Cecilia Bartoli: ‘Atonal music cre­ates a bar­rier between com­poser and singer’

The mezzo has been telling Corriere della Sera why she keeps raiding old archives for something to sing.

I’ve always enjoyed research, try­ing to find for­got­ten music to enlarge the rep­er­toire, being that con­tem­por­ary com­posers can’t seem to write for opera sing­ers like me. It would be won­der­ful to work with a com­poser writ­ing for just for us. Moz­art wrote his operas know­ing the voices of the sing­ers who would inter­pret the roles. Today, it’s no longer like that: atonal music cre­ates a bar­rier between com­poser and singer, so in order to find new music to sing I have to search in the past.

More here. Discuss.

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  • Oh dear… my favourite musicological fallacy… the idea that the music of ‘Composer A’ if we denigrate ‘Composer B’.

    I fear she was trying to curry favour with the tweedy jacket brigade here?

    I am all for blowing the dust off neglected composers of bygone eras – I do so myself quite often. But dismissing all living composers, and retreating into a museum culture, is simply daft, and does not paint her creativity in a good light.

    • This is nonsense. It has been modernism which has pushed classical music into a museum culture. The thorough unmusicality of so-called ‘atonal music’ (which is not music at all, but sonic art, comparable with concept art in the visual genre), logically deters professional musicians / singers whose entire education and continuous efforts to keep their capacities up to the highest level of musicianship, both musically and technically, because things are asked from them which are not merely extensions of their craft, but are fundamentally AGAINST it. Modernism stems from a world view, a way of looking at art, at music, from a point of view where everything is upside-down, inside-out, a typical posttraumatic reaction after the experience of war and disruption.

      I know of one of the concert masters of the Berlin Phil who also made a career as a soloist, that the concertos of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky which he regularly played, in his experience formed a natural continuum with each other and his work at the phil, but again and again when he prepared the Schönberg concerto, he had to totally readjust his musical framework and had the feeling as if he was crossing some fundamental boundary, and had to cross it back when he had to prepare a classical concerto again or practice for the phil concerts. He did not understand it, but was concerned about the existence of this ‘cultural cross line’ every time he crossed it. Just one of numerous examples.

  • I might be mistaken, but AFAIR it was Ms. Bartoli who one or two years ago first accepted to stand in for someone else at some festival (Baden-Baden, I think – and certainly nothing atonal) – just to discover that the production wasn’t tailor-made for her and to withdraw one or two weeks later. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Ms. Bartoli dreams of a new Mozart or Rossini who will write magnificient Belcanto operas tailor-made for her. Nothing wrong with that. I sometimes dream of being some rich fin de siècle bourgeois with plenty of time and money. Both dreams won’t come true.

    Ms. Bartoli is a wonderful singer indeed. But there are other wonderful singers, too. And some of them are even capable of giving wonderful performances of atonal music.

    • Hi, I believe you are referring to Angela Gheorghiu, who stepped in for Anna Netrebko after the latter cancelled her participation in a new production of Faust at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus.

  • CB needs to be exposed to more contemporary music as her statement is categorically wrong. John Adams and Michael Finnissy are living composers who have both written for the human voice, and in a tonal/modal idiom.Countless other examples.

    • That is fortunately true. But it seems likely that CB meant something different: a musical line well-suited to the singing voice is one, in which the musical energy naturally flows from one pitch to the other, as if something is being transported from one temporary location to another. This can create the experience of a line projected in time, and this is exactly the quality of the human singing voice that carries the greatest works of the repertoire and makes strong expression possible. The care with which composers in the past have designed this type of melodic line, often in combination with parlando passages which imitate speech but stylise it in short coherent phrases, was rooted in a strong feeling of tonal relationships without which such lines cannot exist – it is the harmonic relationship between the notes that make this transportation of energy possible.

      When composers return to tonality like Adams, they often treat the voice in a way which still isolates the notes, like short or long straight lines where the voice has to ‘jump’ from one level (pitch) to the other. This is not the ‘energy flow’ that singers prefer, but of course it is an effort in the right direction. There is still this ‘Berührungsangst’ to seem to be ‘expressive’ and thus, ‘oldfashioned’, ‘romantic’, which is no longer acceptable in our steely, glamorous world. R. Strauss was the last to write well for the voice but he is enshrined in the museum of the old repertoire so that’s OK.

      • What a load of unmitigated pseudo-intellectual bollocks…and especially Strauss being the last composer to “write well” for the voice. Crap. Churlish crap at best.

