighter orchestra, however, creates some interesting opportunities for flexibility with vocal types. A lot of the discomfort audiences and composers alike have with operatic voices comes directly from the development of a vocal technique designed to compete with a large orchestra (even then, at Bayreuth, of all places, the unique construction of the pit attenuates the orchestra considerably so that singers don't need to overproduce), while often sacrificing comprehension of the text. If opera is going to renew itself in any major way, I think that either a more "natural" vocal technique combined with a more intimate orchestra, or an electronically amplified and mixed environment is going to be part of the equation. (Another way of thinking about it is that the furture of opera lies with Monteverdi and/or Robert Ashley, composers of operas with intimate ensembles, comprehensible texts, and equally rich in vocal details).

A few more scattered thoughts about voices and new music: Nowadays, popular music is dominated by vocal music (popular instrumental music -- and especially big band dance music -- never really recovered from the Musician's Union strike during the Second World War, and popular successes in instrumental music now tend to be novelty items) while prestige among "serious" composers has usually been reserved for instrumental genres. Of course, this is all generalization, and operas/music theatre, choral music, and art song have their niches, but I believe that it's generally true. One reason for the prestige is simply that vocal music tends to have texts, and the concrete references of lyric or narrative texts run against more abstract impulses. Vocalise, essentially the use of a textless voice as an instrument, has been a minor genre (albeit with interesting examples, an a capella choral Petit Symphonie by Mihaud for one), although many composers and singers have unintentially created vocalises with either text settings or performance styles that render the text unrecognizeable. Another reason for the prestige of instrumental forms is that composers tend themselves to be instrumentalists, and few in the ranks are gifted singers (there is actually a style of shorthand singing that many composers use when going through a score -- intervals tend to get squished, preserving only a semblance of the contour -- not a pretty sound). The exceptions, however, from Samuel Barber to Robert Ashley, tend to be composers whose vocal music is worth hearing.

One sentiment often expressed by contemporary composers about singing is a distaste for classical vocal technique, and vibrato gets singled out as especially undesireable. I'd like to refine this complaint a bit and hazard the notion that the problem is not vibrato per se, but rather the inability to control vibrato. The singer should be able to turn it on and off, as well as to control the speed and depth of the vibrato. I recommend highly a small article by the late and extraordinary early vocalist Andrea von Ramm, titled simply " Singing Early Music", in Early Music 1976 Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 12-15. She goes firmly against the idea of a single vocal technique to fit all musics, and instead advocates mastering a body of flexible techniques that can be fit to the music at hand. I don't think composers of new music could wish for anything more, and the real exchanges that have taken place between early and new music specialists (as well as those engaged in musics outside of the western tradition and in vernacular genres) can only further enrich vocal practice. To my ears, there is more than a close fit between the ideas of early music specialists, like von Ramm or Paul Hilliard, and those of musicians specializing in new, extended vocal techniques, like Meredith Monk, William Brooks, or any of the overtone-singing specialists.

I realize that I may create some dissonance when I identify Robert Ashley as a gifted vocalist. Ashley doesn't exactly sing, he talks, but he does so under the constraints of a discipline that can only come out of extraordinary musicianship. And from The Wolfman in the sixties to his most recent operas, Ashley has completely opened up the space that exists between speaking and singing. But perhaps this was simply neglected space -- in his Music Primer, Lou Harrison recommended Chinese Opera as

"complete music theater, for it includes & offers all that can be done with text & music. Plain speech, unaccompanied. Plain speech accompanied. Rhythmitized speech unaccompanied. Rhythmitized speech accompanied. Song unaccompanied, etc., up to & including Chorus accompanied."

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