Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Melisma malaise

A common complaint among US composers about opera is that operatic writing over-uses melismas. Ornament, in general, is out, and stretching out a syllable over too many notes is way out. The proffered solution is to ban melismas altogether. Funny thing: this complaint is often made in the same thought stream which says that art music for the theatre ought to sound something more like pop music, or at least borrow generously from pop techniques -- microphones, mixing, clear text setting, clear distinction between melody and accompaniment, everpresence of a beat, maybe even a hook, etc.. But, how does that reconcile with the enduring fashion for ornament, yes even the dreaded melisma, in the pop song world? We're in an odd world indeed in which new operas should avoid melisma while singers in the Top 40 or on American Idol are expected to o.d. on them.

A similar prejudice is that against vibrato, but I think that the problem is neither vibrato or melisma in themselve, but rather lack of control over each, leading to their presence as a default setting in both composition and performance practice. The way out, of course, is that we simply have to do better: singers have to learn to use vibrato as an ornament that can be turned on and off, and when on they must be able to control its depth, duration, and speed, and composers have to give more thought to the use (and possible of abuse) of melisma, as one direction on a field of possible relationships between pitches and words.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Suggested listening:
Salvatore Sciarrino - Luci mie traditrici (KAIROS, 0012222KAI)