Contemporary vocal music

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The contemporary vocal music summarizes the composition of new music since 1945 together for one or more voices.

From the sense of text to sound or language and music

Liberation from semantics

The language is an absolutely human achievement of evolution. It assigns a specific meaning to certain sounds and combinations of sounds and thus combines sound and meaning. The science of phonetics has developed for the tonal aspects of language , the theory of meaning has the semantics accordingly .

If you combine language with singing, the tonal components of language gain even more importance. Singing takes normal speech to another level. Song lyrics have always proven that singing can do without verbal semantic content; From folksong-like “la la la” to “awopbopaloobop alopbhaben” ( Little Richard ), vocal music has always also known wordless, pure sound, which was given its clearest right to exist in jazz-oriented, improvised scat singing . Onomatopoeic elements can also be found in so-called serious music, just think of Richard Wagner's new creations “Hojotoho” and “Wagalaweia”.

Nevertheless, these objections remain in a context that does not go beyond the scope of semantics. Even in the aria, which is richest in coloratura, there are hints of a background in which it stands, a context of meaning that is not completely veiled. A vocal piece in which only the tonal elements of the voice come to the fore remains the exception. The aria “Diggi, daggi, schurry, murry” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart from the opera Bastien and Bastienne , the text of which consists entirely of these very words, can serve as an example . This is intended to represent mysterious foreign magic words for the audience on and in front of the stage. The complete loss of meaning of the text reinforces the already incomprehensible fuss of the magician Colas, who values ​​not being understood by his audience.

After 1945 the situation was different. After the composers ostracized by the National Socialists were revalued, a new beginning was called for, both in instrumental music and in the linguistic and linguistic area. " If language is to receive musical sound and musical meaning, it has to be released from the dependency of its toning, meaning has to detach itself from the sound of words, it is important to pay attention to its 'material structure' ", thought Dieter Schnebel . A wide field of experimentation opened up between sound and literal sense, which poets and musicians influenced.

Serialism , based on Arnold Schönberg's twelve-tone technique, set the trend . All musical parameters such as pitch, duration, volume and color were arranged according to Schoenberg's series principle (“serial”). In vocal music, Luigi Nono divided the text - which was difficult to order in series - into individual syllables and thus created a suitable model for serial composition.

Schnebel step towards independence of speech sound happens in the clergy song (later dt 31.6 ) for choir of 1956. A text is the serial composition still based ( Deut 31.6  EU , however, it is set to music) no more. Schnebel expresses the universality of the statement, its supra-linguistic nature, by translating the Hebrew “Urtext” into Greek, Latin, German, English, French, Russian and excerpting the phonemes from these languages , which form the basis of the piece. Schnebel partly leaves them in their original context and assigns each syllable to a tone. Further phonemes are lengthened, stretched into a sound process of their own. Similar to Luigi Nono's “canto sospeso”, the individual phonemes of the word are distributed among the voices. This also happens with the overstretched and thus alienated syllables such as "sa-ä-it" (be), "ä-t" (êtes) or "go-out" (God). To clarify this basis, Schnebel wrote the text distribution again under the actual score in the 1960s, which was intended for the 15 vocalists of the Schola Cantorum Stuttgart under Clytus Gottwald . The serial composition technique that Schnebel still used in this work ran counter to the text, according to Schnebel, in some cases, but also allowed multilingual layers. Should the serial composition technique make it possible to mix different sounds with one another, Schnebel was able to incorporate intelligible speech fragments in rare cases. The proportion of understandable texts remained low in the entire work. The composer tried to make up for this with the musical clarification of the text content, which should radiate something comforting and reassuring.

Karlheinz Stockhausen achieved the breakthrough for an absolutely sound-centered vocal composition style without a word base with the Singing of the Younglings in the Fire Furnace from 1956 for choir and electronic instruments. Incomprehensible speech sound, chunks of words, fragments of song are electronically changed, technically alienated and transformed into a new sound.

György Ligeti also composes his Aventures (1962) and Nouvelles Aventures for choir (1962–1965). These works focus heavily on the phonetic sound itself, without actually letting the singers articulate linguistically.

Sound poetry: musical (neo-) Dadaism

Kroklokwafzi? Semememi!
Seiokrontro - prafriplo:
Bifzi, bafzi; hulalemi:
quasti basti bo ...
Lalu, lalu lalu lalu la!

Hontraruru miromente
zasku zes rü rü?
Entepente, leiolente
klekwapufzi lü?
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!

Simarar kos malzipempu
silzuzankunkrei (;)!
Marjomar dos: Quempu Lempu
Siri Suri Sei []!
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!

