THE BLOG
11/07/2014 05:01 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

Shut up and Sing

Shutterstock / cristovao

A singer singing is naked. The singer is the matador to the listener's bull. A pianist can still depress the keys, a violinist still stop the strings, even a wind player can still count on the instrument to respond if they are ill. But a singer's body is her instrument -- a fickle one at that. A cold, a tickle, even a stressful day, can turn a singer's instrument against her. Since even the tone -- deaf can sing, the potential exists for there to be enjoyed a more immediate, stronger sense of identification between singer and listener than possible with any other instrument. How moving and human the singer's lot: as over time her experience and artistry grow, her instrument decays!

My six-year-old son, to whom my wife and I sing every night, is extremely outgoing; yet, when his mother sings in public (she is a trained opera singer and composer), he writhes with discomfort. It is as though the act of singing to others creates such an intimate transaction between his mother and the audience that he feels that his own privacy is somehow being compromised. Our three-year-old son, to whom we also sing, reacts to his mother's public performances by growing preternaturally still, and watching her as though she had transformed into a magical creature, which she has been, in a way.

Singing is more than standing up in church and faking the words and melody of a half-remembered hymn because somebody's made off with all the hymnals in your pew. It is more than Pavarotti's voice sailing out into the 3,800 seats of the Metropolitan Opera House. (The visceral effect, by the way, if you haven't experienced it yet, of sitting a dozen rows away from the stage at a place like the Met and hearing an opera singer fill the place with the unamplified sound of their voice is more physically exhilarating than being at a rock concert.) It's more than covering show tunes in a bar, or the lobby of a hotel. More than....

Slaves picking cotton, convicts paving a road, Verdi telling Truth to Power in the opera house, a recording of Blind Willie Johnson, singing and playing the blues, traveling outwards into the universe aboard the Voyager spacecraft.

Infants, bleating the falling minor third of "mama, mama" are singing the first song, the cry for sustenance, and for protection. The analysand's primal scream for an audience of one and a punk rocker's heavily amplified, larynx-rending snarl into a microphone for an audience of a hundred are -- to me, at least -- indistinguishable.

Voices singing together in perfect accord combine the raw, atavistic power of the urschrei with mankind's equally fervent desire to civilize itself. Whether it be a a 9th century Gregorian chant intoned in an eerie unison "straight tone" (no vibrato), or a good-looking pop star whose voice is being transformed by a real-time audio pitch corrector (which sounds disturbingly like monks singing, if you slow it down enough) into something serviceable (by that I guess I mean "marketable"), it is still singing.

In instrumental music, the combining of genres, techniques, and styles is already fully accomplished. Jacob Druckman was lauded during the '80s for drawing from the acoustic orchestra sounds that other composers were creating in the electronic music studio. Years ago, Thomas Newman's extraordinary score for the Pixar cartoon Finding Nemo smoothly integrated sound effects, electronica, and suave orchestrations by opera composer Thomas Pasatieri. When I orchestrate my operas now, I customarily integrate pre-recorded sounds into the live orchestra to enlarge the expressive pallet available. Audiences are entirely comfortable with it.

Whether it be an avant-garde artist like Cathy Berberian creating vocal fry in a concert hall ("laryngealisation" to voice teachers; sounding raspy like Bob Dylan to civilians) and sound effects for her husband Luciano Berio in the '50s or a '90s hip-hop artist beat-boxing into a microphone in a New York subway, it is still singing.

Contemporary music utilizing "extended vocal techniques" (what listeners usually identify as sound effects) is comfortably within the wheelhouse of a group like the King's Singers. They can deliver the urban gloss of tight ensemble groups like Take Five and Manhattan Transfer, and give a group like the Swingle Singers (whose performance in Berio's game-changing work for orchestra and voices Sinfonia from 1969 shaped forever the way I would think about voices) a run for their money. Each of their performances is a masterclass that young startup ensembles like Roomful of Teeth would do well to attend.

