Pure Research Report:

Exploring the Land Between Speaking and Singing
by Guillaume Bernardi

This report is structured four parts. I will start by quoting the goals I set for myself and the participants, as stated in the original proposal. I will then described how those ideas were implemented. A few paragraphs will be dedicated to what we achieved and what I learned from this process. Finally, I have created a short anthology of quotes from the comments of the other participants. I chose excerpts which seemed to comment on some of the points I made. Hopefully this will give a more direct sense of the rich and exciting week we spent working together.

Part I
The goals of this project, as stated in the proposal (quoted here in a slightly edited version) were the following:

"The territory I would like to explore in my Pure Research workshop is the transition between speaking and singing in theatre and music theatre and how a director can modulate, and use that passage. The questions I would like to deal with are at the same time very pragmatic and quite abstract. My initial impulse for applying to Pure Research came from the strong desire (a need, actually) to tackle a concrete, two-faced stumbling block that I encounter regularly in my work. When I am working with actors, they struggle when I request from them to deliver their text in a more "musical" way; when I work with singers in my opera projects, they feel challenged when I ask them to deliver the recitative with more sensitivity to words, or also less cantando and more parlando. Those very concrete rehearsal challenges often stem from gaps in the training of actors and singers (or from the vagueness of the director…), but beyond that, I think those challenges reflect a bigger, more crucial issue: what is the territory that lies between speaking and singing? What are the complex emotional and communication issues that accompany the transition from speaking to singing and back? What are the dramatic motivation and meanings to go from one to the other? In rehearsal, there is never time to really deal with the issue, but in the space opened by Pure Research I would like to chart that territory, with both pragmatic and theoretical goals. My first set of goals is to give the participating performers a better grasp on those challenges, and for myself to learn how to better guide and direct the performers through those challenges. The second set of goals is to gain a clearer understanding of that territory, and then to expand it through experimentation and to see how that transitional zone could be used to dramatic ends.

"My approach to the workshop rests on the assumption that the performers, in touch with their bodies, know best. I plan to alternate moments of work with three singers, sensitive to language and two actors with a musical sensibility, and see how each of them deal with those issues. I am interested in seeing how they share their knowledge and how their mutual skills could help them resolve those issues. It is essential for me that one of the singers will be familiar with non-European vocal traditions, as I want to expand the notion of ‘singing’.

"The workshop would be structured in two halves. I would spend half of the 24 workshop hours on "classical" material and the other half on experimenting with a variety of materials."

The composition of the team was a crucial component of the workshop. I was convinced that sharing expertise was going to be the essential element of the workshop and, in my opinion it indeed turned out to be that way. A description of the members of the team should start with the co-leader of the workshop, composer James Rolfe with whom I had many lengthy preparatory conversations, in the months before the workshop. Our discussions were often about opera as a genre, from the points of view of the composer and of the director. Classically trained singers Brian McMillan & Vilma Vitols, apart from their skills, brought their knowledge of the classic western repertoire. Composer-performer Suba Sankaran brought her deep knowledge of Indian music. Her participation was invaluable as it opened totally new perspectives on the issues. The spoken text was represented by actor Yashoda Ranganathan, with whom I have worked many times and performer-writer Anna Chatterton, whose texts focus on the rhythmic and melodic expressive qualities of language.

Part II
The workshop was split between three activities. In order of importance I would state first the listening to a wide variety of related material. James Rolfe put together a CD of excerpts which among many others, included performers of Japanese Nô Theatre, Southern preachers, hip-hop stars. I brought some CDs of the vocal music of Meredith Monk, French classical tragedy, and contemporary Italian opera composer Salvatore Sciarrino. These excerpts were the starting point of detailed discussions on the relationship between singing and speaking. In some ways we really had a mini-conference on the topic. Getting the mental space and opportunity to exchange ideas on those issues so important to each of us was deeply valuable. The third and most important activity consisted in a series of improvisations, based on a wide variety of materials.

The material could be divided in classical and contemporary, but that is where the crossover of discipline was particularly valuable.

