Extended Vocal Techniques
Extended Vocal Techniques Background
The Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble (EVTE), was founded in 1973 and in residence at the Univeristy of California, San Diego, Center for Music Experiment from 1973-1983
Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble, c. 1979.
Left to right: Edwin Harkins, Deborah Kavasch, Linda Vickerman, and Philip Larson
Deborah Kavasch Doctoral Dissertation
My doctoral dissertation on extended vocal techniques was based on the five years of research and performance in which I was involved with the ensemble. It consisted of two parts:
1) a 30-minute composition entitled Requiem for 12 voices. The EVTE members Deborah Kavasch, Linda Vickerman, Edwin Harkins and Philip Larsen prerecorded 8 tracks with which we performed the remaining 4 parts live.
2) a paper entitled "Some Compositional Aspects and Performance Problems of Selected Extended Vocal Techniques.
Composer Interview Questions
- When and how were you first exposed to extended vocal techniques? What was the first pieces/composers that attracted you and/or impacted your decision to work with EVTs?
As a student (undergrad or grad?) at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, I first learned about extended instrumental techniques from Professor Burton Beerman, composer/clarinetist (early 1970’s?), then somehow heard about Tibetan music and “Ohm” drones. My master’s thesis at BGSU, a chamber opera called “Legends”, experimented with prerecorded voice in the Prologue, Sprechstimme in Act I Pandora, falsetto singing in Act II Narcissus, and vocal timbral coloration (nasal and other qualities) as well as traditional vocal production in Act III Orpheus. When I applied for grad school at UC San Diego, the Project for Music Experiment was so new it wasn’t in the catalog, so I was delighted to learn when I arrived that there were people interested in exploring extended vocal techniques as a group that met for regular sessions 3 days a week, 1 and 1/2-hour sessions.
- Can you trace your influences back to those musical movements or composers Italian Futurism, Dadaism, surrealism, minimalism, etc.?
I hadn’t really heard of any of this but had had some experience in new music as a performer in the new music ensemble at BGSU, in modern music classes, and attending concerts at U of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where we heard the premiere of George Crumb’s Black Angels, which absolutely blew me away!
- What was your initial reaction to EVTs?
I absolutely loved the idea of making as many different sounds as possible and seeing if I could imitate sounds others had heard; we experimented with doing them in different ranges than what we heard in recordings and at different volume levels (usually really loudly at first until we mastered the techniques better).
- At what point in your performing and/or composing career did you decide to make use of EVTs and why? How did it effect your use of traditional notation?
About 2 weeks after I started doctoral studies at UCSD, I was offered a research assistantship at the Center for Music Experiment. It was a research arm of the Music Department, was funded by Rockefeller and Ford Foundation grants, and had quite a few resident research fellows (including singers Linda Vickerman, and Philip Larson, and trumpeter Ed Harkins, plus several dancers, other instrumentalists, electronic music and computer researchers) and two doctoral RA’s including myself and John Celona. Since the Center had been in existence only one year starting in s1972 as a Project in Music Experiment, my duties as archivist in 1973 were supplemented by other activities, including joining in the newly formed Extended Vocal Techniques Group, later called the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble, which was officially an ORU (Organized Research Unit) at CME (Center for Music Experiment).
We had no official director, although Linda Vickerman often acted as spokesperson when we eventually went on tour and gave masterclasses, but it was quite a democratic organization. Our weekly rehearsals were all recorded, and we were encouraged by the CME director, Roger Reynolds, to organize the various sounds into categories and record them as a lexicon. The first lexicon used terminology from speech/phonetics that ultimately seemed too cumbersome. A second lexicon was recorded that used descriptive terminology and was organized in three categories, monophonic, multiphonic, and miscellaneous (“car crash” was much easier to write than trying to figure out the technical term).
EVTs were a natural extension of my master’s thesis ideas of including traditional and nontraditional vocal production, and I wrote THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT for the group in 1974 in my first year of doctoral composition studies. My next important work for the EVTE was my doctoral dissertation, REQUIEM, a work for 12 voices completed in 1978. We prerecorded 8 parts on tape and performed live with the tape, taking parts and then all of the piece on tour from 1977-1983.
Notation varied from piece to piece. The Owl and the Pussycat worked best using mostly graphic notation, using dotted lines to represent ululated vowels/syllables, with pitch direction shown by the up/down shape of the line. I created other symbols for other sounds, but used traditional notation for sung fragments, and a wiggly line to show durations of repetitions of those fragments (a very common 70’s notation device for repeating fragments). At the end, there is a drone on G below middle C, with various overtones to be reinforced; the overtones used diamond-head notes, similar to string harmonics notation. Time was measured in blocks of seconds (marked at 5-second intervals, which I later thought would have been easier to think of in 4-second intervals, similar to common time). Other sections simply showed an overhead bracket with the total time in seconds or minutes for each section.
