More Song, Less Art(ifice): The New Breed of Art Song

More Song, Less Art(ifice): The New Breed of Art Song

Enter the artsongwriters! They are merging the benefits of their classical training with the tools and frameworks of pop music. But don’t mistake what they’re doing as “breaking down barriers between genres”—these composers are developing a new and unique style of creative songwriting that does not fit comfortably into any pre-existing genre.

Written By

Corey Dargel

Corey Dargel Corey Dargel

I honestly can’t think of an art song concert experience that has left me feeling wholly satisfied. Traditionally an art song is defined as a setting of a (pre-existing) poem to music, performed by a classically-trained singer. This way of working involves three degrees of separation between the audience and the song’s creators. First, the composer interprets a poem—a poem that stands on its own as a self-sufficient work of art. Second, the classically trained singer interprets the composer’s music and the poet’s poem, with all the baggage of classical voice pedagogy. Third, the audience interprets the singer’s and instrumentalists’ performance of the song.

First degree—the poet. Have the composer and singer done the poet a favor by framing her or his poem with original music which the poem inspired, and by introducing the poem to an audience of music lovers who might not have discovered it on their own? Maybe…but now no one in the audience can read the poem, not for a while anyway, without remembering the music that goes with it. Every time they come across the line “I must die,” they hear a belting soprano and a muddy glissando down in the dregs of the low piano register. The poem has temporarily lost its independence. “So what,” you might say. “An artist can appropriate whatever she or he wishes.” Legal issues aside, cross-pollination of the arts can be a good thing, and I’m not suggesting that any self-sufficient work of art is sacred. Sampling, quoting, and manipulating pre-existing material is not only viable but fashionable. However, there are plenty of poets for whom the setting of poetry to music is anathema. They don’t write poems to have them set to music, and they are understandably wary of allowing another artist (with whom they have no personal relationship) to translate their work into a foreign medium. Composers who set other people’s poetry have a responsibility to consider how (much) they wish to respect or disregard its autonomy. This is not a small consideration.

Second degree—the singer. It is no secret that plenty of people find classical vocal technique artificial and outdated. Many classically-trained singers fear that navigating multiple singing styles will result in damaged vocal chords and they have the x-rays to prove it! The more versatile vocalists say bel canto training allows students to adjust to various styles, yet it is extremely difficult to find trained singers who are willing to move from pop to jazz to opera to musical theater and elsewhere. The demand for a variety of singing styles exceeds the supply of versatile singers, and most conservatory voice instructors aren’t changing their approach accordingly.

 Monika Heidemann

Monika Heidemann‘s multiplicity as a performer includes singing and playing with ethno nu-jazz group The Animal Channel, electro-pop band The Bunkbeds, Afro-beat band FemmNameless; as well as presenting and performing the music of her mentor, the late composer Steve Lacy. The Monika H. Band’s debut CD, Bright, features her original music and two works by Lacy.

Heidemann often writes her own song lyrics—stream-of-consciousness poems like games of Exquisite Corpse. The album has a similarly evasive quality, confidently traversing a wide range of musical textures, from aggressive rock to phase-shifting postminimalism to sparse waltz to phusion. The remarkable thing is how organically each new idea arrives, and how smoothly and fluently Heidemann and her band navigate those changes. The whole album has a compelling transient quality, like the new beginnings, elusive dreams, and unanticipated comings and goings in Heidemann’s poetry.

Heidemann sometimes sets the words of other poets (including Allen Ginsberg and Mark Riordon on Bright), but she doesn’t take the customary approach of illustrating the text (a one-way street). Instead, she allows the music and the poem to coexist so that each equally influences the other. Her settings allow for the music to bring out what’s missing (or only implied) in the poem and vice versa. When I asked Heidemann how her work is related to art song, she cut right to the point: “My songs were written for no purpose other than creative expression, and that’s true of a lot of popular songs as well. If you take the [formal] definition of art song as chanson or lieder, then most popular vocal music of today could be considered art song.”

Next up for Heidemann is a March 19th Monika H. Band performance at Galapagos in Brooklyn, and the world premiere of a new work commissioned by Capital M on March 21 at The Cutting Room in Manhattan.

Intelligibility of text is an important component of art song, and many classically trained singers are simply unintelligible. The communication of words ironically takes a backseat to tone and musical expressivity, and consequently some singers are more interested in impressing the audience than connecting with them. Supra titles in opera performance and text handouts in art song recitals offer relief from the symptoms without addressing the real problem. The most recent (traditional) art song recital I attended was comprised wholly of songs in English, yet the majority of the audience buried their faces in the program as soon as the concert began; it seemed like a reflex response. Unnatural text setting by the composer is sometimes the culprit, but when vocal delivery is clear and crisp, composers are free to be more experimental with prosody, as in many of Stravinsky’s songs or music by the band Stereolab. Composers’ choices shouldn’t be limited by the constraints of a singular style of singing.

