Word and Voice


“A word will never be able to understand the voice that utters it.”
—Thomas Merton

One of the beautiful things about music is that it can mean almost anything, or nothing at all.

Like language, music encompasses a continuum of meaning from specific denotation to evocative connotation.

And the relationships between word and voice constitute another continuum of their own.

At one end of this spectrum are the hobo text settings of Harry Partch’s U.S. Highball and Debussy’s opera Pelleas et Melisande, in which every syllable of language is set as a clear, distinct musical atom.

At the other end is chant, organum, and pure vocalise in which the connotative colors of voice completely supercede the denotative meanings of word.

Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room is a unique vocal work that traverses this entire spectrum, from pure language to pure tone, without any singing at all.

My own music extends from one end of the word/voice spectrum to the other, in one case embracing both ends at the same time.

My English text settings of Inuit songs and the poems of John Haines follow a strict one-syllable-per-tone course. And in two songs to poems in the Gwich’in Athabascan dialect, I followed a similar path with a language I don’t speak myself.

The text of my opera Earth and the Great Weather is a series of “Arctic Litanies” in which the names of places, plants, and the seasons are spoken simultaneously in Gwich’in, I–upiaq, English, and Latin, accompanied by microtonal music for strings.

Although Earth is one of my best-known works, I’ve sometimes felt an element was missing in the musical space between the strings and the spoken voices. So for a new production at the Almeida Festival a couple of years ago, I added a chorus singing elongated versions of the Gwich’in and I–upiaq texts. As it turned out, the voices of the singers were the catalyst that fully integrated the music and language.

Whether it’s Dawn Upshaw or Robert Ashley, ultimately it’s voice that brings musical text to life. And the quality of “voiceness” resides not just in the unique spectral print of an individual’s speaking or singing voice. We also hear the composer’s voice and the writer’s voice ­in those composites of experience, aesthetics, and beliefs that create and permeate the sound of both music and word.

What do you hear in the relationships between word and voice?

Are there specific pieces of music you feel embody an especially strong marriage of text and sound?

As Charles Ives asks in his Postface to 114 Songs: “Must a song always be a song?”