Bad Vocal Writing

by Barry Drogin

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I am asked to write about the phenomenon of bad vocal writing in the 20th century. This makes me feel very old, fighting old wars that a new generation may not even be aware of, let alone care about. Also, I am not a historian or an academic, so my assertions are all based on impressions gathered from experience, not on statistics or research.

First, one must start with an assertion that there was a historical period when many young composers were writing pieces that they themselves could not hear or perform. To quote from Peter Hansen's fourth edition of "An Introduction to Twentieth Century Music":

"Music written according to such elaborate plans [total serialism] offers great problems to both performers and listeners. The intricacy of the rhythmic patterns, often including fractional values never encountered before, the quick changes of dynamic levels without any relation to 'natural' dynamics, the frequent leaps from one note to the next, the precision called for in the manner in which notes are to be attacked --- all of these matters confront the performer with formidable problems...

"For the listener there are also problems. Music that is so highly organized should be easy to listen to, but the intricacy and multiplicity of the simultaneous patterns make for the opposite effect, and instead of seeming planned such music often sounds chaotic or capricious. Each of the parameters is equal in interest, so there is no prime character, be it melody, or rhythm, or harmony, as there was in older music."

Philip Glass, in the early seventies, probably made the most public statements against what he was forced to feel he had to write while in school, and why he broke away. A movement of downtown composers followed him into the early eighties, and it was within this context that Jacob Druckman established his "New Romanticism" festival at the New York Philharmonic in 1983. It was probably there, in 1983, that I heard Zubin Mehta make his characterization about young academic composers he had encountered.

It's hard to believe that this was 15 years ago. I have no idea what composition students are being taught today, what their teachers must know in order to appear hip and relevant to their students, and to keep their tenure, too. Since my information is second-hand and dated, I cannot back it up with citations of unknown composers and which works they were clueless about. All I know is that many were experimenting with electronic music so that they could actually find out what their music sounded like. Unfortunately, the electronic instruments of the time made this process very laborious and difficult.

A second assertion, that there has been bad vocal writing in the 20th century, has its difficulties in proof, too, because the implication is that the most difficult, most impossible pieces never made it past their first performances, if there ever was a first performance, and are therefore unknown. Many of the most difficult pieces had champions who convinced others to scale their heights. The repertoire of Cathy Barberian, Joan La Barbara, Jan de Gaetani, Dora Ohrenstein, and now Dawn Upshaw and others have, in some ways, redefined what is acceptable in writing for voice. And then there are experimentalists like Meredith Monk and Diamanda Galas.

I have seen this kind of work infiltrate music theatre, but not opera. Over the last twenty years, I have seen many new operas that share a common problem --- a complete lack of interest in the vocal content of the music. The scores sound like film scores with a vocal line tacked on. It's just as well that the voice is often overwhelmed by the orchestra, and its words are unintelligible (without surtitles).

The alternative I hear sounds like bad Verdi or Puccini --- music that could have been written fifty years ago, with no melodic distinction or personality.

For examples, I could merely open up my file of opera programs and start a long list. It's easier to list the exceptions: the Glass operas, the Salzman and Sahl operas, Bolcolm's work, maybe Corigliano, and portions of the Harvey Milk opera (I don't know any of their other works). Even late Bernstein slipped into the orchestral trap.

The fact is, opera commissions have been pretty few and far between for quite a while, so it is not so easy to link assertion one with assertion two. It is assumed that the most egregious vocal writing was cut before the opera was completed, staged and put before the paying public.

I know this answer is somewhat unsatisfactory, and I still have avoided going for the jugular with an actual list. The problem is that so much time has passed since I've started thinking this way, and I am so often disappointed by what I hear available out there that I don't even make the effort to remember it, anymore. It's all become a great wash of bad music, in my brain. It's a major reason I became an a cappella composer --- a bold break away from opera as film score, concentration on the voice alone, and its possibilities, as instrument. I'm basically trying to start my own movement, and have already met some like-minded composers. So we'll see what we come up with.

It's so much easier to concentrate on the good, and avoid the bad.

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A Musical Contrarian 1999-2007

Last Updated: August 4, 2007