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Vocalise (1999)

for soprano, electronics and orchestra

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First performed November 11, 1999, by Sylvia McNair, soprano, with the New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur, conductor; New York, NY

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rent score and parts from G. Schirmer Inc 

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Scored for soprano and orchestra: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets (1 doubling piccolo trumpet), 3 trombones, tuba (optional), timpani, percussion (4 players), harp, piano (doubling celeste), and strings; trumpets 2 and 3, off-stage, double Crotales, trumpet 4, off-stage, doubles glockenspiel.

For Vocalise, we used some 26 speakers distributed throughout the concert hall, most hidden behind rows of seats and used as surrounds.

A Yamaha 02R mixing board controlled the surround sends, programmed to switch from front center, L and R speakers to surround speakers.

The vocal mic triggered a number of digital delays which became louder as the piece progressed, so that by the end there was no direct signal heard in the front house speakers, only processed sound from the surrounds.

A Kaoss pad allowed the sound operator to play additional effects live, such as sweeps and glissandos.

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Duration  20 minutes

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Program note

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.

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— John Corigliano

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