Posts Tagged ‘vocal’

Words and Meaning

September 22, 2011

Lyrics and titles are music’s greatest enemy and its greatest friend. They are what stand in the way of polyvalent, textured interpretation. With them, this song is ‘about’ that, that piece concerns this. An interpretation attentive only to the musical register, or that is at least attentive to the sonic-lexical entity that emerges when words are applied to sonics, seems impossible.

And yet perhaps this is so only because of the role lyrics and titles have come to assume in musical culture.

Conversely, lyrics and titles (like biography and psychologised circumstance, our own or otherwise) often guide our interpretation in exciting ways, serving to eroticise the music within suggestive aesthetic frameworks. Can one imagine ‘Wuthering Heights’, for example, without the perfume of the novel? Our interpretations and our enjoyment in these cases seems to rest on a Spivakian ‘strategic essentialism’; we know that songs aren’t strictly ‘about’ their words or pieces ‘about’ their titles, but we persist in uniting the words at the level of meaning with the music. Even if we disavow this approach consciously, we are still embedded in it actually.

Another danger here is perceived (or presumed) co-indexical correlations between musical mood and lyrical content. For example, we can look at the case of a song like ‘Wouldn’t it be nice’, where all sorts of biographical and psychological levels interact with that of the musical in our interpretation: it’s very enticing to draw parallels between e.g. the straining line of the music, the breaking voice avoiding the falsetto register for once, the fragile mental state of its creator/singer, and the subjunctive tenor of the lyrics…but that’s a trick, a self-fulfilling analytical tactic…one can always find these parallels. What help is it to flatten lyrics to music, and music to lyrics???

We should, perhaps, if at all possible, indiscern the place of the denotative in musical experience.


Encounters in the Republic of Heaven

May 18, 2011

Trevor Wishart’s Encounters in the Republic of Heaven ~~All the colours of speech~~ — heard this past Monday at King’s Place as part of their wonderful Out Hear series — is Herzogian in its spotlighting of strange stories and richly felt anecdotes, but purely of its composer in its inventive and colourful exploration of the valences of the human voice as speech, musical texture, singing glossolalia, granular sonic entity, and much more besides.

Encounters consists primarily of transformations of the human voice into musical texture and of speech into song (for which the composer developed his own sound processing software), whilst featuring also as a prime ingredient the plain speech (albeit often chopped up and built upon) of the many people, from children to farmers to sailors, that Wishart recorded in the North East of England during the piece’s long 2006 – 2011 gestation period.

This substantial and serious, but also very funny, 80 minute composition in four acts has plenty of antecedents: the radio plays of Ewan MacColl come to mind frequently, particularly for the kind of narratives featured within (though here the purpose is much more carnivalesque), whilst in more musical terms we could draw a correspondence between Encounters and Berio’s Omaggio a Joyce and Visage, and perhaps also with Rob Mackay’s music, though the avant garde sturdiness of these works is moderated in the Wishart by the wild spirit of recent sound art by Florian Hecker, and recent experimental pop by an artist such as Bjork.

The Hecker comparison is most obvious in the use of eight channel audio here, a feature exploited to great ends by Wishart. The great dynamism that results from the swirling of sound around the centre-placed audience more than makes up in this case for the lack of any live element in the performance. Moreover, Wishart uses the set up well as a simple device of intensity: often passages are doubled or quadrupled or moments are given tutti for greater impact.

Encounters remains steadily captivating throughout its duration, though in some of the more exaggerated, speedy passages, such as at the beginning of act two, where vocal hockets blister by to no great purpose, I felt attention wane somewhat.

