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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.