Among other things, the following story describes what singing means to me:

In October 2007, I found myself in the Adler and Sullivan designed Auditorium Building in Chicago. Completed in 1889, since 1947 it has been home to Roosevelt University where, for the semester, I was serving as the Chicago College of the Performing Arts' composer-in-residence. I was teaching a floor below where Sullivan had mentored a young apprentice named Frank Lloyd Wright.

A singer, a flute player, and a pianist arrived for a coaching of a song from my song cycle, Dear Youth. The song was called "The Picture Graved into My Heart." It set the words of Hannah Ropes, a nurse, and consisted of her description of a young, dying soldier in her care. I composed it in January 1991 at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. The tattoo accompanying diplomatic and military maneuvers had begun with Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. I wanted to pen an anti-war piece that juxtaposed letters and writings from northern and southern mothers to their sons during the American civil war.

The trio performed the song. After a beat of silence, the singer began to sob. I opened the tattered copy of the EC Schirmer edition of the cycle I'd had since they first published it. "That line kills me," she said. "Which one?" I asked. "Oh, the wondrous manly beauty," she said. "I have a brother in the army. I can't stop thinking about him when I sing that line." The pianist and the flute player looked away. "Let's talk about the technique of creating the moment as a singer," I said. "Perhaps that will give you a place to go to keep something of yourself in the moment."

She nodded. I plunged in. "The line should start low and soft as you sing the word 'oh' in a normal voice," I began. "You shouldn't try to project the low C# -- it's a pillow-talk intimacy. You should only add volume as your voice moves into your chest while sliding upwards through the minor ninth in a moaning portamento to the fermata-lengthened D."

She sang the line and smiled. "Okay, now what?" she asked.

"A full-voiced throb should enter your voice then, when you can feel the diaphragm beginning to tug because your air is running out. You should feel risk there: the audience intuits that you are running out of air as you shift into your head with the last of your breath; your body and the audience's bodies share not just the reflexive response to the human moan, but the terror of running out of air."

She sang the line a few times. I leaped up and cried, "Yes, yes, yes, can you feel that?" I pressed my hand on her abdomen. "You were scared, weren't you? You were scared you were going to run out of breath. It made me apprehensive, too. That's a good thing." She looked doubtful.

"But my teacher tells me that the most important thing is to always sound good," she said, doubtfully. "I know," I agreed. "And that's the rub. Only you can decide what 'good' is. Does Tom Waits sound good to you?" She was silent. "I love Tom Waits' voice," I said. "I love the authenticity of his voice. The challenge is to sound good and to be true to yourself so that you remain authentic. Let's move on."

"The flute should enter just at that moment, matching the timbre of your voice," I counseled. "The wail should pass without fuss, normal voice and diction taking over as a breath is taken and the words 'the wondrous manly' are clearly enunciated -- 'wondrous' is a word that speaks for itself; it doesn't need any help from the composer or the singer. There you should make a slight stress, a little vibrato on the word 'beauty,' like the woody, thick vibrato you get high on the violin's G string, even a sob, before the last of your air is gone and the line ends, not tapered off, but snuffed out."

They performed the song a couple of times, thanked me, and left. A moment later, the singer returned, cheeks wet with tears. "Thank you, sir," she said, squeezing my hand. Then, urgently: "I love the songs so much."

After they left, I sat alone, far from home, emptied. An elevated train rattled past on the Loop a few stories below. I asked myself how I could possibly take myself so seriously; I knew exactly how good Dear Youth wasn't. As though in answer, I heard a few bars of Schubert's intimately majestic song cycle Der Winterreise drift up from a practice room one floor below.

I remembered myself singing, at the age of five, in an endless loop, The Happy Wanderer, at Father's command. He was proud of me, right? Or was he making fun of me? My ridiculous little penny whistle soprano voice piped on --

"Oh, may I go a-wandering
Until the day I die!
Oh, may I always laugh and sing,
Beneath God's clear blue sky."

Hot tears of embarrassment and rage and stubbornness coursed down my cheeks. I was terrified of what would happen if I stopped, ashamed of wanting to stop. I thought at that moment: wasn't that what being a professional composer had turned out to be?

The answer was simple: shut up and sing.