This poem, named Das große Lalulā , written by Christian Morgenstern in 1905 , is one of the most famous of the literary genre of sound poetry . Hugo Ball describes it as follows in a diary entry: “ I have invented a new genre of verses, 'verses without words' or sound poems, in which the balancement of the vowels is only considered and distributed according to the value of the starting line. "

In Ball's first “Dadaist Manifesto” from 1916 , he writes of his desire to completely do without the “ language that has been corrupted and made impossible by journalism ”.

The spoken performance plays a major role in sound poetry, which, in addition to the text itself, is also an important part of the work of art. Comparisons with earlier sound poets can therefore often only be made using sound documents (Morgenstern's own acoustic version of the "Great Lalula" is therefore unknown).

Michael Lentz writes:

“The sound poem is a genre of acoustic art in the intermedia border area between poetry and music, which [...] makes the entire human noise potential tangible. […] Sound poems as auditory irritation experiments (Martin Maurach) scan the sound properties of speech sounds and voice characteristics from the lowest unit level of an individual sound to a hierarchically sub-structured text whole that can be described with inventories of syntax , semantics and prosody . With their expression-oriented, often emotionally charged articulatory gestures (Gerhard Rühm), they often create the auditory impression of imitating the gestures and articulation flow of real languages. "

The attempts at notation of the sound poets are varied and in some cases hardly decipherable for the uninitiated, but the attempt to work with musical notation is characteristic. Kurt Schwitters therefore also calls one of his most famous works the Ursonata and creates a score for it that, although it dispenses with the notation system and rhythm, already divides the text into sections that have been adopted from the sonata form , and over the texts speaking instructions such as "emotional" puts. In the recording, the melodic chanting predominates on meaningless sounds, but the transition to singing is often fluid.

Conversely, the composition "Emil" for voice by Carola Bauckholt alone can be understood as an onomatopoeic composition. As with Schwitters, certain, meaningless sound combinations are repeated, but this time on the prescribed pitch. At the end of the composition, the musical framework is even left and, in the onomatopoeic tradition, spoken text is added, which is notated in phonetic symbols. The translation into German is written next to it.

The voice as an instrument

Talking, singing, chanting

Following on from Richard Wagner , Claude Debussy and, above all, Arnold Schönberg , the traditional singing voice is disappearing more and more in favor of the spoken word and other expressive possibilities of the voice that were far removed from classical beautiful singing. Schönberg himself intensifies the polarization between spoken chant and bel canto in his opera Moses und Aron by letting Moses act as the exclusive representative of the word of God and making his part consistently in spoken chant, while his colleague and later adversary Aron is allowed to use the trained bel canto singer's voice . To compose an entire opera part in spoken chant requires a pronounced self-confidence on the part of the composer for the carrying capacity of this type of expression. In Pierrot Lunaire already created, it is best characterized of continuous Chanting, Moses. Alban Berg's Wozzeck is even more consistent and also designs the other parts largely in the same way.

The catchphrase “prima la musica, e poi le parole” ('First the music, then the words') is reversed: The greater intelligibility of the spoken word and the spoken word in particular contribute to a new quality of expression that is not trimmed by enchanting vocalises , but can concentrate fully on the text content. With spoken singing you also have the approximate pitch in your ear, which is reminiscent of singing, but does not allow it to come into its own, so that the voice can fit into the musical process more easily.

Works for pure speaking voice and one or more instruments such as Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke by Viktor Ullmann (which was written before 1945) for speaker and piano or A Survivor from Warsaw by Arnold Schönberg rely entirely on the high quality of their texts or their strong expressiveness. Works for speaking voice solo must incorporate noisy and onomatopoeic elements in order not to cross the boundaries of another genre. The old woman from Carola Bauckholt hardly uses any connected fragments of sentences, breath noises, sobbing, pecking, giggling and whimpering, incorporates many audio-visual signals from body language and otherwise relies entirely on the representational power of the singing actress. Often there is also a mixture of speaking voice and singing. Both are placed side by side in direct contrast, perhaps even enriched with some onomatopoeic or noisy effects. This change can be found particularly frequently in Younghi Pagh-Paan's flame signs for female voice alone with percussion instruments. The speaking voice changes from the five-line music system to one with one or two lines, reminiscent of the notation of a percussion instrument. The rhythm is given in a similar way, it is only optional for pure text. Pagh-Paan also differentiates between voiced and unvoiced sounds in the notation.