Third degree—the audience. The three-degrees-of-separation method of creating and performing art song obfuscates the intimacy that art song strives to achieve. There is a difference between drama and intimacy. Drama can exist when the audience feels a personal connection to the character portrayed, when the audience is moved, engaged, or surprised by the character’s story. Intimacy requires an additional connection, a personal connection to the performer, even if the performer is portraying a character or telling a story. One hundred percent drama (like bad opera) and one hundred percent intimacy (like self-confessional open mic night at a particular Austin coffee shop) are equally boring in performance. Traditional art song, with all its trappings challenging true intimacy, is moving more and more toward one hundred percent drama. It’s being presented with supra titles or text handouts in formal concert settings; the composer and poet are listening impotently in the audience (if they are even present) while the singer is attempting to embody their intentions, keeping her or his own interpretation either absent or subordinate.

Enter the artsongwriters! They are doing away with the intimacy-defeating three-degrees-of-separation method. Instead, they’re writing their own lyrics and singing their own songs. They’re creating and performing songs that achieve a kind of intimacy so unattainable in traditional art song recitals. They are merging the benefits of their classical training—the ability to read and notate music, audiences that are practiced at careful and thoughtful listening, an appreciation of subtle formal and structural techniques—with the tools and frameworks of pop music—studio production, amplification, performances in bars and clubs rather than concert halls. But don’t mistake what they’re doing as “breaking down barriers between genres,” the much-ballyhooed practice of using inconsequential references to pop, jazz, and folk in classical music (or vice versa). These composers are developing a new and unique style of creative songwriting that does not fit comfortably into any pre-existing genre.

David Garland

Photo courtesy of the composer

David Garland is constantly re-imagining what a song can be. He has always been an active pursuer of the widest possible range of music to listen to, a curiosity that manifests itself in his current position as host and producer of WNYC’s Spinning on Air and Evening Music. “Growing up in the sixties,” he says, “I was already exposed, through folks like Joni Mitchell and Soft Machine, to songs that combined words and music in creative and meaningful ways. When I heard art songs by Ned Rorem, they made me aware of further ways of doing that. With songs like Rorem’s, Tim Buckley’s, Charles Ives’s, and Frank Zappa’s in my ears, I think I was well prepared to wipe the slate clean of songwriting conventions and presumptions.”

Well maybe not completely clean. Conventional formulas do inhabit Garland’s songs, often long enough to establish the illusion of predictability. He provides the recognizable signposts but maneuvers through them in surprising ways, so that your expectations are alternately affirmed and challenged. It’s a consistent and poignant technique that serves his disposition well. “Just as some people write love songs,” Garland explains on his website, “I write control songs—songs about our need, avoidance, and manipulation of that sense of control that we all use to help us function.” Listening to Garland’s control songs, you may have an idea of where you’re going, but you never know how you’ll get there.

Inspired by several of his Spinning on Air guests, Garland has recently been presenting his unconventional songs conventionally, in an “innovative performance format” he impishly calls “guy with guitar.” His new album, Reveal, contains arrangements of his songs for himself and a 12-string guitar he bought for $99. Reveal is available for purchase in a signed-and-numbered limited edition package with artwork by David (a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design), his wife Anne, and their son Kenji. You can find out more at Garland’s website, where you can also download a generous assortment of mp3s from other albums.

There is no excuse for an ignorance of history. The artsongwriters are well aware of the European art song tradition; some of them happen to be classically trained singers who cut their teeth on the music of Ned Rorem and company. They understand and appreciate the tradition, but they haven’t internalized it. The way in which they assemble and disseminate their songs is drastically different from the customary way of creating and presenting an art song. Kamala Sankaram, David Garland, Amy X. Neuburg, and Monika Heidemann are some of these rejuvenators who are removing the degrees of separation between composer, poet, and singer. They are classically- and differently-trained singers who write their own words and perform their own songs, often in non-traditional venues. They are finding new ways to develop the personal, intimate connections with listeners that art song has always strived to achieve.

