I always warn my voice students that they don’t have the luxury of putting their instrument away. While a violinist can put her violin in a case, a clarinetist can take apart his clarinet, and a guitarist can place the instrument on a stand, a singer cannot disconnect the voice from the body. It is subject to illness, fatigue, and tension, and it has to be treated especially carefully because it’s used not just for singing, but for talking and laughing and yelling. When I got laryngitis a month before my Masters recital, I wished I’d taken up some instrument that didn’t get sick right along with me. But it turns out, every once in a while, a composer will ask an instrumentalist to sing, chant, or otherwise vocalize during a piece of music.
The very first piece I ever heard that asked the instrumentalists to vocalize was Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dance Suite from West Side Story. I’d seen West Side Story, and I knew the Mambo “battle” well. When my high school band played Bernstein’s suite from the musical, I took great pleasure in watching my friends shout the word, “Mambo!” from their seats on stage. There was something odd about it, though, to see an instrumentalist say even a single word while playing. Almost as if while on stage, their instruments should be their only means of communication. I definitely had the sense that words were for singers only, and that instrumentalists could communicate in pure notes alone.
In college, I heard a recording of George Crumb’s 1970 piece for amplified string quartet, Black Angels. At first I thought there was a mistake with the CD. Why did I hear chanting? But in looking at the score, I saw words there. The members of the string quartet were asked to chant along at certain points. They were also called upon to hit crystal glasses and wear metal thimbles to tap the strings. Crumb was an innovator in many ways, and this piece came at a time when this addition of vocal sounds from the instrumentalists shouldn’t have come as any surprise. But in my youth, I remember thinking, “Can a composer just ask his instrumentalists to sing along? Would he have to pay them extra?”
I can also recall seeing one of my colleagues from graduate school perform a solo flute piece that used extended techniques, including making “percussive vocalizations” into the instrument. The effects were so striking, and the piece so fascinating that I remembered the name of the work even though I must have seen this recital well over a decade ago. It’s called Zoom Tube (2001), and the composer is Ian Clarke.
One of the pieces on LACO’s upcoming concert is a recent composition by Joseph Hallman. Like Crumb’s Black Angels and other works like it, Hallman’s imagined landscapes: six Lovecraftian elsewheres calls upon the instrumentalists to sing and chant along in specific places. I am especially excited to hear this work live not only because the instrumentalists will vocalize, something I find quite refreshing, but also because of Hallman’s inspiration for the work. While suffering from insomnia, Hallman began reading the stories of HP Lovecraft (1890-1937). On these evenings, if sleep came to him, Hallman’s dreams were colored by Lovecraft’s Gothic horror fiction. The settings of the stories, in particular, were foremost in his mind. If you know anything about Lovecraft, you know that these settings were well-described and quite complex. How Hallman transformed these dreamlike sensations into music is a statement of Hallman’s creativity. The six miniatures of imagined landscapes are going to be something wonderful and fascinating to experience live.
It’s not every day that an instrumentalist vocalizes as part of a musical work, but the growing frequency of such techniques proves that composers are still looking for ways to expand their color palate. To such a composer, every instrumentalist can be thought of as being in possession of two instruments, the one they chose and the one that they were born with. It’s interesting to see both instruments being used in the same piece, although the vocalizing can be as simple as chanting sounds or words in rhythm without thought to pitch. These players aren’t asked to sing like opera divas, but they can add another layer of sound, another thread to the texture, just by using their voices. Not everyone will appreciate these kinds of extended techniques, but I, for one, am excited to hear the very human sound of voices coming from a bunch of players known for amazing skill on their chosen instruments.