Sunday, November 05, 2006

Composing for voice

My copy of Paul Barker's Composing for Voice has arrived. He is obviously knowledgable, but his ideas are not well developed. In fact, he has a hard time carrying an idea past one or two sentences before going on to the next one.

There is an idea that interests me--should a composer write for a specific singer? The answer, it would appear, is yes and no.

Philip Gossett's four composers (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi) didn't hesitate to compose for a specific singer and modify their music to suit the person currently filling the role. In situations where the singer is close to the standard range and tessitura for his Fach (classification--look it up in Wikipedia), this is not a problem. They were thinking about success this week, certainly not further out than this year, and not about posterity. They weren't thinking about twenty-first century productions and problems of casting.

So when Bellini composed for Rubini he wasn't thinking about the fact that Rubini was a one off. No one else can actually be Rubini. Nor do they want to. Falsetto high notes have long been completely out of style. Bellini's presence in the repertoire is negatively impacted by the fact that the tenor started out with this freakish high range which cannot be cast today. Professor Gossett went into detail about the problems of transposing this music so that it still works in duets with the soprano. Very difficult.

Barker recommends working with specific singers and includes interview material with singers who have collaborated with composers. This is great stuff and the comments are excellent. But I was hoping for more material about expectations. He shows ranges for the Fachs and mentions the concept of tessitura, but that's it. I was hoping for more specific information about what the standard tessitura generally is. That means the range where 90% of the notes should lie, the comfortable part of the voice for that Fach. This singer you are working with--is she (all his examples are women) fully representative of her category or is she a bit freakish? It seems to me you should be able to say for each Fach these are the notes they will usually sing and these are the extensions, the outer extremes that can be used occasionally.

Yes, write for a specific singer, but try to be aware of how close this one is to the ideal for her type. Then the music will work for other people, too.

I have been imagining myself in Paul Barker’s class. I was always a very annoying student. He would say, “the trend may be seen as a logical continuation of a process engendered by Verdi’s Macbeth (1847), when he attempted to notate a fuller dramatic conception of the vocal performance.” Then he would immediately go on to another subject with no explanation, as he always seems to do, and I would say, “Excuse me, professor. I’ve never looked at the score to Macbeth. What the hell are you talking about?” This is perhaps my crotchety old lady persona, and I wouldn’t actually have sworn at him. However, I don’t have a library handy that has a score to Macbeth so I guess I’ll never know what is meant here. I wouldn’t mind this so much if he didn’t do it so often. If you’re writing a book like this, I recommend hiring an ignorant editor that makes you explain everything.

Just how bad the situation is with regard to composing for singers can be seen when he says, “…I have never encountered a summary of the traditions and details about the underlay of text in scores….” He goes on to lay them out, and his explanation seems acceptable. He mentions how hard it can be to read vocal music because of the way the text is added to the music.

He writes from the perspective of the twentieth century where everything is precisely composed, and the performer is expected to precisely reproduce the written page. This is actually not the tradition of solo vocal music where the performer is expected to produce an interpretation, not just a performance. Perhaps awareness of this fact is disappearing everywhere except pop.

He discusses extended vocal techniques, things outside of normal vocalization, and cites a number of people who do them but without any description. He does explain the concept of vocal harmonics first propounded by Stockhausen. He says it can take up to 6 months to teach a singer how to do this. Clearly he’s going off in directions I don’t necessarily want to follow. I don’t see a reason to mention these things without either discussing them more thoroughly or citing relevant footnotes. There is a two page bibliography which might provide a wider explanation of some of these facts, but you’d have to read them all to find out.

There is quite a lot of writing about the relationship between text and music. He criticizes singers for making their vowels unintelligible on high notes with no apparent awareness that once the voice is above the formants, distinguishing vowels is simply not possible.

There are a couple of excellent charts, including this continuum: noise - shouting - speaking - sprechgesang - crooning - recitative - singing - prolonged melisma - vocalize. This is virtually a circle.

Another excellent chart is the one in the chapter on “Considerations of Style” called “Variants of vocal style and the effects on singers.” On the vertical axis are 1. Registers, 2. Tone, 3. Words, 4. Rhythm, 5. Proximity (this means the distance from the audience to the performer and extends from immediate closeness to amphitheater distance.) The horizontal axis is “Underdeveloped technique,” “Bel canto principles,” “Over-refined technique.” He then places a number of specific composers in the continuum. Britten is C, bel canto, in all categories. Does this explain the popularity of Britten as an opera composer? This chart could be discussed at great length.

Composing for the voice is a much broader topic than the narrower composing opera. An opera presumes opera singers, presumably the same people who will be singing Puccini on other days.

My own approach would probably be to proceed from the perspective of style. I admit the possibility of all manner of style elements and approaches, but I insist the composer must first choose. Jumping from style to style would be discouraged.

He discusses the growth of the orchestra over the course of the nineteenth century and its effect on singers. It’s not exactly a bad book. It’s as though the light has been turned on, but the exposed space has not been sufficiently explored. A set of appropriate footnotes would probably be as big as the book itself which is about the same size as the dual language edition of Odes to Common Things by Neruda. It’s definitely not worth $95.


Paul said...

The idea that composers tailor their material for a particular artist is not unusual in classical music, although it's more problematic in opera. Countless concerti for violin, piano, etc., were composed against the specific talents of a Paganini, for example. But I believe that one can train to play the notes as written, since they're all right there in the strings - it's usually a question of tonality, speed, or some other factor that can be learned. It's an entirely different scenario with the voice, as you well know, since it's possible that the notes one needs ARE NOT there - as with a Rubini. Just another reason why opera is so challenging, and so rewarding when it's performed well.

Dr.B said...

I'm not asking for dumning down, just for realism. How close is this particular tenor to the ideal for an operatic tenor? There's going to be more on this subject.