“[Singing] is difficult. It’s a discipline. It’s like [being] an elite athlete: you have to be good at a lot of different things. Language is one of the most important parts of that puzzle.”
Those words of wisdom come from associate music professor Kent Smith, who presented this semester’s fall voice recital on Tuesday, Dec. 6 at the Julien J. Studley Theatre. The show featured vocal performances of pieces originating in the United States, England, Germany, France and Italy, from a series of world-renowned composers, including George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Samuel Barber, Franz Schubert, Antonio Vivaldi and Ralph Vaughan Williams, to name a few.
The emphasis on Western composers — and European, more specifically, with 17 of the 19 composers featured hailing from a European nation — comes from the origins of classical voice, which “started in Italy 400 years ago,” according to Smith.
“The tradition from which classical singing, then operatic singing, then into art song singing later on, came from [Italy],” he said. “France had their own version of it, Germany had their own version of it, and the English did, but it all came from Italy. When you’re teaching basic technique, as you’d teach basic piano or basic ballet, the Italian language is far more conducive to this kind of singing. First of all, there are only five vowels, with the option of opening or closing two, as opposed to 17 vowel sounds in English.”
The technique established in Italy was a stark contrast from previous emphases on “polyphony,” a musical texture composed of multiple independent melodies coming together in cooperation. The popularity of polyphony would wane as more and more people wanted to “hear the text,” as Smith put it, which led to a cultural recalibration of artistic values. The polyphonous textures of the past would give way to monophony: a dominant vocal melody supported by an accompaniment.
English is the primary language of communication for most of the performers, which can potentially make learning vocal pieces in European languages extremely frustrating, according to Smith. In particular, American vocalists have much higher expectations placed upon them vis-à-vis the spectrum of languages in which they must sing — English, French, German and Italian. In learning how to sing in other languages, the International Phonetic Alphabet can be profoundly useful, Smith said.
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a system that emphasizes the oral aspects of language, such as intonation, in order to create a sort of universal guide for pronouncing words regardless of their language of origin.
“It’s virtually impossible for us to be fluent in all those languages,” Smith said. “However, we want to be able to enunciate and pronounce the words as correctly as possible. We have a diction course [at SUNY New Paltz] that’s offered every other year that [deals] with IPA. One of the first things I tell my students to do is to get a word-for-word translation before they even look at the piece or listen to it. Idiomatically, the sentence structure [of Italian] isn’t like English, so it’s not going to quite make sense to you, but you need to know that if you’re saying sole, you’re singing about the sun. You just have to know what the words are, and then you kind of figure out the sentence structure.”
If Smith’s likening of vocalists to elite athletes is true, then these vocalists — from the sopranos to the baritones — are veritable Olympians.