by Jessie Downs
As we look back on the past year of Sotto Voce, I think it is important to talk about the only piece we performed this year with a full octet – Marianne Schuppe‘s “der blumen.” Although not commissioned by the group, we were lucky enough to give its premier on the Buffalo Living Voices program. Like myself (as well as several other former members of Sotto Voce) Marianne Schuppe is a vocalist-composer, and this unique double interest was a perfect fit for our ensemble. As a vocalist, Marianne can be heard on recordings of works by composers such as Giacinto Scelsi and Morton Feldman, as well as on releases of her own compositions under the Wandelweiser label. She is also a teacher of both voice and improvisation, and “der blumen” was written in part as a pedagogical exercise that captures something of her personal practice. I believe that working on a piece like “der blumen” is so important for a contemporary vocal ensemble because it makes the art of singing a central focus rather than an ancillary or even antagonistic factor. Through programming “der blumen,” I was able to open up a very friendly and fruitful dialogue with Marianne – exchanging emails and recordings – in which she shared with me her ideas about vocal tone production and the poetics of contemporary composition.
“The fact that a voice can move easily between pure sound and word is a continuing interest in my work.” writes Marianne. “der blumen came up from a fine resonance, left with me by the epitaph with dandelion with the text fragment ‘O fragile man, think of the destiny of flowers,’ dated 1470-1480. I found it some years ago in the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg. [In performing the piece,] singers are asked to look for a corresponding resonance in their bodies through articulation of sounds. An unforced shimmering surface of sound may be the result of this concentration, which allows shades of individual colouring and texture. [Such an effect is] well to be observed in the captivating interpretation of Sotto Voce Vocal Collective.”
Epitaph: “o Mensch zart bedenck der Blumen Art.” Origin of the text sung in the final section of the piece.
The text score format of “der blumen” asks that the performers engage in a few deceptively simple tasks, and this opens up a space for the singers to attend to themselves amidst the otherwise very stretching work of putting together a program of contemporary vocal works. As tenor Suzanne Fatta puts it, “What is fascinating for me about ‘der blumen’ is that it is purely about singing on the voice. No distractions with words or rhythms or notes, just pure phonation, feeling the space inside and around your singing body, listening to the other voices.” The piece is written in three sections: the first asks the performers to hum on an “m” or “n” sound; the second allows for a slight opening of the mouth into an “l” position; and the last allows the singers to release onto singing the German epitaph shown above. All tones were to be sung “softly, but never so softly that singing becomes uncomfortable or the flow is disturbed” and sung for “the duration of an unforced breath.” Schuppe’s emphasis on not straining was notable in a culture of composition wherein vocal strain is sometimes thought of as desirable, or otherwise not understood or taken into consideration at all. Throughout the score, similar language emphasizes the agency of the singers, and encourages them to grow in their knowledge of themselves and their instruments.
While to some, Schuppe’s 3-part structure may seem uncontroversial, given the variety of pedagogical backgrounds present in the group, the procedure was something which we all had to chew over together. While some pedagogical methods encourage the use of voiced consonants (like “m” and “n”) to exercise the voice, others do not. I personally come from the latter school, but was interested to experiment with them in this context: particularly on a series of continuous long-tones over several minutes. For those in the ensemble who had executed the “hum to sing” procedure before, the progression from the first and last sections made sense, but still the “l” sound was almost universally challenging.
Why, you may ask? Well, because phonation happens in the throat, it is important that the throat be open and relaxed when singing. However, with voiced consonants, the closed position of the mouth can lead to closure of the throat as well. Likewise, your whole body is a resonator for vocal sound, but voiced consonants can overly focus a singer on one aspect of that resonance. Schuppe counterbalances both of these eventualities with her descriptions, such as that the lips should be “softly, not tightly, closed” and that singers should “let the body walls resonate, as if it were a diaphragm.” Still, creating a free vibration while “muting” it with the lips or tongue created a very pressurized environment. The group worked together to not only overcome these obstacles, but to do so by surrendering to the tasks and learning from them. In so doing, we discovered that gradually moving from muted to open vocal sounds helped us become more aware of some of the most basic bodily functions involved in vocal production.
Understanding the details of Marianne’s score and clarifying these details’ intentions was another important part of the rehearsal process. For example, the first of several instructions she gives says to “allow a very discrete slow pulse within the sound stream.” I ultimately came to understand this as encouragement to lean on the vibrato action (that natural pull between opposing muscles in the throat) but to pull more towards the falsetto (what some call head voice) so as to give the tone a gentle quality. I am sure that each singer came to their own conclusion based on their knowledge of their instruments; what was important was that we were invited to chew over the task. Another poetic phrase that gave us pause was, “There is always just one sound, except when there are two or more.” Marianne helped the group to understand that the piece should feature a continuous but gentle group sound throughout each section, and within that frame that one of the most important decisions becomes whether to repeat one’s own note, repeat someone else’s note, allow a new tone to enter, or to rest. “Performing der blumen forced me to be extremely aware of the sound I was producing. It was awesome to have so much time to really settle into a sound world and really connect with the other voices,” says alto Gabby Carr about the effect the work had on her.
The final result – as you can hear in the video above or on our soundcloud – was something that begins like ambient music but blossoms into song. As the title suggest, it was also very much like the slow opening of a flower, from an initial peripheral sound field into something more animated. As alto Helen Lowry expresses, “I thought it was a true meditation piece. I would get sort of lost and ‘zone out’ in the sound. I could contribute to the sound, or I could sit back and listen.” All of the Voces were very grateful both for Marianne’s guidance in shaping this unique work for performance, and to have this meditative space in which to explore our group sound.