        Consider:-

        Britten
        Finzi
        Howells
        heck, even Grainger, Gershwin, Bernstein

        God, even John Lennon. Even Sondheim.

        If you think Strauss was the last good composer for the voice, you are entitled to that opinion, but your justification of that opinion boils down, musically, to a word salad version of “I prefer 19th century and earlier vocal writing, and I think that those melodies are more suited to being sung”. The rest was meaningless. All the composers above wrote deeply expressive music for the voice, writing melodies that are so natural to the human voice that even people *without extensive vocal training* can and do sing them even on just a few hearings. They have that much impact – that people with no musical training can absorb and repeat them.

        To suggest that emotional expression of the level of R Strauss hasn’t been achieved since is something with which most of the rest of the world would disagree, and if you feel that’s an argument “ad populum” I would simply point out that what is expression other than one person communicating something to another? Thus the most expressive (but not necessarily “best” or any other arbitrary measure) music is – technically – the music that expresses the most to most people, and that isn’t going to be R. Strauss.

        • Yes, my mentioning R.Strauss was thourhgtless. Of course there are many more composers who wrote excellently for the voice and esp. Britten. RS just came into my mind as an excellent, expert example.

      • Anybody who thinks atonal music can’t have lines has never heard anything by Takemitsu or Dallapiccola. Or perhaps they have and just didn’t want to acknowledge that they accomplished something that was outside their worldview.

      • of course that rules out such arias as Mozart’s Queen of the Night and other coloratura like passages. Or the chromatic writing of Gesualdo. It’s all BS

  • We are all entitled to our opinions in art, literature and music.

    99% of contemporary music of any type and any age is mediocre or less. That was true in Mozart’s time, and true now. It takes lots of digging to find very good atonal music.

    Personally, I find most Mozart dull and find Adams mediocre. But these are my opinions. Ms. Bartoli, a gifted singer, is entitled to hers. And you are entitled to yours. There is no right or wrong here – it is all subjective.

    I agree with CDH — I thought the selected videos were awful. I like Ligeti in some things, however. Those pieces remind me of a bad domestic argument.

    • ‘There is no right or wrong here – it is all subjective.’ Not true: it is possible to arrive at some objective truth through subjective means, based upon human common sense and the comparable way the senses are built (is the green I see in the grass the same green that you are seeing?). In the arts, there is no scientific ‘proof’, but that does not mean that really everything there is subjective. If this were so, then Bach’s and Beethoven’s and Shakespeare’s and Titian’s status in our culture would rest upon nothing but social constructs (an argument which has been put forward recently… in an effort to get rid of all those dead white males dominating Western culture for long enough). Through discussion and comparison, we can eventually reach a conclusion that artist X is contributing value to our world, while artist Y does much less so and artist Z is plainly incompetent. There is objective reality in the way the great collections in our museums (Louvre, National Gallery, etc. etc.) resulted from a long process of filtering and evaluation.

      This ‘subjectivation’ of culture is, in fact, an attack upon cultural value in general. We would do better by defending culture than destroying it by denying it any objective value.

  • “atonal music” = oxymoron

    atonal music creates a barrier between composer and audience

    atonal music creates a barrier between composer and music

    atonal music creates a barrier between performer and audience

    atonal music creates a barrier between music and audience

    • The only thing which creates barriers is ignorance. Once understanding is achieved, taste or opinion has a chance to decide, but not before.

      • That is generally true. But this consideration has been misused by postwar modernism to defend something indefensible. If something really creates a barrier, the idea that understanding will remove it won’t work. What is happening then, is that the existence of the barrier is explained as a barrier within the capacities of understanding of the listener, an easy way out. When critique upon modernism / atonal music is merely ‘explained’ as a lack of understanding or conservatism (which, in the modernist mind, is the same thing), bad modernist music cannot exist, because: how could we know?

        The ugly and embarrassing fact is that quite much of critique of modernist sonic art is based upon a full and profound understanding of what it really is. That performers let themselves be taken-in, through intellectual superficiality and lack of musical understanding, out of a feeling of obligation and fear of being considered ‘conservative’, merely contributes to the many misunderstandings in music life which contribute to its erosion. Any time a Boulezbian or Ligetique or Xenakite piece is performed in the context of a public concert, more stones of the building that has been laborously built over the ages, are being taken-out.

      • 1. Borslap’s response to your comment is absolutely right on the money as a philosophical matter.
        2. Menuhin’s analysis is truly brilliant (see Vince’s post below for the link) as a musical matter, with a clarity and deep understanding not only of the history, structure, but also of the psychology of music. I am not aware of any musician today on the status of Menuhin who has been as articulate and insightful about contemporary music. (Frankly, I think classical musicians today are so afraid of critiques by the likes of Ross at the New Yorker or Tommasini at the New York Times, that they dare not say anything lest they hurt their careers.)

