Monday, May 09, 2011

Music for Writers 3: The Music of Speech

Leonard Cohen has his Tower of Song, and there’s that other famous tower, the one that didn’t contain Hank Williams: the Tower of Babel. Two towers: one of speech and one of song. But speech and song aren’t two towers, or two solitudes. Like two lungs, they are connected and sustained by the mouth.

Try to sing without using consonants or vowels. You sound like a space heater.

Try to speak without using rhythm or pitch. You sound like a font.

The eminent American composer, Paul Lansky, writes:

Speech and song are commonly considered as different and distinct as apples and oranges. It is my feeling, however, that they are more usefully thought of as occupying opposite ends of a spectrum that encompasses a wealth of musical potential. This fact has certainly not been lost on musicians: sprechstimme, melodrama, recitative, rap, blues, etc., are all evidence that this is a lively domain.[Lansky's excellent website is here.]

And neither have the musical possibilities of speech been lost on writers: rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, repetition, for example, not to mention numerous other performative and structural elements.

In the next two posts, I’d like to discuss several musical examples which engage speech, language, and the spoken word.


Rhythm and pitch is inherent in our speech, though sometimes, annoyingly, meaning gets in the way.

Let the piano explain:

Or, let’s let someone who is being played or is perhaps doing the playing, explain:

It’s fantastic how, by emphasizing the rhythms and pitches inherent in speech, we hear what was already there. It’s like a well-made poem, organizing the sounds inherent in words and phrases to bring out their inherent ‘musicality.’

Scott Johnson’s  “John Somebody” (1982) explores the rhythms and pitch content of a tape-looped voice. Listen here. There's more discussion and links on the amazing music website Music for Maniacs.

There’s something magical about revealing the musicality of everyday speech. Charles Spearin (of Broken Social Scene) created the insouciant Happiness Project. He wrote music based on (and to accompany) what his neighbours said about happiness.

Here’s Mrs. Morris:

And here’s Anna:

It’s powerful for music to be found in the everyday words of everyday speakers. The Quebec composer, Rene Lussier, explored a broader canvas of Quebecois speech in his truly remarkable composition/recording Le Trésor de la Langue. He created music from both public and private speech. And of course, language, both public and private, can be even more politically charged in Quebec. Lussier sets Charles de Gaulle’s "Vive le Québec libre !" ("Long live free Quebec!")

Creating a crafted art-object, in this case, a piece of music, out of words which are spoken, frames it. Makes it important, Honours it. Validates and enfranchises it. And celebrates it and the inherent beauty and power of its elements.

The major American composer Steve Reich’s powerful “Come Out” tape composition from the 1960s makes a short tape-loop of the voice of a youth involved in the 1965 Harlem Riots. (I couldn’t find an online version, but it’s widely available in recordings) He takes this highly charged speech-event and plays it out of synch with itself (eventually using multiple tracks.) The result is that this casual, if emotional, speech fragment becomes monumental and speaks to something more than itself. It embodies and transcends its moment.. Only the rhythmic and pitch material are discernable. It is like looking at the sound though a microscope and a telescope simultaneously.

Reich explains and plays an example from a similar, earlier work (the words of a street preacher) in this excellent video interview (at c. 3’00”)

For much of his career, Steve Reich, like many conceptual writers, was interested in creating his work out of clearly discernable—and audible—processes. He explains this in his essay, Music as a Gradual Process (1968) He has also continued to have an abiding interest in speech and speech rhythms. His major work, Different Trains, takes its name from the fact that when Reich was a young boy travelling from one American coast to the other (from one parent’s home to the other), there were other Jews travelling on ‘different trains’ in Nazi Germany. The piece takes much of its musical material from the rhythms and pitches of documentary recordings (as well as train sounds and rhythms.) The opening movement is based on the voices of the Reich’s governess and an old train porter.

Again, repetition and the abstraction of material, both pitch and rhythm, change how we listen to the voice and what it says, and make its timbre even more vivid. In the next post, I will discuss how the grammar and syntax of language has been used to structure music (note: a Gertrude Stein alert!) but it’s important to note here how, unlike some of the previous examples, Reich breaks apart normative speech into smaller units and uses repetition. He employs the materials of spoken language not only as inspiration for his musical materials, but also as if these materials were musical materials, employing musical techniques and structures such as repetition, canon, fragmental, and variation.