The artsongwriters are moving away from the operatic influences that have too heavily affected the development of traditional art song. Opera, as I implied before, is a genre in which the vocalist has lost her or his individual performer-identity to overly dramatic expressivity. Individual opera singers are praised not so much for what makes their voices unique but for how closely they approach some universal pinnacle of (European) esthetic purity. To an unseasoned listener, opera singers all sound pretty much the same, as indistinguishable and incomprehensible as an assortment of twelve-tone masterpieces. The artsongwriters take a refreshingly different approach. For them, the essence of the individual voice is more important than the artifice of proper operatic singing. Not that they’re unprofessional and not that they’re incapable of vocal variety (quite the contrary), but they sing clearly and transparently, their own vocal identities never in question. Neuburg, for example, runs the gamut from grandiose diva to electro-folk singer over her astounding four-octave range, and that’s part of what makes her voice so recognizable and unique. For the artsongwriters, the development of vocal technique is linked inextricably to the individual vocalist in a much more obvious, and much more comprehensive, relationship than classical voice pedagogy would typically allow.

The singer-songwriter approach to art song composition is a natural and refreshing alternative to the hegemony of traditional art song and operatic performance. The drama of character development and story/narrative and the abstruseness of poetry masquerading as song lyrics are sometimes present, but intimacy is never sacrificed. If you’re listening to David Garland perform, you’re not only hearing the music of David Garland; you’re also hearing David Garland the person. Whether it’s true or not, when we hear someone singing her or his own words and music, we can’t help but relate the song’s content to its writer. The most remarkable singer-songwriters in the pop music world are those who have cultivated a personality (or, more accurately, a persona) that compliments their songwriting.

 Kamala Sankaram

Photo courtesy of the composer

Classically-trained singer and composer Kamala Sankaram‘s Noir is a piece she wrote for her ensemble/band Squeezebox. It’s a collection of through-composed cabaret songs performed with original “film noir” video. Sankaram and Squeezebox premiered Noir at Pete’s Candy Store on December 22—the last day of the local Transit Workers Union strike. The cozy neighborhood bar was packed with people who had stayed home all day, or people who had walked for hours in the cold to get to and from their workplaces. Sankaram was thrilled with the turnout and hoped that Noir could provide solace for the stir-crazy and the weary. (One of her songs happens to be titled “Show Me the Way Home.”)

“Art songs were typically performed in a salon setting, a much more informal venue than the recital hall,” she explains. “With Noir, I wanted to create something that would be equally at home in bars and rock clubs as in classical music concert halls. I wanted to erase those artificial distinctions between genres and return to a state where music is simply music, as it was in the days of the salon.”

Squeezebox plays tricks with style. Sankaram’s deliberately skewed appropriations of recognizable styles give the songs an elusive quality while the video is a consistent palette of identifiable “film noir” formulas. Sankaram’s original lyrics pay equal homage to pop song clichés and obscure literary references, and her accordion-heavy accompaniments (Sankaram plays the squeezebox) suggest a lounge music for speakeasies of the future. There’s a constant back and forth between ambience and anxiety, framed skillfully by the instrumentalists who perform with the vitality and rawness of a garage band. Sankaram harnesses their deliberately messy energy with her precise and relaxed singing.

Sankaram and Squeezebox will perform at Barbes in Brooklyn on March 20, 2006.

Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Chocolate Genius, and Sufjan Stevens are a few examples. The artsongwriters are using this approach because it lends itself to a more intimate connection with the average listener. If you’re writing a song for you yourself to sing, clarity of presentation is greatly enhanced.

Speaking of clarity of presentation, the artsongwriters like to use vocal microphones. The microphone is part of their instrument; it amplifies vocal timbres and techniques that would otherwise be inaudible. The qualities of singing that are often inaudible in classical voice performance—the delicious and subtle sounds of “the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucous membranes, the nose” to quote Barthes’s The Grain of the Voice—can be heard with amplification. There is a technique involved in singing with a microphone, and that technique is rarely taught (or even acknowledged) in conservatories, which is why amplified operatic singing often sounds so ridiculous, and (still) unintelligible.

The artsongwriters use amplification partly for practical reasons, but also (and more significantly) for timbral reasons. The majority of music that the average listener hears is amplified. Every recording of every piece of music is amplified and most people listen to music on CD or on the radio more often than they go to concerts. Even in live performance, more and more composers are requiring amplification. The artsongwriters embrace the paradox that amplification, when done properly, is a natural way of presenting music in our society. Crisp, clear, and sometimes (but not necessarily) loud, amplified instruments and vocals enhance the immediacy, clarity, and (yes) intimacy of their music.

Composers who use commercial-music tools and pop-derived frameworks to create and perform their songs are regularly dismissed and mislabeled by other composers as pop-star wannabes. It’s difficult to disabuse some people of these notions, but it’s worth a shot. The main distinction is between presentation and content: the content of mainstream pop music is usually bland and derivative, but in presentation it sounds fresh and gorgeous because it’s been so intensely polished in the recording studio. The artsongwriters are utilizing the same tools that make commercial music sound great, but the content of their music is hundreds of times more overtly creative than your average Top 40 record.

