Songs Without Words, Sounds That Become Songs

Highland Cemetery, with the golden ripe corn fields in the distance.

When I was a kid in Churdan, Iowa, I used to get on my bike and ride out to the cemetery on the east side of town. It was a quiet place to roam and think about things that seemed elusive at other times. Time seemed to stop while I walked or hung out under a tree, thinking or not thinking.

One mental exercise that seemed to be easier in the cemetery than anywhere else was turning off the word machine in my head. Can we have thoughts without language? I was soon convinced that we can. Experiencing trees and grass and insects and horizons without naming or classifying them was refreshing – and a little rebellious. Perhaps this was part of what drew me to playing instruments as well as singing. With an instrument you are making a sound that may feel like an expression, but obviously without words.

I am a word person. I love language – reading, writing, speaking, and acting. The fusion of words and music is, for me, the most captivating of the performing arts. However, after enjoying a break from the constant chattering of the human world, I want to ask: Is there singing without words?

There are pieces for piano titled “Song Without Words” but that seems like an insipid title, since a piano can’t express a song with words anyway. Where it gets more interesting is considering pieces like the Rachmaninoff “Vocalise” which has a very pretty vocal line without words. Gliere wrote a whole concerto for soprano without words. Do these compositions “express something” or are they in some other category?

Everyone can make nonverbal vocal sounds that express something. The wail of a mourner, the sighs that we can interpret as positive or negative by intonation, the gasp of surprise, the scream of terror, the laugh of delight, are all expressions. But what does it mean to perform a musical vocal expression without words? Does wordless musical expression have to incorporate any of the emotional nonverbal sounds in order to be “expressive”? If so, which ones? When we sing, how might any of the possible “raw emotion” vocalizations be combined with the text? Or practiced in isolation?

Memories of long-ago acting classes with their challenging exercises that stretch voice-teacher-types are floating into my thoughts. It might be good to revisit some of those, especially with more life experience and fewer inhibitions.

These are my thoughts on an airplane, with its strange sound environment triggering such wonderings. I have some experimenting to do when I get back to the studio!

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