During my time as a resident at the Union for Contemporary Art, I’ve been exploring contemporary classical vocal technique as used in recent music composition, primarily derived from North American and European academic traditions. The residency has been an unparalleled opportunity to dive into these ideas. Having a quiet space to myself to explore scores, LISTEN, read, and write helped me find so much perspective on complicated music that I often perform once and then never have the time to revisit.
I wrote a guest post for a blog about the objectification of the voice and the stripping of technique in search of a “pure” or “raw” sound. I dove into the music of Ray Evanoff, who layers discrete technical ideas within a single instrument to organize novel sounds. And recently, I’ve been thinking about the exploration, application, and proliferation of technique within modern academic contexts.
My initial training as a singer focused on traditional music styles, including opera, art song, traditional choral singing, and some musical theatre. In each case, my lessons were dedicated to fitting my technique to the style of the piece, while factoring in practical implications of acoustics and understandability. Rarely (if ever) did I take pause to consider the origins of these practices. Perhaps it was exactly the practical implications of acoustics and understandability were the foundations of technique, which later generated style.
In working with composers that seek a “non bel canto,” “raw,” “pure,” or “untrained” vocal sound, or who are attempting to develop new technical languages, instructions might include the avoidance of vibrato, avoiding being too loud, avoid trained diction and clear speech, make the voice noisier with vocal fry and other interruptions. Instead of fitting a technique to the desired sound, it is an avoidance of technique, a negation. This is “abstinence only” singing. Please abstain from “sounding like an opera singer.” It is an experiment without a codified technique (as codification comes after the experiment has become a style).
Teachers of classical voice don’t typically have a language for training students in contemporary styles, as they teach from a “tradition,” a fixed set of rules that apply to specific circumstances (French mélodies versus German Lieder). It is not necessarily an exploration of the possible. Technique is not viewed as a generic set of tools that can be fitted to any model of music, but rather a doctrine of training with defined possibilities. This is “abstinence only” vocal training. Please abstain from exploring technique away from style.
I continue to be challenged with amazing new pieces from living composers, and I will continue to think about the relationship between vocal technique, style, and expression. I feel like I have even more ideas to explore after the Union residency than when I started, and I can’t wait to continue the projects I worked on during the summer.