Tuesday, January 30, 2007

apologies to RSS subscribers

I've been republishing the last posts several times.
If anyone is subscribing to this blog, I apologize.

I've switched to the new Blogger version, and it
was playing tricks on me. The word wrap wasn't
working right, and while the preview looked okay,
the published version looked horrible.

... at least using the Opera web browser, but honestly,
when writing a blog on Bel canto, using another browser
is surely blasphemy?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

neural response

I've been out fishing lately.

I started thinking when listening to a concert recently. It was
 an accomplished opera singer, who performed, by all accounts,
 very well. I was quite pleased that I could actually enjoy myself, 
and not just analyse her singing to death. (:

However, there was time for some analysis too. I couldn't help
noticing how she sang with basically the same timbre
throughout. This is not unusual. It is what most singers seem to 

She used a fairly wide range of "indicators" to signal emotion, 
and we, attentive listeners, were eager to comply and respond
with the appropriate emotion.  I wouldn't have reacted to this 
a few years ago, but having realised how much a singer can 
actually vary his/her vocal colour, you can't help not longing
to hear that on stage. 

Actually, the thinking started long before this. A couple of years 
ago, I listened to a live rendition of "Nessun dorma", with a 
reasonably skilled tenor. His middle range was uninteresting,
though, which obviously becomes problematic in "Nessun
dorma". To exaggerate a bit, he stumbled through the aria and
made a nice recovery on the high notes. To my surprise, my
friends hadn't noticed his relative failure in the 90% of the
aria that doesn't consist of "money notes". I guess that's why
they call them "money notes" - if a tenor can only deliver the
high Cs, all is forgiven (in Nessun dorma, it's a H).

So here's the theory. Nessun dorma is all about anticipation,
but since everyone in the audience is so full of anticipation of
that last high H, the singer can probably get away with just
indicating the rest of the song. After all, none of it is real.
The artist builds an illusion, and we, the audience fill in the

So why go through all that trouble to deliver real emotion,
when it's obviously possible to just indicate, and let the
audience do the work? Shouldn't there be a difference, after all?

I started googling for neurological papers to find out if we are
actually able to detect what goes on in the brain when e.g.
listening to singing.

I turns out that we can - almost.

Robert Zatorre in Montrëal seems to be on the forefront of
neurological studies related to music. One paper has the
impressive title

"Emotional responses to pleasant and unpleasant music correlate with activity in paralimbic brain regions".

Unfortunately for me, trying to prove my theory, we seem to
have some way to go before we fully understand how the brain
processes emotional content in music.

It turns out that listening to music triggers a lot more brain 
activity than does e.g. speech. Several different parts of the 
brain (even the "reptile brain") are engaged, and the result 
is collated into a unified experience.

This paper does claim to support the hypothesis that "there
may be a dissociation between perceptual and emotional
responses to music

Furthermore, the paper states that "it is possible that music
that induces different types of emotions would recruit
different neural substrates. This may be especially likely
if emotion is elicited through memory or association,
rather than spontaneously

That last bit seemed to relate to what I was digging for. I was
thinking that if an artist uses physical or vocal "gestures"
to indicate to the audience what they should feel, this may
have the effect that the audience relates to the music in a
slightly more intellectual way, having to draw on their
memory for the proper understanding of the gestures. 

Perhaps other components in the music speak directly to 
our more intuitive systems, triggering a direct emotional 
response which we will have great difficulty suppressing?

Of course, tons of complications arise if one would try to
measure this in a scientific study.

Of course, it could be that our willingness to be swept away by
the artist is the most important factor in enjoying a musical
performance. Perhaps our brains are clever enough to
provide us with the necessary emotions if we just don't get
in its way? Call me stubborn, but I don't think that's the
whole truth.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Something to look forward to

My beloved wife chastised me for writing that I didn't have much
to look forward to (here). I admit that that was only partly true.
I meant that I didn't have anything like a full-scale production in
front of me.

A few fun things have happened, though.

Katarina and I were engaged to sing on a Tallinn cruise. I was
really supposed to ride along, but since we enjoy singing, we
promptly decided that I should be part of the program. Such
"coups" are always a bit scary, since they can backfire if the
customer ends up thinking that I didn't contribute to the
enjoyment. Or maybe that's just me thinking that I'm still
not good enough for professional engagements... As it was,
I only participated in a duet ("Rosen in Tirol" by Zeller) and
one aria ("O Paradis", by Meyerbeer). It went quite well,
though, and I felt like a real pro... almost.

The next occasion was our traditional Christmas concert,
now in a new church (since we have moved). It was well
visited, and people seemed pleased. I sang some Christmas
hymns, and some arias from Händel's Messiah (Comfort ye
and Every Valley). We recorded it, and listening to the
tape, I was horrified! I was singing out of tune on several
occasions. My wife insisted that I wasn't, and she has a
good ear...

Enter Lucy Manén's Bel canto book. She observes (pg 50) that
The high harmonics of the imposto mechanism, not only
give to all the vocal registers the beauty and brilliance
of Bel Canto; they also ensure that the voice will sound
in tune to a distant listener (without adequate brilliance,
a distant voice will often sound flat even when, heard
from near by, the notes seem correctly pitched).

When I checked the parts of the tape where I recalled emphasizing
the higher harmonics, the voice didn't sound flat. I had focused too
much on creating a full voice, and forgetting about the brilliance.
Oh, well. Let's hope the one's in the back didn't have such good

(If you want to know what imposto is, read the book, or go see
your local Bel Canto teacher.)

Later, Katarina and I gave a recital in Oxelösund - Church coffee
for the senior members of the congregation. Katarina grew up in
Oxelösund, so she has a tendency to sell out when she visits. So
it was this time too. The church was full and we had a great
time. I sang Ah, fuyez... from Manon - a terribly difficult aria,
but I never did have the good sense to go for the easy wins.
The challenge with Ah, Fuyez is that you have to be able to
express several different and conflicting emotions. De Grieux
prays to be rid of the obsession with Manon, and curses the
world and his misfortune, but really, he doesn't want anything
other than to be with her - but he does sincerely long for the
peace of God too, and he keeps shifting in and out of these
emotions. To add some complexity, it's in French, which I
don't know, and the tessitura is terribly high.

Bel canto to the rescue. If you're able to produce the sound
with a lowered larynx, whatever you feel will be strangely
amplified (because the emotional colorings of the voice
emanate from there.) So if you take the time to really
understand what you're singing, you will be able to portray
the proper emotions (obviously there is more to a great
interpretation than that, but just the basics will get you
surprisingly far). The 'imposto' thingy helps anchor the high
voice especially, which saves you when De Grieux first
utters his "ah fuyez" in a piano G. Also, you can bring on
the crying in the ff exclamations - as long as you keep your
position and let the body provide (as Bengt keeps telling me).

The truly amazing feeling is that you can go all out, both with voice and emotion, as long as you keep directing the force the right way.

For fun, I later decided to try singing it unsupported (actually,
still much more supported than I ever sang before I went to
Bengt three years ago). I found that I could produce a cool-
sounding timbre, and sing loudly enough, but when trying to
convey emotions, the voice suddenly felt like a wall between
me and the (imaginary) audience. I started realising why many
singers are left with just varying the volume, phrasing and
attack. What else can you do?

I decided to quit experimenting and return to practising the
real thing. I don't master it well enough to goof around.

Then we did some Nemorino/Adina, "Caro Elisir". Fun stuff.
I need to find more opportunities to sing on stage.