Friday, January 15, 2016

What? Vibrato again?

I posted this response to a recent article over at New Music Box:

For me, the issue of vibrato does not reduce to the binary of vibrato/no vibrato and does not have anything to do with emulation or contrast with boys’ choirs, but it has everything to do with musicality and control. As a composer, there are times when I honestly do want a straight and clear tone with precise intonation in a particular register and I want to ask for it specifically, from singers and instrumentalists (yes, flutists…) The use of vibrato, and its speed and depth is a performance and — potentially — compositional, variable. (See the late and great Andrea von Ramm’s landmark essay, “Singing Early Music”, in Early Music Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 12-15.) Recognizing this and requiring this from oneself or others as a singer, voice teacher, choral director, or composer can, however, go against some strongly ingrained, but typically local and parochial, notions about what good vocal quality is, and can create resistance from strongly ingrained performance practice traditions and habits that refuse to recognize this as both variable and an advantage. Particularly difficult are arguments that one form of production is more or less “natural” than another or produces certain physical or physiological advantages; fortunately, we have too many counter-examples from the world’s varieties of music to let these arguments ride. I would even go so far as to assert that any strong position regarding technique, whether with voices or instruments, vibrato included, is as likely as not to be taken cover for laziness with regard to modifying or acquiring new techniques. And also, a strong and continuous vibrato is, frankly, too frequently used as cover for less accurate intonation in both vocal and instrumental performance.

Fortunately, I think there is ultimately something moot to arguing this out: there is no standard model for a musician and her or his technique, there are real differences in physiology and musical taste, and this rich variety stands matched to a rich variety of composers, catalogs, and repertoires. No singer or player can nor need fit all repertoire, no piece of music can nor need fit all singers or instrumentalists and there certainly need not be any lack of mutual consent in playing a piece of music. And, as a composer, that’s okay with me, because it makes our musical lives — and perhaps our lives in general — both livelier and more convivial.

1 comment:

Michael Strickland said...

Fascinating post. Possibly because I'm a Gemini, I can go both ways with vibrato/no vibrato. I have been a supernumerary at the San Francisco Opera off and on over the decades, and remember John Adams trying to conduct "The Death of Klinghoffer" there in the early 1990s. He very explicitly didn't want an operatic, vibrato sound from the chorus, and on the original recording it's very clean and controlled, but major vibrato is what he got in those incredibly complex choruses from the SF Opera Chorus and the music has probably never sounded richer or better. On the other hand, when it comes to being part of a choral parade onstage, say, the Coronation Scene in "Boris Godunov," I always wanted to stand next to the Boys' Chorus because it was the most pure, perfect sound imaginable. There's something to be said for both.