Frankenstein-ing: A Look at Listening

“For it’s a long long while…”

Six words and two measures of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song”. With an established idea, it seems simple enough in execution. Just sing the words and the melody. But the amount of variation one can put in these six words. Take versions from Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Lotte Lenya for instance.

Sarah Vaughan stretches the words out, staying rather legato. At the first “long”, when the instruments come back in, she does something interesting. Instead of sticking it on the downbeat she comes in a hair after it, catching up soon after with the rest of the line. Vaughan is operating on a soft time. She was supposed to come at 8:00 but arrives at 8:03 instead. But the way Vaughan strides in, so smooth and singing, one could care less about her late arrival. It adds a certain relaxed grace about her. No rush, just beauty.

Billie Holiday keeps everything rhythmic. There isn’t any of the stretching of Vaughan. She’s on time and means business. What’s great about Holiday in these six words is that its all targeted. Everything moves to the “while”. There isn’t any emphasis on these preceding words: no vibrato or color. Once she hits “while” the color turns on as she tapers with a lovely vibrato.

Lotte Lenya comes in a tad early. But perhaps I’m hearing wrong. To me it’s like she came in at 7:59 but when I look down again its 8:00. Not a big deal. Lenya also has an equal treatment of the line. There isn’t the targeted approach of Holiday or stretching of Vaughan. It’s straight. What is unique is the subtle vibrato which runs on in the background, giving color to a clean approach.

And that’s only in the first two measures! Who knows what other variations could be found by more discerning ears.

What’s fascinating is that each singer has an equally valid but different approach. One could mix and match these three singers: the stretching of Vaughn with the targeting of Holiday and the vibrato of Lenya. Doing this sort of style tinkering, one can create her own version of “September Song” (well, at least the first line).

This is the beauty of listening to other versions of songs we’re performing. While taking our own approach we can Frankenstein other things we like on top of what we start out with. The crazy thing is, like with the example above, we can do it with just two measures of a piece.


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