composing for voice

In the past month or so I’ve been to two contemporary music concerts that featured duets consisting of instrument and voice – one that was trumpet and voice, one that was bassoon and voice.

I haven’t written for a lot of voice nor listened to a lot of contemporary music that features voice, but it struck me how the inclusion of voice sets up an expectation of hierarchy – the voice is usually the dominant force for which everything else is accompaniment. Even when the voice isn’t actually performing, the material that other instruments play feel transitionary – something that serves as a breather for the voice. Going even further, it’s also not uncommon for the music of the voice to be subservient to the actual text.

When Erin Gee was featured during one of our nienteForte seasons, she did a clinic about how her approach to voice was different, that her Mouthpiece works didn’t use voice to speak text as much as sounds, which had the effect of making the voice simply another instrument with no elevated emphasis or meaning over anyone else. As I start conceiving of the music I’m going to be writing over the next year that involves voice, I find myself drawn to creating a variation of that idea, although my initial thoughts about it aren’t so much about reducing the emphasis of the vocal performer as much as elevating the emphasis of the instrumentalist in some way.

What’s rolling around in my head right now is this idea of having both performers sing/speak text, but one performer does just the vowels and the other does just the consonants. There’s some practical considerations to be experimented with there (especially since a wind instrument can’t play and speak at the same time), but I could see that as being an asset for text discovery. We’ll see what I can do with it in the next few weeks.

Mendel Lee

I'm a composer, musician, and music educator residing in New Orleans, LA.

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