Excerpts of:
King Lear and The Winter’s Tale by W. Shakespeare
Belshazzar, an oratorio by Handel on a libretto by Jenssens

Excerpts from:
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
hey rea hey rea & Banished West by Anna Chatterton
I am Yours by Judith Thompson
Eunoia by Christian Bök
"Burn Hollywood Burn" by Public Enemy
"Humble Mumble" by Outkast

To explore this material we used a wide variety of approaches, from different disciplines and traditions, reflecting the interests and training of the group.
Among those, I should quote:
- classical diction of poetry (emphasis on the meter; reconciliation of meter and meaning)
- choral composition of the voices (voices in counter-point; contrasts between speaking, whispering, and singing voices
- structured post-modern improvisations: systematic use of one device; for example, variation of the melody line imposed on the text
- use of beat, use of drone.

Part III:
The workshop was a very rich and important learning experience for me. I will try to summarize what I have learned in three different sections, starting from practical and specific techniques about bridging the gap between speaking and singing, then going to more general notions about the tension between singing and speaking. I will conclude this section of the report on some more personal notes.

From a practical point of view, I first gained a deeper understanding of the obstacles that confront the performers. The long, animated discussions we had on those issues gave me greater insight on how to guide better the performers through this territory. If I had to roughly summarize the issues, I would say that the performers have to confront various inner blockings. For the text-based performers (the actor) it is about letting go the notion of "meaning" and gaining confidence that meaning can indeed be conveyed through musical means. For the musicians, it is more about letting go of some kind of formal perfectionism, and in the case of the classically trained singers an excessive reverence for taught values. As Vilma put it, it is about "allowing one self to be bad".

As a director, I found the dialogue between actors and musicians fascinating, and deeply illuminating. Having understood some of the psychological challenges of the performers, the next step was to figure out practical tools to bridge the gap sung/spoken. During the workshop we experimented widely, looking more to cover scope than to go in-depth. For me, that was useful in that it gave me a full range of ideas, which I can now explore more methodically.

Again to summarize briefly our findings, I would say that when dealing with singers, it is about giving tools to explore the expressive qualities of text, by taking into account the innate musical quality of language (rhythms, musical colours…) Starting from poetic texts proved to be a good strategy. With the actors, I found the use of simple underlying rhythmic patterns (hand clapping etc) and drones very useful. I discovered afterwards that a director like Ariane Mnouchkine systematically uses a drummer in her (text-based) rehearsals. All this information was very useful to me, and in my own teaching of acting, I will keep exploring this material.

At a more general level, the workshop helped me to see more clearly that the border spoken/sung sits across many territories. This border has to be examined from different perspectives. It is a performer’s issue: how does the performer go from one place to the other? It is a writer’s issue: how do you integrate sung forms in a play? What kind of play, what kind of narrative can integrate this passage? It’s a composer’s issue: how do you write theatre for the voice? It’s a director’s issue: how do you go from one mode to the other. Even more so, if you are a writing-director, one who generates his/her own material. Finally, it is an audience issue. The transition is always perceived as a transgression. The issue is what models have the audience in mind? What models of spoken/sung dramas are available to the various communities? In other words, the borderline between singing and speaking is cultural. The meaning of spoken/sung varies from culture to culture. In a city like Toronto it is important to be aware of this fact, and also to be aware that there is a great richness of spoken/sung forms in the various communities that live in this city that might be powerful sources of inspirations.

I would like to conclude this section on some more personal comments. When I wrote the proposal, I was imagining a very structured, methodical workshop, aimed at solving a very specific problem. It turned out to be quite different experience, quite chaotic, quite disruptive in a very positive way. As a director, especially as an opera director, one learns that it is essential to be very focused, very efficient, very clear in one’s directions. In this workshop, I felt, to use again Vilma’s words, that I was allowed to be bad. In other terms, I was allowed to take the back seat, to let the performers take charge, to bring up problems and not to have an answer. As I mentioned in the first section, the issue spoken/sung had been causing me trouble for a while, but so had other "conflicts": classical/modern; western/non-western (for lack of a better word). Being able to bring up those issues and explore them freely with a group of trusted collaborators was a very rich and rewarding experience.

I am deeply grateful to the participants for their enthusiasm, trust and generosity and to Brian Quirt, first for opening with Pure Research such a precious space for experimentation, and second for his support during the workshop, offering just the right mix of freedom and guidance.

