Friday, March 4, 2011

Played With Matches

We cry when other people cry. We are overwhelmed when we hear a heart-felt sentence from a loved one. We shiver when someone tells a scary story. We laugh when others laugh.
We can all agree that other people make our emotions come out like no other living thing. Sure, our feelings obviously surface when we see animals in distress or when the environment is in danger, but human-human connections bring forth our most rich emotions. One could say that the majority of our actions are fueled by our emotions, and the majority of those feelings are fueled by others. We express ourselves through body language, facial expressions, and, foremost, vocal exchanges.
On a seemingly different side of the spectrum, instrumental music obviously brings our feelings to the exterior. I can’t even count the amount of times I have broken out in severe cases of goose bumps in the middle of pieces or when a tear or two has welled up in my eye. After being surrounded by live music, my own music, recordings, and words about music, when I type the letters “m-u-s-i-c,” images of shining brass, cherry wood, silver tones holes, and pitch-black, nine-foot beauties come to mind. But when I think about the music I love, vocal pieces don’t often appear. This probably isn’t the case for a lot of people, but after immersing myself in my own world of classical music I still haven’t plunged into the category. I suppose I always associated vocal music with works by Handel, Monteverdi, Puccini, and always thought of “renaissance” and other spiritual-based periods; these have never been groups of music I have been primarily attracted to, at least compared to (seemingly) secular, modern works. Besides opera, which I consider in some ways a completely different genre, vocal music just never sang to me (pun intended). But these preempted biases were recently dissolved.

An major exaggeration of my former feelings towards vocal music
Last Sunday I got to hear the David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, “The Little Match Girl Passion,” in concert. I expected vocal music, obviously, and was excited because it was out of the ordinary for me. But if I was browsing a music store, I would have bought an instrumental work by Lang over a vocal work any day.  I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the format of the work, but I was certainly surprised by the amount of emotion it evoked inside of me compared to the average instrumental work I would listen to. With four singers (S-MS-T-B), the work was so dense with feeling—not only from the libretto and themes of the piece, but the dense sentiments conveyed in the tones of the voices themselves (The passion illustrates a little, abused girl trying to sell matches in the cold, and touches on so many extremely depressing and symbolic messages). From the beginning I was hooked, but once the section “Dearest Heart” began, with its traditionally structured but modern-sounding morphing chords, my previous thoughts on vocal music vanished. The entire passion (inspired technically by Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and textually by Hans Christian Andersen's story “The Little Match Girl”) has a long-established form, but the themes, instruments, and contemporary touches are purely Lang. Many of the sections of the passion have narrative lyrics. These parts are balanced by segments with single sentences shaped and formed by the singers; there was even one called “Patience, Patience!” where that word is only said twice.

That same day, I also got to see Haydn’s “Creation” live. While the themes and images meant to be conveyed are certainly opposite of Lang’s passion, the destruction of my biases was still in full swing and they acted as identical catalysts. I was glad Haydn’s “Creation” came after Lang’s—“The Little Match Girl Passion” laid the foundation for my mind’s new acceptance to all things vocal because of its contemporary vibe, and the classic, epic work of Haydn was much more appreciated after this. The blasting waves of vocals from the chorus and floating melody lines from the soloists conveyed the ideas Hayden was trying to in a way instruments never could. Of course, the lyrics bring the thoughts up front, but even looking past those, just the vocal parts themselves took hold of the piece.

After this plethora of voice, I soon saw that vocal music was not just “alleluias” and belting that drowned out my favorite instruments. It truly has meaning and can bring shivers like I’ve never experienced before. The voice is the most common way of expressing ourselves, and when we combine that familiarity and naturalness with the pitches and tones that already make us emotional, it’s a double threat like no other.
We all know how important speech is to our everyday communication to others, but also to ourselves and our implanted emotions. Next time you are belting your favorite song or rocking out in the shower, think about why you aren’t playing the cello. Well, first of all, a shower is only so big and hot water isn’t a recommended wood treatment. But we are equipped with vocal chords. They’re right at hand (or, more accurately, right at throat). Whether you think God gave them to us or tiny cells combined in just the right way, I think it’s certainly fate.  Without the ability to evoke emotion in the most human way, we would just be blabbering, gesturing exteriors.  

Two different but equally heart-wrenching performances of "Dearest Heart/In an Old Apron" from the "The Little Match Girl Passion"

1 comment:

  1. Splendid post, Elena. Lang's Matchgirl is a riveting, poignant piece of music. Achingly beautiful. Thank you for your excellent descriptions of life and music.