  • The first thing that came to my mind when I read about Ms. Bartoli’s statement was the fascinating collaboration between pianist Glenn Gould and violinist Yehudi Menuhin. They both played together for a video recital, which had music of Bach, Beethoven, and Schoenberg. The most interesting performance, in my opinion, of the recital was the Schoenberg Fantasie.

    Prior to playing the Schoenberg, the two had a discussion that started off with Gould extolling the merits of the composer and the Fantasie that they were about to play. Menuhin’s response is easily one of the most hilarious moments that I’ve seen in classical music. It became clear that Menuhin was not a fan of atonal music. I won’t spoil it, but I highly recommend watching the video that I’ve provided if my statement has piqued interest.

    It was also revealed that prior to the recording of the recital, Gould and Menuhin had a difficult time rehearsing the piece and Gould was expecting the worst for the recital. However, Gould stated, if I recall correctly, that the result was one of the greatest moments of his life.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=av2XTNgA72w

    • In this video, Menuhin is right, and Gould – with his tortured defense – wrong, that should be clear to any professional musician, and any musical person. Menuhin is far too generous in his caveats… preferring to be on the safe side in case history would prove him wrong. But no, it is proving him right.

  • For quite a lot of musicians, including singers, sonic art (as contrasted to music) offers a welcome excuse to not be bothered by contemporary ideas. By chance I know of some cases when contemporary traditional, tonal composers (of repute) contacted CB because of wanting to write for her, but she was not interested, or too busy digging in the archives.

    Regrettable that she thinks that ‘contemporary music’ is necessarily ‘atonal music’, which is no longer the case. But interestingly, this story underlines the extensive damage postwar modernism has done to the imago of the art form, in fact pushing it into a museum culture. Arrogantly breaking-down the fragile balance between the three parties which together form musical culture: composer, performer, audience, was a self-destrucive and agressive act of cultural terrorism, which still needs a long time to get repaired.

  • ‘Wonderful performances of atonal music’ are not possible because ANY performance of atonal music is OK, since in that genre the distinction between a good and a bad performance does no longer apply. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ notes in modernism, so there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ performances of them.

    I know of opera singers who prepared like hell an impossibly difficult solo part and were quite surprised to find-out, at the rehearsels where the composer was present, that nobody seemed to notice that they sang wrong notes, or in a wrong place, or out of tune – as long as they made the right gestures and acted-out wild ‘musical intensity’, everybody was happy, including the composer, sitting with his enormous score on his lap, beaming with satisfaction.

    • “Wonderful performances of atonal music’ are not possible because ANY performance of atonal music is OK, since in that genre the distinction between a good and a bad performance does no longer apply. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ notes in modernism, so there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ performances of them. ”

      That’s an obvious logical fallacy. Of course there are qualitative criteria that apply to, how a composition is executed, regardless of its tonality or atonality.

      • That seems to be right on first sight. But a closer look and some experience in the field exposes something different. The entire notion of ‘quality criteria’ has no ground in sonic art (‘atonal music’) because that notion stems from a musical tradition, a culture that has developed over the ages, not in terms of orthodoxy but of practical experience. Quality criteria in music have developed, by a process of trial and error, and by comparison with works which have been able to communicate (time and again) a convincing musical experience holding an aesthetic framework that can be transferred to other types of music. Hence the understanding that singing a Mozart aria out of tune is ‘wrong’. In sonic art, anything can be part of the artistic intention and that cancels-out all quality criteria. If everything can be OK, then nothing can be OK. Where distinction is cancelled, anything goes.

        Performance quality criteria in sonic art cannot exist when deviations from the maker’s intentions can be considered valuable variations… etc. etc. Theatrical projections in sonic performances, i.e. acting wildly intense sonic gestures and the like, are mostly used to cover-up this defect, so that audiences get the impression that something really interesting is happening. But that ‘interesting’ is not related to any musical qualities because that is from another field.

        To put it differently: sonic art has no aesthetic framework and hence, no quality criteria in terms of performance. Aesthetic frameworks include ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’, in short: distinctions.

        If all this is thought to be untrue, please give proof of the opposite….

        • You are overcomplicating a relatively simple issue: a performance or recording can always be qualitatively assessed against the score, grades of tonality or atonality are not relevant.