The clear advantage of the singing, which approximates the spoken word, is the clearer intelligibility and increased expression of the text. The loss of the vocal line is initially a side effect desired by the composer. This effect is reversed when the vocal elements diminish in such a way that an actor could also produce the desired effect by replacing the musical text with stage directions. This would no longer be necessary for a singer, and he would only be distinguished by the fact that he could decipher and interpret the underlying score.

Inclusion of original sounds and noises

In his work temA for flute, voice (mezzo-soprano) and violoncello, Helmut Lachenmann is very precise with sounds and noises. He not only fixes their exact place in the course of time, but also determines whether a sound should be heard on inhalation or exhalation, what pitch it has (Lachenmann differentiates between "high, half-high, half-low and low" speaking), and defines the actions the singer will determine which vowel color the desired consonant should have by then. He expressly places no value on the acoustic intelligibility of the few spoken texts. There is no melodic line for the singing voice in the whole work.

Dieter Schnebel, a composer with a strong interest in voice, began to deal more intensively with the material voice with the composition of the articulatory-oriented Maulwerke . His research ultimately led him back to sounds that precede language and music: breathing, clicking, humming, moaning, etc., everything that defines the sensual appearance of language. The direct connection between sounds and emotions was particularly important to him.

“In the mouthpieces [as the Maulwerke were called in the working title] the articulation is on its own. Here, the content is no longer conveyed at all, through the vehicle of a text, however rudimentary, but directly. Both language and content arise from articulation. If, for example, the mouth remains closed in a phase, i.e. the sound production takes place inside, then the language of the withdrawn self speaks, in whose sounds hidden impulses may be revealed. If, however, in another phase you have to act with your mouth wide open and full of your throat, aggression may find an exit and protest, torture or enthusiasm may not only be expressed, but actually expressed. "

- Dieter Schnebel

Schnebel's compositional development from 1956 to 1974 was closely related to the defragmentation of language. From language elements, individual syllables, used serially, sound production processes and sound phenomena, he goes back to the roots of articulation, which at the same time allow people to experience original modes of expression. Having reached this vocal end point - or starting point - he finally also increasingly included gestural elements in his compositions.

The vocal noise composition can also - voluntarily or involuntarily - take on comical features. A piece for vocal quartet (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) by a contemporary composer, which consisted almost exclusively of choking, spitting and flatulence noises, was supposed to come across as shocking and unsavory in Mozart-soaked Vienna, but it garnered resounding laughter when it was performed again in Hanover. Similar effects are rudimentarily immanent in Bauckholt's “Die Alte” due to the acting parts of the composition, but not quite so clearly. Depending on the singer's interpretation, the strange effect may or may not appear here.

With Cathy Berberian's Stripsody , the comic effect is quite intentional. The composer used sounds that usually appear in comics and had them put together by a graphic artist to a graphic score that only differentiates high, medium and low pitches and places pictures or graphically designed words on these lines. For this purpose, the interpreter should include gestural elements where appropriate. Berberian interprets this work at her usual frenzied speed, and the rapid change of moods and absurdly imitated noises without any internal reference to one another seems quite absurd with the appropriate artistic talent.


The characteristics of the new vocal music include the increasing independence of the performers. In Luciano Berio'ssequence III , the composer only hints at a notation system. The exact pitch and length of the note values ​​is left to the interpreter, as is the precise implementation of the murmur, which is supposed to unite different syllables written on top of one another into an indistinct flow of text.

The appearance of John Cage in Europe in 1958, where he visited Darmstadt, Cologne, Milan and other cities, played a special role for Germany . With his unconventional pieces like 4'33 ″ , during which not a single note is played, and his broad concept of music as a work, he caused a sensation and gave German composers like Schnebel impulses that led out of serial thinking. His vocal oeuvre includes The wonderful widow of eighteen springs, which consists of only three tones for the singing voice and knocking noises on the closed piano, as well as his “Song book”, in which he improvises the performers who create the only hinted work. At the same time, the Fluxus movement found its way into the musical aesthetics of the time.

A year later, Dieter Schnebel's idea of ​​the “Glossolalie” for speakers and instrumentalists was born. The idea of ​​swapping the functions of language and music with one another resulted in a composition concept on 29 sheets. Various speech and instrumental processes (simple - complex, near - far, consonantic - vocalic etc.) were serially related to each other and worked out in a preliminary version. Schnebel applied to his composing colleagues with this musical concept. Aloys Kontarsky, one of the leading avant-garde musicians of the fifties, helped Schnebel to realize his concept on his own. This process resulted in the "Glossolalie 61".

The score is structured graphically and should at the same time represent the actions of the performers as well as their (possibly musical) text.