Notation for Tintinnabulation (first movement of an otherwise unperformed piece called THE BELLS) was first attempted in a similar marking off of 4-second blocks with the various rhythmic entries or patterns scattered throughout the block. I quickly discovered that there was vast uncertainty or discomfort from the performers, including myself, about where to place the sounds, so I simply went back to traditional 4/4 notation and, voila!, the piece came together instantaneously. It was great lesson in using traditional notation when possible, and modifying it as necessary. Ululations now used the triple hatch mark of string tremolo notation, and glissandi connected noteheads in rising ululations. Harmonic oscillations were notated with the fundamental pitch plus a diamond notehead and a wiggly line stretched from it for the duration of the note value.
Notation for Requiem used a cutout score and a one-line staff for rhythm only, a 5-line staff for pitched material, exact pitches in standard notation with clefs, relative pitch indicated by notehead height. Sometimes I would combine precisely notated rhythm in some voices with words written in the score space according to approximate duration, beginning and ending points clearly indicated.
Over the years I have developed a notation that attempts to take advantage of as much of the standard notation as possible, using a few symbols for specific sounds, but also including much verbal terminology in the score as reminders. I use IPA notation only if normal text setting is unclear.
- When you begin the compositional process, how do you determine which EVTs you will use? Is improvisation a part of the musical equation for your compositions/performances
When writing vocal music, I look at the text to determine whether EVTs would be appropriate. (I have not yet written vocal untexted music, although I’m thinking about combining soundscapes and text). I have a tendency to combine traditional and extended techniques in the same piece, probably for a combination of reasons including timbre and overall effect, the needs and implications of the text, the impact of moving back and forth between traditional & EVT (after all, what are EVTs “extended” from?), overall musical structural decisions, and not least, awareness of health and ease of vocal production, i.e. what sounds can be done quickly or require more preparation, what needs to be followed by a more relaxed production, etc.
I believe I have only occasionally used improvisational components to my music. In the early EVTE days, we did improvisations almost exclusively until we developed a repertoire of works written for us. It was fun and challenging, some were highly structured so that they could be repeated in a fairly predictable way, and for some years we always included one totally “free” improvisation that eventually became very predictable with the same four people performing together. I guess I personally don’t like to perform free improvisations because I tend to have more vocal tension when producing “unprepared” sounds in that type of context, i.e. unrehearsed sounds. In the same way, when singing traditional music, although I’m a very good sightreader, I prefer to practice the music ahead of a performance, and usually perform best (vocally and musically) when it is memorized. That being said, I really should memorize more of my own compositions!!
- Do you feel as though you are imitating those objects that some would say have no “musical voice?”
I’m not sure I understand what you mean by objects? I think as a performer I tend to “translate” particular musical needs into sounds that I feel are appropriate to the context or meaning of the music as I understand it. As a composer I make musical decisions based on text or mood implications (I am very much oriented in this direction rather than sound for sound’s sake only. I have to feel a musical or emotional motivation).
- At what point in time do you believe traditional notation and vocal techniques ceased being sufficient enough to interpret the imagination of the composer? Why do you believe this occurred?
I think that EVTs provide a means of dramatic interpretation or playfulness that has expanded the expression of text. The best example of my music that comes to mind is my composition on Emily Dickenson’s “Bee! I’m expecting you!”. The words of the poem are actually a letter from a Fly to a Bee, so my idea was to present the text as though the Fly were buzzing as it “spoke”, using ululated vowels and consonants (like the “z” of “was”), using a sibilant sound for certain “s” sounds (such as extending the “x” of “expecting”). I used reinforced harmonics on many of the “er” sounds and inhaled croaks on “work” in reference to the frogs. For “birds mostly back” I quoted several measures on the word “birds” from one of the traditional cadenzas in Lucia di Lammermoor with a dental trill on the last r, intentional tone-painting with mostly traditional sounds here. Somehow I just can’t imagine writing a setting of this poem using only traditional singing, when I believe that the overall effect of my setting is whimsical, gentle and humorous by virtue of using mostly EVTs.
- What do you feel can be (is) conveyed through EVTs that traditional vocal conventions and notational devices cannot not provide?
Extremes of emotion: from highly dramatic to whimsical and humorous, with a greater palette of timbral coloration. But there’s still nothing quite like the dramatic impact of the well-produced traditional singing tone, with the excitement of the “full-out” tone or the beauty of the round, resonant, delicate pianissimo high note that seems to surround and caress.
