Register and Emotion

As part of our 2017-2018 season we’re continuing to give each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our director, Jeffrey Gavett.

From the moment we are born, we express ourselves and communicate with the voice. Quality, intensity, and range of vocal sound can communicate volumes, even without the benefit of words.

Several pieces on our February 22 concert push the extremes of range and intensity of the voice. Rebecca Saunders’s Soliloquy is constructed as a countertenor solo buoyed by the remaining quintet of singers. His melody is an extraordinary high-lying and textless line, mostly at the quietest dynamics, colored and doubled by the soprano and mezzo most often.

Since the context in which we hear the human voice most often is in speech, and natural emotional expression, I thought of what these extremes in register can mean to a listener. Regardless of our level of musical literacy or knowledge, we experience the voice deeply and directly. In speech, the highest extremes of range are only reached intermittently, if at all. Especially for a male voice it is uncommon for the inflections of even emotional speech to reach the ranges used in Saunders’s work. One has to look at more intense uses of the voice to find these kinds of sounds: screaming, wailing, crying. The correlation isn’t so direct to these sounds though. The singing voice, sustaining high and quiet, has a balance between this natural quality of emotional outburst, and the artifice of a sustained, controlled, practiced expression. The sounds of natural vocal expression are captured and repurposed into something rich and strange.

Lest you imagine the work to be one-sided, living only in high and quiet rarified air, I will remind you that Rebecca Saunders is a student of Wolfgang Rihm. While her music lacks the overtly Romantic tinges and other clear historical references of Rihm, it embraces the elder composer’s violent and jarring contrasts which balance the work’s structure. The gentle straight tone of the countertenor’s line occasionally breaks out into vibrato-soaked fortissimos. And while the countertenor hangs out at the top of the staff, the bass also enters on sustained sepulchral (we’re literally in a crypt so please extra points for me for this adjective) low notes, anchoring the work. What does a low note mean to us, intrinsically? Is there a natural emotional quality we ascribe to them? I tend to think of purring, or the end of a relaxed sigh and exhale, both sounds of contentment and relaxation – placing these notes on the opposite of both the pitch and emotional spectrum from the countertenor’s line in this piece.

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