          • No, because if the performed notes and / or sounds are ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ according to the score, that does not make any difference in terms of quality, that is where we were talking about. And that is what I mean with: in sonic art, the notion of correct or incorrect has no meaning. An incorrectly performed score of sonic art is not ‘worse’ or ‘better’ than a correctly performed score. All those parameters which have meaning in music, have become ‘conceptual’ in sonic art. And that makes discussion about quality of sonic art complex because the notion of it has withdrawn behind a smoke screen.

          • John, you are simply wrong here, which can easily be shown. Even if you want to deny the benchmark any score represents by claiming it being all aleatoric, even then there is always the second element, the performance convention of its time, that dictates a certain quality assessment regiment.
            Even a aleatoric progression can be judged by its technical execution, its emotional quality, its tonal color, timbre, etc. etc.

  • Goodness me, it is remarkable how one singer’s expression of a personal preference really brings out all the vituperation.

    Yes, atonal music requires you to go against certain facets of your training, but so does Beethoven (orchestras do not play the opening of the 5th Symphony with the cantabile of a Mozart Divertimento, but does that render the Beethoven unmusical). All music relies, to some extent on tension and dissonance for its effect, but the lexicon varies, in the same way as a person uttering an expletive aloud in polite company would be more scandalous than a person muttering it in private. I suppose John Bortslap just wants everybody to stick with what they already know and find comfortable and safe (the so-called ‘training’), and not be challenged in any way (because in his world-view, learning and development obviously stop as soon as you graduate from music college, right?). I suppose Bortslap would want a Violetta to consistently sing with absolute strength, elegance, and perfection, notwithstanding the dramaturgical point that she is dying of consumption.

    • All this is entirely wrong…. and a good example of falling into the ideological trap of postwar modernism. A cow is an animal, but not every animal is a cow. Of course musical traditions develop, extend their vocabulary, change intentions, types of expression etc. Critique on modernism does NOT automatically mean a denial of these things. It’s the usual clichée-thinking which makes shortcuts to avoid deeper questions.

      At the heart of modernism was the attempt to break with the very fundamentals of the art form, like painters doping away of using a canvas and locating the meaning of their work not into the art object but into the idea preceding it (concept art). You cannot do that to an art form, the tradition of which is a developing (!) ‘bedding’ of some basic principles which cannot be removed without damage to the art form itself. Modernism created an entirely new art form and was NOT a ‘further development’ of music as an art form, and when you read what the avantgarde explorers all had to say on the subject, you will see that indeed they wanted to begin from scratch. That is: with a blank page. That is: something unrelated to existing cultural traditions. So, atonal music (sonic art) was more new on a fundamental level than its makers intended. It was not music but a different art form. That is OK but please don’t make the contradiction of wanting to beging from scratch and then requesting all the accolades accorded to music (musical performers’ attention, programming space in musical concerts, state subsidies, etc.).

      All great explorers of music from Monteverdi onwards bended the conventions of their time, indeed. But they all still used the underlying dynamics of the art form which are tonal relationships. That goes for Beethoven (who wrote less chromatically than Mozart, by the way), Chopin, Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky (except his latest period), Scriabine, etc. etc. EVen Debussy who revolutionized music in a most drastic way, and created a totally new world of musical experience, used the very same dynamics as Bach, Mozart etc. proving that one can be very original without destroying the ‘bedding’ of the river.

      The accusation that critique upon sonic art means resistance to ‘the unknown’ is, by now, a totally outdated clichée now so much sonic art has become widely accepted, performed, and nowwhere meets any resistance from audiences. The ‘bourgeoisie’ that protested against Schönberg does no logner exist now that modernism as an idea has become conventional and is dominating the territory where people bother to think about contemporary music. This field is conservative through and through, and this comment by SVM clearly demonstrates the conservative mind set that reigns therein. It shows strong resistance against a new idea, namely that mdoernism could have been – for music at least – a disaster. The argument is self-defeating…. I rest my case.

  • WHERE IS CONSERVATISM LOCATED?

    This comment by SVM is a good example of falling into the ideological trap of postwar modernism. A cow is an animal, but not every animal is a cow. Of course musical traditions develop, extend their vocabulary, change intentions, types of expression etc. Critique on modernism does NOT automatically mean a denial of these things. It’s the usual clichée-thinking which makes shortcuts to avoid deeper questions.

    At the heart of modernism was the attempt to break with the very fundamentals of the art form itself, like painters doing away of using a canvas and locating the meaning of their work not into the art object but into the idea preceding it (concept art). That’s allright but it is no longer ‘painting’ and most concept art does no longer attempt to be ‘art’ at all. You cannot do such things to an art form, the tradition of which is a developing (!) ‘bedding’ of some basic principles which cannot be removed without damage to the art form itself.

