Recently I’ve been trying to get around my aforementioned difficulties writing vocal music.
I find there are two main problems with opera singers: you can’t tell what note they’re singing (esp. male singers) and they don’t know what to do with their hands (no microphone to hang on to). I’ve observed my colleagues and professors take a number of approaches to writing music for these singers. Many call for a “straight tone” (i.e. no vibrato), which can be quite beautiful, but is a little like asking a pianist to play with his feet— it’s just not what they’re trained to do. But many make do with this compromise, because opera singers are easy to come by (they go to the same schools as composers, after all, and most know how to read music). Certain composers still write operas and embrace the operatic sound— John Adams and Chris Cerrone come to mind. (Interestingly, both call for amplification.)
Many composers abandon the opera/art-song world in favor of various “pop” styles of singing— whether or not their music could be called Pop. This brings with it a different set of æsthetic conundrums, along with a huge potential Cringe Factor. Sometimes it works brilliantly, however; in Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads, a couple of opera singers and a couple of jazz/R & B singers sing side by side, along with Ted himself, who does some of each. All sing their hearts out, and the music is really good, so it works. The rather obvious secret is that quote-unquote Crossover works when the musicians involved have taste.
But I think the main reason for my discomfort writing vocal music is my lack of feeling for the voice as an instrument. I’m most comfortable using actual instruments, primarily the piano, as my “voice”. Putting words along with the notes just somehow feels extraneous to me. I haven’t been a singer since I was about 11, when I dropped out of our local children’s chorus, and since then, I’ve enjoyed the comfort of having an instrument, preferably a large one, next to me on stage at all times. My adult voice is completely untrained, limited in range, and tires easily; to me it just sounds embarrassing. I harbor the utmost admiration— bordering on jealousy, even— for people like Gabe Kahane, who can sing anything from Ives to Cee-lo with aplomb, and accompany himself admirably at the same time.
Right now I’m working on some very short songs for Gabe, based on texts from a website I found called Parenting With Family Play (basically a very earnest and thorough users’ manual for roughhousing/role-playing with your young child). I’m setting them very straight-faced, with a minimum of “musical commentary”, because I feel as though word-cartooning is an excuse for having no musical ideas (plus they did it better in the 17th century?). The piano parts are spare because Gabe will be accompanying himself (giving him something to do with his hands). What will happen? You’ll just have to come out to Issue Project Room on November 17th and find out.