Author Topic: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music  (Read 6333 times)

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amdg

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Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« on: July 26, 2011, 06:07:06 AM »
Hey, Everyone:

I noticed something has come up in another thread that I think merits some discussion on its own.  When a composer uses a text in writing a song or choral piece, how faithful should he be in adhering to the words?  Put another way, does the composer use the text to shape the music or does he tailor the words to fit the music he already has in mind? 

My thought on the subject is that the integrity of the text should be preserved at least so far as an exposition of each complete phrase or line is made before altering it according to the musical sensibilities the composer employs.  To me, the poet has formed a complete thought in the words chosen, and the music should grow from that thought.  Something just doesn't seem right in the composer's taking on the role of poet in this way. 

But that's me.  Does anyone have an  opinion to the contrary?  I'd be interested in reading it.  I hope others will as well.

Sincerely,
Brian

Michel.R.E

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #1 on: July 26, 2011, 07:27:24 AM »
For myself:

I don't see source text as absolutely untouchable. I have seen wonderful works based upon, for example, biblical excerpts where the text was heavily re-arranged to give it more dramatic structure.

If your original question is in relation to what I suspect, then my issue there was that the changes seemed unwarranted to me. Changing "the" to "that", for example, in my opinion added no dramatic impetus. But that is only my opinion. I don't believe in altering a text when one is making an arrangement of a piece of already firmly established music, based upon a poetic text.

Certain texts are inviolable, to me. When a text already has the dramatic structure imposed upon it by the author/poet, I don't think that we, as composers, should feel that we have much leeway for alteration. Changing a "they are" to a "they're", or extending a "he's" to a "he is" to ease rhythmic adjustment is one thing. But full out alteration of a firmly established text goes beyond "arrangement" in my opinion. It should not fall within the composer's purview.

With the VERY important caveat that: this is MY opinion. Nothing more.
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

amdg

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #2 on: July 26, 2011, 08:19:28 AM »
Hi:

I guess I'm thinking philosophical big picture here.  I remember a few times on other Forums where people would put up works that omitted words or complete lines of text because they said they didn't like the words or didn't agree with the thought behind them.  I thought that was a little startling.  So this is what brought this thread to mind today, thinking about how much a composer owes to the original text source.

Certainly, to form a large piece such as an oratorio or cantata, one would have to look at how best to put the poetry and prose of the Bible into more dramatic structure.  But then how about a little poem of only a dozen lines or so?  Can we really add or detract from it without fundamentally altering the idea behind the poem to begin with?

I wonder also if there are parallels here to taking a novel and turning it into a movie or play?  Certainly things have to be altered to render the story from one form to another.  Anyway, I just thought this might be an interesting topic for discussion.

Brian 

Michel.R.E

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #3 on: July 26, 2011, 08:36:10 AM »
When I wrote my Missa Brevis I had to face the simple fact that I could not, in good conscience, set the Credo to music. I tried altering the text (as I had seen a few other composers do in the past), but in the end I was not not comfortable with that approach. My solution was to simply replace the Credo with the Pater Noster.

When setting to completely new music a pre-existing text, I see absolutely no reason to limit oneself to absolute exactitude of the original text. In the "other thread", my issue was with the simple fact that it was an arrangement of a well-known melody/text. Altering the melody is one thing. Altering the text is... another. It goes beyond the concept of "arrangement". In my opinion, of course.

For an original musical setting of a text, I see absolutely no reason to be obsessive about the exactitude of the text.  If the variant you bring can be justified, then go for it. Mind you, I've met very few composers capable of this type of judicious literary adjustment. For most, it comes across as clunky or clumsy.

