Vocalise was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic as part of an evening entitled "Messages for the Millennium," presented in 1999 by Music Director Kurt Masur. Maestro Masur chose five composers from five countries and asked them what their message to the Philharmonic audience was on the eve of the new millennium.
This was an interesting question to ask concert composers since we have been writing for an ensemble that grew in size and variety from the Baroque period to the beginnings of the 20th century, but then froze around 1900. The size of the modern symphony is exactly the same as it was at the beginning of the 20th century, and here we are entering the 21st.
For me, the answer to Mr. Masur's question was clear. It was time for the acoustic world of classical music to come to terms with the worlds of amplification and electronic manipulation that surrounded it in the popular and film world.
The mention of amplification frightens many concertgoers, who imagine shrieks and howls tearing them from their seats. I wanted to write a piece using electronics that was beautiful to hear. Marshall McLuhan's famous saying is that "the medium is the message." I wanted to change that concept, and show that "the medium is the messenger." The composer sends his message – be it Bach or Boulez through the performers to the audience. And if amplification and electronics is part of the language of the rest of the musical world, why shouldn't it be a part of concert music too?
The shape of Vocalise was determined by my desire to write a piece that gradually led the audience from the natural lyrical sound of the human voice, through the acoustic natural sound of voice and orchestra. At a point where the growing intensity of the music and the low lyric voice would provide problems of projection, the singer moves to a microphone and is amplified through the hall (speakers are placed around the hall.) The piece can then grow even more in intensity, and at a peak, the singer sings a passage that is "caught" by the electronics and repeated again and again (a "loop"). Solo instruments in the orchestra add to this looping effect by playing into microphones next to them, and the peak of the work combines a full orchestral palette with both the treated and amplified voice and treated solo instruments, which then careen downwards followed by echos from the electronics.
The piece becomes quieter and quieter, and ends up with the soprano humming the same melody she hummed acoustically on the stage at the opening of the work, but this time into a microphone which transforms the humming into an overlapping series of echoes that gently surround the audience.
The equipment I used for the premier in New York consisted of the following (programs and parameters for these are available):
- Lexicon PCM-80 (or 81)
- Eventide H4500 (or H4000)
- Korg Kaoss Pad
- 4 dbx 160 compressors
- Yamaha O2R digital mixing console with an analog 8 bus card
- array of amps and speakers for front/left/right/rear surrond
(A diamond shaped 4 channel system serves the piece, which calls for the electronic sound to start in the front and progress towards the rear of the hall better than a more conventional L/R - L/R surround setup.)
No standard reverb was necessary due to the natural acoustics of the hall. Although I had programmed specific effects for each moment marked in the score, in reality I used only a handful for the following reasons:
- There is no time to load programs without interrupting lingering effects. The choreography of performing the electronics becomes quite complex.
- due to the schedule of the orchestra and the hall there are usually less than two hours of rehearsal time dedicated to this piece, most of which will be used to familiarize the soloists and other musicians with the piece. And the equipment may have to be struck between rehearsals or performances without time allowed for a sound check.
- In each performance the electronic passages resulted in vastly different effects mostly because of differences in timing, volume and intensity, microphone technique, etc. by the performers. The volitile nature of these circumstances both enhances the live aspect of the part and is cause for constant worries about distortion and other undesirable, yet unavoidable, ingredients in the sound effects.
What will make the electronics part successful, other than programming and engineering skills, are basic musicianship and the ability to follow the score, the singer, and the conductor.
Notes to specific programs:
- "Looped Reverb" on voice, and later on winds, consisted of a multi-voice stereo delay on the PCM-80 (375ms to 1.2 sec) sent to a longer delay (1.8sec) on the H4500 with varying amounts of feedback (up to 100%) to achieve the necessary duration.
- "Doppler" on voice was drawn on the Kaoss Pad, Pgm. #21
- "Harmonic Filter" on bass clarinet came from a 9-step resonant program on the H4500, using the 4 soft keys to change the fundamental pitch and spinning the Data Wheel right and left through all nine steps. In case an H4500 in sot available this effect can also be achieved by drawing from X/Y-0 to X-0/Y-10 and back on the Kaoss Pad, Pgm. #7.
- "Surround Sound" consisted of a complex eko/reverb program on the PCM-80 sent to a long delay (5sec) on the H4500.
- Internal Autopanners on the 02R were used in later sections to further pan effects between left/right and front/rear.
Notes on channel/speaker setup:
- Logistics and finances have to be carefully considered in designing the surround sound. In addition to the cost of equipment rental there is the cost of man hours involved in installing and striking the console/mixing station, amps and speakers, and the necessary time in the hall to dry-check and trouble-shoot the system.
- For the NY premiere at Avery Fisher Hall I chose to hide speakers behind seats, pointing up and reflecting off tiers, which could remain through the days of rehearsals and performances, even if the rest had to be struck in between.
- A basic 4-channel bus system is sufficient. In NY, because of the size of the hall and the enormous height of the house speakers, I chose to also bus certain effects or panners to busses 5-8, which fed four additional speakers, two on stage left and right and two in house rear left and right, which covered the orchestra seats.