Oh, so like you do funny voices?
As is want to happen in the first few weeks of a new year, I’ve found myself summarizing my recent activities to folks I know. A good deal of this summarizing has been done at the request of musicians, acquaintance musicians with whom I’m collaborating in an ensemble. Probably I’ll be there playing clarinet or guitar, playing suling, or even vocalizing, and the acquaintance musician will not realize that I do anything other than play clarinet, or guitar, or gamelan, or sing or what have you.
I’ll tell this acquaintance musician that I’ve had a ton of fun (and I’ll say success as well) performing pieces by Robert Ashley in the last few months, and that I’m finding a place in my own music and music of other folks in which I get to explore musical speech. This is usually where some brows get furrowed. What do you mean, like singing? Well, sort of, I explain. In the case of Aaron Siegel‘s Brother Brother, which I performed selections from yesterday at Le Poisson Rouge, I’ll say that there’s spoken text originally conceived of as being read by an actor, but Aaron thought it would be more appropriate to have someone read it whose primary goal was to make it sound interesting, rather than to bringing out the meaning, emotion, etc. in the text. And Aaron decided I was a good guy for that task.*
Or I’ll try to explain a piece of mine called Sit at the Basement, which is being performed on Saturday, January 28th at Exapno as part of SweaTronics, in which four speakers speak text in their own comfortable speaking voices, and I devilishly manipulate the pitch level of their voices – slowly & subtly – to transform a straightforward vocal texture into something a little off, a little eerie. Also on that concert, I’ll be musically speaking in a piece by Ellen O’Meara. Both Ellen & I are involved in Panoply Performance Lab’s upcoming Nature Fetish, which also pushes speech into territory well beyond the more traditional theatrical practice. And this is to say nothing of my ongoing collaboration with Aliza, Why Lie?, which involves little musical stories, both fixed and improvises.
In all of these, the process of figuring out how to say what your saying is much more like music – in these particular pieces, the unifying theme is phrasing. I consider it musical speech because the natural rhythm & phrasing of speaking a sentence is frustrated. If you take a chunk of text, alter the natural stresses, and insert pauses that have little to do with linguistic syntax, you’re starting to get musical. I’m not saying it’ll be good, but there’s a borderline you’ll be toeing.
My aesthetics on all of this have changed so much recently from spending time with Bob’s music and with Bob himself in his role as a vocal coach for That Morning Thing. Going back to the acquaintance musicians, they’ll often ask me about Perfect Lives and I’ll get to a conversational point where I simply have to demonstrate what the hell I’m talking about. I’ll pick some section of The Church and begin reciting it in the particular lilt that I’ve found for it. As I do this, I’m thinking, what aspect of what I’m doing will this person think is musical? The stresses and the phrasing are only slightly different in most parts of what I do than normal speech would be. There’s a more generous range of pitched material in my speaking than there would normally be. The words have a particular music to them. I affect a bit of an accent when I do this recitation, inevitably. I think what’s ultimately exciting to me is that people could decide that they don’t have enough information to discover what’s musical about what I’m doing. Performing a small excerpt in conversation is not necessarily enough to make clear the alchemical switch that happens when one begins performing musical speech. It’s really hard to put your finger on, but there’s something just different that you know when you hear.
This was all getting into my head last night before I performed the Brother Brother excerpts. In rehearsal, I managed to keep it fresh and find something interesting about Aaron’s text every time without being overly analytical with regards to what I was doing. For some reason at the sound check yesterday I suddenly felt that I was overusing a particular melodic contour indicative of questioning (one specification Aaron gave me was that each question should really sound like a question, with the characteristic rise at the end). I tried out some much less exaggerated ways of presenting things, making them more “speech” than “musical speech”, and then I second guessed that decision. My mind went around in circles as to what was the best way to support the piece, to be musical, to be audible, etc. I have no idea how it came out in the end. But I think part of what happened had to do with being in a room full of people I know and respect and care about and wanting to show off this thing I’ve been cultivating. Whatever it is.
There’s no need to cordon off this musical talking thing I’ve been cultivating from other kind of speech and music, I think good artistic execution with this tool is based around its seamless incorporation with less elevated speech and less speech-y music. But it does, like so many other things, become more of an issue when you try to explain it to someone while killing time backstage, or in an elevator, at a bris, etc.
*Someone else involved in Aaron’s piece assumed I was an actor. I assured him I wasn’t, or at least that wasn’t my training, but then I realized that the joke is on me because I had been cast and was essentially performing as an actor in this piece.
PS – Tom Waits in 1979 doing some of the finest musical talking around: http://video.pbs.org/video/2179574410/ (courtesy of my brother)