A Cup of Tea with Dawn Upshaw
FRANK J. OTERI: So, what is good vocal writing for American English.
DAWN UPSHAW: Well, you know, it’s hard. I’ll say, “Something that sings,” and nobody will really understand what I mean. I suppose, to a great extent, it’s a personal choice because, you know, everybody’s going to have different reactions. But I do like an expressive line. Not necessarily even a melody or what’s thought of as a melody, but something that is truly expressive of the text or something, even if it’s not expressive of the text in the way I would interpret the text, something that speaks clearly to me and moves me somehow. I mean, really this is true for any kind of music, but if we’re talking about setting the language, I’m not as interested in things that break up the flow so much, unless breaking it up is making a clear point about the interpretation of the text that I understand. So, I am a lover of a good line.
FRANK J. OTERI: Are there things that somebody setting an English text should do differently than if they were setting, say, an Italian text or a French poem?
DAWN UPSHAW: No, I think that if you know these languages well enough you know how we sit in the sound of a given word, the ebb and flow of one word, and I think you need to incorporate that into your piece, keeping that in mind.
FRANK J. OTERI: Half of the burden is the composer’s burden to come up with something that works for a text, but half the burden is also the text itself. Are there texts that you just can’t sing?
DAWN UPSHAW: I think so. I think that some composers are much more gifted at choosing texts than others and I do think that there are some things that just don’t set well.
FRANK J. OTERI: What would be the qualities of something that does set well or the qualities of something that doesn’t?
DAWN UPSHAW: Maybe I’m kidding myself, maybe it is a personal choice issue again. Maybe what I mean is more the context and the meaning of the poem. Some things are better left read. (laughs) Sometimes I have trouble with the musical interpretation of poems, you know, with the marriage, that it doesn’t work. So, I don’t know, maybe with language that’s just a personal choice.
FRANK J. OTERI: Could music hurt a text?
DAWN UPSHAW: I certainly think so. (laughs) But, something that I think doesn’t work may be life changing to someone else. So I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules about this.
FRANK J. OTERI: Can you think of an example of a text that you wouldn’t want to see set to music?
DAWN UPSHAW: I hope this won’t offend the person who sent it to me…I was sent a piece that set the telephone book. You know, (laughs) part of it, of course, not the whole thing—that would be impossible. But (laughs), but…
FRANK J. OTERI: That could be pretty funny actually.
DAWN UPSHAW: But I didn’t look at it to be honest with you, I didn’t look at the music because I wasn’t interested in singing the telephone book.
FRANK J. OTERI: But there’s that old Charles Laughton story that he would recite the telephone book at parties in Hollywood to friends and he made it sound like a great literary monologue.
DAWN UPSHAW: Maybe I should have looked.
FRANK J. OTERI: You still can!