But talk is not only cheap. It's old. A little history:

At the beginning of the 20th century, composers, particularly Arnold Schoenberg, explored the relation of speech and song in creating a conscious hybrid of the two, Sprechstimme (which is literally, ‘speechsong.’) This was a musically notated manner of performance wherein the pitches and the rhythms of the reciter were notated. It sounded like a very stylized and exaggerated speech style. Pierrot Lunaire is Schoenberg’s most famous piece using this style of performance, but his Survivor from Warsaw is, to me, the most moving. Again, there is an interest in using documentary ‘real-world’ text – in this case the account of a Jewish survivor from the Warsaw ghetto. The survivor describes (in Sprechstimme) what he witnessed: about to perish, the men of the ghetto begin to simultaneously sing the central prayer of affirmation of Jewish faith. They are going to die with dignity and strength, and their identity and humanity intact. Schoenberg uses the contrast between speech and song very effectively: the moment when these men break into song (as they literarily do in this composition) is remarkable.

To go a little further back, and to allow me to put on my tights and codpiece:

We could no doubt consider many kinds of chant to be speech/music hybrids, but speech explicitly entered into western music at the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque. Italian madrigals (the immediate forerunners of opera) began to become more and more complex, both dramatically and musically. Many were multi-part compositions that told quite involved stories. Composers were looking for ways to be more dramatic, to include vivid contrasts and portray vivid emotions and characterisation in music. The stile recitativo evolved to meet this need. This technique was in many ways, similar to Schoenberg’s later Sprechstimme. The pitch and rhythm of stylized speech was carefully notated and accompanied by instruments. Claudio Monteverdi was the master of complex madrigals. His "Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda" (from Book 8 of his Madrigals) tells a dramatic story of a Christian knight who falls in love with a Saracen woman; they fight against each other, in disguise, in the battlefield.

I’d like to end with a catchy and witty example from Paul Lansky who I quote way up at the top of this Tower of talk.

Lansky, a long-time professor at Princeton, has written a charming series of pieces entitled, “Idle Chatter,” and “Not Just More Idle Chatter.” Though it sounds like there are actually voices speaking, these pieces are entirely synthesized through very complicated computer programming (Linear Predictive Coding, bubble gum, The Oxford English Dictionary chewed by a goat, and a handful of  binary code.)

I think of this as asemic speech. It sounds like talking. It looks like talking. But it’s a duck.

Because the meaning and, indeed all identifiable words, have been extracted (actually, not put in in the first place – it just statistically resembles speech sounds) we learn something about speech. What do we track when we listen to speech? To the speech of crowds? What attracts our interest? What judgements or conclusions do we draw from which sounds and rhythms? What pleasure do we take in speech – its structures, shapes, and flow – independent of semantic meaning? And what about accent? Vocal timbre? Vocal performance? Human-ness? Is this speech without language? Is it song?

How far could the transformation of speech go before it isn't speech anymore? Before it's music. Before it's not language. Before it's not human or organic. Or how far could the transformation go before we hear words? grammar? emotion? meaning? And how does this relate to our body -- could we hear speech the way we might watch dance? Do rhythms and speech contours relate to movement? To a cognitive rhythm? a cardiac rhythm? a body rhythm? Does a harpsichord affect us in the mouth? An electric guitar keening? Inside the vowel there's the secret music of overtones. The stochastic noise of the consonant. The harmony of language. Dissonance. The tension and resolution. Counterpoint.

Tom Waits says that songs are "an interesting thing to do with the air." Words are made out of many things. One of them is air.

Gary Barwin is a writer, musician, and performer. His PhD disertation, Martin’s Idea (listen here) was a composition for reciter, interactive computer system, and MIDI keyboard. Some of his other music with spoken text can be found here. His latest book is The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House, 2010); The Obvious Flap (with Gregory Betts, BookThug) is due in May.

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