Choosing a language for vocal music (erotica cont’d)

August 24, 2006

I have always preferred to write songs and choral pieces in my own language. Being an American, that means English, American English. As of this point, most of my performances are in English speaking countries and musically communicating in the home language just makes sense. I’m not convinced that anyone knows what is really being said when the text is in Latin, or German, or French, or Italian. OK, if you have superscript titles during the opera, or a flashlight to see the translation during the performance can help. Otherwise the human voice becomes stripped of its content and is just another instrument.

I have no interest in writing a piece that just invents on one word, like “alleluia” or “Kyrie eleison.” When I set text, I have something to communicate in addition to the musical content. I want the listener to pay attention to what is being said. When a singer or chorus gets behind what is being said in the text, they in turn sell it to the audience, making it a more enriching experience.

In my Alarc√≥n pieces I’m working on this week, quite a few of them have erotic texts. I saw how the chorus (Vox Femina/LA, Iris Levine, director) responded to an erotic text in the last set I wrote for them. It transformed the experience: they threw themselves into the piece with a passion they knew first hand. There was nothing prurient about it. This new set will be done on their Carmina Burana concert, another highly erotic work, and it seems appropriate that some of the texts be erotic.

I mentioned the amusing reception of Iris’s choice for a reading session involving 600 Mormon girls where the text for my piece was “not appropriate.” I’m composing a highly erotic piece now where the second and fourth verses are quite hot (not prurient, erotic). In that Francisco has presented these poems both in English and Spanish, it occurs to me that I’ll set them in Spanish: a) Spanish SOUNDS more erotic than English to me, and b) only those who speak Spanish will have any idea of what’s being said. So in the future, the religious taste police will likely just gloss over it, praising the flow of the English and Spanish languages. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating naughty lyrics for K – 12 choruses, but once high school is reached, why can’t tasteful and appropriated erotic texts be incorporated into their repertoire? Think of them as “love songs PLUS.”

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