Saturday, June 21, 2008

Text, Timing, and Silly Recits

At the end of my last post, I linked to a Family Guy remix that uses animated text to render the dialogue. [UPDATE: Youtube has removed the video, but here's the original scene. OH, and the original is back, at least for now.) I'd never seen anything quite like it, but I now see that there are plenty of other examples of "kinetic typography" out there. Here's Abbott and Costello talkin' baseball. Here's a famous Barack Obama speech, although I confess that his rhetoric does nothing for me. I've written often about how animated visuals can serve as a useful catalyst for listening to music; here we see a kind of animation that lets us see the musical qualities of speech - specifically, the typography gives us another way of appreciating the kind of subtle timing that makes effective speech happen. I particularly like the Family Guy piece because it's not so obviously musical. In both the "Who's on First?" skit and the Obama speech, the rhythm and pacing are already readily apparent.

By the way, I'm not a Family Guy guy (although I am a family guy) - I think my comic/satiric/cynical sensibility is pretty much frozen at mid-90's Seinfeld/Simpsons levels, and besides, I never found the talking baby to be anything but annoying. But I digress - this Family Guy argument about The Godfather is comic gold, and unlike a lot of the kinetic typography I've seen on YouTube, the leaping letters don't so much draw attention to themselves as help show the shape and rhythm of the discussion.

Note that it doesn't reveal the rhythms in a consistent notational way, so it doesn't function like a musical score. And an important point here is that a musical score would be almost pointless - or, put another way, the actors and director don't need a rhythmically precise score to create these complex rhythms, pitches, and timbres. If a writer tried to provide a precisely notated score, the actors would probably mutiny. The timing comes mostly from the gifted performers, although you can be sure an editor helped orchestrate the final product, especially since Seth MacFarlane performs multiple characters.

What's interesting about this to me is that it shows a fundamental challenge with creating effective recitatives in opera. Even though it's common and correct practice for opera singers to follow natural speech inflections more flexibly than what's notated, it's still difficult to create recitative that doesn't sound stilted, at least in English. (The pitches are arguably more problematic than the rhythms.) In other words, I often wonder if dialogue in opera wouldn't be improved by just allowing the characters to speak - and I don't just mean improved in terms of clarity, but also in terms of aesthetic success. Too often, it seems as if a composer is trying to do just what I said the Family Guy writer would never dream of doing. If the actors are sufficiently skilled, they should be able to weave their lines together with more subtlety and flair for timing than any score could suggest.

Of course, that brings up several problems. For one, opera is supposed to be sung throughout. Whatever. Second, composers expect to have much more control over such matters than any screenwriter or playwright would imagine. Silly composers. Third, opera actors might be really bad at acting and feel safer when restricted to the narrow range of options a score provides. That ties into my recent post about improvisation. There, I was taking an improv advocate to task for misrepresenting what it is that classical musicians do since he seemed to suggest there was no imagination allowed when just reciting a score. However, my point was not that we don't need improv training, and it could be argued that dialogue in a musical theater production (opera or other) is an area in which we'd do well to have performers trained to be creatively spontaneous. (Note that I don't mean improvisation of lines - just the sort of natural improvisation of rhythm, pitch, and timbre that is a part of all speech.)

As much as I tend to fall into the traditionalist camp within classical music culture, it will always puzzle me that modern composers have continued to be so intimidated by the opera-must-be-sung-throughout ideal. Let the people speak!

ADDENDUM: Someone might say, "but you haven't given a single example of an ineffective recit." Well, I just didn't feel like going down that road for today (the post is long enough!), but suffice it to say both that there are many cases in opera where the recit writing works well, and there are countless examples where we'd be better off with plain old speech.

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