One of the questions I often get after shows is how I manage to sing in so many languages. Even for those who do regularly sing this can seem like a herculean task, but really it isn’t. Singing while playing doesn’t come naturally to me and I’ve never had the type of training that most singer/songwriter types do so I had to learn things as I go. The benefit to this is that it is really no more difficult for me to learn lyrics in English than it is in any other language–they are all equally difficult for me to do.
This applies to Conlangauges (Constructed Languages) too–doesn’t matter if it’s Ewok, Shyriiwook, Klingon, or any other. It’s simply about the choreography of the mouth (my next post will talk about Music as Choreography) which is really no different than the choreography of any other part of the body. You move or you manipulate your body in various ways to make a sound. Sometimes that sound comes from your body (e.g. your voice), and sometimes that sounds comes from some external device that your body is interacting with (e.g. musical instrument) — either way, it’s the movement of the body which creates the sound (unless we’re talking about Alvin lucier’s Brainwave Music). Getting hung up on the end result can seriously compromise the understanding that it is all just a series of physical movements.
Last weekend (Friday, Oct. 26) I did a show opening for Frenchy and the Punk with my project, Secondhand. I sang two tunes during our set: one in Romanian and one in Azerbaijani. Really gorgeous tunes that I love to sing. The next evening (Saturday) I played a Sci-Fi Convention, Utopia Con, with my Klingon Band and as usual sang many tunes in Klingon as well as one in Ewok; one in Greek; and one in English. These are all relatively straightforward, even if you disregard the fact that I sang in six different languages. In a couple of week I’ll be performing several new compositions by a local composer, Rachel Short, and in one of them I will also be singing while playing the cello.
That tune is fiendishly difficult to sing while playing. The vocal line is straightforward enough, but being a modern composition that originally wasn’t designed to have the cellist singing the vocal line (we originally had a baritone singing the part for the first performance) but when things were just logistically easier to have me sing (which was the original intention of the composer) I’ve morphed into that role. Unfortunately, the piece evolved a bit when we did have a vocalist and the cello line is involved with a number of 16th notes that don’t have a repetitive pattern in some spots, making the lining up of the vocals tricky.
Here’s an excerpt of my part after the revisions for the separate baritone part:
As you can see, while the rhythms are straightforward enough, the pitches only outline a melodic contour while not being repetitious. This is not something classical trained cellists normally do (though see my previous installment about singing while playing the cello with examples from Maya Beiser and Sol Gabetta for other examples). Playing an ostinato while singing is relatively straightforward, and pretty simple. Playing a chordal pattern while singing is only slightly more difficult. The above is a nightmare and takes some pretty meticulous and tedious slow practice! Rachel’s piece is filled with such material though the outer slower sections presents a style I previous implied was one of the most difficult to do–namely singing sustained melodies while playing a different sustained melody on the cello.
On the whole, though, I really do enjoy doing things like this–despite the time it takes–anything that can broaden my musical horizons is always welcome and I suspect that I would begin to feel as if singing tunes in relatively straightforward songs is old hat (which, to tell the truth, it already is starting to feel like). Even if it is the case that I sing in several dozen languages in various styles of music from all over the world (or “universe” as it may be)!
Sweet Buddha! While having this wonderfully stimulating discussion at Bryan Townsend’s blog (here and here) I came across this version of Tsmindao Ghmerto by cellist, Maya Beiser (one of my all time favorite cellists, if I haven’t said that enough on this blog).
It’s an adaptation of an arrangement of a 13th century Georgian choral piece that Evan Ziporyn (of Bang on a Can) arranged as a solo bass clarinet piece (if you haven’t heard his version–you really should because how often do you hear three and four part harmony coming out of a solo clarinetist?!?). Here are his notes to his arrangement: http://bangonacan.org/library/program_notes/tsmindao_ghmerto
This is reminiscent of a work by Latvian composer, Pēteris Vasks, called “Gramata Cellam (The Book)” for cello (1978). Here’s a wonderful excerpt of Argentinian cellist, Sol Gabetta, performing it. The vocals start around minute 2:19: