For the January installment of my SoundMakers residency, I want to write about setting words to music. The piece I wrote for SoundStreams posed some interesting text-setting challenges, given the fact that it’s in Old French and every word echoes for 5–10 seconds after being sung. Text setting is an area where composers often miss the point, so I’m going to look at some of the key considerations involved, and then I’ll describe how those play out in a piece like Longuement me sui tenus.
Too many composers treat text setting like part making: an obligatory chore you have to do when you’re working with singers, but not an integral part of the compositional process. That’s a huge lost opportunity. Words are special, and people hear them differently from other elements in music. They need to be treated the same way you would treat rhythm or harmony or phrasing. Done right, text setting can infuse your music with complexity and meaning you wouldn’t get from sound alone. (This is, after all, the only way to explain the appeal of most of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre.) Done wrong, text setting distracts from the piece, makes your singers look awkward, and covers up the interesting bits in the music.
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Gentrification in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood. (photo credit)
Living in San Francisco, you can’t avoid the anti-gentrification rants—and my fellow artists are some of the loudest participants. The Mission District, once a bohemian enclave, has become astronomically expensive and a playground for obnoxious Tech Bros. Longstanding arts organizations in SoMa and the Tenderloin have had to relocate or shut down to make room for new luxury apartments, to the point that the city is considering a tax on new development to subsidize nonprofits. Shady landlords find underhanded ways to evict rent-controlled tenants and sell the properties at a handsome profit. Even formerly unredeemable neighborhoods of Oakland have started to succumb to baby strollers, designer boutiques, and rising rents. All the while, artists and the poor get pushed out, and any last remnant of cultural life goes along with them. Or so the story goes.
In reality, gentrification has an artistic upside, even when you factor in all that bad stuff. Gentrification is not just about the disneyfication of formerly quirky neighborhoods at the expense of anything unique or original. Read on ››
I ended my last SoundMakers post by discussing how John Cage’s prepared piano studies influenced the approach I took to processing the voice in Longuement me sui tenus. Here, I want to go into a little more detail on how the electronics changed the type of vocal writing I used.
Writing for voice is not like writing for most other instruments, largely because each voice is unique. Singers take liberties with a score that other musicians wouldn’t in order to make the music work for their vocal chords. This isn’t a criticism—it’s one of the things I love the most about working with vocalists. However, it also means that I need to have that in mind when I “prepare” their voices digitally: even though I am changing the fundamental characteristics of the sound, I have to preserve the singers’ ability to adapt the piece to their individual voices.
Vibrato and tessitura
The first question to address was the role of vibrato, since the audio patch wraps every sound in a long, echo-y blanket of resonance, like a piano with the damper pedal down. This is the opposite of virtually every normal singing scenario, where the problem is usually a lack of resonance, not too much. I therefore had to decide how much, if any, vibrato would be appropriate for the piece. A lot of composers have a general aversion to sung vibrato, but I’m not one of those.
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Machaut at a banquet (Bibliothèque National, Paris, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
In the second of my SoundMakers Composer-in-Residence posts, I want to describe the piece I wrote (to be premiered spring 2015) and why I wrote what I did. Titled Longuement me sui tenus and scored for four vocal soloists (SATB) + electronics, the piece is based on a text by 14th-century French composer and poet Guillaume de Machaut. I didn’t set out to write a piece on a Machaut text, but as I did more research on themes connected to SoundMakers, Machaut kept coming up.
Longuement me sui tenus is the first line of Machaut’s Lay de Bonne Esperance, an epic 20-minute love song, to be performed a capella by a single singer. Musically, it doesn’t fit modern ideas of what a love song is, especially considering that it addresses unrequited love: it’s monotonous, strangely chipper, ramblingly bouncy, goes on forever, and doesn’t have much variety in terms of phrasing. Frankly, it’s kind of boring and I’ve never listened through an entire recording of the piece in one sitting. Yet still, something about the poetry stuck in my head. Somehow it felt like it was the right fit for my piece, even though I didn’t like the original very much. Read on ››
Jonny Greenwood with composer Krzysztof Penderecki (Photo by Polish National Audiovisual Institute)
This week my Facebook feed was barraged with angstful hand-wringing over comments by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who told the BBC he finds classical concerts “off-putting.” Greenwood wasn’t dissing classical music—he performs it, after all—but he felt like classical concerts should model their formats after indie rock shows.
A host of blog responses popped up with suggestions on how to “improve” classical concerts: encouraging people to clap between movements, getting rid of formal attire, tuning back stage, and so on and so forth—nothing original, nothing useful, and all of it completely missing the point.
Look, classical concerts are off-putting—to some people. Any type of concert is going to be unappealing to somebody. But off-putting-ness is a feature, not a defect. That’s why teenagers perennially hate their parents’ music and vice versa. If your concert doesn’t put off someone, you’re doing it wrong. Yet for some reason, in the classical world we try to be all things to everyone. That, in my opinion, is the only real thing wrong with classical concerts. Read on ››