Vocal Music and Contemporary Identities by Utz Christian;Lau Frederick;

Vocal Music and Contemporary Identities by Utz Christian;Lau Frederick;

Author:Utz, Christian;Lau, Frederick;
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 1108543
Publisher: Taylor & Francis Group


Some accounts generalize the postwar musical avant-garde as anti-expressive, entailing a ban placed on great passions and a lack of interest in vocal design. This, however, is an overly simplified perspective, though it is obvious that (and why) the first serial works were conceived for purely instrumental or electronic settings. But countertendencies as well as conceptual diversification and extension were an intrinsic part of the musical avant-garde during this period. From the middle of the 1950s onwards an explicit interest in vocal music developed within the context of serial music. And it seems that this interest was not least due to auratic and expressive qualities that were represented by the vocal medium—qualities that also symbolized a subversive and uncontrollable element opposed to serialist construction.

This tension is a key to the paradoxical as well as fascinating situation of well-known vocal works from the 1950s such as Karlheinz Stockhausen's electronic composition Gesang der Jünglinge (1955/1956), Luigi Nono's Il canto sospeso (1955/1956), or Le marteau sans maître (1953/1955, revised 1957) by Pierre Boulez. In these works the auratic component of singing competes with a strictly conceived musical structure as it were. In Boulez's work for alto and six instrumentalists this results in a peculiar type of impersonal artificiality that led György Ligeti to speak of a “sensual feline world” (Ligeti 1960, 62). In Stockhausen's work this situation gave rise to a characteristic naivety which divided the reception of Gesang der Jünglinge into gleaming support and rigorous repudiation. Building on the same dialectics between aura and structure, Nono achieved a new connection between an unsettling content and a kind of musical expression that balanced pathos and aesthetic distance.

Surely all three composers—and many more could be named here— aimed at a strict negation of stereotypes of expression from the classical-romantic tradition. Even more important though, these composers were striving for their own language in the deepest sense, for creating moments of incommensurable expression.

Of course it would be possible to argue that such works eliminated the kind of emotionality commonly attributed to voices. Obviously this was how composers such as György Ligeti, Luciano Berio, or Mauricio Kagel felt when, from the late 1950s onwards, they created works that aimed at a radical liberation of vocal expression, producing fancy theatrical effects. These works, among them Berio's Tema—Omaggio a Joyce (1958), Ligeti's Aventures/Nouvelles Aventures (1962–1965), or Kageľs Anagrama (1957–1958), are equally innovative, pursuing, however, an opposite intention. Their eccentric outbursts are not unsimilar to what can be found in some special forms of the Italian Renaissance madrigal, while their strong tendency to “desemanticization” is historically unique (cf. Klüppelholz 1995).

Non-semantic vocal composition can be differentiated by isolating two principal tendencies. The first tendency, preshadowed by Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge, desemanticized a given text, for example by dissolving it into phonemes. Many composers agreed that this technique functioned particularly well when the text was widely known or presented in its original form simultaneously, e.g., in a program book, or within the composition itself.


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