Every breath is unique: a change in shape, a change in flow, a change in purpose. Whether conscious or unconscious, no two life-giving breaths are the same, and the potential and power inherent in each one to nourish ourselves and the life in our ecosystem, and to breathe life to text and song is what led me to explore the breath cycle.
My intention for this piece was to explore breath as it relates to singing classical art song. Humans have evolved to make noise and communicate through refined speech. Song is a form of heightened speech, but some might argue 'unnatural' in the way we train our bodies so particularly for breath efficiency and resonance. After more than 15 years of training and performing in this arena, I am personally biased in feeling a naturalistic form of expression through this type of singing, as the habits of my training have made this art form second nature to me.
Every musical performance, like a breath, is unique in time and space and intention. A performance brings life to the abstract musical symbols on a page and nourishes not only the musician's self-expression, but gives life to the poet's words and the composer's notes, coloring them with the intelligence of our understanding of the music, trained into expressing the songs via our bodies and intellects.
I was curious to observe how we singers take breath in, and then spin a phrase precisely over a measured amount of time, still allowing for flexibility and vulnerability with each release. Using a stopwatch, I timed each of my inhalations and exhalations (including full sung phrases) while singing a variety of French songs. Then using a compass, I charted them onto a sort of continuous circle, the inhalations being the bottom half of the round (as if descending into the body), the exhalations and sung phrases on the upper half (as if emanating from the body). I wrote the corresponding poetry for each phrase on the breath line which represents its duration.
The result was a visualization of how an in-breath to sing might enter the body in under a second, but the resulting sung phrase could have a duration more than twenty-fold. This is not only a testament to breath efficiency in classical singing, but gives a sense of looking at the text suspended above the breath lines, hanging almost timelessly in thin air. The phrases are intact only as individual musical phrases, the lines of poetry crisscrossed and jumbled from their original form. Particular words are thrown into relief as peaks of phrases over a background of semi-circular flowing lines.
In continuing to explore these images of breath cycles, my partner and I took high-tone, photographic (self-)portraits singing and breathing. Wishing to incorporate images and ideas generated from our collaborative class discussions on plant life - specifically moss, which spreads and inhabits an area very gradually over a lengthy period of time - I digitally processed a black and white image of myself to totally obscure the facial area (as in a silhouette), while leaving the focal point of the photo - my throat and chest - in grayscale. I then layered this photo, printed on a transparency, and top of the head cut off, with the breath cycle visualization from singing Debussy's setting of Paul Verlaine's "C'est l'extase." I used dark green sheet moss and bright green reindeer moss to illustrate a sort of life-giving breath emanating from the open mouth of my silhouette, spilling over the sides and crawling up the top of the frame.
One element of the final visualization that I did not consciously intend to evoke, but which emerged nonetheless for me in layering these images together, was the feeling of vulnerability ("baring one's soul" per se, here in the naked throat and chest and the transparency of the photo) in trusting breath and body to carry a well of emotion and meaning via text, and the simultaneous chill of the professional realm in the absence of eyes to tell a story.
Below, I am including my first breath chart experiment for Reynaldo Hahn's "À Chloris" as well as the French text and English translation of Verlaine's "C'est l'extase", which I used for the final project.
C'est l'extase langoureuse,
C'est la fatigue amoureuse,
C'est tous les frissons des bois
Parmi l'étreinte des brises,
C'est, vers les ramures grises,
Le choeur des petites voix.
Ô le frêle et frais murmure!
Cela gazouille et susurre,
Cela ressemble au cri doux
Que l'herbe agitée expire...
Tu dirais, sous l'eau qui vire,
Le roulis sourd des cailloux
Cette âme qui se lamente
En cette plainte dormante
C'est la nôtre, n'est-ce pas?
La mienne, dis, et la tienne,
Dont s'exhale l'humble antienne
Par ce tiède soir, tout bas?
It is the langorous ecstasy,
It is the fatigue after love,
It is all the rustling of the wood,
In the embrace of breezes;
It is near the gray branches:
A chorus of tiny voices.
Oh, what a frail and fresh murmur!
It babbles and whispers,
It resembles the soft noise
That waving grass exhales...
You might say it were, under the bending stream,
The muffled sound of rolling pebbles.
This soul, which laments
And this dormant moan,
It is ours, is it not?
Is it not mine--tell me--and yours,
Whose humble anthem we breathe
On this mild evening, so very quietly?