One brilliant one that does come to mind is Samuel Barber. He made very subtle changes to many of the texts he set to music. And in most cases, they were replacements for words that were awkward to sing, or judicious cuts to texts that were overly wordy.
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

Ron

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #4 on: July 26, 2011, 09:49:14 AM »
An important consideration is copyright. If you use a copyrighted work without permission, or change a few words here and there and call it your own work, you could be in doo-doo.
Ron
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flint

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #5 on: July 26, 2011, 12:59:33 PM »
I write very little music for voice, as I am not an author, poet, or songwriter; I am a composer. As the whole point of "music" is the music, I consider text to be much less than important than the actual music itself.

I have always been of the opinion that once you add text to any piece of music, the music instantly becomes secondary in the minds of all listeners, as people are trained to pay attention to and to try to pick out the human voice. I personally find most concert choral music to be absolutely dreary to endure, as choral singers will never be as agile, as expressive, or as capable of musically interesting phrasework or passages as a competent instrumental musician or ensemble. Professional vocalists (whom I consider musicians), while much better than choral singers, frequently let their voice/ego outshine the music and can be most difficult to work with in a productive manner.

I've used this phrase before, but perhaps some day, some composer will come along and drag vocal music kicking and screaming into the late 19th century. Until then, I'll usually just pass on it.
"Music is like wine; the less you know about it, the sweeter you like it." - Robertson Davies

Patrick O'Keefe

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #6 on: July 26, 2011, 02:48:45 PM »
Certain texts are inviolable, to me. When a text already has the dramatic structure imposed upon it by the author/poet, I don't think that we, as composers, should feel that we have much leeway for alteration. Changing a "they are" to a "they're", or extending a "he's" to a "he is" to ease rhythmic adjustment is one thing. But full out alteration of a firmly established text goes beyond "arrangement" in my opinion. It should not fall within the composer's purview.

For me, it also depends a bit on whether the music uses the original language or a translation.  If a translation, then changes have obviously already been made and the composer has a bit more leeway - I don't see a problem when the composer tweaks things as long as the meaning is not changed.  If in the original language, I get uncomfortable if changes go beyond those rhythmic adjustments.

An important consideration is copyright. If you use a copyrighted work without permission, or change a few words here and there and call it your own work, you could be in doo-doo.

Hmm.  I wonder how translations fit into that picture.  Is a translation considered a new work of art with its own copyright (in addition to the original copyright)?

...  As the whole point of "music" is the music, I consider text to be much less than important than the actual music itself.

I definitely agree with that ...

I have always been of the opinion that once you add text to any piece of music, the music instantly becomes secondary in the minds of all listeners, as people are trained to pay attention to and to try to pick out the human voice.

... and don't agree with that.  There's at least one listener that usually hears choral voices as musical instruments midst other instruments.  Solo voices are different, but I still rarely think of the meaning of the words - I usually hear the words as vocal articulations, etc.   

I personally find most concert choral music to be absolutely dreary to endure, as choral singers will never be as agile, as expressive, or as capable of musically interesting phrasework or passages as a competent instrumental musician or ensemble.

But that agility is not always needed whether the music is choral or orchestral, and a composer would be foolish to require agility beyond what exists, regardless of the instrument.  Choral music may have to be plodding compared with what more agile instruments can achieve, but can still be exiting and beautiful (to my ears) when written by a master of choral writing.  Personal taste is (obviously) personal, and I can't use logic to convince you, but I find much choral music just the opposite of dreary.

I've used this phrase before, but perhaps some day, some composer will come along and drag vocal music kicking and screaming into the late 19th century. Until then, I'll usually just pass on it.
I don't know about the kicking part, but I think the screaming would mean they'd missed the late 19th century and landed in a rock concert.  :)

Pat


Ron

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #7 on: July 26, 2011, 03:00:10 PM »
Almost every vocal music I have heard, I have not understood a word of it, so, I don't think that the text is taking precedence over the music in my case. It's irrelevant to me what language opera is sung in; it's all vowel sounds.

