I find it increasingly easy to make my own head spin. One of my ongoing obsessions concerns the basic nature of setting text to music. How do composers and songwriters make certain that the notes and the words balance one another?
The answer is, of course, different for every song and for every composition. And the equation is more complicated when the musical and textual elements are themselves more convoluted. But striking this balance is extremely interesting to me. How can one synthesize music and text, without creating perceptual distractions?
Those who already know well Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” might find Kurt Weill’s tuneful setting curious. John Corigliano’s settings of Bob Dylan lyrics present perceptual barbs on multiple levels at once. Similarly, the experience of watching an opera while reading supertitles strongly differs from the experience of watching one in your own language without supertitles. Even instrumental music can carry associative baggage: my cellist girlfriend had a funky experience listening to a transcription for flute and piano of Debussy’s Cello Sonata.
With these meandering thoughts in mind, I am excited to workshop a new piece, A Thousand Tender Passages, with the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, a 32-voice virtuoso choir. The text, excerpts from two flirtatious letters of George Washington to Sally Fairfax, is one which I believed might actually benefit from a musical setting. When the piece is in the hands of conductor Philip Brunelle, I’m going to find out! Either consciously or unconsciously, composers and songwriters have a sense of how exactly words will interact with music, from local syllable-setting to overall perception. I suppose I’m the conscious sort. Head-spinningly conscious.