Battering Down the Walls: Isaac Schankler’s Notes from the Studio

14 Mar

NOTES FROM THE STUDIO
This week your friends at Catalysis Projects introduce the sixth in our series of new columns – brief notes from the studios of our Core and Resident Artists. This week our Resident Artist composer Isaac Schankler posts the first in a series of entries looking at connections between speech and music.

I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between speech and music, maybe partly because they employ the same medium (sound waves, with an approximate visual notation) yet carry such different kinds of information.  Speech is representational, while music is expressive — okay, but this delineation isn’t as clear-cut as it first seems.  Certainly speech is capable of being expressive in its rhythms, cadences, rhetorical flourishes.  And music can be used to represent cultural codes (e.g. what subculture(s) you belong to).

So where can the boundary be drawn?

When the two are combined, interesting things happen.  Both change shape to fit the other.  In opera, the distinction between recitative (parts where the needs of the text take precedence) and aria (parts where the needs of the music are paramount) is an old one.  Many composers seem to have been dissatisfied with this distinction and have tried and batter the walls down from one side or the other.

Leoš Janáček was a champion of “speech-song” theory, in which musical ideas were driven by the rhythms, pitch contours and inflections of normal Czech speech.  (But, a bit like Ornette Coleman’s harmelodics, it seems to be next to impossible to find out what “theory” actually was behind it, other than some vague principles.)

Janáček filled notebooks with musical transcriptions of everyday speech, and when his daughter fell ill, he even went so far as to transcribe her final, dying breaths.  This strikes me, somehow, as a uniquely composerly act: a bit obsessive, yes, clinical and detached and at the same time incredibly sentimental.

I think this gets to the core of my fascination with speech and music; when you put them together you are able to be at once abstract and personal.  They seem to be the same thing, even.  The world seems to be at peace, almost.

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