However, this was to no great detriment: Wishart wisely chooses hilarious narrative situations, such as the large bearded man dressed as a belly dancer at a beer festival, or the bizarre names sometimes given to children (‘Heathcliffe!!’), and makes them all the more hilarious by spotlighting certain quotes and stretching them into musical hooks that return again and again within the act. Witness the first act’s ‘bloooke’. In this way Wishart not only draws out and develops the inherent musicality of speech (music and language really are close in origin: try saying a phrase of four or five words to yourself fifteen times, then stop, and say it again a minute later, and you’ll see what I mean), but also makes a coherent musical design of his creation. And humour is not the only affect in play: the fisherman’s story and the old lady’s reminiscences in the two outer acts are as moving as the rest is funny.

The effects derived by Wishart from the voices are often startlingly distant from what we might expect, as for example with the ‘voicewind’ that open and closes the piece, but it is less for this reason that Encounters impresses: audio synthesis and sculpting is an advanced art at this point and it is little surprising to experience the extent of the unleashed hidden grainy potential and variety of sound (and we have heard these before in other ways, anyway). It is rather in its many musically startling moments that the piece shines. The sudden alignment of the windy brass band and voice in the second act, for instance, or the abstracted Pink Floyd trance surfaces (voice becoming pure texture) of the closing section, where snatched speech recalls and huge organ-like chords confirm us in our reverie, are just some examples of the many points at which the documentary and the compositional impulses that are each at play in this work come into intense and sharp focus. Highly, highly, enjoyable.

Writing and authority

April 26, 2011

What is happening when we abandon rockist channels of authority and circuits of creating-meaning (writing/producing), which say broadly that those responsible for writing are responsible for meaning and value?

Let us look to some examples that might help in developing a position. Clearly the rockist framework is displaced and intensified in the situation of singers such as Tony Bennet or Ella Fitzgerald – or, to take a random example, Roberto Alagna – who are engaged in the interpretation of standards, where both the original writer/s, and the new one, are being celebrated. But when we are faced with artists such as Britney/Kylie/Girls Aloud/Elvis, who all make consistently strong work but rarely ‘write’ it (in the limited sense of either composing formally or composition-in-performance), an abandonment similar to the one suggested in the opening is required of us.

This abandonment raises some questions. How is there consistency to the above mentioned artists’ music, and how have they consistently made things of value? Does the consistency simply result from the constancy of the voice and the ‘author function’ (the biographical-psychological retinue that the audience brings to the music) in the work? Or is it also, or rather, in the constancy of writers/producers, or, more interstingly, is it in a certain strange effacing of any sense of authorship in congress with the acsession of the voice?

Some level of consistency is obvious in the case of Girls Aloud, due to their team being relatively constant – though here I’m reverting to the old model of critique that sees consistency and integrity in a closed circle of collaborators and authority in only the most obvious form of authorship – but the others work or worked with a wide range of producers/writers.

Might we say, in seeking this consistency, that these artists, in addition to having access to a wider range of resources than others in their position have, simply exercise great discretion, and that they thus produce stronger output, and/or might we draw attention to the importance of the auto-cursive nature of singing, of its affective superposition in music?

My feeling is that both of these observations are important: of course a greater range of resources will lead to stronger work, and it is also obvious that the voice in pop music is the most important element and thus will produce at least a surface level of consistency in an artist’s work. But we are working with a deeper level of consistency here than that, in support of which we could adduce these artists’ consistently high standards.

Something else is needed, then. Could we displace models of creativity to include performance and/or personality, or another some such object petit a? Could we, in addition or alternatively, insist on an incomplete methodology: a disorder that ends in a sort of order, or at least a discourse? This would give us access to a more complex notion of authorship, one anchored in personality, performance, ‘writing’, and, above all, in the strange synthesis that squares the circle of performer, writer, and listener.

If we don’t leave room for this type of remainder then we are ought to make silly conclusions that do things like doubt artists’ contribution to their own music. This is nearly always the most reactionary and least interesting of positions. We could always, in seeking to understand these artists’ consistency, follow an evidence-based chain by comparing the outputs of their writers/producers in those writers/producers work with other artists, and determine whether a significant quality is present in the relevant artist but not in the other/s with which we have built our comparison. We might reasonably then conclude that it is in this ‘significant quality’ that the artist’s own contribution lies.

