Album Release - Luke Spence | Twentieth Century Art Songs

"Playing in the vocal style is an important aspect to trumpet playing, but my love for vocal music runs much deeper. Ever since playing Schubert's "Schwanengesang" on a senior recital back in high school, I've been hooked! I can't remember the last recital I've given that didn't include some sort of vocal work, and this appreciation has only strengthened over the years. For me, vocal music provides an opportunity to explore some of the best music ever written, and challenges what can be conveyed through an instrument without uttering a single word. Though intimate in its presentation, this genre is expansive, practically brimming with compelling narratives and endless opportunities to express the gamut of human emotion. I feel that I've only begun to scratch the surface." - Luke Spence


Luke's introduction to the album:

Song is, by nature, a combination of two media: text and music. The importance of text vs. music has oscillated back and forth over the course of Western music history, but art songs of the 20th century generally valued the two equally. When performing instrumental transcriptions of 20th century art songs, how, then, does one convey this balance without the ability to utter words? In February 2020, I explored a solution by creating a video album of art songs with subtitle translations. During the course of that project, I found that the conventional label of vocal transcriptions” did not accurately describe the nature of what I sought to accomplish artistically. In my opinion, the act of transcribing often sacrifices valuable context for the audience in favor of convenience for the performer. Merely taking the notes with no regard for the words demonstrates a great disservice to the music, composer, and the poet. I wanted my listeners to experience the poetry in real time with the music — to hear all of the nuances, appreciate the text painting, and fully immerse themselves in the compelling narratives. In the end, I adopted a more fitting characterization for these works: vocal translations.


In this audio-only format, I believe these same songs still thrive beautifully, even without the word-for-word subtitles in real time. I attribute this to my unique process, which occurred well before the subtitles were introduced. So what did this process of translating entail? While I encourage my listeners to look up my dissertation Preserving the Narrative of 20th Century Art Song: A Guide for Instrumental Transcriptions of Vocal Music (available on ProQuest), I wanted to briefly outline some key features.


First and foremost, this process involves thorough musicological research along with mirroring the thoughts and actions of a vocalist when necessary. In preparing these art songs, I engaged in a balancing act, emulating aspects of vocal production whilst embracing the non-vocal qualities of the cornet/trumpet. I let aesthetics guide me through this process; whenever I had a question of whether to emulate the voice or let the cornet/trumpets inherent characteristics shine through, I asked myself, What do I believe is going to be most musically advantageous?” I also insist on reading from the original vocal and piano score. Much of the information we need as a performer is right there in the score; we just have to be curious and diligent in deciphering it. As long as one is able to transpose, no physical transcriptions are needed! Perhaps the most in-depth and representative example of my process pertains to the topic of diction. Ask any seasoned vocalist and they will assert that diction is of utmost importance to the music. Sonically speaking, the composers meticulously crafted every syllable and sound of the poetry into the music, which are every bit as important as the actual meanings of the words. As a trumpet player, then, how do I bring this diction to life? I can choose to emulate the sounds of the words by employing a vast palette of articulations, but I also have the option of creating non-vocal sounds that may do a better job of enhancing the text through various extended techniques or mutes. Furthermore, due to the compression and resistance of buzzing through a narrow tube, I have the luxury of playing longer stretches without needing to breathe— something many vocalists surely envy! These are but a few examples of where I believe the fun truly lies, and it highlights the subjective nature of the entire process. Every iteration of art song, whether sung, transcribed, or translated, is a re-creation of the original. What I find to be compelling or musically edifying in these translations may be vastly different from other instrumentalists or vocalists.


These 20th century art songs are truly some of my favorite pieces of music ever written. From the highly emotional and self-aware poetry of Friedrich Rückert set by Gustav Mahler to the stunning and evocative works of Rita Dove and Kathryn Daniels set by Libby Larsen, I intended to give my listeners a miniature tour of art song throughout the century. I highlighted just three languages: German, French, and English, but aimed to showcase the vast swath of musical styles and poetry present from 1901-2000. I hope you experience as much joy listening to these songs as I had recording them.


Happy listening,

Luke Spence