words and music
I am embarking on a new composition – for chamber choir – which I am really excited about. I love writing for voice. We all (or most of us) have a voice - it is our first and most compelling means of expression. In many ways I think the human voice is the most powerful and evocative musical instrument.
Part of the appeal of writing for voice is that you have the opportunity to combine music with words, to express abstract musical ideas and non-abstract language based ideas or even narratives. It seems like the perfect art form and of course over hundreds, if not thousands of years people have combined music and words, for one reason or another.
As I start exploring ideas for this new work one of the first things I need to do is find a text. I find it almost impossible to start writing a piece for voice if I don’t have at least some idea of what words the voice might be singing. It is of course quite possible to write a composition for voice that treats the voice exactly like any other instrument, that is to focus purely on the SOUND of the voice and the different ways of making the sound and how this is shaped and articulated through pitch and rhythm and texture. As I struggled to find a text I was tempted to go down this path and write a piece of vocal music that was liberated from any specific extra-musical content, ie WORDS. I spent some time thinking about the inherent problems of combining music and text, the various traps one can fall into when one starts with a strong text and then has to somehow ‘set’ this to music. How does the music maintain its own integrity and shape when the compositional process is being dictated to a greater or lesser extent by a pre-existing text?
I think one of the easiest traps to fall into when ‘setting’ a text to music is that the text comes first – the starting point is a poem or piece of writing that has its own structure and technique. The greatest poems do not necessarily make the best pieces of text around which to compose a piece of music. The beautifully crafted structure of a favourite poem may not lend itself readily to a reworking or interpretation through music.
One of the things I look for in a poem or text is the SOUND of the words. The ideas and language may be exquisite but if they don’t sound right then I have real trouble bringing them to musical life. There is a huge difference between reading a poem in one’s head and reading it out loud. The sound of the words, the shape of vowels and consonants, the distribution of sibilants and fricatives and plosives – this is the SOUND of the text. And when articulated in a musical texture it is these sonic qualities that will be more clearly discerned than the ‘meaning’ of the text. Even with the clearest enunciation, it is almost impossible for an audience, on a single listening, to fully comprehend a text that is being sung, even by just one singer, let along a whole choir of voices. As a composer I cannot assume that the text will be clearly heard and understood. I cannot just hang my music on a text and expect the music to absorb its meaning.
There is quite a lot of technical skill in writing well for voice. The human voice, like most other instruments, has quite different characteristics and capabilities at different points in its range or register. What is easy to sing in the mid register can be extremely difficult to sing up high or down low. This is where the SOUND of the text is important and how these sounds are arranged across the range of the human voice makes a huge difference. For instance, in the high register it is much more difficult to sing a closed vowel such as an “ee” sound with good control and projection. Try singing a high “ee” then try the same note with an open “ah” sound – it is quite a different experience. Without going into the physics and physiology of how vocal sound is produced, the reality is that certain vowels or word shapes sound better at different parts of the vocal range and this has an impact on whether or not the words can be easily heard when sung.
So what was I looking for in a text? Before I started thinking about words, I already had a fairly clear idea about what the piece was ‘about’; something of the emotional trajectory, of the sound world, of the morphology of the work. The search for text was from this starting point, which in some ways made it more difficult. I knew the kind of thing I was looking for but I just didn’t know where I was going to find it. In the process of tidying my workspace (the usual first step when I start a new piece) I found some printed information on a Bill Viola work that I had taken a group of students to see at the NGV. The work, ‘Ocean without was partly inspired by a poem by the Senegalese writer Birago Diop – a section of which was printed on one of the pages and caught my eye. I had also been writing words of my own for the new piece as a way of sketching out sound and text ideas. A couple of days later I sat down with the Diop text and my own texts and started trying to shape a kind of skeleton for the work. The original text by Diop is in French so I looked up a couple of different translations of the poem ‘Les Souffles’ (including a computer generated translation!) and looked at the different nuances in meaning and word shape. I went back to the original type written MS in French and noticed some slight differences in the ordering of the lines of the poem. With a very rusty grasp of French, I got our French dictionary down from the bookshelf and worked out which of the various possible translations worked best for my purposes. I then went back to my own text and reworked it, pulling it into a shape that would work with the Diop text. The text I now have is full of possibilities – the Diop poem is very much a poem to be heard and the rhythm and structure of the poem is subtle and evocative. My own text is quite paired back and explores different ways of expressing a single idea. Together these words give me a ‘way in’ to the new piece without being too prescriptive or limiting of the musical world that will be built around them.