Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Yammering and Drama and Stuff: Libretto Problems, Part I

So this is how I spent my summer vacation. Well okay actually, if you want to hear the exciting part, you can click here, then click on #20, and my little talking head will tell you all about it. (Jesus, is my voice really that HIGH?) Then if you click on #13, you can hear a new piece by composer Jay Wadley of the Found Objects collective! Hooray! Click click click! But the soundtrack to my vacation was not, as I all but promised, hilarious Spanish disco band Locomía. No, it was this mix from America's top America's Next Top Model blogger, Rich Juzwiak. It's a straightforward project: mixing together every hit song to sample the drum break from "Ashley's Roachclip" by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. If you ask me, and if you don't ask me then whom will you ask, pop critics need to do a lot more of this kind of technical examination of music, to supplement the necessary but for whatever reason grossly overrepresented work of locating the music sociologically. That is to say, why do people not talk about the notes and rhythms and stuff in pop reviews? Anyhow. I had noticed the tendency of soft pop/R'n'B from the late 80s-early 90s to use essentially the same beat for every song, but I had failed to realize the extent to which this was literally true. But some of the acts here could hardly have less in common (Moby, the Geto Boys, Milli Vanilli), so it's fascinating to hear the web of connections that this one common thread begins to weave between the tunes. In each, the Roachclip break is a ready signifier for "smooth," whether that be the gangsta smooth of "Scarface" or the infamous mocha concealer that coated the entire Milli Vanilli debacle. But as we listen closer, we begin to hear some direct lines of influence between the songs themselves. Is EMF's louche chromaticism a response to the Oriental vocals sampled in the "Paid in Full" remix? (Mmmmmaybe.) And, oh my gosh, is Lil Wayne's rhyme itself "sampling" Rakim's? (Okay yes definitely.) See, it's not just a beat, it's an ethos and a tradition— And at this point I find myself having one of those Grand Canyon moments where I am awed by the depth and breadth of the hole in my knowledge about a given subject, in this case the technical rudiments of hip-hop. (This video on the subject of the "Amen break" offers a similar lesson, but is a bit too satisfied with itself to be very satisfying for me. More fun to search the Rap Sample FAQ; see results for "Ashley's Roachclip," "Amen Brother," and maybe the best-loved break of all, "The Funky Drummer.") My last Grand Canyon moment was not too long ago. I'd been watching a few different DVDs of Figaro, listening to a few different recordings, when I came across the mention in René Jacobs' liner note "that from the time of Monteverdi and right up to the nineteenth century, the poet wrote his recitatives in lines of eleven and seven syllables." Wait, what?? I mean, of course, it makes sense—recitative is going to be written in some kind of a fixed meter, right? they're not putting those line-breaks in just for decoration—I had just never noticed it before, on account of I don't read Italian. Sure, we all know the original text for the arias, but for most of the yammering and drama and stuff (especially if it flies by at Historically Informed Mozart Speed) I'm just going to read along with the subtitles. And so it had never dawned on me that virtually every Italian libretto from Monteverdi until the 19th c. (that is to say the core of the operatic repertoire) uses this same metrical scheme. It's like I'd been reading Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton in Hungarian and all of a sudden somebody says to me, "Hey, you do realize that they were writing all this in iambic pentameter, right?" and no, I'd had no freaking clue. Ahem. Let's take an example from the king of librettists, Pietro Metastasio, in the opening of his serenata Angelica e Medoro:

ANGELICA: Esci dal chiuso tetto, Medoro, idolo mio; fra queste frondi, Fra quest' erbe novelle e questi fiori, Odi come susurra, Dolce scherzando, una leggiera auretta, Che alle odorate piante, Lieve fuggendo, i più bei spirti invola, E nel confuso errore Forma da mille odori un solo odore. Vieni, chè in questo loco, Ove del dì splendon più chiari i rai, Men grave albergo e più felice avrai.

They call these mostly unrhymed lines—similar to, yes, the blank verse of Milton and Shakespeare—versi sciolti, which in the context of opera libretti means alternating settenari (seven-syllable lines) and endecasillabi (eleven-syllable lines). The endecasillabo is the basic line of Italian poetry, like how the iambic pentameter is the basic line in English. In fact, you can probably think of a few lines of Shakespeare that would scan like endecasillabi—"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer," e.g.

Just in case your Italian is no better than mine, let me point out that all consecutive vowels scan as a single syllable (so that line 9 has eleven syllables, not fourteen). Then, if a line ends with two unstressed syllables, the last syllable doesn't count; if a line ends with a single stressed syllable, it counts as two (as in the last couplet of this example, which if you're counting actually consists of two ten-syllable lines). So go back and look at that again, and that shit should scan. Italian people, opera people, am I getting this right? Everyone else, have I bored the heck out of you?

These lines also give us a hint of what made Metastasio such a sought-after librettist. He doesn't paint us a word-picture; instead, he describes things that can't be seen, but beg to be expressed in music: a playful, whispering breeze in lines 4 & 5, and in lines 6-9, the gradual mingling of the meandering ambient fragrances into a single fragrance. Perfect! Music is a dynamic artform, and a visceral one. How ingenious to use it to describe a gradual change in smells. Nothing here could be illustrated better by any other medium other than music.

Thing is, though, I really can't supply you with a very accurate translation, because I don't know where there is one. L'Angelica is a terrifically important piece, combining the talents of Metastasio, composer Nicola Porpora, and in his public debut, the castrato Farinelli. But the one recording I can find (released in a well-reviewed set as Orlando) doesn't have any English translation in the box, or so says the word on the street. In fact, I'm not sure that an English translation of this work, by one of the greatest of all Italian poets, has ever been published. It's not such a surprising lacuna, since I'm pretty sure that there are some works of Dante that have never been English'd, but... prove me wrong, kids?


minim said...

Uh. Wow! I never realised that about the recitative. Very interesting about the 14-becomes-11 thing. I think i see how it works for line 9. Cos when you speak it out loud, it's definitely 14, but if you sort of soften everything and vaguely Frenchify it, it shrinks to 11. I think I'll have to bring my brain back to this one after I've had some sleep. I knew my three years of university Italian classes would have some musical application sometime other than being able to sit in the really cheap seats for La Boheme and still know what is being sung!

Straussmonster said...

Backreading for no particular reason...when you sing Italian, you elide. That's why the syllables come out at 11.

Dan Johnson said...

Yeah, it elides—but I think that's also how you scan most Italian verse that isn't sing. (I think it's that way with most romance languages? Like I would know.)