The responses to my “Voices in Your Head” question on the Forum page have been varied and thought-provoking, and have helped me clarify my own views on the subject of vocal music.
My view is still difficult to pin down, though, because I have so many things I want to accomplish with music – I suppose, to an observer, my objectives may appear to run counter to one another. But there are so many things that need to be said, I have to be vigilant in order to avoid giving an incomplete picture of what is really going on in my mind.
Jerry commented that he would have more fun writing for Bjork than Renee Fleming. I would have just as much fun writing for either of them, and for any skilled singer who would take my work seriously. By “skilled,” I don’t necessarily mean trained in any particular style. All I’m looking for is a level of commitment and achievement within a given singer’s area of expertise.
Most of my vocal music has been written with specific singers in mind. And, not coincidentally, most of the vocal music I have written without anyone particular in mind has never been performed. While I wait for Renee and Bjork to get in touch with me, I will continue to write vocal music that is stylistically all over the map to suit the singers I know personally.
There are things to be accomplished with bel canto singing that can’t be done in any other way. The majestic grandeur expressed by the Queen of the Night, the disgust oozing from the Powder Her Face judge aria – these are artistic rewards that words alone can’t convey. Similarly, there is a raw power in certain pop vocalists that I want to take advantage of when needed.
When my primary need is to convey the words, there is nothing better than spoken text. Running the gamma-ut from spoken text to coloratura melismas, with everything in between and outside of those parameters – that’s where you’ll find me, again depending on what I am trying to convey.
In the discussion on the Forum page, one troubling angle of argument is the comparison of the “average” bel canto singer with the very best pop singer, and vice versa. It just isn’t fair to match the best of one discipline with the average of another, whichever way you are leaning. If we complain about the flabbiness of the average bel canto vibrato, or the poor intonation of the average pop singer, we make the same mistake as those who dismiss our compositional efforts by saying, “I’ve heard a lot of new music, the average piece doesn’t do much for me, so I don’t like new music.” The majority in any discipline will be, by definition, average.
One final note: I think the emphasis on bad vibrato is a bit misleading — the vibrato of great bel canto singers is an asset, not a hindrance, to conveying text. The issue of intelligibility is a bit more complicated. It’s important for Americans to recognize that when we speak, we use subtly different means to emphasize words from most Europeans. Many European languages, including British English, have an inherent melodiousness that is used to express feeling. In comparison to British English, American English can often sound monotonic – entire sentences go by on a single pitch. What do we use to give our spoken language expressive clarity? The answer is rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Americans tend to be very sensitive to the speed and accentuation of words, phrases and sentences. Rather than rising in pitch in order to make a point, we are more likely to speak in powerful downbeats and syncopations. American pop music recognizes this distinction, but it has taken longer for art music composers to take full advantage of the rhythmic nature of our spoken language.
But more and more are figuring it out.