Thursday, July 25, 2013

Music as Speech

Music as Speech; Phrasing and Rhetoric

Music is thought of a language of its own. Ever since people first used a shell or a hollow bone to change or amplify the voice there has been instrumental music.

I'd like to expand on the idea of an instrument as an extension of the voice. Gifted composers and performers try to make instrumental music convey meaning that is just as communicative and effective as that of a song with words.

As instrumentalists, it's important for us to understand at least in a rudimentary way what devices are used to communicate meaning in an instrumental line.

Like a well-composed speech, a musical phrase has a sense of line, pacing, climactic points and points of repose.

Here are two fine examples of public speaking:

Brando's Marc Antony

Marlon Brando gives Marc Antony's Funeral Oration for Julius Caesar (Shakespeare).

This is one of the greatest persuasive speeches ever written. Following Brutus' speech justifying Caesar's assassination as necessary for the good of the Roman Republic, Marc Antony uses the rhetorical device of irony to convince the crowd that Caesar was unjustly killed.

Each time Brando returns to the phrase, "Brutus is an honorable man" the words take on greater irony. By the end of the speech, the crowd is ready to hunt down Brutus, Cassius and the other conspirators.

Whether he actually studied the classics or not, in his interpretation Brando adopts the type of ironic speech inherent in the Shakespeare passage as described by the Roman Quintillian in his text on Rhetoric:.

But in the figurative form of irony the speaker disguises his entire meaning, the disguise being apparent rather than confessed. . . . in the figure the meaning, and sometimes the whole aspect of our case, conflicts with the language and the tone of voice adopted; nay, a man's whole life may be coloured with irony, as was the case with Socrates, who was called an ironist because he assumed the rĂ´le of an ignorant man lost in wonder at the wisdom of others.

I'll develop the theme of the use of rhetorical devices in music and speech in a later post. Meanwhile, here's another inspiring performance of a famous poem.

The Raven

David Van Hoesen found Basil Rathbone's reading of Poe's The Raven inspiring and encouraged me to listen for a sense of musical phrasing in the pacing of the reading and the sense of line in Rathbone's voice.

Lines of poetry are said to "scan". There are accented syllables or words and those that are unaccented. Notes and rhythms in a musical line have the same characteristics. There is a natural ebb and flow to the stressed and unstressed notes in a musical phrase.

Like paragraphs, groups of phrases flow together to form larger groups in the structure of a piece.

Here is a wonderful breakdown of the way Marc Antony's Funeral Oration scans as poetry.  It also contains much information on the rhetorical devices used in the speech.

Try reading some of the speech yourself following the design in the scanned lines.  Notice how the lines become musical when read this way.

Now try the same thing with a musical phrase -- recite it without your instrument as though it were poetry. No need to account for the pitches, just go for the rhythms and stresses in the line.  See how it becomes poetry! Now take up your instrument and play the line with the poetry in mind.


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