[Smt-talk] Looking for bad text settings

Kenneth Morrison kenuck at telus.net
Sun Aug 24 08:43:15 PDT 2014



I like to differentiate between what I consider awkward text setting and what is more idiomatic or vernacular.  For example, The Kinks’ example cited in this thread, I think, belongs to the latter category.  Much popular music of the last fifty (or sixty or hundred) years owes a debt to and is at least partially within what Anthony Braxton has called “the Trans-African Continuum.”  Ray Davies of The Kinks, like all British rock musicians of the era, was heavily influenced by African American blues and rhythm and blues.  Text setting in much popular music has what could be considered to be irregular accent patterns that are a part of, in addition to being a result of, the fundamentally syncopated foundation of the music.  Thus, rather than hear the accents on unstressed syllables as unusual or “bad” text setting, I prefer to hear them as integral to the music.  Moreover, this “freedom” to not maintain regular accent patterns allows for a subtlety in semantic emphasis that can arise simply from the metric setting.   


When my son was a toddler, I read to him from a collection of African American verse (I am on vacation and don’t have the title with me) edited by Faustin Charles. This entry is attributed to be from Trinidad and Tobago:


One, two, three, four,

Johnny hiding behind the door.

Four, five, six,

Mammy catch him and stop his tricks.


This reminded me of a 19th-C British nursery rhyme:


One, two, three, four,

Mary at the cottage door.

Five, six, seven, eight,

Eating cherries off a plate.


In the Trinidadian version, you can recite the verse in regular metre and accent patterns if you use a triplet subdivision.  This already is different than the straight-eighth subdivision of the British version.  However, when I found myself starting to sing this Trinidadian rhyme to my son, I noticed that I was using a syncopated time feel where the syllables floated around the beat: JOHN-ny hid-IN’ be-HIND the DOOR.  There is almost a double-time metric feel in this interpretation.


Now, I am not Trinidadian, African American or even American, but I do think that this “democratization of the beat” and its concomitant variable syllabic stresses, is a hallmark of many popular music forms and I prefer not to hear this fundamental attribute of the music as misplaced syllabic stresses or “bad text setting.” 



Ken Morrison

Department Head of Music and Dance

Vancouver Community College

Vancouver, BC

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