Vocal articulation

One aspect of vocal performance which can be difficult to discuss is articulation, and specifically the way in which different articulation styles contribute to expression. One thing I've learned is that different people often have very clear ideas on how words should be articulated, and if they are not done accordingly, various complaints emerge. The most usual one is that the performance lacks emotion. I find that rather interesting, as I naturally prefer different articulation styles in different repertory, and do not have a tendency to make a correspondence between e.g. vibrato and emotional involvement. Rather I tend to read emotional involvement into an attention to detail which can be expressed in a variety of domains. Vibrato is certainly the area in which one sees this phenomenon most clearly, with many listeners demanding a specific quantity of vibrato, and making claims on the performer's commitment to the music based on its presence or absence. This all suggests that articulatory devices affect us on a rather low level.

In exploring this phenomenon, one natural place to begin is the word "articulation" itself. It is derived from physical joints, and when applied to speech, has its early etymology in the idea of segmenting an undifferentiated rambling into specific syllables and phonemes. By way of understatement, such a process is both necessary for comprehension and neglected by many singers. I frequently lament the indistinct mumbling and generally muffled enunciation which plagues Medieval & Renaissance performances. In these cases, it is too clear that singers are not articulating at all. Well, the public apparently likes their early polyphony rendered as predigested, reconstituted mush, with no semblance of articulation or even rhythmic distinctness to interrupt the so-called serenity of it. One even sees "critics" praise performances for being what I translate as incomprehensible gibberish formed perfectly for falling asleep. At this point, there is a clear distinction between those people who desire some sort of articulation and those who don't. We shall leave the latter behind with a hearty scoff, and discuss the predilections of the former in more detail.

My subjective criterion for first level articulation is whether or not I can understand the words. Hopefully, this matches up fairly well with whether or not someone else can understand the words (leaving aside questions of language). One natural question is why this should matter for more abstract music, and the answer is simple. The sounds of different phonemes adds a complexity of color to the music, and the articulation of syllables gives rhythmic nuances at a small level. In short, articulating words & syllables gives the music an extra dimension, even when neglecting the poetry itself. In mediocre music, this aspect might not contribute much to the composition as a whole, but in great music the tiny shifts in sonority on a vowel or articulation of a consonant can enhance the overall effect in powerful ways. Beyond this, I want to consider how different styles of articulation contribute to a rendition.

While many people seem to prefer the same vocal tone across repertory, demonstrated by the number of popular singers who go on to sing other genres, I naturally feel that a style of articulation more idiomatic to the specific music sounds better. This may be one reason I enjoy HIP, because I do enjoy it, and not merely accept it for its purported rightness. One aspect of my approach to articulation is that I tend to hear it at least as much in the horizontal as in the vertical. In other words, the slight pause or slur in rhythm, or merely the throat motion involved with articulating a consonant is something on which an interpretation can be built. Those are the horizontal elements, whereas vibrato is the main vertical element. Of course, vibrato can also aid articulation, at least when it is not applied in the same way throughout. For instance, in Carnatic music and in Indian music more generally, a vocalist must have a full range of vibrato ornaments available, with the application of specific types of vibrato at specific points and a straight tone at others essential to rendering an individual raga. This is the only sense in which vibrato can be said to aid articulation, as it is empty virtuosity otherwise, or at the very least a mannerism affecting the performance as a whole. On the subject of Carnatic music, one basic approach to vocal sonority was stated rather clearly by the great singer Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967), namely that vocal articulation should be based on a pyramid, with a broad & wide bass in the lower registers and a razor edge at the top. I find that this style works quite well for medieval music, at least in the few cases where younger ensembles have attempted it.

Of course different stylistic eras bring different concerns to articulation choices. Part of the reason that medieval music tends to be so poorly articulated is undoubtedly that it comes before the humanist revolution with respect to text setting. Putting the meaning of individual words very specifically into the way they are set musically, to the point of "word painting" and all the rest, is something to which modern listeners can relate. Many consider music which does not do this as clearly inferior, whereas I tend to think that a lot of text setting in this style is simplistic or even banal. But the main point here is that because medieval composers had a different approach to setting a text does not mean the text should be ignored. However, it was not such a self-conscious style, and requires a certain emotional detachment. Some recent attempts to sing e.g. troubadour songs as vehicles for gratuitous personal virtuosity are similarly inappropriate to my ear. There should be emotion, yes, but not so coarse and unrelenting. As noted, the Renaissance brings a different concern for text, and consequently a greater onus to project the words. A word "painted" incomprehensibly is silly indeed. Finally, the Baroque really does bring virtuosity and ornamentation to the fore, and all manner of articulatory devices become appropriate in close proximity. Of course, I don't much care for this music, or its operatic extension well into the 20th century, but the sort of "hysterical" style appropriate to it is what many listeners begin to demand by way of articulation for medieval & Renaissance music as well.

Rejecting this notion has been paradoxically the driving force behind the creation of schools of early vocal performance, as well as the "negative" criterion which leaves us with inarticulate performances. From my perspective, especially in the medieval repertory, the key is to concentrate more on phrasing and articulation proper. This allows one to let the vibrato come more from pitch concerns, so the higher notes can be razor sharp in intonation, with the precision itself serving as emphasis. Much of this music also requires a more selfless devotion, but with an attention to detail. In other words, it requires a rethinking of some popular notions on emotion and articulation.

Administrivia: Next column in four weeks, after I take a summer vacation.

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Todd M. McComb