The voice in modern composition

There are natural limitations of the human voice which present us with challenges. Amongst these are the difficulty of pitching by ear—as opposed to most instruments’ fingering or key systems—and the concomitant difficulty of realising fast moving lines. There are also the demands and constraints of the specifically Western classical vocal technique, which to at least some degree arose out of a need to project in relatively large spaces and over perhaps a full symphony orchestra.

Have these natural constraints, or indeed the traditional classical vocal training, led to a stagnation in the art of composing for the voice? Are these constraints incompatible with several prevalent concerns of modern composition (e.g., extended techniques, wide timbral ranges, disjunct melodies, atonality in general)?

Could amplification lead to more variety of vocal colour? Furthermore, could increased and more integrated use of amplification lead to a new vocal pedagogy that encourages a more personal development of the voice that can already be witnessed in the jazz/rock/pop scene?

If you believe that the classical voice is still useful to modern composition in its present form, then which properties of it should we draw from when writing new vocal music?

If, on the other hand, you believe that the classical voice is largely no longer relevant to modern composition, then which aspects of its technique should we now be leaving behind, which aspects can we retain, and which new techniques should we be looking to?


Posts in this composition seminars category are discussion points from the blog I maintain at the University of Edinburgh to support postgraduate composers’ work. They are loosely based on the Socratic method, using questions to interrogate and help develop individual compositional approaches and to stimulate critical thinking.

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  1. Richard Worth

    Absolutely amplification would liberate the contemporary classical voice. I know we’ve talked about this before, but the 19th century ‘voice’ is pretty much unbearable for me to listen to-perhaps it’s too loaded with cultural associations, (but then surely flutes and violins would be too?) ,but it just sounds ridiculous to me. i recognise the incredible training needed and the unique degree of projection etc. but sorry, but Sarah Vaughan, gospel choirs, throat singers, Stevie Wonder etc all do it for me more- whether any of those aesthetics can be incorporated into contemporary composition is something I’m unsure of?

  2. Which cultural associations bother you Richard?

    • Richard Worth

      For one the little matter of late 19th century early twentieth century nationalism, which of course infected all kinds of musical output, but put it like this- I’m not planning any pilgrimages to Bayreuth.
      Also the ridiculous dramatic content. Am I really to believe that some fairly large middle aged women is Juliet? Ballet may be equally ridiculous, but at least they do look kind of like a Swan or a young girl wandering through an enchanted Christmas dream etc. Reminds me of a funny story someone told of a final opera scene where the heroine throws herself of a balcony (don’t know which one), but they’d put too spring a matt down behind the scenes, and so the rather large woman bounced back into view! probably not true but still…

      • OK, leaving opera aside then, is the classical voice something you associate with militarism or imperialism? If so, that’s not necessarily going to be so widely shared, is it? (I don’t have that association at least.)

        Along your lines of objection I personally have more of an association with certain displays of social status and wealth which both opera and the classical music concert hall bring. More of a problem for me though is the overuse of vibrato and the assumption that any use of single voices (as opposed to choirs) implies the soloist role. Of course, there are good reasons why that is the case (e.g. the voice sings words and is therefore a natural focal point) but it also heightens the problem of the diva personality. Don’t get me started on quasi-dramatic / comic interpretations of texts during performance–you know, the little half-sung laugh singers sometimes do…

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