Blurring the lines between speaking and singing

The spoken word overlaid with music – or should it be the other way around – actually has quite a long history

The human voice is everywhere in the world of music. Whole traditions and genres depend on it. Without it there would be no love songs, no choirs, no operas, no hymns, no national anthems.

Everything on that list, of course, involves singing. On the other hand, the combination of spoken word and music is an altogether more rare undertaking outside of theatre, film and, especially, television. In all of those areas the composer is very much treated as a servant, an important servant, but a servant nonetheless, working to demands of supply dictated by others.

At one end you could draw a parallel with paint and wallpaper ordered to fill particular spaces, at the other you could think of the way colour and lighting can be utilised in to bring an otherwise dead space to life.

Just as people like to have their houses decorated, most also like to have music with their films. The late, great French director Éric Rohmer was a notable exception. He liked to leave the human voice to itself, unless the script called for a radio to be on or an instrument to be played.

But the spoken word overlaid with music – or should it be the other way around – actually has quite a long history. There are operas that alternate spoken word and music, and others, including works by Mozart, Beethoven and Weber, that intertwine them. The original versions of Bizet's Carmen and Gounod's Faust were also conceived in that way. There are even composers – Johann Ernst Eberlin and Georg Benda – who are remembered especially for their work in melodrama, as the combination of speech and music is known.

The 20th-century is dotted with interesting developments. Early on there was Arnold Schoenberg's blurring of the lines between speaking and singing in his Pierrot Lunaire of 1912. Another Austrian composer, Ernst Toch, is celebrated for his 1930 Geographical Fugue, part of a suite he wrote of "spoken music". The text begins "Trinidad!/And the big Mississippi/and the town Honolulu/and the lake Titicaca," and Toch used rhythmic chanting of the words to construct the kind of contrapuntal edifice that you expect of a fugue.

In Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge of 1956, often dubbed the first masterpiece of electronic music, recordings of the voice of a single 12-year-old boy are manipulated and multi-tracked into a soundscape of electronic sounds, blurring the lines between speech and song as well as between the individual and the collective – the voice is often treated so that it sounds like a choir. The boy, Josef Protschka, went on to have a distinguished performing and recording career as a tenor.

When it comes to speech and electronic music I have a soft-spot for a short French piece from 1960, U 47, by Jean Baronnet and François Dufrène. This creates an almost inside the mouth experience out of the title as spoken in French. The work obviously created a good impression on the great Hungarian composer György Ligeti, too. There's a clip on YouTube of him doing an imitation of the piece from memory.

Thirty years after Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge, Steve Reich's Different Trains blended together multiple string quartets (one live, three on tape), and fragments of sampled sound and speech, in a piece that explores the trains that he travelled as a child in the US and might, as a Jew, have had to travel in Europe in those same years.

Part of the musical fascination of the piece comes from the way he derives instrumental musical material from the rhythm and pitch patterns of the spoken words, as well as conjuring up train effects from the strings.

Irish composer Roger Doyle's The Idea and its Shadow of 2000 uses similar techniques to very different ends, with the hypnotically lilting, questioning inflections of the voice of fellow composer Kevin O'Connell shadowed by electronic musical material derived from it. Doyle's work has even inspired a painting by the Amsterdam-based South African artist Ina van Zyl.

We are now as far removed in time from Reich's Different Trains as it was removed from Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge. And Sunday brought a new Irish addition to the list of works embracing the spoken word.

Cork composer Sam Perkin's new WORD FOR WORD, for electronics and solo drum, was heard in a Crash Ensemble concert at the Hugh Lane Gallery on Sunday. Percussionist Brian Dungan's contribution chimed in with the polyglot words almost in the manner of a CGI animation that conjures up an impossible physical blending of things that shouldn't be able to go together. The overall soundworld of the piece, however, was that of birdsong.

Sunday afternoon brought the first of three recitals in the Dublin Song Series. Mezzo-soprano Gemma Ní Bhriain, in partnership with Brazilian pianist Hélio Vida, offered song cycles by Mahler (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) and Elgar (Sea Pictures), interspersed with songs by Schubert, Bizet and Viardot.

Unusually for a young Irish singer, Ní Bhriain did little in the way of setting out to make an impression. Her approach was restrained and musicianly, her tone well maintained through her range. She gave the impression of being solid as a rock. And her good taste extended to her single encore, Britten's arrangement of The Salley Gardens, where Vida kept up the high standards he set throughout the concert. Let's hope we get to hear more of this young singer soon.

mdervan@irishtimes.com