Friday, September 25, 2009

Blogging for the MCE: Integrity vs. Performability

Here’s a quote for your consideration:

“Art can’t just press your pleasure buttons and sell itself to you. It can’t need to care whether you like it—that’s the space where new ideas are born.”

I love those words. I would love to live them, not just in all the art that I make, but in every gesture I make in real life. Worrying about being liked just distracts from things that really matter, such as authenticity in one’s creative voice. And when making art, I would never want to pander, or to condescend to my audience.

But on the other hand, there are practical concerns. A composer is not flying solo. He or she is writing music not only “for” listeners, but also “for” the performers. It’s the musicians who bring the work off the page and into the concert hall (or studio or iPod or wherever the listeners are). And if the work has a lot of integrity but is unperformable, that’s a problem.

So I spend a lot of time writing vocal music that conforms to certain rules. For your benefit and mine, here’s a few things that make music more singable:

Rule 1: Voices like to move (thank you, Dave Bieri). With all due respect to certain Minimalist colleagues, long sustained chords or repeated figures th
at all stay on the same note are very tiring and wear out the voice the same way that pacing on a rug wears out the pile. Check out Steve Reich’s Tehillim for a great example of Minimalist writing that works for singers. Because the voices move.

Rule 2: Voices li
ke to hang out in an easy tessitura. Visit the extreme highs and lows for drama, but don’t make the voices live there.

Rule 3: The higher they go, the harder it is for voices to make recognizable words. Keep rapid text confined to the middle and low register, and in high registers, use melismas to allow voices t
o soar freely. Melismas, by the way, work best on open vowels such as “ah”, “aw”, and “uh” (and the “o” in the word “hot”). You can read all about this in Caccini’s preface to “Le Nuove Musiche” of, oh, some year in the first decade of the 1600s. If you read Italian.

Rule 4: Voices need a little rest now and then. Make sure all voices get multimeasure rests at regular intervals throughout the piece. Bonus: it helps you vary your texture.

Rule 5: When writing fast passages, try to choose notes that fit into a recognizable diatonic scale (thank you, Nathaniel Lew). Of the two measures shown below, the first is sightreadable, because it fits neatly into the key of D major. The second? Well, I can’t read it. Not fast, anyway. You have fun trying.

Basic rules aside, here's the question: can I write music that is performable but still fresh, engaging, and challenging when it needs to be? The more I write, the more the answer seems to be yes. But it is always a precarious balance.

The quote I started with, by the way, comes from Cintra Wilson, the Times’ Critical Shopper, who shops at cool stores and then writes about them in the Thursday Styles section. The quote appeared in the paper on 10 September 2009, in her review of the Comme des Garçons boutique at 520 W. 22nd St. (near 10th Ave.). The full quote is more colloquial, funnier, more of its context, but the ideas, fleshed out, are important:

“America hasn’t quite grocked the idea that civilization is desirable; that culture is the cornerstone of civilization, and that a thriving culture supports unfettered—read: occasionally offensive—art.

“Art can’t just press your pleasure buttons and sell itself to you. It can’t need to care whether you like it—that’s the space where new ideas are born. It can’t just ‘think outside the box.’ For art to do its job, it has to fill the box with yak dung and get as far away from it as humanly possible.”

I’m not writing anything involving yak dung for my current piece with the MCE. It’s for Christmas, so I’m planning to use beauty. But sometimes I feel guilty for going too far in that direction.

I will be writing new music soon, with strange sounds and the occasional moments of ugliness. Stay tuned. And thanks for reading!


  1. Look at you, all bloggy and whatnot. Neat stuff. Yay!

  2. AWESOME POST. Should be required reading for anybody writing for the voice.