Vol. 38 Issue 4 Reviews
Nicolas Isherwood: The Techniques of Singing

Softcover, 2013, ISBN 978-3-7618-1861-9, 212 pages, US$ 73, illustrated, appendix, includes compact disc, available from Bärenreiter-Verlag, Heinrich-Schütz-Allee 35-37, 34131 Kassel, Germany, telephone (+49) 561 3105-0, http://www.baerenreiter.com/

Reviewed by Curtis Roads
Santa Barbara, California, USA

Isherwood book coverThis is a rare book by an exceptional talent. Nicholas Isherwood is an American-born bass-baritone singer, currently based in Rome. Isherwood has worked with conductors Joel Cohen, William Christie, Peter Eötvös, Kent Nagano, and Zubin Mehta as well as composers Sylvano Bussotti, Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Hans Werner Henze, Mauricio Kagel, György Kurtág, Olivier Messiaen, Giacinto Scelsi, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Iannis Xenakis in venues such as La Scala, Covent Garden, the Théatre des Champs Elysées, Salzburg Festival, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Berlin Staatsoper, Vienna Konzerthaus, and Tanglewood. His relationship with Stockhausen is especially notable. Isherwood calls Stockhausen his “musical father.” This is attested to by his many premieres of Stockhausen’s works, particularly LICHT. More information on Isherwood’s broad musical career can be found at his web site: www.nicholasisherwood.com.

This book is relevant to readers of this journal because the human voice was, is and always will be a most expressive resource in any musical setting, especially the electronic medium. As its title suggests, The Techniques of Singing takes the form of a handbook, so it is equally of use to both performers and composers who wish to integrate vocal techniques into their works.

To make this practice real, the author has provided a 25-page appendix listing a repertoire of almost 400 compositions for solo voice composed since 1950. This is a useful resource in itself for both vocalists and composers.

The text begins with a dedication by the Italian composer Sylvano Busotti (b. 1931), a master of a notation style whose oeuvre often features highly expressive vocal gestures. Thereafter, the book follows an unusual two-column format, with German on the left and English on the right.

The first chapter, Whispers to Cries, includes sections on shouting and screaming - performance specialties of Isherwood. Specific compositions are referenced for all these techniques. Works that call for screaming, for example, include Iannis Xenakis’s Aïs, Giacinto Scelsi’s Maknongan, and György Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre. Also, throughout the book, Isherwood provides specific “Technique” sections, designed as exercises to be practiced by vocalists. They read like the coaching of a master class: practical and to the point.

The chapter entitled The Electric Voice is perhaps of most interest to Computer Music Journal readers. The author observes: “The first theoretician of music was an opera composer, Ferruccio Busoni (1907).” Interestingly, the chapter begins with a discussion of electronic amplification. How many books on vocal technique make this observation? “The advent of the sound projectionist is one of the most significant developments in post World War II performance practice.” As Isherwood points out, amplification serves specific musical functions, such as that of making inaudible sounds audible. This is what I call the blow-up technique, where a close-proximity microphone can zoom into acoustic phenomena that would otherwise be subsonic and amplify them to massive proportions. This technique can well be exploited with barely audible vocal sounds.

It should be remembered, as the author points out, that a microphone is an instrument, so the choice of microphone is an important decision. He recounts the tale of the composer Luigi Nono, who spent a great deal of time trying various microphones, experimenting with movement in front of them, and exploring the subtle variations that resulted. The text shows the score of Nono’s Quando stanno morendo (Diario polacco II) (1982) with detailed instructions on how the vocalist should approach the microphone.

With pluriphonic (multiple loudspeaker) setups, the singer’s head is no longer the only sound source. Loudspeakers often surround the audience. Beyond these technical concerns, composers can sometimes make unusual demands on a singer, such as when they are asked to leave the hall and return by a side entrance. Isherwood points out that it is important to notify theater staff beforehand about such events. Otherwise potential problems arise, as the author remembers in the following situation. “I was once chased and physically threatened by an usher who mistook me for a mad heckler while singing a performance at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon.”
Electronic music uses the voice not just as a live element but also as raw material for sound transformation. Examples include the masterpieces Gesang der Jünglinge by Stockhausen and Omaggio a Joyce by Luciano Berio.

Another category concerns voice and “tape” and refers to the medium of voice with fixed soundtrack accompaniment. For the performer, the important thing is to memorize the electronic part as well as the vocal part.

Voice and live electronics presents a different set of challenges to both vocalists and composers. Isherwood identifies the kinds of digital audio signal processing effects, such as granular synthesis, that can be applied to digital sound. He discusses the latest technology, including performances mediated with an iPad via Open Sound Control (OSC). What Isherwood calls “real time” performance concerns a category in which the performer controls the electronic part directly either via gestures or by tracking technology that listens to the vocal performance. Some scores call for mixtures of the above categories.

The final topic of The Electric Voice concerns historically informed performance practices. This has always been a challenge to live electronic music performance: how to re-create a work when the technologies that gave birth to it are obsolete or otherwise unavailable? What is the role of creative substitution when there is, for example, no Ondiola instrument at hand (as is required to perform some of Giacinto Scelsi’s work)?

Other chapters cover Instrumentalist Singers and Singing Instrumentalists and Microintervals. Drawing a fine line between reason and duty, Isherwood diplomatically advises: “The ill-advised practice of some composers to combine a microinterval with molto vibrato or tremolo should be reluctantly obeyed.”

The chapter on Extended Vocal Techniques is the longest in the book. This encompasses a vast area of which the author is an unquestioned authority. In the chapter entitled The Vibrato, the sound examples are especially instructive. As Jürgen Kesting, writing in Opernwelt (February 2014) wrote: “Isherwood’s demonstration of vibrato forms alone–straight tone, bel canto vibrato, slow and fast vibrato, tremolo, glottis vibrato, vertical and lateral chin vibrato, just to name a few examples-comprises a first class lesson in vocal physiology.”

The knotty subject of timbre has only a brief chapter devoted to it. Essentially this chapter consists of what’s left to say about it after covering the previous topics, all of which feed into this all-encompassing and ultimately vague term. Voice Types is similarly concise, while the topic of Vocal Registers gets an extended treatment. As the publisher notes, this chapter will be of special interest to composers. Here again the sound examples are outstanding. As the author observes: “The human voice often seems to be the instrument composers are least familiar with.”

The chapter devoted to Agility provides exercises for the vocal student, while the following chapter Singing focuses on acting and dancing. The penultimate chapter is devoted to improvisation, a notoriously difficult domain to address in print. Isherwood solves this problem by citing specific works by Stockhausen, Cage, and others in which improvisation is free but always within well-defined limits.
The author’s esteem for Berio’s Sequenza III (1966) is such that he devotes the last chapter of the book entirely to this score and its interpretation. He begins with the assertion: “No work since Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire has marked the history of vocal music in the 20th century.” Although written for female voice, Berio authorized Isherwood to make the piece his own. In this chapter, the master vocalist walks the apprentice through the process taking on this quintessential modernist masterpiece.

Isherwood not only describes all of these sounds, noises, and exclamations with words, but also demonstrates them on the enclosed compact disc with 81 tracks. The demonstrations are well recorded and pedagogically clear. Providing just one example of each technique, however, hints at the vast challenge faced by any student vocalist in mastering the entire repertoire outlined in this superb text, which is essentially a book of possibilities.