‘Subjective’ vs ‘Objective’ Tone

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Archibald Davison's 1940 book Choral Conducting was published 28 years after he took over the directorship of the Harvard Glee Club. In it, he makes an interesting distinction between what he calls ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ tone. It’s interesting for all sorts of reasons – both because it is a useful distinction to be able to make in working with a choir, and because of the ambiguities present in the way he develops the idea.

It starts off as an aesthetic distinction deriving from the relationship between choral tone and musical intent. Subjective tone, he says, ‘results from and is an inseparable component of the whole musical situation of which it is just a part. It characterizes the text in its varying implications and conveys the singers’ feelings in regard to that text.’ Objective tone, by contrast, is a technical achievement; it is the product of a focus on tone itself independent of musical context.

The main thrust of his argument here is to propose that the former is artistically preferable – that tone should be contextual, that it should emerge in response to repertoire. This feels like something of a truism put like that – of course that is artistic good sense. But it’s interesting to note that he was propounding this back in 1940, well before the rise of historically-informed performance (or ‘authentic’ performance as it was termed in its more radical phases), and that the terms in which he is proposing the idea are not those of stylistic awareness, but of personal response. It’s about authenticity of expression, not fidelity to the composer.

The next thing I find interesting is that he goes on to give technical instructions about how to achieve a ‘subjective’ tone. He suggests a vowel as in ‘lot’, a relaxed jaw, long face and rather covered sound which can be flexibly moulded. Suddenly the ‘subjective’ has slipped from being about the interior state of individual singers and has become a means to create an expressive effect of a more reflective, personal world. This is all useful advice about how to create a particular sound, but it is clearly a sound that is only going to be suitable to more reflective repertoire. Bright, clarion pieces with triumphant texts are likely to evoke a rather different sound world – possibly more akin to what he initially labelled ‘objective’ tone.

In its initial presentation, the distinction plugs into several really quite vexed dilemmas in musical aesthetics. There is the tension between personal feelings and ‘correctness’ that the Romantics inveighed about at length. (Read ETA Hoffmann or listen Der Meistersinger for a summary of that argument.) There is the tension between a music-first or technique-first approach to learning music that I talk about in the conclusion to my choral conducting book. And there is the more specifically choral tension between the individual and the ensemble. And at first, Davison appears to be on the side of the individual; like the Romantics, he thinks that society as a whole (for which read the performance of the ensemble) will be truer and better when the individual has the freedom to give rein to their inner feelings.

And then he turns it around and gives a technical solution to how to achieve the expressive vision he has just developed. At this point, it looks like an object lesson in how utopian dreams always seem to fall apart when put into action.

But back at the practical level of choir-training, it remains a useful distinction. And I think it’s one of those dialectics in which it will vary which side you need to focus on depending on how a choir is currently doing. A choir that has a good solid control over its tone but sounds pretty much the same in all repertoire clearly will benefit from working on subjective responses. A choir that responds well to music but doesn’t have the vocal resources to bring their vision fully to life needs some nice structured technical work.

I tend to think of progress in learning music as a bit like walking. There’s a limit to how far you can get only moving one leg – sooner or later you need to put your weight on it in order to move the other one. Likewise, there’s a limit to how far you can get just working on technique (or artistry). Once you’ve made some useful progress it’s time to trust those skills and switch focus to the other.

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