Once I set a friend's poem to music. A young woman sang it at a special church service. It was called "Share This Sanctuary." The word "sanctuary" appeared fairly often in the work--and the singer could not get a handle on how to sing/pronounce it. I thought that perhaps her difficulty was that she is primarily French-speaking; however, I later learned that "sanctuary" is one heck of a difficult word to sing.
Ron
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Michel.R.E

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #8 on: July 26, 2011, 03:17:20 PM »
Well-written, vocal music should be completely comprehensible. If that is what the composer wants.
Paul Hindemith set to music Whitman's "When Lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd", and every word of it is perfectly understood in a good performance. Even when that text is set as a 4-part triple fugue. So it CAN be done.

I am a firm believer that text set to music should be a perfect marriage of poetry and music. The melodic phrase should compliment the words. High points, low points, pauses, and melismatic passages should only enhance the text, never deter from it.

"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

Ron

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #9 on: July 27, 2011, 08:25:52 AM »
My mother tried to get me to sing a weird song in the early 50's, but I could never remember the words because they didn't make any sense to me. It went something like this:

Mar zeed odes n doze zeed odes n liddel lamps zet i-vy
akiddle eet i-vy too woodn't u?

As I said in another post, Bob Dylan (famous for "mumbling") is the ONLY singer I've heard where every word is crystal clear to me. It doesn't matter because I am interested only in the music itself so that's what I listen to.
Ron
Rules? What rules?

Michel.R.E

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #10 on: July 27, 2011, 10:54:30 AM »
come now! surely it's not THAT difficult?

mairzy doats
and dozey doats
and liddle lamzy divey,
a kiddelee divey too, wouldn't you.


"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

Ron

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #11 on: July 27, 2011, 12:23:33 PM »
It must have been code words for sex. A lot of what I didn't understand when I was young was usually related to some aspect of sex, mainly because adults tried to hide it from us.
Ron
Rules? What rules?

Michel.R.E

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #12 on: July 27, 2011, 12:28:22 PM »
lol

did you listen to the link?
it's a nonsense song, that actually made fun of just how obscure common words could sound in certain combinations.

In other words, a wonderful example of how NOT to set text to music.
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

Michel.R.E

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #13 on: July 27, 2011, 01:01:33 PM »
I think - and this is my opinion - that the two approaches have their validity.

If someone uses the text as a "vehicle" for the vocal music, the music carries more weight.
I can think of numerous examples where in my opinion, the music is far more important than the text (despite the composers' explicit statements to the contrary!) such as Adams' Harmonium, or Reich's Desert Music.

And then there is "functional" music, such as church hymns where the text SHOULD be in the foreground, and the music is - in the final analysis - nothing more than a vehicle for rendering the text.

On a parallel topic: I remember being told by a film producer, present at the final recording session for the score I had composed to to a film, that my music was "distracting". In the end, the full comment was:"It's too beautiful. It distracts from the movie". Which is a sort of double-edged compliment!

In the same sense, I think that "functional" music requires that the music not distract from the text, but rather highlight it, and bring particular attention to the most important words in the text.  This is a topic I find MOST interesting. I am highly critical of much vocal music. After spending years on my Master's thesis, struggling with writing "new" music which also happened to be setting texts to music, I learned a great deal about the difficulties involved.

There was a great deal of back and forth, alternating between which sections could shine a light on the music rather than the text, and vice-versa.

It was an enlightening experience. One that dampened my enthusiasm for vocal music a tiny bit. The more I studied it, the more I noticed glaring flaws in other composers' text settings.
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

amdg

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Re: Which reigns supreme: Text or Music
« Reply #14 on: July 27, 2011, 02:29:26 PM »
Hooray! This is exactly what I hoped would happen!  This is getting quite illuminating, and I think it's very valuable for all of us -- especially us less experienced composers -- to get a handle on this topic.  A good variety of opinions.

By the way, you do know the words to the song are

Mares eat oats,
And does eat oats,
And little lambs eat ivy.
A kid'll eat ivy, too. wouldn't you?

It's got sex plastered all over it, I'll wager!

Brian