Guided Listening #1: Song Without Words

For this Guided Listening you will need the following:

A copy of these teaching steps
Image asset: Post card from composer from Château de Pompairain
Audio asset: Excerpt I and II from Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather
Text asset: Mather: Au Château de Pompairain

I. First Impressions

  • Introduce the image asset of the postcard from the composer Bruce Mather. Look carefully at the location information. What do we know about this work? (it was commissioned, the composer has been in France for the year, the composition is named after the place where it was written, the singer's name is Phyllis Mailing).
  • Listen to Excerpt I from Au Château de Pompairain.
  • Discuss as a class:
    • What did you hear? (a voice, instruments – quite an interesting mix of instruments here – see how many the students can pull out).
    • What kind of mood did the music create?
  • Read the text asset Mather: Au Château de Pompairain, which will supply the information about the instruments heard.

II. Describe

  • Listen to Excerpt I again, this time focusing on the voice. Can you describe the melody? (chromatic, jumps around, flutters,) How does the melody relate to the instruments?
  • Notice that the singer's line is sung entirely to the vowel ‘ah'. Do you think singing without words is hard or easy? Why? Is there any advantage to singing with words?

III. Experiment

  • Take any familiar song and try singing it without words. Then sing it with the words. What is the difference?
  • Share the following information:
    • Singing songs without words is not unfamiliar to most trained singers. Indeed in the bel canto period, songs without words (called vocalises) were exercises written with the intent of developing specific vocal skills. That said, it is not an easy way to sing! Consonants and changing vowels are all part of the colour palette a singer has to play with, providing accents, clear beginnings and endings, and contrasts. Without words as anchors, contrast and shading has to come from powerful breath control and artistry. Composer Bruce Mather has certainly set up a challenge for Ms. Mailing!

IV. Compare

  • Listen to Excerpt II. What is the major difference between this excerpt and the first? (Here the singer sings an exposed passage with minimal accompaniment. The strings provide a quiet drone-like support underneath.)

V. Composer Strategy

  • Ask: How can we describe the strategy the composer used to write for the human voice? (no text). Add this strategy to your Composing Strategies for the Voice chart.

This is a postcard that composer Bruce Mather wrote after spending a year in France. He writes about his new piece commissioned by the National Arts Centre, Au Château de Pompairain.

Postcard from composer from Château de Pompairain
This is a postcard that composer Bruce Mather wrote after spending a year in France. He writes about his new piece for the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Au Château de Pompairain.

Excerpt I from Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather (0:01:17)

Excerpt I from Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather - Play now

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This excerpt from Bruce Mather’s Au Château de Pompairain, is full of contrasts. Mezzo soprano Phyllis Mailing sings an expansive and animated passage, all without text. The orchestral accompaniment shimmers with the sounds of gongs, tubular bells and cymbals.

Excerpt II from Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather (0:00:29)

Excerpt II from Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather - Play now

Warning: Audio file is larger than 6MbDownload (0.69Mb)

In the excerpt from Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather, the singer sings an exposed passage with minimal accompaniment. The strings provide a quiet drone-like support underneath.

Bruce Mather, Au Château de Pompairain
Bruce Mather (b. 1939) began composing early in life and by the age of ten had already won a prize from CAPAC for a piano composition. He was a composition student of Godfrey Ridout and Oskar Morawetz in Canada and later studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen.

Au Château de Pompairain was written while the composer Bruce Mather was on a sabbatical in France. The process of writing commissioned work was lengthy – five months in total and with seven starts. Written for mezzo soprano Phyllis Mailing, the vocal line is textless and sung to ah. The orchestration is rich in timbre and creates a tapestry of sound with percussion instruments such as marimba, tubular bells, gongs and cymbals. The harp is often paired in conversation with the voice to beautiful effect.

Credits and Copyright

  • Image asset: Post card from composer from Château de Pompairain
    Bruce Mather
  • Audio asset: Excerpt I from Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather
    1975, Bruce Mather
  • Audio asset: Excerpt II from Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather
    1975, Bruce Mather
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