Had a fun chat with an old friend, a mezzo-soprano who runs a chamber series in Austin. She told me about learning a new work by one of the most prominent members of our composer community and visiting him to get a coaching. When she sang through the piece, he told her to forget everything she had learned about diction and use a more natural, “American” approach to singing, for which he held up Doris Day as a model. He said his students all want the voices they write for amplified, and he tells them that they don’t want amplification, they want the natural diction exemplified by, again, Doris Day.
She went to work on her approach to diction, using Doris as a model. When she got up in front of the ensemble, though, she ran into problems. Turned out her revised diction was making it difficult for her to project over the instruments.
Which brings me to a question: has anyone ever heard Doris Day sing without a microphone? I’ve only heard her in the movies, where the balances were carefully calibrated in a studio setting. I honestly can’t imagine her singing in front of any size ensemble without a plugged-in boost. Could my esteemed colleague really have been that unaware? Or was something lost in the translation of this story?
It all brings me back to a contention I think is undeniable: this continent does not have an influential tradition of live, acoustic singing that characterizes the music from elsewhere. Sure, Native Americans and others have long-standing traditions, but they have been deeply marginalized by the culture at large. The sound many of us associate with traditional American singing was created in recording studios, and mimicked with varying success in live performance via amplification.
For a lot of American composers, called upon to reflect and direct the musical culture, this situation puts us in a bind. The sound we often imagine as true to our heritage is simply not available in a live setting. For some composers, this is a minor issue. For the rest of us, it seems necessary to either learn the intricacies of vocal amplification or to become tight with someone who has, someone we can trust to understand our yearnings and pleadings.