    Modernism created an entirely new art form and was NOT a ‘further development’ of music, and when you read what the avantgarde explorers all had to say on the subject, you will see that indeed they wanted to begin from scratch. That is: with a blank page. That is: something unrelated to existing cultural traditions. So, atonal music (sonic art) was even more new on a fundamental level than its makers intended. It was not music but a different art form. That is OK but please don’t make the contradiction of wanting to begin from scratch and then requesting all the accolades accorded to music (musical performers’ attention, programming space in musical concerts, state subsidies, etc.).

    All great explorers of music from Monteverdi onwards bent the conventions of their time, indeed. But they all still used the underlying dynamics of the art form which are tonal relationships. That goes for Beethoven (who wrote less chromatically than Mozart, by the way), Chopin, Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky (except his latest period), Scriabine, etc. etc. Even Debussy who revolutionized music in a most drastic way, and created a totally new world of musical experience, used the very same dynamics as Bach, Mozart etc. proving that one can be very original without destroying the ‘bedding’ of the river.

    The accusation that critique upon sonic art means resistance to ‘the unknown’ is, by now, a totally outdated clichée, now so much sonic art has become widely accepted, performed, commissioned, and nowwhere meets any resistance from audiences. The ‘bourgeoisie’ that protested against Schönberg does no longer exist now that modernism as an idea has become conventional and is dominating the territory where people bother to think about contemporary music. This field is conservative through and through, and this comment by SVM clearly demonstrates the conservative mind set that reigns therein. It shows strong resistance against a new idea, namely that modernism could have been – for music at least – a disaster. The argument is self-defeating…. I rest my case.

  • are we *really* having this conversation still? oh poor baby, needs to find the prelapsarian unity with nature in Italian composers (who really knew how to write for the voice, HER self-centered voice) because we’re all so lost here in the 1st, atonal, corrupt, jet-setting, world. her rhetoric is disgusting on its face, and not newsworthy (not even new!), and that anyone listens to her, I just shake my head.

  • What fascinating little film Vince – thanks so much for that.

    I’m no fan of Menuhin’s on all sorts of levels – I’ve played under his baton and have heard many recordings as well as multitudinous tales of his spiteful and deeply racist behaviour. I was also particularly disappointed by his completely passive acceptance of the beginnings of the erosion of music education while obviously enjoying the trappings of being “Lord” Menuhin. Nevertheless, that discussion has genuinely impressed me.

  • Just wait Cecilia! When you’ll be pushing 70+ you’ll be “speaking” Pierrot Lunaire – just for the sake of some bucks! 😀

  • I agree and disagree with her. I hardly think atonality is to blame so much as the poor writing for the voice or particular instrument. We have the “advantage” of composing on the computer and playing it back, so we don’t need to play or sing it to see how it sounds, therefore composers never really know if it’s playable or singable. Another problem is that we don’t have the advantage of retrospect. There’s a lot of bad music being written now, as there always was, but bad music fades out with time and the good music continues to be played. That just hasn’t happened to new music yet, but I can’t wait till it does. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think atonality is great stuff, but it doesn’t have to be bad. Most people just don’t do it well.

  • i have always respected and admired her work but isnt’it a bit narrow-minded to speak about such a very personal (and as such, legitimate) pre-disposition in those general terms? nowadays??

  • Another well-meaning but destructive notion, contributing to the erosion of the art form:

    “Even a(n) aleatoric progression can be judged by its technical execution, its emotional quality, its tonal color, timbre, etc. etc.”

    It seems to me quite clear from the fundamentals of the art form of sonic, and in this case: aleatoric, art, that the technical execution of an aleatoric progression has no standard against which the technical (!) quality of the execution can be evaluated. ‘Emotional quality’ of aleatoric progressions is something different from musical quality, because with music, that kind of quality is not located in the physical / acoustical sounds but in the musical (!) meaning that is conveyed. A wild gesture while chewing on a clarinet or hysterical screaming or driving the percussion section to metal faqigue is not ’emotion’, or if it is, it is not a musical emotion, which is always stylized and embedded within a musical syntax. As for ‘timbre’, there are no standards for colour, only personal taste (this also holds for traditional, tonal music!). And given the average aleatoric progressive piece, tastes in that field seem to tend towards the shrill, disrupted, squeezed, scratched, and otherwise sound productions that avoid the normal use of the instrument because that refers too much to…. the past, tradition, etc. etc.