Part IV:
A Collection of Comments

Brian McMillan:
In the first couple of days we developed a repertoire of "treatments" for the texts. These reflected the participants’ respective strengths or interests: Yashoda provided text analysis; James, Anna, and Suba dealt with rhythm; Vilma and I focused on melody; Guillaume listened, participated, and drew our disparate ideas together. We then applied these to a number of texts. Some approaches worked well, others did not; some worked all the time, others didn’t. But which approaches worked with which texts was certainly not obvious. The rapped Shakespeare and Handel were my favourite sessions – I think in part because (1) these were musical styles completely foreign to me and thus incredibly ear-opening and (2) the apparent incongruity of the "treatment" and the text. I’ve always liked the clash of two different things that reveal something new about each component part. In this case, adding hiphop rhythm to classical texts helped to make audible the rhythmic vitality of these texts, and made their messages seem incredibly contemporary/relevant.

Anna Chatterton:
Having a composer score a contemporary text like I am Yours by Judith Thompson—who is a playwright who really plays with rhythm and high stakes emotions—for her text, it seemed incredibly natural to really exploit the emotion by putting a roller coaster of vocal sound on it (like in an opera but not singing, playing with range and sound within ‘speaking’) it elevated the text and exaggerated and heightened the circumstances, which at essence is opera. It took away my actor fear of being melodramatic, and allowed me to just go for it, throwing away being careful and diving wholeheartedly into the exercise of exploring vocal range and finding how that could match the emotional stakes of the scene. If there was more time, I would have then picked and chosen places where the extreme of vocal range fit the scene. Gave me an approach to an otherwise daunting emotional scene.

James Rolfe:
The diversity of the participants’ backgrounds was very helpful. Everybody brought a different set of skills and experiences with them, and it was possible to learn from each other. The unspoken assumptions of the people coming from "theatre" and from "music" were exposed through this contrast. It was refreshing to step outside of my specialty.

Suba Sankaran:
Combining spoken, sung and whispered text forces the listener/audience to become active. Also, the text in these different contexts creates a mood, story, different emotional content, and different characters.
In An Equal Music, the combination of deliveries of the text with the physical placement of the characters created the following atmosphere for me: sung text was the musical backdrop, like a lingering cello line, one of solitude, referring to the spoken text character. The spoken text seemed to be like an audible journal entry, of self-reflection and longing for companionship. The whispered text seemed like a haunting refrain, a ghostly voice, the audible memory, again, all from the point of view of the spoken text character.

Vilma Vitols:
On the King Lear excerpt:
Played with pitch: spoke each line from high to low with pause at end of each line.
Certainly sounded completely artificial and I remember it being very hard to do (a clear case of permission to be bad = "ptbb"), but interestingly also underscored the sense of trying to control madness & therefore surprisingly more effective, i.e. less bad than anticipated.
We also played with extreme ranges of spoken pitch. The extreme spoken pitch made the transition from spoken to sung easier (easier than in Vikram Seth excerpt).
I remember enjoying the freedom of this experiment and enjoying the singing bits, very liberating, un-self-conscious – an opportunity to really savour the words (chew the scenery?)
I loved listening to Brian do it – he sounded like a mad actor doing Lear, even a bit comical, going against Shakespeare’s intention perhaps, but the madness came through loud and clear.

Yashoda Ranganathan:
Looking at other performing artists’ process helps us to think outside of our respective boxes and in this way I found this workshop particularly useful. For example: it would never occur to me as an actor that imposing a particular rhythm or pitch direction to a text could be helpful or revealing, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t.
There were many times during the workshop when I felt almost alarmed at the suggestions coming particularly from the composer contingent about what particular rhythmic or pitch pattern we should follow.
As an actor I am always concerned on some level that the meaning of the text be preserved, but I think we discovered that other meanings arose from this kind of exploration – and with drastic changes as in setting a classical text to a rap tempo the text was often still very meaningful and interesting – but in addition there was another sort of non-literal layer of meaning that was most interesting.

• • •

This research was conducted at The Theatre Centre, Toronto, Canada, from May 13 – 18, 2004. Performers included: Vilma Vitols, Suba Sankaran, Brian McMillan, James Rolfe, Yashoda Ranganathan and Anna Chatterton.

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