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Jack-Hammering Sprechgesang

August 14, 2008

A theatre production I caught last week made extensive use of sprechgesang/sprechstimme (German for "spoken song" or "spoken voice") -- a vocal technique that hovers between speaking and singing.

The technique was popular in Expressionist musical compositions of the early 20th century. Arnold Schoenberg's use of sprechstimme in Pierrot Lunaire (1912) is one of the most mesmerizing and famous uses of the technique. Alban Berg also used it for his operas Wozzeck and Lulu.

But San Francisco playwright-performer Gary Aylesworth's The Ballad of Edgar Cayce (A Bluegrass Operetta) represents the first time I've ever seen the technique used live in a play.

In some ways, the approach works makes perfect sense for Aylesworth's subject matter and overall performance style. Concerning the life of the early 20th century clairvoyant and healer Edgar Cayce (1877-1945 -- pictured left), the play is full of surreal and whimsical moments. It's like an Bretonian-Eluardian automatic writing experiment on stage. Also, the play is set during the era when sprechgesang was popular. The sprechstimme in the play creates a vivid metaphor for the state of the clairvoyant's unorthodox mind.

On the other hand, Aylesworth doesn't quite get the use of the technique right. Sprechgesang definitely heightens tension in the musical compositions I've heard the technique employed. It also creates an other-worldly quality. But Aylesworth overuses the technique. About half of the 90-minute play is delivered in a thumping sprechgesang accompanied by the tick-tock of an old-fashioned, wind-up metronome. By the time you've heard this for five minutes, it's like a jackhammer to the skull. Rather than illuminating Cayce's mental state for us, the sprechgesang makes us shut down and want to get away from the play's subject.

Sprechgesang is an interesting technique. It can be very effective on stage. But it should be used sparingly.


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