“Sprechgesänge” (Speech Songs) = JONATHAN HARVEY: Sprechgesang; BEAT FURRER: Recitativo; GEORGES APERGHIS: Babil; UNSUK CHIN: Cantatrix Sopranica – Peter Veale, oboe and English horn / Salome Kammer, voice / Carl Rosman, clarinet / Anu Komsi, Pila Komsi, sopranos / David Cordier, countertenor / musikFabrik / Peter Rundel, Beat Furrer, Sian Edwards, Stefan Asbury – Wergo WER 6851 2 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 60:57 ****:
I approached this disc with some trepidation thinking I might be subjected to music of dry-as-dust rigor from the public-be-damned-I-write-for-other-composers school of contemporary music making. But most of the practitioners of that school have been silenced in one way or another: colleagues died, depriving them of admirers; they themselves died, depriving them of both raison and etre; the music died and got reborn in a more audience-friendly form.
I can’t say that all the music on this current Wergo CD is easy to listen to or appeals on first hearing—it is all experimental in one fashion or another—but this is for the most part a musical experience that doesn’t try to exclude the listening audience. I found parts of the program, especially Unsuk Chin’s wild and wooly Cantatrix Sopranica, highly entertaining as well as stimulating.
As a musical term, Spechgesänge is closely related to the more often-encountered Sprechstimme, and the terns are often used interchangeably though they are technically somewhat different. Spechstimme is musical speech, the speaking part in a piece of music rendered in musical notation as in Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (1912): “the notes given in the score describe only a pitch-direction the voice is to take, the intervals aim to produce changes in intensity, acceleration is achieved through rhythm.” Schoenberg used notes marked with small crosses to indicate this musical speech. Spechgesänge, or speech song, on the other hand, is more closely related to the passages in opera where a story is recounted, requiring a more parlando style, and so is roughly equivalent to the operatic recitative.
This definition of Spechgesänge directly impacts Swiss-born composer Beat Furrer’s Recitativo, which functions as an extended recitative. Furrer’s work is based on Arthur Schitzler’s novella Fräulein Else, in which a young woman in a posh hotel considers her intention of selling herself to a rich playboy. Texts aren’t supplied, and my German is woefully inadequate to follow the gist of the story, but as it unfolds in Furrer’s composition, the spoken text has the air of a nightmare. If you’ve ever experienced a nightmare in which people speak in hushed tones and you know what they say involves you somehow but you can’t make out the words, then you can relate to the air of fear and impending doom that Furrer creates as his speaker, Salome Kammer, begins soto voce— much of what she says swallowed up by the percussion-rich ensemble that backs her— then builds to a fever pitch. There are a few notes of tortured singing along the way, but most of the text is spoken in classic Spechgesänge fashion.
My favorite work on the CD also involves voices. Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s piece is based on an experimental text by French author Georges Perec. Excuse me for quoting from the notes at length, but I want to show exactly what Chin is dealing with here: “Perec’s work was a parody of a scientific paper, a nonsense article which purported to present a detailed study of the scream reactions of one hundred and seven female singers. In a purely literary spirit, he examined tomato-topic patterns of organization in the species ‘cantatrix sopranica’, by throwing rotten tomatoes at one hundred and seven female singers.”
This absurdist plot, if you can call it that, suggested to Chin a program wherein opera singers warm up with voice exercises, then engage in a series of parodies of opera that are often quite funny. “[Chin’s] festival of song is crowned by a rendition of Clair de lune sung in the nasal style of Chinese folk music.” Chin is supposed to have acquired her satirical style from teacher György Ligeti, but I’ve never heard a work of Ligeti’s in which that composer lets himself go so thoroughly to get a laugh.
While I’m not as taken with the works of composers Harvey and Aperghis, they intriguingly approach the technique from a different direction entirely. They explore the parlando qualities available to instruments of the orchestra. In Englishman Harvey’s case, the instruments are oboe and English horn, the oboe the more musical of the two, tossing questions back and forth with the instrumental ensemble, while the English horn approaches impassioned, frustrated, garrulous human speech.
A Greek-born composer living and working in Paris, Georges Aperghis has experienced first-hand the difficulties of being understood in a country not his own, and that experience seems to inform Babil, a sort of clarinet concerto in which the clarinet and an ensemble of fifteen instruments commence a dialog that increasingly becomes a heated argument. Again, the solo instrument is encouraged to approach human speech in some of its declamations.
The performances by Cologne-based contemporary music ensemble musikFabrik are passionately committed and help their listeners believe in the music they present. Still, you need to bring along a spirit of adventure, and you may need to leave some prejudices at the door of your listening room. If you do, I think you’ll be rewarded and might even have a laugh or two over Unsuk Chin’s sophisticated musical shenanigans.
– Lee Passarella