 Amy X. Neuburg

Photo by Yolanda Accinelli

In solo performances of her songs, Amy X. Neuburg accompanies herself on electric drum set, triggering samples (only a few of which are actually drum sounds) and building textures with overdubbed looping vocals and synthesizers. Her songs are elegantly crafted and overtly clever. The product of an impish, playful intellect with double degrees in linguistics and voice from Oberlin College and Conservatory, her lyrics suggest a perpetual conflict between the person you think is Amy X. Neuburg and the actual Amy X. Neuburg. Is this Neuburg a human being or a humanist? Surely it’s impossible that she’s both!

Her music flirts with the boundaries of convention and experimentation. Just when you think she’s about to cross the line into mundane commercialism, Neuburg shifts to abstruse soundscape; and just as she approaches the threshold of pretentious abstraction, she brings back the vocal refrain that will be stuck in your head for days. “My music has a noticeable relationship to art song in the traditional sense of the term,” Neuburg explains. “As a classically trained musician I often observe a sort of classical formality in my work, and I am concerned with lyrical melodies, vocal drama, dynamic range, texture, emotion, and poetry, and, of course, sexy evening gowns and a lot of curtseying. Where it departs is in my heavy use of technology and my post-modern-ish tendency to juxtapose popular and ‘high art’ styles. But in the context of the twenty-first century, assuming an updated and a broader definition of the term, I’d say these qualities make my music about as ‘art song’ as it gets.”

Lately Neuburg is performing her songs with chamber ensembles. Five Distractions and The Metaphor were recently commissioned and premiered respectively by New Music Works in Santa Cruz, and Present Music in Milwaukee. On March 16, the San Francisco Jewish Music Festival will present the premiere of her piece Beliebig Füllen (Fill as Desired), a song cycle for seven female voices and looping electronics, based very loosely on recipes collected by the women of the Terezin concentration camp. In 2007, she begins work on a full-blown musical with playwright Tanya Shaffer.

On her most recent studio album, Residue, you can listen to Amy X. Neuburg’s polymetric textures in “My Fuzzy Muse” and “Every Little Stain,” her unpredictable harmonic excursions in “Atten-tion,” and her postmodern re-contextualization of a seventeenth-century psalm in “My God.” On her debut CD, Bright, Monika Heidemann gracefully and clearly delivers her deliciously off-kilter prosody. She has cultivated her own unique style with such conviction that more than one jazz writer has proclaimed the discovery of a new genre. Kamala Sankaram’s songs from Noir are perhaps the most radio-friendly of the four, but the tangling, dissonant accompaniments in “Valentine” and the not-quite-unison vocal duet (with herself) in the hyper-strophic “Waiting (the pop song)” command too much attention to accompany your traffic-heavy commute. In “I Am With You,” an early gem from 1982’s Control Songs, David Garland uses intricate tape splicing to “sing” a virtuosic (and beautiful) melody that would otherwise be humanly impossible.

The artsongwriters will be brushed off for some of the same reasons as the most influential minimalist composers were brushed off thirty-five years ago. The clarity and immediacy of their songs are the envy of many a composer struggling to reach beyond existing new music audiences. The artsongwriters’ songs are complex without being complicated. Layers of formal intricacy are present, but they’re not always evident on the surface. The artsongwriters don’t justify the value of their music by pointing to its structural and formal devices, though they could if they were forced to. Their songs are listenable, pure and simple, and they’re listened to by a much wider range of audiences than traditional art song.

Admittedly, the distinctions between pop and art music can be fuzzy. Unlike classical music, pop music celebrates a person’s (or band’s) individual progress without the need to place it in some larger historical context. Today’s classical musicians are beginning to acknowledge the existence of multiple, disparate influences and multiple histories, accepting that living composers are influenced by both Music History and their own individual musical histories. The artsongwriters exemplify this newfound openness; their way of creating and performing music embodies an indebtedness to the art song tradition, but their individual voices are entirely their own, and entirely new.


Corey Dargel is a composer, lyricist, and singer whose debut album Less Famous Than You is scheduled for release in April on the London label Use Your Teeth Records.

Dargel will be performing at Bucknell University in March, writing music at the MacDowell Colony in April, and performing in New York City and London in May. He is a participant in the 2006-2007 HERE Artist Residency Program at HERE Arts Center and has received commissions from Dance Theater Workshop (for choreographer Scott Heron), the ensemble Sequitur, pianist Kathleen Supové, flutist Margaret Lancaster, the art song duo Two Sides Sounding, and the Maine Gay Men’s Chorus, among others.

Dargel’s music is published by Automatic Heartbreak (ASCAP). He received his bachelor’s in composition from Oberlin Conservatory where he studied with John Luther Adams, Pauline Oliveros, and Lewis Nielson.