the cmrc blog
Words and Music 1 Words Matter
Words matter. I start there because sometimes I think composers forget it. Sometimes I think that singers forget it too. Sometimes I think that if I were the author of a libretto or song lyric I would wonder where my words had gone when I hear them sung.
As a composer myself I would be mortified if an author felt that their words had disappeared in my musical setting. I’m not sure, though, that all composers do feel like that. And I’m not sure that singers always care if the listener has any idea what the words they are singing are intended to express. No, that’s unkind. I know they would like their words to be understood and try hard to ensure they are. But sometimes the only way we get meaning is from facial expression (smiley face, sad face, quivering desire etc).
The problem for both the singer and the composer is one of prioritisation. For the singer (whatever the style or genre) vocal production – creating the right sound – is often the driving concern, closely linked to stylistic considerations and notions of authenticity (what John Potter calls ‘vocal authority’)1. Textual clarity is inevitably pushed into second place. For the composer the problems are more complicated.
Unlike the singer, the composer begins with a clean slate. There are far more choices open to them. If the composer’s priority is really clarity of text, the option is always there to have the text spoken with a minimum of musical interference. But then what would be the point of having singers? As soon as the choice is made to sing the text, its clarity begins to be reduced. A set of options opens up offering a sliding scale of degrees of intelligibility. At one end chanted text, syllabic and monotonic (perfectly clear); at the other end angular, fragmented vocalisation or elongated melisma (unintelligible). In between these extremes are various degrees of melodic, homophonic and polyphonic writing, all of which need to be handled with great care if even the smallest amount of intelligibility of text is to be preserved.
Is the composer’s first priority clarity of text, though? Usually not. Start at the beginning: why is the composer composing with words? Not because a text has demanded music (even if the composer tells you otherwise in the programme note). Not because the songwriter has a message to convey to the world (even in a ‘protest song’). The starting point is the need or desire to create vocal music. Vocal music needs words. The words may come before the music, but they are not the reason for the music.
Different composers adopt different attitudes towards this question. Leonard Cohen, poet and singer, makes heavy use of the monotone in his songs, because getting all the words across is important to him. Two consecutive notes at the same pitch would be out of the question for some composers, however. For Brian Ferneyhough, the meaning of the text must be extracted by other means than merely listening. Between these extremes, there can be an element of the emperor’s new clothes. We are constantly told that a composer has striven for intelligibility, when the reality is that words are intelligible only when one knows already what they are. That’s why opera houses use sur-titles, and why recital programmes often contain full printed texts.
But if words matter, we should be able to do better. Our relationship with text should go beyond finding the required number of notes to fit the words and hoping for the best. Music can support text and can comment on text. It can join with and recompose text. There are many ways to clothe this particular cat (I’m not keen on skinning them). I have been exploring these avenues my entire working life and continue to do so. Over the coming months I am planning to describe some of my working methods in a bit of detail, in case anyone else might find them useful.
– Roger Marsh
 Potter,J. Vocal Authority. CUP 1998