Yesterday’s lesson from our recital rehearsals - maybe even the week’s lesson – was this:
“That’s what he wrote, but that’s not what he meant.”
I don’t remember which song Steve said it about (maybe the Berlin duet), but this idea seems to be an over-arching theme this week. What is rhythmic vs. what is musical? What is accurate vs. what is stylistically right? Fine lines, lots of gray…
A lot of songs on this program aren’t “classical art songs,” so they shouldn’t be sung as such. There’s a freedom implicit in styles like musical theater and jazz that we as classical performers might have trouble wrapping our heads – and voices! – around. The four of us are getting there, but it’s hard to soften years of rigid accuracy overnight. The fact that we get to dance our way through rehearsals is helping! Well, at least I’m dancing… can’t seem to get anyone to join me yet…
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of “rhythmic integrity” and how its definition changes from genre to genre. The rhythms of my Ricky Ian Gordon song are fairly particular, at least on the page, and I spent a good amount of time subdividing the beats and making sure I was getting them exactly right. “One and two ee and-tie and four and” And, well, it sure sounded correct! The notes were right (mostly), but the feeling of the piece was all wrong. We found the same to be true with the Berlin, the Sondheim, the list goes on.
Today, as always, I think, contemporary composers are being influenced by non-classical genres: RIG, Musto, et al, have jazz; Golijov, klezmer & flamenco; Greenstein, Muhly, et al, pop and rock styles (cough Radiohead cough). These elements color their musics beautifully and make them the exciting modern pieces that we all get jazzed up about (no pun intended). The difficulty comes in how to translate the freedom of those influencing genres onto those five little lines we call the staff. Performers are trained to read the music, to recreate it as written on the page. So composers put down some semblance of the idea on the staff, using 8th’s and 16th’s and ties and dots. Then the difficulty for us performers comes in how to recreate not only the notes on the page but also the stylistic ideas behind the notes. We have to make it “swing.”
This is why I think it’s so important to keep listening to other genres. Anytime I hear a singer say that they don’t listen to pop music (or jazz or indie rock or what have you), I die a little inside. Loosen up! Some day it’s going to be required of you in a “classical” context; will you have anything to pull from?
**Be sure to read DJA's great additions to this conversation in the Comments.**