Can you understand the words?

Tonight I had the pleasure to attend a streaming concert of premieres of art songs, all by different composers. I love hearing and promoting new music, so this was a lot of fun for me. There were interviews with all the composer-singer-pianist teams, which was also interesting for someone like me who has premiered new songs as both singer and pianist.

All of the songs but one were in English. I am sure because there were subtitles. Without subtitling, it was snatches of recognizable words every few seconds, but the poetry took a lot of lumps, to be honest. I found only one song truly intelligible.

Composing is hard. Singing classical music is hard. Playing the piano with singers is hard. But gee whiz, I wish there were more classical song performances that presented the words clearly! I know the challenges, number one being that classical singers don’t use microphones, so nuances of pronunciation are harder to project. But it can be done, because some singers and composers do sing and write in ways that allow the words to come through. I suspect a lack of clear training of composers in how to do this, combined with singers who sometimes want to show their pretty sounds more than they want to convey the text.

What do poets think when they hear their words become incoherent in a song? After most art song premieres, I renew my appreciation for past masters such as Barber, Hundley, and Quilter. Combining a good poem with music that complements it is quite challenging for the composer, and performing the song might be challenging for the singer, but I don’t think it’s fair to challenge the audience on the level of receiving the words. Let the words be understood easily, so that the meaning of the song is the biggest challenge. There are some current composers who are excellent at marrying words and music, as well as scoring a piano part that doesn’t overwhelm the text. Cecilia Livingston, Henry Mollicone, and Kurt Erickson come to mind.

Here is an activity I would love to see as part of the training of composers and singers. A new song should be performed, one phrase or line at a time, for an audience. Have the audience write down the words they hear after each line, drawing a blank line for words they don’t get because of pronunciation or the piano drowning out the singer. Continue through the whole song this way, line by line. After the performance, give the audience’s transcriptions to the composer and the singer. Similarly, people can go to YouTube and listen to songs they have not heard before, then find the text of the song afterwards to compare what was perceived to what was sung. Both composers and singers would benefit from this kind of listen-and-compare exercise. What makes a phrase hard to pronounce? Are there times when pronunciation is not important? Did the composer make it easy to understand the text? If it isn’t clear, is it the composer’s fault, or the singer’s?

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