How did we come to Contemporary Vocal Music as it is today? An exploration of how the 20th Century has changed vocal techniques.
Contemporary Music is a time in classical music history in which all previously set boundaries were pushed and broken in order to discover new things, new sounds, and new ways of doing things. This is all evident when looking at contemporary vocal music.
Before the Contemporary era, a vocal performer would only sing or speak. Europe was at the forefront of singing technique with the Italian Bel Canto school, teaching an expressive style of singing most associated with opera. The school itself died out in the mid 19th Century but its style and ideals were continued in vocal performance into the 20th Century.
In the 20th Century, Composer began testing the boundaries in music in all senses, exploring everything from tonality to structure to performance and instrumental techniques. The exploration of vocal techniques has potentially been the most lucrative in discover extended instrumental techniques. “Extended vocal technique is in some ways entirely self-descriptive - it extends the boundaries of what most would consider a normal singing technique to include (potentially) any and all the sounds the human voice is capable of making.” J. K. Halfyard
So what are Extended Vocal Techniques? Melanie Austin Crump describes them as: “Known as “extended vocal practices,” the “extra-normal voice,” or “extended techniques,” to name but a few, EVTs may be defined as a body of practices conveyed through nontraditional methods of vocal production, possibly altering the natural timbre of the voice for the purpose of musical expression. EVTs include such devices as, Sprechstimme or Sprechgesang, shouting and whispering, laughter and crying, glissandi, microtones, altered or eliminated vibrato, sound production through inhalation and exhalation, vowel morphing, amplified or electronically generated vocal alterations, and nonsense syllables or phonemes, all of which could be accompanied by movement, improvisation and/or the playing of instruments by the singer. This list is not exhaustive as EVTs vary from performer to performer.” M. A. Crump
The early 20th Century saw composers beginning to write music for vocalists, not just to sing, but to use their voices in different ways. It is said that this exploration of the voices capabilities can be traced back to Arnold Schoenburg. In his melodrama Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg uses a technique called Sprechgesang or Sprechstimme. “ ‘Sprechgesang’ means a ‘parlando’ manner of singing, and indeed is translated in standard dictionaries as ‘recitative’, whereas ‘Sprechstimme’ in itself simply means speaking voice.” R.Wood, 1946
Sprechstimme is a vocal technique that had been used before Pierrot Lunaire was written. The earliest known compositional use of Sprechstimme was in Engelbert Humperdinck's 1897 melodrama Königskinder. However, it was Schoenberg who truly made use of the technique, using it in compositions from 1911 (Gurre-Lieder). Schoenberg made Sprechgesang more than just speaking to accompaniment and maintaining pitches, and different to singing. "The goal is certainly not at all a realistic, natural speech. On the contrary, the difference between ordinary speech and speech that collaborates in a musical form must be made plain. But it should not call singing to mind, either." A. Schoenberg
Being the first to use a technique such as this in his work, Schoenberg had to explain how he wanted the Sprechgesang to be performed. Giving explicit instructions of how the pitch sound not be stuck to rigidly, but to start at it and move around it, in his own words “immediately abandons it [the given pitch] by falling or rising” (Schoenberg). When giving the first performance of Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg was able to work with the vocalist to achieve the exact sound he wanted. However, in later performances, vocalists struggled to...
Bibliography: Schoenberg, A. Style and Idea. Edited by Leonard Stein with translations by Leo Black. New York: St. Martin’s, 1975.
Schoenberg, Arnold. Verklärte Nacht and Pierrot Lunaire. Dover Publications. New York, 1994.
Alvin Toffler, 1984. Future Shock
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