In this interview with the BBC’s Newshour, I discuss what classical music could do better when it comes to building audiences and attracting new listeners. Moderated by the BBC’s Tim Franks, the segment was inspired by an earlier interview with pianist James Rhodes. I join Graham Vick of the Birmingham Opera Company in an open-ended conversation addressing a number of topics, from exclusivity in classical music to alternative venues to the social context of concert-going.
Perhaps the classical music world has taken the entirely wrong approach to selling recordings; perhaps the reason they don’t turn a profit is because they’re significantly underpriced. Maybe we should be charging way more—like, three-figure prices per copy. And no, I’m not talking about charging extra for value-added stuff like boxed sets or exclusive tracks, I’m talking about, “Hey, this recording is awesome, so the price is $150.”
Hear me out before you dismiss this as crazy. Inevitably we’ll sell fewer copies if we set a higher price point, but that might not be harmful. In fact it might be a good thing. Read on ››
For the final blog post of my SoundMakers residency, I’m going to outline some of the technical details of how my SuperCollider patch for Longuement me sui tenus works. The functionality is the same for each of the four singers, with each having his or her own independent “patch” running within SuperCollider. The only difference is that the singers are panned differently across the stereo field.
I’ve provided a diagram that outlines what happens as the vocalists sing: the mic sends the signal to an input “synth,” which then passes it to the delay line and to the end limiter. The delays are created by the spawner independently of the input source, and they pass their signal to the limiter, where it is combined with the original and outputted to the speakers.
Once I settled on the “prepared voice” concept for my SoundMakers commission, I had to figure out how to make it a musical reality. I had tested a few simple delay lines, but they weren’t great: I was either getting mechanical-sounding echoes or washy reverb. I needed something that blended more completely with the acoustic component of the voice.
To be able to fine tune my delay patch however, I first needed some kind of vocal synth. After all it would be hard to figure out if I was going in the right direction if I didn’t have a voice-like sound to plug into it. I could tune the patch to a certain extent using my own singing voice, but that wasn’t going to tell me if the patch works in a polyphonic setting—I needed either four singers at my beck and call, or a synthesizer patch with the appropriate acoustic characteristics.
In the past I’ve controlled SuperCollider from Sibelius using MIDI signals, so I set out to do the same here: I would build a vocal synth in SuperCollider that I could feed into my “prepared voice” patch, as triggered by Sibelius, and that would allow me to hear the combined effect of polyphonic vocal phrases with delay.
However in order for this vocal synth to be of any use, it had to have basic timbral similarities to the voice. What I didn’t want was one of those awful choral “ooh” or “aah” patches you find on most keyboards.
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.