But that is to subscribe, after a fashion – in looking for a direct causality that I suspect would be incongruous considering the amorphous nature of musical creation -, to the same model of meaning as is being employed by the rockists mentioned above (and the rockists are only foot soldiers in an army that traces back through the centuries).

I would prefer to cleave to a methodology of incompleteness, and think instead of this music as being a part of a sort of a system, a system in which the named artist is likely the most important element, give or take. This system would simply seek to recognise the aporic space of authorship that persists in (pop) music, without ignoring the writerly contributions of relevant parties. I do not know precisely how this system would play out in practice, but it seems a valuable starting point nonetheless. This aporic space might give, depending on the circumstance, a sort of intelligibility at a remove from meaning that could help us organise better our relationship to music.

Boring This Way

March 4, 2011

I really do love Lady Gaga – the way she so determinedly tries to make something happen, to eventalise all our lives; the way she is so barefaced in her minor plagiarisms; the way she sticks two fingers up to the misogynists by not only making great music but also by doing so barely dressed, tempting them to dismiss her for what they might perceive as superficiality. That she does all this with a queer, awkward aggression that mounts everything she does in gothic oddness is the icing on a fascinating cake.

But I just can’t get with ’Born This Way’, despite much effort. The lyrics are horrible; inelegant, plain, offensive. All of this is obvious, and indeed fast becoming a matter of public record (though I commented elsewhere that ‘For me, the lyrics are hyperbole. Taken literally, they become quite troublesome indeed’). But a greater problem is the music. Great art steals – this is a truism for which we find proof anywhere we care to look. But something new needs to happen that somehow sunders the artefact from its context, that leaves only a stain or a trace of the original, thus making enjoyment of each thing possible without both constantly being in the others’ pocket. Even a situation as blatant as the one we have with ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’ and ‘Hung Up’, despite the overtness of the steal, serves to enliven each track, giving happy resonance to every hearing.

But when I listen to ’Born This Way’ all I can hear is ‘Express Yourself’. It is not just that the style is broadly sympathetic and that the melody is similar. Gaga has taken (roughly) the entire chord progression (I – bVII – IV – I), exact harmonic rhythm and all, and simply shoved it into a new setting. This is too much for me. The way I hear and think about music is dictated by harmony, and as such all a steal like this can do is serve as an erasure of each track’s autonomy. When I hear one I hear the other, and to neither’s benefit (though obviously ‘Express Yourself’ is guilty only by association).

I’m offering an imprecise, subjective argument, admittedly – one person’s happy borrowing is another’s miserable theft – but the whole situation has left me rather annoyed, and also rather worried about Gaga’s new album. The track seems self-consciously to pursue broad, mainstream, vacuously anthemic tropes: I hope this is not the case for the rest of the album. More ‘Telephone’, more ‘Dance in the Dark’, more ‘Just Dance’ please!

Ardittis at the Wigmore Hall

February 6, 2011

Fierce and fun as ever, the Arditti Quartet brought a fairly uncompromising programme of new and newish works to the saturnine Wigmore Hall this week. Ferneyhough was capricious, James Clarke tenebrous, Fujikura a little inconsequential, and Paredes fervent and inventive. See the video above of the Arditti Quartet performing Ferneyhough’s sixth quartet for a flavour of the evening. (I hadn’t even bothered to check if it was available originally, but happened to notice its existence on You Tube via the wonderful Boulezian.) My full review is at Musical Criticism.

The Truth about the X Factor

December 12, 2010

Out of The X Factor’s many annoying qualities it is perhaps the disconnect between what happens on stage and what is then said in the judge’s comments afterwards that is the most life-crushingly annoying one.

