Aria about an everyday problem – rhetorical etude

We usually start by establishing a platform, in terms of an atmosphere that is light and positive,  in major and with singing in a lyrical character. This is done in order to create space for a negative reaction, or a dramatic turn. In the middle of the positive atmosphere a problem occurs unexpectedly, often in the form of a recitative. Then there is time for the reaction, where the musical material transits into minor, often in a dramatic character.

Here is a description of the aria, where I compare our musical strategies and dramaturgical structure with Tarling’s (2004) descriptions of rhetorical aspects of a speech. The presentation (exordium) should appease the listeners, whereas facts should be stated in narration, in order to inform them. In the third part (division/partitio), the speaker should line up important facts for the listener to note. Then follows the presentation of evidence (confirmation) where the suggestions are confirmed, the refutation of arguments (confutation/reprehension) and the ending (conclusion) which aimed to refresh the memory of the listeners and appeal to their feelings.

The pianist plays a 13 seconds long start of the piece, as a musical platform. An introduction should be kept simple, in order to catch the attention of the audience (Tarling, 2004). Then a presentation part follows, where I establish an image of a sunny morning, and express facts to strengthen this claim (‘The coffee machine is already set’). A narration should be kept simple and clear, in order to point to facts (Tarling, 2004). If the level of tension is heightened to soon, it could lead to that further development risks to be perceived as boring. Our presentation consists of two parts, a continuation of the G major section for about 50 seconds, and then a 24 seconds long recitative, with a climax in the form of a long ornamentation in the end, on the word ‘own’ (in the phrase ‘for a moment of my own, before my seven children wake up’). This presentation part could be seen as a trope in the meaning a delay in the form of a positive image, which is depicted in order to create maximal contrast to the following parts.

Then suddenly the problem occurs, about 90 seconds into the improvisation: the newspaper doesn’t lie on the hallway carpet. There is almost a silence, when Conny plays very soft chords in the two-line octave and I look to the floor, and then to the audience with a question: ‘What is this’? To lead the listener into an expected direction and then unexpectedly do something else is a rhetorical way to keep the listener’s attention (Tarling, 2004). An unexpected silence can also be used, in order to chock or amuse the listener, especially after a longer part where tension has been developed versus an expected ending (ibid).

A recitative starts: ‘My hallway carpet is empty…’, flowing back and forth both in dynamics and intensity. This can be correlated to different vocal actions: to question, to look, to hope, accuse, as a new way of expressing facts describing the situation. At the line ‘So this is how you thank me’ the person realises facts, and in the next phrase: ‘No newspaper!’ the word ‘no’ works as a transition, where I use melismas, in forte. This phrase can be seen as an example of further evidence, but now in the context of reality. Seen from a dramaturgical point of view, this is the turning point. Conny Antonov starts to play chords in a dramatic Verdi style, with tremolo in the base.

Then the next part follows, where the vocal persona (the character) curses everyone, and another narrative part, where the character lines up facts and describes how life falls apart. This is ended by a movement in octaves. Then the B part follows, a march in E minor, where the character asks for a single moment in peace. All arguments for this are lined up as the march in the piano in B major has the third in the base. The refutation comes in the text: ‘ the only thing I ask for, I can’t have’ which is correlated to the ending in the dramaturgical model (see the table). The rhetorical ending follows a little later at ‘I can’t have’, with Conny’s finishing, marked cadence chords in forte, before the finishing e minor chord with tremolo in the base.

Tarling (2004) describes different rhetorical strategies, or stylistic strategies that were used in order to affect the listener to understand something, or become emotionally affected by a rich image. In music this can be manifested in two contrasting ideas (different in rhythm, tessitura, tempo and mood) placed close to each other. Tarling notes the common rhetorical technique of using contrasts, used for instance in the painting technique chiaroscuro (contrasts between light and darkness). This aria about an everyday problem can be seen as using contrasting ideas when it comes to the overarching form: a first part in major with a lyrical character, and a second, dramatic part in minor. The aria also follows the parts of a speech as outset in the table. The improvisation was performed some months before I studied Tarling’s book, and the rhetorical strategies were not used consciously in the improvisation.

Tarling, J. (2004). The weapons of rhetoric. Hertfordshire: Corda Music Publications.

Rhetorical analysis table