Letter to the Editor: The Indefatigable Art Song

I could not resist responding to Corey Dargel’s recent article on the state of the art song in today’s musical climate (More Song, Less Art(ifice): The New Breed of Art Song). He made no bones about the fact that he is dissatisfied with the art song concert experience, and classically-trained singers in general, with all their “baggage of classical voice pedagogy.” His article heralded the age of the “artsongwriters,” singers who write their own music and lyrics, and perform and record their own compositions. They are essentially following the model of pop singer-songwriters, but extending it to include classical or semi-classical musical styles. Since, by Dargel’s definition, I qualify as one of these “artsongwriters,” and am also a classical singer and voice pedagogue with a terminal degree to back it up, who better than me to respond to his specious arguments?

Dargel writes of “three degrees of separation” that exist in the traditional art song: the poet’s work is interpreted by the composer, whose work is then interpreted by the singer. Apparently, this amounts to “artifice” that affects a “lack of intimacy” with the audience. So let me respond to these “three degrees of separation” from my point of view.

“First degree—the poet.” Dargel seems to think that a composer is treading on the sanctity of a poet’s work by setting his words to music. Here’s a reality check: a composer can only set a poet’s text to music with his or her permission. If the poet is deceased, the composer must obtain permission from the poet’s estate, unless the poem is in the public domain (read: an extremely OLD poem). All of the poets represented on my current disc, Songs in Transit, were actively involved, consulted, and thrilled to have their poetry set to music and recorded. In one instance, the poet, Carla Drysdale, actually wrote her poem for and about the composer, David Del Tredici, in the hope that he would set it. In most instances, modern composers are friends with their text writers. There is no composer alive who would waste their time setting the poetry of someone who didn’t want their texts set. They simply would not want to risk a battle for permission to publish, perform and record their own music on this basis.

Dargel also suggests that once a poem is set to music, people are no longer able to “read the poem…without remembering the music that goes with it.” Hogwash. Has anyone counted the number of settings of James Joyce’s poems lately? He only wrote one thin book of them, but hundreds of composers have set them. Have they done him a disservice? Have they diminished his greatness in any way? I think not. And what about pop/rock bands that do cover songs? Should no one but Bob Dylan ever be allowed to sing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”? I recently polled some of my high school students and was shocked to find that the majority of them had no idea who Roger Daltrey is. When I said, “The Who,” they said, “the who?” Is it fair to assume that the poets, composers and performs we think of as legends will live on in the memory of future generations? They might not. Let’s embrace the chance to keep James Joyce in our present day consciousness, and Bob Dylan, too.

“Second degree—the singer.” Dargel writes that “people find classical vocal technique artificial and outdated.” He then goes on to bemoan the fact that some classical singers are “unintelligible.” Well, here’s a news flash: singers that have poor diction (and there are plenty of them) are the ones that need vocal technique. Vocal technique is not a burden, it is the antithesis of that! It is what frees a voice and allows it to be reliable, versatile, clear, and expressive. Listen to my disc—you’ll get every word—believe me. Listen to amazing classical singers like Sanford Sylvan, Dawn Upshaw, and William Sharp, or past recordings of Arleen Auger and Jan DeGaetani. They made careers out of being great communicators who get the words across. And no offense to pop artists, but since when did they corner the market on intelligibility? Case in point: R.E.M. Enough said.

“Third degree—the audience.” Dargel doesn’t give a shred a credit to the listener. Audiences are not made up of mindless ninnies who need to be spoon-fed; they can form their own opinions without being told what to react to and how. They don’t need to know what the poet’s, composer’s or singer’s intentions or interpretations are, unless they want to. They can choose to look at a program or not. They can choose to occupy a seat or not. What is boring to one person may be earth-shattering to another. Once the music is given to an audience, the listener contributes his own response to the mix. Should we put a stop to that, too? It makes things so impure and messy.

And so we come to the artsongwriters. They are “doing away with the three degrees of separation,” and I’m one of them. I am a composer and I set my own lyrics. Some of my songs appear on Songs in Transit, with more slated for the next disc due out in 2007. When I perform other people’s songs, I feel a great responsibility to the composer and the poet. When I perform my own songs, I only feel a responsibility to myself. But other than that internal sensation, there is absolutely no difference in how I do my job as an artist. I don’t “keep [my] own interpretation absent or subordinate,” as Dargel suggests. Quite the contrary, because here is the truth: music is a dormant art until it is brought to life by performers. If we get too exclusionary, we’ll just have to discount instrumental music, too, unless the composer is playing it himself. Chamber and orchestral music will be out by default. We wouldn’t want some errant cellist imposing his individuality on the music and destroying its “intimacy.” And while we’re at it, I think we need to forget rock bands, as well. George Harrison didn’t write 3/4 of the Beatles’ songs, so why’d he even get to play?

Let’s take a step back and put things into perspective. The emergence of a new breed of singer-songwriters is a wonderful thing. These are creative, talented people, and they’re my colleagues. But our existence doesn’t mean we should stop singing Schubert and Poulenc. Just like my crazy, beautiful composer friends who can’t sing a note shouldn’t stop writing crazy, beautiful vocal music. Just like architects who can’t swing a hammer shouldn’t stop designing amazing structures that other people will build. The “intimacy” of song is not determined by who wrote the poem or the music, or even who is singing. It’s created by the sheer virtue of the fact that the voice is a living instrument. It strikes an emotional chord with audiences in a deep, fundamental and primitive way that cannot be equaled by any other type of music or art form. The voice is alive and it sounds that way. It is a miracle of physiology; the most basic form of musical expression and the most complex of all instruments. Art song—the heart of its repertoire—will never cease to continue beating strong.

