Words and Ears and Brains

This morning’s poem on Radio 3 was this recording by Richard Burton of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo:

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If you’re anything like me, Burton’s reading will have hit you in the ears like a Gatling gun – the sheer pace of it is breathtaking, almost overwhelming. The technique required to deliver at that speed while maintaining the utmost clarity and precision, not to mention that trademark baritone legato line, is staggering.

Anthony Hopkins has spoken of the legacy passed on by Laurence Olivier to both Burton and himself, and it’s constantly fascinating to catch fleeting moments of that vocal DNA, each actor’s delivery being so clearly related and yet unmistakably distinct – a reminder that the point of classical vocal technique is to liberate, not suppress, individuality.

Back to this question of pace. Here’s Burton in the opening of Under Milk Wood in 1954:

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Compare that to Michael Sheen sixty years later:

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Just looking at the raw timings, Burton takes just over a minute to get to “tidy wives”, Sheen a good twenty seconds longer – a pattern which continues, cuts notwithstanding. Now, let me be clear – Sheen is an excellent actor and undoubtedly has the technique to go faster, so the difference is an artistic choice.

For further comparison, here’s Dylan Thomas himself in 1953, only just being pipped to the tidy wives post by Burton:

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Admittedly this is far too small a sample to draw any scientific conclusions, but it’s interesting to find an instance where our assumption that attention spans have got shorter over recent decades seems to be challenged. (Binge-watching box sets is another.) Which style you prefer is of course a matter of taste.

(If there’s something about current fashions in the delivery of text which bothers you, you might enjoy David Mamet’s True or False – there’s a preview article with a few of the essential points here.)

A couple of observations for singers. Firstly, Burton’s pace in the Manley Hopkins poem doesn’t prevent him from “word-painting” – imbuing individual words with distinct colours and flavours – his technique still allows him to do this. But what the pace of delivery does, for my ear at least, is to allow (or even oblige) him to maintain those individually painted words as part of longer phrases, structures and ideas. It’s very easy for singers, of art song especially, to gain easy favour by indulging in individual words, without necessarily keeping an eye on the broader intention of the poem. For my money it’s the latter which is more important. Not that I’m suggesting that singers should sing quicker, but that they need at all times to bear in mind the overall arc of the phrase, sentence and the poem itself if the meaning is not to be lost. Sometimes that will mean foregoing an opportunity to colour an individual word. And technique is also a crucial factor in achieving this goal, for singers even more than actors.

Secondly, my initial reaction to the pace of Burton’s delivery was to panic – I knew my ears and my brain couldn’t possibly keep up with this, especially in text as dense as GMH’s invariably is. In an ever-increasingly visual age, our ears have got lazy – or perhaps we’ve lost faith in their ability to cope on their own. But miraculously ears and brain stepped up to the plate. It just required me, the listener, to take a leap of faith, to trust the actor, and to commit to the process of listening.

I often get that same sense of instant panic when listening to singers, and my survival instinct in that situation is to cling to the surtitles or printed texts like glue, assuming there are any. Surtitles provide that dilemma for us – singers, or at least those with good diction and acting skills, dislike them, as do directors, but audiences are hugely in favour. What can we do about this? Taking away the paying public’s beloved visual comfort blanket against their clear wishes can hardly be the answer.

Instead, perhaps we as performers need to strive to regain the trust of our audiences, to nurture the rebuilding of their confidence in their ears and the aural parts of their brain. And indeed in us. We can deliver our texts with such clarity, commitment and technical excellence that surtitles become an irrelevance, and audiences begin lobbying for their removal.

Incidentally, whenever I’ve tried to read Under Milk Wood aloud it comes out sounding like I’m narrating Ivor the Engine. This bothered me for years until the day I read an interview with its author, where he admitted that the whole idea for Ivor had been inspired by his love for Dylan Thomas’ creation. So there it is: while the bearers of Olivier’s legacy are Burton, Hopkins, Sheen et al, I am the sole heir of Oliver Postgate.

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About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. He has recently started a series of irregular posts along the broad theme of "Things they don't teach you at music college." Any suggestions or requests on this theme will be treated with feigned or genuine interest. You can contact him via comments here or at: mail@paulcareyjones.com
This entry was posted in acting, Books, Music, Opera, singing, Theatre, Wales. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Words and Ears and Brains

  1. Thanks for a fascinating blog which resonated well with me as a poet and singer. I think the music and visuals in Michael Sheen’s version may make a difference to the speed of delivery, depending on how it was recorded and pieced together.

    • Thanks for the comment Heather. Yes, that had occurred to me too, although interestingly, Burton’s delivery in the 1972 film is if anything slightly quicker. I’m a huge fan of Michael Sheen’s work, and wouldn’t want to be without either version of course.

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