From Schnebel's intensive preoccupation with phonetics , the articulation processes of language and the speaking process per se, the Maulwerke emerged, which have the subtitle "for articulation organs and reproductive devices" - not "for voices", because the idea of ​​the Maulwerke is primarily on the focus "Music from organ movements ”.

"New Vocality"

"Is that still music?" Is said to have asked a listener when he was looking at one of John Cage's works. The composer replied that if you think this is not music, you can call it something else. Likewise, one could ask whether the expansions of classical singing shown do not actually run counter to it. Since the conventional bel canto ideal is alienated, interrupted and in most cases avoided by all possible means, it stands to reason that bel canto singing as the ideal of new music has largely become obsolete. While listening to Luigi Nono's La fabbrica illuminata, Schnebel even felt disturbed by the very traditional voice.

Helmut Lachenmann describes the singer in his very noise-dominated work temA as a “vocalist”. Here he uses a term that clearly shows the distance from classical singing and the proximity to instrumental music. In fact, the new vocal techniques presented are an art of their own that demands new types of singers who have to understand how to use their entire voice, their entire body as a sound and representation apparatus as virtuoso as an instrument. The comparison to the instrument is also popular with classical singers, but their sound is limited to a certain, idealized sound quality. With the expansion of the aesthetics of vocal beauty, everything else is now included in this cosmos that was previously fallow and that was only considered to be usable bel canto sound material in exceptional cases.

Carla Henius, a classically trained singer who has been involved with works of new music for a long time, describes how difficult it was for her to transition from a traditionally trained singer to vocalist based on Dieter Schnebel's piece "Atemzüge" from the composition Maulwerke :

“I have never approached them completely impartially, more like crawling through a dense undergrowth on the ground; I came outside, battered and dirty, and each time I found myself in a completely different place than I had expected, dreamed or feared. In the course of the work on the piece, which went on for a number of years, I really couldn't say what I finally 'freed' myself from. It was rather a highly embarrassing procedure that one was subjected to in the belief that one had undertaken it voluntarily. The whole thing just hurt, and for a long time I only heard 'my own screeches of pain'. The trained voice failed at first. The thoughts were no better: they ran as if in a circle like a blind horse that has to draw water. But the well was there, I felt it, knew I would have to go down there. Only when I fell did the fear that had prevented me from really jumping for so long disappeared. "

It wasn't easy for the singer's colleagues either. Problems arose particularly when working out the score:

“Reading it and finally learning it was so difficult that the interpreters - although by no means inexperienced in dealing with highly complex texts - cursed the composer as blasphemously as Caliban for trying to teach us the language. Desolate and dull first months of work, which we managed to hold out until the initial stages of perplexity, anger and despair finally turned into growing fascination and obsession. "

In The Art of Singing, Ernst Haeflinger deals with the challenges of new music for the singing voice. First of all, he perceives an extremely safe technique as an indispensable basic requirement of new music for the singer, in addition one has to start training the hearing early on in order to hit the unusual tone intervals precisely. During the development of various works with composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Aribert Reimann , which Haeflinger considered extremely valuable, he was surprised that the focus did not seem to be on the accuracy of the tone steps and the certainty of intonation, but on the plastic articulation of the language. He pursues the idea of ​​plastic articulation and notes that they represent an important moment in the composition not only for Stravinsky and Reimann, but also for Paul Hindemith , Anton von Webern , Arnold Schönberg , Luigi Dallapiccola and other composers. The personal design of language, not abstract intonation, is in the foreground in these works.

Andreas Fischer, bass voice with the Neue Vokalsolisten from Stuttgart, has rehearsed “Murmullos del páramo” together with the ensemble together with the composer Julio Estrada, who, like Lachenmann, notices exactly how the voice should sound: “He provides every note with up to seven items of information that determine where the voice should be located - whether in the nose, in the mouth, in the throat, in the chest, in the stomach or in the abdomen. And that determines the pressure that the voice exerts to produce a breath or rather a croak. ”Estrada accompanied the vocal soloists as they rehearse the meticulous details until he finally said before the performance:“ Okay, throw away the score, you know the mood and know roughly what I want - just do it! "

In the accompanying notes on Luciano Berio'ssequence III , the definition is given in brackets: “singer, actress or both”. With this note it becomes clear that the interpreter ( sequence III was dedicated to Berio's wife, the singer Cathy Berberian) does not necessarily have to have embarked on a classical singing career in order to be able to reproduce this work. The same is the case with Dieter Schnebel's Maulwerke, of which he rehearsed a different section with a group of ambitious students who later came together to form their own group called “ Maulwerker ”. Schnebel had composed this work consciously anti-elitist.

See also