- What is the perception of the average music consumer towards works utilizing EVTs?
They’re fascinated. Invariably audience members try out the extended sounds during intermission or after the concert. Humans are inveterate imitators!
- Are EVTs an “acquired taste?”
Very quickly (by audiences). Most professional singers or advanced vocal performance students tend to avoid doing them for fear of hurting themselves or compromising their traditional vocal production. Exceptions are singers I work with personally—and myself, of course!
- Describe the typical audience most interested in both your work, and that of others utilizing EVTs.
There always seem to be audience members interested in EVTs. My local audiences for the most part have been university students and faculty mixed in with local community. When I tour, the audiences are either in university settings, concert series (especially for new music concerts), or new music festivals, conferences, and women in music festivals.
- It has been stated that the most supportive audience for the musical avant-garde is that of the educational system. Examining your own unique experience, can you agree with this statement? If you disagree, why?
Actually, I do agree. Students (college age and younger) are very open to new experiences and have always responded enthusiastically to my concerts that use EVTs. Many of them have little musical background to predispose them to wanting to hear one type of music over another. They seem to recognize well-constructed and well-performed music of any style.
- What about those critics/listeners who would say that this is not “real” music and certainly should not fall under the all-encompassing umbrella of “classical music?”
Most of the music I write or choose to perform a second time (I’ve done many premieres!) includes a certain degree of virtuosity, be it traditional or extended. People seem to be especially fascinated or impressed by the ability to move quickly between various types of sounds and by the range of both pitch and volume. Dr. Cleve Scott, the head of music technology at Ball State, who recorded several concerts I performed at a new music festival there, mentioned that the most beautiful voices were the most difficult to records, and that mine was almost impossible to record—I believe he meant it as a compliment!! That is an ongoing comment about the challenge of recording pieces with EVTs—the difference in volume between the softest, most delicate (usually amplified) sounds and the full-out unamplified bel canto tone is enormous.
- Are vocal students of American conservatories/universities being trained to effectively interpret and perform pieces involving EVTs?
Probably not. I personally think that young singers should concentrate on learning to produce a reliable, well-balanced singing range. If they want to learn EVTs, they need to be careful to not strain themselves, usually with loud volume in attempting to produce some of the sounds, and not to do certain sounds too much or for too long, especially the ones that require straight tone pitch production, such as reinforced harmonics drones, or the octave multiphonic associated with Tibetan chanting. Also, ululations that are loud and cross register breaks have to be done selectively to not undo the training of merging the registers for a smooth vocal production. I had the experience of having created my own vocal problems of tension and covered tone production as a high school student trying to not sing more loudly than others around me and also wanting to imitate the contralto on our recording of Handel’s Messiah. It took 10 years of voice lessons with six teachers before I finally learned to release the many tensions in throat and tongue that plagued me. Oddly enough, I think doing the EVTs helped me to be willing to try anything my latest voice teacher, Frank Kelly of La Jolla (now deceased), asked me to do. His training had been in Italy, and he unlocked another octave at the top of my range—I was a soprano all the time I’d been trained as a mezzo. I began studies with him in 1977, four years after starting to work with EVTs. The curious thing was that I never got hoarse in EVTE rehearsals that were an hour and a half long, but for a long time prior to studies with Frank, I had experienced hoarseness in singing after only 15 minutes of solo practice or singing in choral groups (lots of tension!).
- How can the body of literature embracing EVTs become more prevalent in the ears of the global community? What are you personally doing to further EVTs as a composer and performer?
I think audiences are more ready for EVTs than trained singers are to produce them. My sense is that performers who use only EVTs and no traditional singing don’t have the same musical impact, breadth of expression, or validity to the traditional music community as do performers who combine the two. I think I’ve been very fortunate to have a performing career that uses both, and I am just as happy to sing traditional works as I am to perform and premiere new music. I believe a well-grounded singing technique has provided me with the ability to pick and choose music that is exciting and satisfying to perform and has allowed me to program a huge variety of repertoire for various types of performance venues. I’ve also discovered that I enjoy composing and performing music that ranges from virtuosity to simplicity, passion to humor, with a wide range of expression and musical demands.
I have recorded two commercial CDs with much of my EVT music so that there is a record of this as well as a chance for a larger audience to hear these pieces than the live audiences at concerts. I have also recorded works of several other composers, both as a member of the EVTE and as a solo singer, and hope that there is a reasonable dissemination of these recordings. Certainly the internet is the logical place for greatest dissemination. I have wanted to get a website set up for the last several years and realize I’ll probably have to hire someone to do it for me, as I am not technically savvy and don’t seem to have the time to learn what’s necessary! I do have numerous performance recordings that should probably be edited and made available.