“Sing the square!”
These were my first instructions in early July as I came to terms with what I had just agreed to do: prepare Stockhausen’s Stimmung for three performances in spring 2017. “What’s the square?” you may ask? So did I.
The vowel square (below) is composed of a sequence of vowels, which when sung on a single pitch, should – if you’re lucky! - highlight a particular dominant overtone (a second pitch heard above the pitch you’re trying desperately to sustain). Singing one note and changing the vowels continuously will highlight different overtones, which Stockhausen has graciously indicated with numerical values above and below the various vowel symbols. (Got all that? For more on this topic and the work itself, check out this neat-o write-up: http://www.oberton.org/wp-content/uploads/stimmung-and-vowel-overtone-singing-2lr_sp_EN.pdf )
Sure. “Stretch yourself - get out of your comfort zone - it will be good for you!” I told myself.
Even with these affirmations flowing through my head I still held a healthy fear of Stockhausen’s work, and more specifically, of overtone singing. Beyond this, I was convinced that I couldn’t do it – at least, not without making a total fool of myself and swallowing my own tongue. And yet I had agreed to prepare and perform a work – 75 minutes long – based almost entirely on the production of overtones.
Even before the scores had arrived, Michael encouraged our six-voice ensemble to begin our preparation by working through the vocal square, which would effectively lead us to learn the art of overtone singing. I can safely say that throughout nearly two decades of musical training and experience, these rehearsal instructions were quite new. For several weeks I practiced at home, working through various vowel shapes on a single pitch (diction books in hand to help in translating the symbols of the square!), and facing various glares and stares from my poor cat, who being trapped in our little apartment, had few escape options.
My biggest challenge initially was determining the very subtle adjustments needed to navigate around the square. After my quick review of the International Phonetic Alphabet, I discovered that I did not know the difference between “horseshoe” and “upside-down heart,” nor was I able to produce even a subtle shift between the two. I knew I would need help, and eagerly awaited the first rehearsal with the entire crew. Even on my own though, I began to see improvement in my experiments and there was great rejoicing on the day that I managed to produce an interval of a 5th above my sustained B-flat - or I suppose more accurately, a 12th – hurrah for small victories!
Once the scores arrived, it was confirmed that I needed my team; with multiple pages of instruction, erotic poetry in German, and 51 “models” - patterns of vowels, repeated sometimes more than 20 times - to sort through, I feared I was entirely over my head. Those who know me will laugh when I say that my traditional “Type-A method” of score preparation was not going to work this time!
And so the ensemble met for the first time on September 18 – perhaps all feeling something less than prepared. Our four-hour walk-through of the score included both laughter (thanks to models making us sound like versions of the cartoon Swedish chef) and revelations. As I suspected, our time together alleviated most fears and answered many questions. More than this, I truly believe we left feeling jazzed about the project.
Even after only one rehearsal, it is clear that this is going to be fascinating process. I suspect it will give new meaning to the term “team work” with respect to choral singing. How this work plays out is entirely dependent on our interaction – the passing of vowel sounds back and forth; imitating, deviating, and transforming each other’s sounds – and the soundscape will take on a life of its own on any given day. It’s certainly not a project that I could have anticipated, but I’m thrilled to be jumping in.
“Get out of your comfort zone.” Check.
by Sara Brooks, soprano