    • “It seems to me quite clear from the fundamentals of the art form of sonic, and in this case: aleatoric, art, that the technical execution of an aleatoric progression has no standard against which the technical (!) quality of the execution can be evaluated.”

      That’s obviously wrong. Of course you can judge the quality of an improvisation. An “aleatoric progression” is an improvisation basically as far as the lack of apodictical notation is concerned. There are many standards that are qualitatively assessed in such a situation, tonal quality, articulation, stylistic conventions, etc. etc. . The only element that is missing is the comparison against the apodictum of the notation.

      • Well, maybe you are right, but it seems very, very unlikely to me – those ‘standards’ being so vague and subjective that anything can pass for ‘OK’. It is these things that distinguish sonic art from music. How could aleatoric improvisation protect itself from sheer amateurism? Does the notion of ‘incompetence’ exist at all in that field? And if so, what would it mean? No, I find these arguments not very convincing…. And then, considering ‘improvisation’ in a non-tonal idiom: this seems in itself to be a cranky concept. The challenge seems to be mainly the avoidance of tonal references. What a poverty of information stimuli and invention that implies.

        • You are “barking at the wrong tree”. The discussion of the relevance and importance of the atonal/amusical branch to the general art form of all sonic art, including music, is a different one from the discussion of how well an artistic intention is executed, without judging the artistic intent itself. In other words you don’t need to be hungry and love Wiener Schnitzel in order to being able to judge how well it is prepared.

  • To those in this thread who claim or imply the following:

    1) that composers of today have collectively decided that tonality is The Way, The Truth, and The Light after all,

    2) that atonal music can’t possibly have any fluid melodic lines, and

    3) that “there are no wrong notes in modernism,”

    1) What’s actually accurate is that we have realized that tonality, atonality, and everything in between is a spectrum of musical expression that we were being stupid not to capitalize upon.

    2) I’d like you to listen to Il Prigioniero by Luigi Dallapiccola and tell me this again.

    3) Please enlighten us: if there are no wrong notes, which notes would you change in this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWotpIy0uTg

    Or this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6osJBtQRjoY

    Or this?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tv67YkOWJNA

    “Modernism” isn’t just a code word for “music I don’t like.” It’s an intellectual movement which hopes that open-minded people might find meaning in sounds with which they are unfamiliar. Although frankly those of us who subscribe to this philosophy aren’t terribly interested in reaching people who immediately shut down upon hearing anything that doesn’t fall entirely into lockstep with their preconceived notions about what music “should be,” so I’m not even sure why I’m writing this post.

    • All contributions to such dicsussions are worthwhile…. And all the composers / works mentioned in this comment, are TONAL composers, using the interrelatedness of tones as means of expression. Tonality is not: according to 19C harmonic theory, but a much wider concept. The word ‘modernism’ is used in many different contexts and often in a wrong way. That is why the notion of ‘sonic art’ is clearer: Xenakis, Boulez, Ferneyhough, Lachenmann (very unhumorous art).

  • From her point of view Ms. Bartoli
    is quite correct .She is looking for arias to show off her voice and what ever technique is left to her after all these years.She has always been a somewhat entertaining one trick pony .
    She could take a note from the great artist
    Ewa Podles, Mahler, Prokofiev etc .
    But please no music by Borstlap,it
    would I believe empty the house faster than one could say ” atonal music!”

    • …. yes, as with Schönberg’s early concerts in Vienna. And the next day I would be weeping on my way to the bank.

    • No, for commissions the composer is paid before the première… The money I bring to the bank is the extra bonus I get after the concert for leaving the building as soon as possible. Yes… that is terribly tragic… but Suffering is the fuel for the next Masterpiece… so, in the end, everybody is happy.

  • The life of a singer is hard. A great artist, musician, and scholar like Maestra Bartoli is subject to dismissal by the ignorant in a way that instrumentalists and composers never are–because most people in our time have NO idea what great singing really is. Remarks like those above about her “self-centered” voice, her being “entitled,” and cracks about age-related loss of technique betray profound arrogance and ignorance not only of her life and work, but also of the art of singing as it applies to Western art music. It is doubtful to me that anyone who can casually make those sorts of remarks is capable of making any sort of useful qualitative judgment about singers, or maybe any musician, at all– so how can one expect them to follow Borstler’s well-reasoned argument above?

