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.