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The Strange World of Extended Vocal Techniques

The Strange World of Extended Vocal Techniques

by Jane Sheldon on September 4, 2015 (September 4, 2015) filed under Classical Music | Vocal & Choral | Comment Now

Soprano Jane Sheldon on Helmut Lachenmann's colourful and virtuosic Got Lost.

If you hang around musicians who perform music of the 20th and 21st centuries, you'll have heard the term 'extended techniques' being thrown around. These are sounds you're not taught to make in conventional classical music instruction. But they're also sounds that require real expertise in the manipulation of your instrument; you really do need the foundations of classical training to execute them with the finesse hoped for by the composer. Presumably the time will soon come when these sounds are routinely taught, perhaps in the later stages of a musician's training. At present, they're mostly sounds that are addressed by performers case by case, piece by piece, and one builds a toolkit of technical approaches to realising them.

One example of an extended technique for voice is ingressive singing, in which you produce pitch and melody while inhaling rather than exhaling. If you want to try this one at home, a good place to start is to make the sound you might make when you are surpised or shocked. You draw your breath in very sharply and there's a kind of swift, inhaled sighing sound, and for many people there's a little bit of pitch in there. There are composers who ask for extended, refined versions of this sound in their music, Stefano Gervasoni, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Joan LaBarbara among them.

Musical notation, like writing of all kinds, is the result of conventions established over time. Because the use of extended techniques is relatively recent in Western classical music, the notation of ingressive singing is not yet anywhere near as standardised as, say, the notation of an F#. When a composer means for you to sing a F# in a particular register, you can be very confident of how it will look in the score. Not so with ingressive singing.

Gervasoni, in In dir (2004) for vocal sextet, notates it with an arrow above the stave pointing left:

When he wants you to sing normally again (egressively), an arrow appears indicating the opposite direction.

Lachenmann, in temA (1968) for voice, flute and cello, notates ingressive singing like this, borrowing symbols from string writing:

The small v in the first bar is normally used to indicate an up bow; the small top-hat-y symbol in the second indicates a down bow.

These are probably the two most common ways to notate ingressive singing, but young composers continue to propose new ones.

Another extended vocal technique, one that's a bit more familiar to performers and audiences, is harmonic or overtone singing. This was famously used throughout Stockhausen's somewhat hippie-ish vocal sextet Stimmung (1968). You can click here for the charming Anna-Maria Hefele's impressive demonstrations of the technique.

It's important to note that lots of the techniques that extend beyond the bounds of the vocal production taught to Western classical singers, sounds that we might think of as strange and difficult, are routinely produced in traditional music from other cultures. Harmonic singing, which retains its exoticism for Western audiences, is part of traditional singing for Tuvans, Tibetans, and others. Another of the extended techniques for a contemporary classical vocalist involves switching registers, from the high end of your range to the low, or vice versa, in such a way that the change in tone colour (which classical singers are trained to smooth out) is exaggerated and made as audible as possible. But it's an effect that an Alpine yodeler would find quite unremarkable.

Another technique is mouth clicks. Think of the admonitory sound often notated in written dialogue as 'tsk tsk'. One piece in which mouth clicks are featured (indeed they form the basis of an extended vocal cadenza) is Helmut Lachenmann's intensely colourful Got Lost, which I'm performing in Sydney on August 22 with pianist Zubin Kanga as part of a concert celebrating the release of our new album, Chiaroscuro.

The piece pulls apart texts which deal with different kinds of loss. One text is from Nietzsche's The Wanderer and ends, in Thomas Common's translation, "Thou'rt lost for sure, if thou permittest – fear." Somewhat lighter is the text found posted in the elevator of a Berlin apartment building about the loss (and hoped-for return) of a laundry basket. Plenty of the vocal sounds in Got Lost which might at first seem to be purely phonetic objects are in fact derived from the fragmentation of the texts. When I spend a few long seconds producing a shh sound ([∫] for all the International Phonetic Alphabet nerds out there) this is derived from the first sound of the German word Stille (silence), which has itself been broken from Nietzsche's Todtenstille (deathly silence). Similarly, when I sing an [l] sound for a bar, or a rolled [r] across a sweeping melody, these are sounds extracted from the English word laundry. This is pure Lachenmann, reveling in the in-between sounds, the details of text and timbre that do not traditionally have our attention.

For my collaborator, the pianist Zubin Kanga, the demands made by Lachenmann are even extended beyond techniques applied to the piano:

"The piano part of Got Lost calls for a wide range of extended techniques, as well as a very mercurial, jazzy and virtuosic brand of conventional pianism. The unusual techniques include scraping the keys with a plastic pot, stroking the tuning pegs with a metal rod, muting the strings, playing bell-like harmonics, strumming the low strings, catching ‘shadow’ resonances after loud chords and scraping the winding of the low strings. On top of these pianistic techniques, the pianist is required to perform vocal effects that mirror and comment on the soprano’s part (including sharp consonants and palatal clicks). Besides extending the games of vocal sounds and language to a second performer, these extra vocalisations show many of the unusual sounds of both players (as well as the lyrical passages) are closely linked, despite the seemingly massive gulf between the soundworlds of the piano and the voice." 

So what does all this actually sound like? Tom Service put it very well when he wrote about Lachenmann for the Guardian newspaper: "Be prepared to find and hear beauty where you may have thought none was possible – in the scrapes, scratches, and sighs that instruments and instrumentalists can produce as well as the actual notes they make."

Jane Sheldon and Zubin Kanga’s new CD, Chiaroscuro, is available now from Phosphor Records.

Download the Album

Jane Sheldon and Zubin Kanga will be performing Lachenmann’s Got Lost in London, alongside works by Schoenberg, Berg and Sdraulig.  

WHEN: 7pm, October 6
WHERE: City University London Concert Series, Performance Space, City University