    That said, there are great vocal artists working now who gleefully and brilliantly specialize in the works here referred to as “sonic art,” whose daily bread is bought by extremely fine musicianship and astoundingly cultivated and flexible technique, as well as the theatrical skills which have served great musicians who must deliver text as well as music for centuries. There is no question that the qualitative and scholarly standard among these singers (a few that come to mind are Tony Arnold, Joan LaBarbara, pioneers like Cathy Berberian and Neva Pilgrim, and stunningly skilled newcomers like the midwesterners Amanda Deboer Bartlett and Liz Pearse) is extremely rigorous. Any suggestion that they would hide behind aleatoric practice to conceal unintended deviations from the score would be met with extreme derision and possibly a smack in the mouth, from both the singers and their close instrumentalist, conductor, and composer collaborators. So a standard is in fact in place for the “sonic art” repertoire as it becomes “standard” repertoire in the places where these singers work, teach, and create.

    All of them also skillfully perform/performed traditional music. It is their mission, stated or not, to bring the skilled singer’s clarity of communication to these newer sonic art works whose demands in that area are extremely varied and frequently obtuse. Very often their job is to assist/educate composers with little experience working with or even listening to singers .

    These artists have been setting a high standard in art music for the better part of a century. The fact that a high percentage of them are women is interesting from many perspectives, and a topic for another day.

    • The artistry of performers like Cathy Berberian is not contested, but the claim that it has something to do with music as an art form. It is something altogether different. The artistry of Berberian lies in her theatricals, stage presence, the creation of an imagined stage character, creating an atmosphere etc. etc…… Still, the distinction between right of wrong notes was irrelevant because that is fundamental to music. It is exactly the aleatoric element that gave such performers a chance to live-out their theatrical talents. But it seems merely common sense to distinguish it from music, to protect it from being judged with a wrong value framework.

  • “How could aleatoric improvisation protect itself from sheer amateurism?” Are you implying that Luroslawski wrote for amateurs?

    • Of course with ‘amateurism’ was meant the compositional incompetence aleatoric ‘music’ automatically invites: the ‘composer’ does not have anything to do, and players are not educated to compose but to perform, and in performance (of music) there is already enough space for personal interprettation. The idea of aleatoric ‘music’ was invented by people who were quite ignorant of performance practice and thought, that players who performed written notes are restricted in their expressive or interpretative capacities. Which, as any professional musician knows, is not the case.

      Lutoslawski (not his uncle Luroslawski) incorporated aleatoric passages within the structure of his music, so it is contained and carefully designed a place, and within this strict framework musicians can, for a moment, feel ‘liberated’ from the authority of the text of their part. But these episodes do not belong to the ‘best’ parts of the music and are, at least to this listener, quite uninteresting. The point is: what does the music ‘say’? Given the overall rather desperate and nihilistic atmosphere of L’s later music, these aleatoric episodes are aesthetically functional since they contribute to the overall effect. But that does not mean that such passages are, in general, a fruitful contribution to composition, they are – at best – decorative elements that can be added to a work.

  • Good thing Wozzeck and Lulu aren’t in the repertoire. Too atonal and too many barriers between singer and composer.

  • Are any of you long-worded folks singers? As in, actual working singers? What Cecilia said is true for 99% of us. She does use a blanket statement (atonal = contemporary), but for a large chunk of the working (and non-working, for that matter), if handed two contracts; 1 for Boheme and 1 for Nixon in China…we’re grabbing Boheme. It’s so much easier on the voice, longevity is generally not called into question.

    “Well then how are there contemporary productions/pieces with quality singers in them?” Well, they’re called paychecks. This is a job. My only job. Ms. Bartoli is just in a position where she gets to be picky. Not all of us are so lucky.

    This holiday season, would I rather sing my 200th-ish Messiah rather than the contemporary settings of relatively unheard of “holiday chants?” Of course. But, I would also like to buy my nieces and nephews presents; so the music I am only vocally enduring for the money, wins. My management doesn’t like it either, but we all have to eat.

    Argue all you want, disagree as you will, but that’s the truth. It’s not as philosophical of a debate as you all want it to be.

    • Actualsinger, with all due respect, that’s an irrelevant argument. Since when have we decided upon the value of good vs not so good music, based on how hard it is to execute or how easy it is on an interpeter’s instrument of choice?
      Of course – if you have the choice – you take the job that requires less work for the same money. That’s just human. But it’s a fallacy to think that the hardship some music imposes not he interpreter would be in sync with its inferior musical value, as you seem to imply.
      We have easier stuff that is crap, and we have music that is easy on the voice and of superior quality – and vice versa.