Song after song and week after week we are subject to litanies of ‘you made that song your own’; ‘you owned the stage’; ‘I could see for the first time you were nervous up there’; ‘you sounded so contemporary’, and so on, when what we have actually witnessed on stage seems to directly contradict these appraisals. The judges may as well make their comments before the actual performances commence such is their apparent total detachment from happens in them.

It is not that we could expect a show as populist and as (frequently) demagogic as The X Factor to employ actual trained music critics on its judging panel. No, that would be so Strictly Come Dancing of it. But when a show features as a vocal coach someone so clearly bereft of musical discernment as Yvie Burnett is, then something constructive really needs to be said in opposition.

I won’t bother raking up past judging howlers here. I’ll instead limit the focus as much as I can to the four remaining contestants in this year’s competition: Matt, Rebecca, One Dimension (sorry, One Direction), and Cher.

Let’s start with the contestant who almost Bachically transcends criticism, Rebecca. Rebecca seems like a charming woman whose stage presence flirts with charisma without ever quite attaining it, and whose voice flirts with the notes she’s supposed to be singing but only rarely hits them. It’s a rare event indeed when she manages to seize the centre of the note, and rarer still when she is able to produce any sort of modulated colour to her singing. Of course I’m exaggerating for effect here. Rebecca is a good and interesting singer, but it’s frustrating to watch the praise heaped on her week after week without any hint of a remark being made about her not insignificant vocal problems.

That praise is given largely, it would seem, because Rebecca’s Billie Holiday-recalling voice is so different to the archetypal modern pop vocal style of forthright dynamics and outlandish melismas. She benefits from her difference rather than because of any particular vocal richness. Unlike last year’s winner Joe McElderry, I might add, whose broadly common voice bears an unapproachable richness, a combination apparently not as popular with the buying public as it was the voting one.

I don’t have too much to say about Cher. Her voice has been horribly exposed these past few weeks in terms of sheer timing, pitching, and intonation, but I don’t think that’s her point. Out of all the contestants Cher is regularly the most interesting to watch. She prowls around the stage with no little fluency, injecting spunk into the songs through lazy phrasing and vocal mannerisms that come straight from adolescence. Whether she holds attention through talent or sheer force of arrogance it is hard to say, but that she can perform with so much confidence at 17 is surely notable. Cher is also a passable rapper.

Matt, the favourite, has this year’s best voice. His range extends up in the head voice to at least a B above Middle C, comfortably and without much loss of vibrancy in the upper notes, whilst his falsetto rises up to the gods. His ability to produce fully-rounded notes in the range an average mezzo would strain just a little in is remarkable. But is this quality enough? I don’t think it is. It’s not that Matt’s voice is totally lacking otherwise.
But there is little culture to his voice production. He has the notes, but not the emotion. Or, rather, he has way too much of one type of emotion. Still, Matt to win.

Now, One Direction. Again, they seem like nice boys, and are lovely to look at. And I can see why they’ve created all the fuss they have – it’s rare to get a group that seems as cohesive as they do, especially one manufactured by the show as they were. But they can’t sing together. Admittedly Harry’s voice shows some character, and Zain’s, apart from his head-wobbling, has a tonal quality that is immediately appealing. Put the five of them together, however, and things fall apart quite quickly.

Their Viva La Vida was a horrorshow of missed entries, shaky ensemble, and tuneless backing. I have yet to hear them attempt much more than unison singing – which they even manage to mess up quite regularly – and their performances frequently benefit from massed vocal backing tracks. Doomed band Belle Amie, by contrast, were for almost all of their songs left without backing tracks and with tricksy two and three part harmonies (which they coped with rather well). All of this and One Direction have not once been in the bottom two. Their presence in the programme has come to embody so much that is wrong with it.

Everyday actions become existential events

October 29, 2010

Of the many interesting things in Kurtag’s fragment cycles, perhaps the most signal is the removal of certain types of contrast. In an opera aria (a comparable genre) the material induces the audience to perceive and mimetically participate in some sort of dialectical and cumulative structure. Seven minutes of push and pull and repetition and development ensures this. In Kurtag, in, say, the Kafka Fragments, we have, instead, moments. Even the longer pieces of the cycle, those at three minutes, shatter into a disunity, or strain during a unity. Yet that momentary dynamic opens up a space of stark clarity. The moment is a cleansing one in these works.