***

Dr. Melanie Mitrano is an active performer, teacher, lecturer, writer and composer who specializes in the field of new music. Her new disc, Songs in Transit: An American Expedition, has just been released on Capstone Records. She can be contacted through www.jamesarts.com.

4 thoughts on “Letter to the Editor: The Indefatigable Art Song

  1. mjleach

    “In most instances, modern composers are friends with their text writers. There is no composer alive who would waste their time setting the poetry of someone who didn’t want their texts set. They simply would not want to risk a battle for permission to publish, perform and record their own music on this basis.”

    Such sweeping generalizations. I know of very few composers who have set music to poetry by their friends. Does that mean we’re not “modern”? ; -) And, unfortunately, I know of too many people who have set music first, asked for permission later, only to be refused or not able to find the poet. For instance, I worked on a project where the composers were given haikus to set, only to find out later that the commissioners hadn’t obtained permissions and didn’t even know how to contact the publisher!

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  2. nisilux

    “I know of very few composers who have set music to poetry by their friends. Does that mean we’re not ‘modern’?”

    Well, of course not! But on the other hand, I know plenty of composers (myself included) who have set music to poetry by their friends. While Dr. Mitrano’s generalizations were indeed fallacious, so are presumptions based on personal experience and point of ego which is, to be fair, a sweeping generalization.

    “And, unfortunately, I know of too many people who have set music first, asked for permission later, only to be refused or not able to find the poet. For instance, I worked on a project where the composers were given haikus to set, only to find out later that the commissioners hadn’t obtained permissions and didn’t even know how to contact the publisher!”

    Well, that’s just downright irresponsible, isn’t it? Shame on the commissioners, of course, but also: equal shame to the composers who didn’t check out the permission status of the texts before writing. That would be one of the FIRST things to cross my mind in working with text. As Dr. Mitrano rightly pointed out, “There is no composer alive who would waste their time setting the poetry of someone who didn’t want their texts set. They simply would not want to risk a battle for permission to publish, perform and record their own music on this basis.”

    That said, I really enjoyed this rebuttal, even if it was somewhat stretched and melodramatic at points, e.g., “If we get too exclusionary, we’ll just have to discount instrumental music, too, unless the composer is playing it himself. Chamber and orchestral music will be out by default. We wouldn’t want some errant cellist imposing his individuality on the music and destroying its ‘intimacy.'” — but then, she is a vocalist :o) I kid, I jest, I poke. Anyway, I particularly enjoyed her well-rounded and inclusionary point of view (minor generalizations notwithstanding) and the clarity of her argument. Well done.

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  3. danielgilliam

    As a singer of art songs (new and old) and a composer of art songs, I also disagree that using someone else’s poetry adds a layer of distance or creates an inerasable memory of that poem associated with the music.

    Once a composer sets a poem to music, a new work has been created. The poem still stands on its own as a poem, but the art song is now a self-contained work that has something new to say. With a well-known poem, you may have a dozen settings. Visit http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=6460 and look at how many composers have set Goethe’s “Kennst du dast Land.” (One that is left off is Mark Adamo’s setting from Little Women). Is there one that stands out?

    Another argument can be made that sometimes a composer can bring to light a poet who would not have otherwise been known (modern or historic). I’m not saying that poets should depend on composers for exposure (we don’t get enough ourselves), but a poet (or poet’s estate) who wants to be heard (and doesn’t have any hang-ups about their poetry being set to music) will probably be enthusiastic about working with the composer.

    At a time when I see interdisciplinary art being the vogue, I find it hard to believe that we should stop setting other’s poems to music.

    A good singer can bridge these supposed gaps between poem, song, and listener.

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  4. JPehrson

    I’ve been reading the interchange between Melanie Mitrano and Corey Dargel with interest. In recent years I have begun to question the relationship between words and music in a fundamental way. At the present time, I am leaning toward the belief that intelligible words and music do not belong together at all.

    Well, perhaps it is a matter of perception on my part, but I’m always finding that I am reading the texts of the poetry or whatever being set at a different time than I’m listening to the sounds. It’s as though, for me at least, they exist on entirely separate planes that do not intersect: the intelligible plane of the verbal meaning and semantics, and the sound world of syllabic sounds.

    This is hardly a new opinion, and is probably the kind of thinking that has led to the type of vocal writing that we see in such composers as Berio and Ligeti.

    It is only recently, though, that I’ve begun to understand the possible perception or rationale behind those kinds of vocal approaches.

    For me, I cannot think about the meaning of the words and listen to the aural logic of the sounds at the same time. Syllabic and sound-text music, with no verbal symantic meaning, solves that problem, of course, by turning the voice into a vocalise, a “sound instrument…”

    I’m more than willing to entertain the thought that this schizoid absorption may be a limitation on my part, and that this is not a problem shared by all others. However, it certainly informs the kinds of vocal music to which I am most attracted…

    Joseph Pehrson

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