      • That’s not the point. Extra effort that may be required from performers, will be invested with pleasure if there is, a priori, the trust and confidence that the investment is worth the effort. So much contemporary music has created an image of composers, treatng ‘the performer’ with contempt. In a normal musical culture, composer, performer and audience form a cultural context together, all three parties are part of the whole, and everything that happens is based upon trust. Where new music challenges the performer, and after that, the audience, there should be enough material in the music that is capable of maintaining a basic trust, and the ‘benefit of the doubt’ in cases of alienating complexity. There is always a margin of misunderstanding and uneasiness towards the new. But that does not mean that uneasiness is a garantee for a work of ‘groundbreaking genius’.

  • As is usual many wander far afield of the original topic. Ms . Bartoli to appear the musician makes a comment
    concerning atonal music and the singer
    and she is correct -there is no place
    in contemporary music
    for what one might call demented chirping which it seems to be her
    calling .That she is a most limited
    artist of sorts is her problem not the
    lack of works she could at tempt to sing .The mezzo and soprano
    repertoire would give her two lifetimes of work. As noted before Ewa Podles
    who could match and probably surpassed Ms. Bartoli in the baroque
    chirping has moved on as a great artist ,Ms. Bartoli is stuck in the past
    blames atonal music .

  • Frankly, I am somewhat surprised that Cecilia Bartoli whom I consider one of the most outstanding classical music performers of the last two decades made such an extreme blanket pronouncement of condemnation of all atonal music as if it is some kind of universal truth: if reported accurately, her opinion is highly subjective and virtually indefensible.

    • Just for the record: she was not condemning atonal music but simply stating a fact based upon her own experience as a performer, so what? But the remark said something about atonal music which has become taboo nowadays: we should always support the new, should refrain from giving-in to our conservative instincts because they could only be wrong, give youth and the future of music a chance, open yourself up to the new, etc. etc…. which forces many people who experience something different to a politically-correct self-censorship. People who feel really dedicated to music as an art from, should – after half a century of nonsensical brainwashing and the hardening of a museum culture – dare to speak out. That’s why the comment by ‘an actual singer’ is hitting the nail on its head.

      PS: If one is opening him/herself wholeheartedly to the new, one is not allowed to come-up with some critique: no! because that would reveal you as a slave to the Past, to Tradition, to Suppressing Elitist Thinking, etc. ‘Thou shalt be free as thou art told!’

      • Most of what you are saying is a reasonable opinion of one person, but you are misrepresenting what she said: “Today, it’s no longer like that: atonal music cre­ates a bar­rier between com­poser and singer…”. She did not say “in my opinion” and she did not say “between composer and me”; therefore she presented her fully legitimate but highly subjective opinion as a universal truth – which it is not. Yes, some singers sometimes perform modern music because it is a job and they are not in position to choose. But there are others, and I know some of them personally, who would actually choose modern pieces over old music every time they have a choice because they feel that a barrier between themselves and old music is much more impenetrable than the one CB is talking about here. As I said before, I am unpleasantly surprised that an artist of her caliber who is additionally a person of undeniable charisma would just ignore and dismiss all those colleagues of hers as if they do not exist.

        • Yes, on closer inspection I see CB phrased it as some universal truth. Probably she did not think her phrasing through thoroughly before answering the question…. which is, by the way, excusable in an interview, she did not seem to chisel the new Ten Commandments for New Music’. Yet, I still believe she is as probably just right for a lot of cases (concerning new music). And that is not so hard to demonstrate, it is more than ‘a personal opinion’.

          What I find interesting is the sentence; ‘But there are others, and I know some of them personally, who would actually choose modern pieces over old music every time they have a choice because they feel that a barrier between themselves and old music is much more impenetrable than the one CB is talking about here.’ Does this not betray a disconnection from our musical tradition? And is such disconnection not the result of a lack of either sufficient education or simply musical talent? Because, musicality as a talent is the very ‘instrument’ that makes understanding of ANY musical tradition possible. For much new music, very different talents are required, and they are not musical in the sense as the word had meaning in the western musical, and cultural, tradition. If performers are especially talented for sonic art, for instance, one should invent a new word for these talents, to do justice to the accomplishments, unhindered by painful comparisons.

          The number of people who consider themselves music lovers and still have no idea of what a cultural tradition in reality is, is surprising. It’s not some stuffy furniture you want to get rid of, but a dynamic principle. The last century has done a lot of damage to the notion.

          • It is my hope that “she did not think her phrasing through thoroughly before answering the question” and I am certainly willing to forgive her for not being more careful in an interview.
            My answer to your first question is – no, it does not – which makes the second question irrelevant. What it “betrays” is simply an individual artist preference. Labels are arbitrary – music is a sonic art – and trusting them fully leads to absurd conclusions.

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