In Peter Sellars’ staging of the work the aesthetic of the mundane, appositely for Kafka, is made the scene of revelatory shock. As it was put in a New York Times review of an earlier performance of this production at the Lincoln Centre, ‘everyday actions become existential events’ in this cycle. As such Sellars’ staging is all the more penetrating for so sensitively designing a context sympathetic to the minutiae of the work. It presents a site of the everyday where Upshaw’s existentially troubled housewife can, with the benefit of photographic and projected textual enrichments, think out her situation in a heightened setting congenial to the mundane vividity of Kafka’s texts, and Kurtag’s contexts. Drabness and acid sit alongside each other in this staging, making a peculiar coincidence for the similar admixture shared between text and music.

Each song fragment, some seconds long, some a few minutes, distinct from each other musically and emotionally yet conjoined by an infinite and piercing light, coheres around, in the director’s words, ‘a crystalline and blazing moment’. The moment is dense and condensed, sharply-hewed and gypsy-intense – the gypsy aspect shorn up by the stark instrumentation of violin and voice, and by the musical enhancements taken from its idiom. Yet we never gain purchase on these motifs as pastiche or homage. This music does not permit much purchase on anything at all, at least in the expected way, and that is its point.

The fragments are excised of growth, contrast, crescendo, and decay. Everything colludes to the sharpened flash of recognition, to the flicker of life.

Drama without drama

October 21, 2010

What is it with opera? It so rarely conveys to us real human beings in real human situations. What it offers instead is an image with the status of a metonym. When things on stage are going well the world is weak, the metonym strong. We don’t believe in the people, but we do the moment.

Opera must communicate this way for its music to bear effectively the extravagant emotional burden that the form aspires to. I am talking here about the traditional operatic canon more than I am any contemporary repertoire, for there various theatres have made eclectic what was once, in this core affiliatory respect, a unity.

When the music is doing its job, as in musical theatre, hardly convincing contours of emotion, thinly carved conflicts, dramatically undeserved redemptions, and unearned love scenes melt away in the burnished theatre of music, synthesising with melody and theme for an unmatched intensity. The missing drama is in the music. When it is not, or, when it cannot, when the cleavages of narrative or character are too strong, that whole appears as a drama without drama, a spectacle, a relic of a very different sensibility to that of our own. I felt both of these extremes at this week’s revival of Jonathan Miller’s well-received staging of La bohème. Read my full review here.

Songs of Innocence

July 12, 2010

Genuine crossover, where genres are placed in a productive alliance that serves primarily artistic concerns, is rare. In Hannes Loeschel’s setting of William Blake’s visionary-pastoral Songs of Innocence we have genuine crossover, in this case between Improv, rock, Noise, and English folk. The result twists and turns along with the imagery and fluent contours of the texts. Phil Minton, known primarily for his improvisational abilities and for his Feral Choir project, does a stunning job of inhabiting these settings with a gruff, grainy vocal persona that has much to say. Exit Eden, yet more musicians accustomed to Improv, fill out the musical textures with various reminiscence of Earth, Bohren und der club of gore, Bellowhead, Wyatt, Radiohead, and many others. My full review is here at Musical Criticism.


June 10, 2010

Roberto Alagna, in Brussels, charming the pants off a luminous Nathalie Manfrino (who did the same for much of the audience. That is if the elderly, portly walloon beside me with the slightly incongruous opera glasses rushing to his face every time she came on stage was anything to go by). There’s only so far you can take the stormy, primadonna approach to your art before cracks begin to appear, but Alagna at least, unlike his wife, has thus far managed to skirt the boundary of indulgence and artistry with puckish, teasing appeal.