Prosody is a term used by linguists to talk about the function of intonation, tone, stress, and rhythm in speech. It’s something we’re all very familiar with; a particular inflection can make something sound sarcastic, declarative, timid, or sensual. It’s the properties of speech that lie outside the rules of grammar that can influence a phrase’s delivery, interpretation, and meaning. It also has fun quirks like how the careful placement of an accent can alter a sentence’s implications. For example:
I didn’t steal the money…
I didn’t steal the money…
I didn’t steal the money…
I didn’t steal the money…
The intonation of the spoken word is a natural underscore to communication. Writing music alongside (or underneath) something so familiar yet so immeasurable is a strange compositional challenge. It’s been addressed in many guises; monody, recitatives, Sprechstimme, as well as peripherally through the use of film scores (underscores), cues, incidental music, etc. Usually these uses of music are meant to support the action of the play or film and aren’t necessarily meant to be the main focus. Yet, even out of sight, one can’t really deny the effect they have on the audience’s perceptions of the action. A rich, gentle, swelling string section might give the extra flowery aroma to a romantic scene in Paris, or thumping, rhythmically-driven punctuated brass and percussion might imbue tension to a chase scene. The inverse effect is true as well; putting “Yakity Sax” over a death scene might be a distracting choice, rather than supportive (though potentially hilarious).
I must admit that writing for voice is a compositional blind spot for me. I’m always amazed at how some composers can write so effortlessly for what’s arguably the most intimate instrument there is. Then to remove the scripted music entirely and give the immeasurable inflection of speech the foreground is somehow even more intimidating. The music has to at once be out of focus yet completely supportive, present but not present, working in the background to give accent and influence to the narration while not drawing attention to itself. How does one stay in the shadows and still pull all the musical heart-strings?
There’s a long lineage of music that sought to incorporate the spoken word. It can be found in the works of Liszt, Sibelius, and Prokofiev, as well as on the in the works of Cage and Parch (and many, many others). And while I’m hesitant to even mention it, I too have been tackling this compositional challenge and have been looking to these great masters for guidance as I polish my modest contribution to this lineage. What follows is a very general look at the different uses of a speaker and live ensemble as well as some comments on the approaches undertaken by each composer.
Franz Liszt, virtuoso pianist, harmonic adventurer, ladies man, and eventual monk, was nothing if not inventive. His prolific nature allowed for a wide range of experimentation in harmony and form during his 75 years and while Der Blinde Sanger (S.350, 1875) for piano and speaker is not necessarily one of his most popular works, it’s still an interesting case-study.
Scored for solo piano and spoken voice, the text (by Alexi Tolstoy) tells the story of a prince traveling around his countryside, soaking in the beauty of nature and the music of the peasants (at least that’s what Google Translate told me. It was difficult to find an English translation.)
The music ebbs and flows underneath the text (which is written directly above the music; there’s no indication of a narrator in the score, just the words), always supporting it and not too often the focus. What’s noteworthy here is that the style of simply writing the text above the staff seems to be a common technique. Even the most intricate and detailed music notation couldn’t can’t capture the natural rhythms of speech. The music is careful to trod along in the background while injecting moments of focus and breath, contrasted by typically Lisztian moments of flare and drama. There are also moments where the piano drops out entirely to give the speaker time to recite large chunks of the text. It’s difficult to tell why Liszt chose to remove the music in these moments but if I had to guess then I’d say it’s probably for the same reasons a director might not want music during a particular scene.
Jean Sibelius’s The Lonely Ski Trail, like Liszt’s Sanger, is not one of his most well known works. It takes a similar approach to narration as Liszt; spoken text lies right above the measured staff, though the music is much more conscious of the voice in this case. The music reaches a stillness during the spoken text, being careful not to draw attention to itself.
Peter and the Wolf is arguably Sergei Prokofiev’s most famous piece. It’s a children’s story written by Prokofiev himself, scored for speaker and orchestra and was commissioned by Natalya Sats and the Central Children’s Theater in Moscow in 1937. Unlike the previous works, this piece was written specifically with children in mind, so the musical support is intended to be much more obvious. The bird is represented by the flute (see the flute line in the example below), the duck is represented by the oboe, the cat the bassoon, and so on. By ostensibly defining each role during different parts of the story, the music becomes an active participant. Indeed, the music begins takes on literal meaning.
Aaron Copland took a less direct musical-narrative relationship with Lincoln Portrait. Rather than use extra-musical elements and represent them in the music, Copland opted to emphasize a general sense of mood through an extensive musical exposition before introducing the narrator. Notationally it’s difficult to say how Copland treated the text since I don’t have a copy of the score myself, however the New York Philharmonic has an extensive online archive and I was able to find an interesting snippet:
Seems whoever constructed this score opted to cut up the text and simply tape it in. A much less elegant solution, but probably the best illustration of how different spoken word and music notation is.
So far we’ve looked at some pretty straightforward uses of speaker and ensemble. Each of the pieces had a more-or-less similar treatment of the speaker, but what if the music was meant as a kind of counterpoint to the music, rather than play a supporting role?
The Third Angle Ensemble recently brought out New York music critic Alex Ross to read some excerpts from his book The Rest is Noise and underscore his anecdotes with the pieces he was discussing. Among those works were pieces by Henry Cowell (Quartet Euphometric), John Cage (Imaginary Landscape No. 1), La Monte Young (whose Composition 1960 #7 was performed while audience members were getting their seats), Steve Reich (Violin Phase), and Harry Partch (Bitter Music XX).
Ross was quite at home discussing these works and elucidated upon them with lofty themes of nature, spaciousness, and the West Coast. Interestingly, most of these composers are better known for the work they did while they were living elsewhere, but they never-the-less all had ties to this lovely side of the country, and of particular interest to this essay is Parch’s work, Bitter Music XX: November 15th – Leaving Santa Barbara.
Of all the works featured on Third Angle’s season-closing concert, this was the only one with a designated part for narrator (all others were meant to supplement Ross’ narration). Partch was really interested in bringing the corporeal element back into music; that is, re-introducing the bodily, the worldly, the Earthly, back into music. He approached this in a number a ways, most famously through his invention of several new instruments that were meant to accommodate his theoretical ideas.
In Bitter Music XX, Partch doubles the narrator with piano in an attempt to capture the natural inflections of the spoken voice. He counters this with a sung hymn (performed by Third Angle’s Ron Blessinger) underneath, as if to counterpoint the bodily with the celestial. It’s a fascinating and evocative effect; it’s as though the two worlds were working in counterpoint, and for me it’s a wonderful use of the speaker and ensemble. The speaker is at once outside and inside the piece; it’s there to provide a story, as well as be a part of it.
This brings us today (by skipping a few decades in between Partch and the present) and as I mentioned earlier, writing for voice is a major blind-spot for me. While I wish avoid comparisons, I’ve recently completed my own piece for speaker and ensemble. It’s incredibly intimidating to be standing at the end of a long line of experimentation while dealing with something so natural, so familiar, and yet so difficult to notate. I’ve been using all the pieces I’ve been discussing as a map of the territory, and I’ve found that there’s still a lot of territory to explore. Whether my modest contribution will mean anything is still yet to be seen, but I am using the lessons I’ve learned from a this tradition of experimentation to better understand the spoken word and the music that lies within.