- Vocal Philologies:Written on Skin and the Troubadours
Parchment or slate were precious materials to the medieval scholar—or composer—and they were used repeatedly for successive sketching. Today, many centuries later, surviving manuscripts appear chaotic, with a surface complexity almost resembling organic growth, although their straight lines reveal they are man-made. In deciphering these mysterious objects one can unravel the sequence of layers and trace back to the initial text.—George Benjamin, program note to Palimpsests for Orchestra (1998 2002)1
What is it that you are looking at?Boy:
Nothing, says the Boy, thumbing the knife.Protector:
I'm thinking that when this wood and this light are cut through by eight lanes of poured concrete, I'm thinking that the two of us and everyone we love will have been dead for a thousand years.Protector:
The future's easy: tell me about now.—George Benjamin, Written on Skin, text for music by Martin Crimp (Part II, scene 9)2
Parchment is an unexpected vocal source to bring to a special issue on the voice in contemporary opera studies. In a field such as medieval studies, my more familiar scholarly habitat, parchment is the common currency of the voice: the ultimate proxy for vocal acts that are long since gone. Voice in the context of parchment is synonymous with the philological activity required to decipher information about song-acts as they were transmitted, reworked, and sometimes corrupted in the medium of ink, notation, and skin. Opera's voices are by contrast promiscuous these [End Page 207] days in their commissioning of human and mechanical agents to sustain and transmit an audible presence: in this setting, the parchment medium is obsolete—an arcane reminder of another time, and of other kinds of voices, now surplus to requirement. It is, however, with medieval parchment leaves, and the operatic vocal effects that they provoke, that the present contribution is concerned. It takes up an invitation (irresistible to the medievalist) issued by a recent opera widely regarded as being at the vanguard of the genre, in which parchment has a starring role. Parchment's presence not only prompts exploration of how a seemingly out-of-place vocal technology—and all the attendant philological apparatus that supports its analysis—might illuminate the contemporary operatic voice. It also invites a look back to a much earlier period of vocal production for which parchment is the single most important extant record, and considers what, if anything, a contemporary opera's parchment-voices might have to offer scholars in pursuit of a more elusive vocal past. As moderator in the transhistorical dialogue between contemporary and medieval voices, parchment will be treated in this essay both as a physical entity, to be subjected to philological scrutiny, and as a critical resource, with which to theorize the voice. In both contexts, parchment exposes a paradox at the heart of the vocal medium, medieval and modern. Namely, while parchment seeks to sustain and transmit the sonorous human voice through its translation into systems of melodic notation and text writing, and thus bears witness to the voice's desire to be heard again, it is also emphatically instrumental in its demise. Melodic and textual transmission of voice-acts in medieval manuscript culture is a story not of fixity, repeatability, and permanence, so much as it is one of variability and instability—words that are commonplace in the lexicon of medieval philology. What aspires to render the voice durable, then, also, always, reveals its precariousness and resistance to permanent record.
The source of the unusual encounter between ancient vocal surface and contemporary voice is George Benjamin's (b. 1960) and Martin Crimp's (b. 1956) opera Written on Skin, premiered in Aix-en-Provence in 2012. As its title suggests, skin, in the form of parchment folios that are created and appear throughout the opera, is the engine of the dramatic scenario. Martin Crimp's text is based on a thirteenth-century Occitan prose biography, or razo, of the Provençal troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing (?1162 1212), who is attested to in the region of Roussillon in the late twelfth century.3...