Do You Hear What I Hear?

Last Friday morning during a press conference before the first full orchestra rehearsal of The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera House, the opera’s composer, Tan Dun, jokingly apologized for a weird sentence structure he had just uttered by claiming that composers are sometimes more interested in the way things sound than in what they mean. As I just said, it was a joke; but of course it got me thinking. (These kinds of statements inevitably do.)

Do composers overall tend to care more about the way things sound than what they mean? Might that be why verbal comprehensibility is often not an issue when composers set texts? If the meaning of things is more important or at least as important as the way things sound, why would composers ever use melismas, create vocal lines that frequently soar above the staff, or score passages featuring unamplified singers for a very large ensemble?

Please don’t get the wrong idea here: I’m not singling out Tan Dun or his vocal writing for The First Emperor. At least at the Met, thanks to their wonderful digital back-title displays (which appear on every seat in the house and which were already working for this rehearsal), comprehensibility is never a problem, even if the Met’s solution is ultimately not a sonic one.

I think this whole phenomenon of sound vs. meaning goes beyond vocal music and strikes at the heart of the very essence of music and music making. Even a composer who is as sensitive to prosody when setting texts as Ned Rorem believes that music ultimately has no meaning.

For me, the way a piece of music sounds is its meaning. But perhaps that’s because I, too, care more about the way things sound than what they actually might mean.

3 thoughts on “Do You Hear What I Hear?

  1. Colin Holter

    I care way, way more about what music means than about how it sounds. But it’s important to remember that “unaccompanied voices in a large ensemble,” for instance, can mean something too, something not necessarily communicated by the text: It brings up the motivation behind that particular aesthetic decision on the part of the composer, and it also has a symbolic meaning. These other meanings may, of course, be co- or countervalent with the literal meaning of the sung text.

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  2. philmusic

    Instrumental Music can have a meaning but many times its an unintended meaning or a meaning placed on the composition by people other than the composers. Many compositions have a special meaning for me and every generation will find its own special meanings in various musical works. The meanings of a work tend to change over time.

    Now if your talk’in Opera, where music and words dance together, its a different kettle’o fish. Words can have their own meaning and music can be used just for illustration. Also, more people language/text than music. I blog this– I don’t phoneme it. Still, the possibilities for music and text are endless.

    Anyway, if you want to compose meaningful vocal music a thorough study of the possibilities of the human voice with or without text cannot be understated.

    Phil’s Page

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  3. william

    NYC has always seemed to me a place where a lot of very abstract music was made. By that I mean music such as serialism or the sound art of Cage. Why has so little significant political music come from the city?

    Do you think sound without meaning (which might be thought of as apolitical music,) might be a part of the city’s culture, because its extreme social dichotomies are so volatile its dangerous to even address them? And what would political music be in a city seen by many to be the center of murderous forms of global capitalism – especially when it is exactly those corporations that fund the arts? Would political music be tolerated by America’s plutocratic system of arts funding? Maybe it’s no wonder New York seems to favor music without meaning. Or does “meaningless” music actually mean quite a bit.

    As for the new opera, are we looking to integrate world music into classical as a form of exotica, without really looking at issues such as genuine racial and cultural integration? We ironically present someone from China, while classical music is still whiter than snow in a city with 2 million African-Americans. We are very silent about those “meanings.” In fact, we smugly say music has no meaning.

    By the way, has anyone noticed that the Met has now done 8 or 9 new works by men but none by women? What does that mean?

    William Osborne

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