Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Singing and History

In school I studied music history with the great musicologist Hans Tischler. He had it all organized, and I have created a reflection of this organization in the link to my history book on the left. It lacks an accompanying narrative, but so did it in its original incarnation. Tischler gave only cursory descriptions of the styles he was discussing.

I think it would make a book, but book publishers have never agreed with my opinion. For me the conceptual framework of changes in style through the ages was far more valuable than any far more trivial narrative could be. But then systems analysis is always what interests me. For me that's what it is--a systems analysis of the history of western music that allows you to understand any specific piece in the context to which it belongs. The music never exists without the context.

It was a natural following idea that these shifts in musical style also were accompanied by changes in the idea of singing and its technique. For me there is an interplay between the music and the expected technique. Sometimes this is reflected in the actual technique that singers employ to produce the work and sometimes it isn't.

  • One key concept is the idea of articulation--what kind of connection exists between one note and another. This changes as time passes and the music changes.
  • The other key concept is weight, or more accurately laryngeal position, how the voice is held in the throat, how much tension is applied, etc. This also changes as the music changes. As a general rule, the lower the larynx is held in the throat, the heavier the voice sounds and the more difficult it is to execute coloratura.
If you are listening, you can hear this.

To be effective heaviness of technique must be matched with actual heaviness in the voice. Many voice teachers—apparently virtually all of those living in modern Italy—teach a single position which they apply to everyone regardless of the physical nature of the voice.

The same singer doesn't usually employ completely different styles of articulation or completely different laryngeal positions. These are key elements of any individual's technique and tend to remain constant across repertoire. If you are listening, you can hear this, too.

  • Weight is to be distinguished from color. The color of a specific voice will come from a wide variety of sources: the voice itself, the size of the pharynx, texture of the soft surfaces, etc. The color or timbre of the voice can be manipulated by the singer without changing the laryngeal position.

The greatest composers for voice had in their minds the style of singing they expected to hear their particular music performed in. This is still true for people composing today. Or at least it ought to be.

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