Text and IPA for composers

This post is part of a series directed at composers writing for the voice. Something about vocal music feels inherently different from instrumental music; this can be daunting for a composer familiar only with instrumental writing. These posts are intended to be signposts pointing to notational standards and techniques which will allow composers to be as communicative and clear as possible in their writing for singers.

The ability to deliver a text is what sets the voice apart from instruments. There are, of course, occasions on which a more instrumental vocal line is desirable and extremely effective; but when it is at all possible, I prefer to work with words. Text serves as an important cue for musical and vocal interpretation, and can be an immediate way of understanding an otherwise unfamiliar musical style or affect. A text should always be clearly credited as to its source and printed in its entirety somewhere in the score, so that it can be studied and understood away from the music.

Even if it is outside a composer’s aesthetic or intent to use an actual text or even any real words, indicating which vowels or consonants the singers should use can provide an opening for an emotional and interpretive connection to the music. For this reason I would recommend all composers to become familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, known as IPA. It is a system which can notate in varying degrees of specificity the sounds of any language, real or imagined.

A fantastical virtuoso use of IPA can be seen in Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, for which the composer devised an entire artificial language, notated in great detail. It is of course not necessary to go to these lengths to make use of IPA. It can be used as part of a traditional text to describe a segmentation of words, as in Berio’s A-Ronne, where the text “Aleph is my end” is split between two hocketing singers, one performing only the vowel sounds and one performing only the consonant sounds. Stockhausen uses IPA in Am Himmel wandre ich… to write out nonsense syllables like [tɛgədɛgə] as well as to indicate a kind of echo of a word in the text (often colored by Stockhausen’s German accent!): the word ‘universe’ is echoed by [huhihø], the text ‘of having’ is echoed by [ɔ ɛ ɪ].

IPA is an incredibly flexible and communicative system which can be applied to many ends and aesthetics, and these examples I’ve given only scratch the surface of what is possible. I look forward to seeing how composers of vocal music continue to develop its musical use.

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