1.1. Spotting the problem


- You open the attachment. A totally new piece of music, written for you.

No one has ever sung this piece before. It is up to you to give life to what the composer imagined. What an opportunity, what a challenge, what freedom!

You open the file excited and you start browsing through the score… but…

 is it doable?...


 - You press the send button. You worked months and months on this. It is by far your best composition. You put all your knowledge in it, the unique and revolutionary ideas you found, you designed every sound, gesture and texture with such care.

It does look a bit difficult though

Can the singer do it?


In best case scenario you have three rehearsals. Three shots, only three attempts to get to the best result, before you give birth to your new baby.

But somehow, you don’t seem to understand each other very well.


Time to find a better way of communicating.

You sing great, and you compose great.

You just need to understand each other better. 

1.1.1.   Singing the ‘unsingable’ - the outdated, negative image


            Many singers suffer when they have to sing modern music. They often have the negative idea that singing contemporary pieces might destroy their voices. This prejudice is however not without reason: composers often don’t know enough about the voice when composing for it, and as such they don’t respect its limitations while also taking advantage of its special possibilities. The dilemma thus, ironically, is that many new vocal pieces are not written vocally. To make matters worse, notation in these pieces can quite often be messy and overcomplicated, making the singers’ lives very difficult. On the other hand, many composers avoid working with singers. They too have a pejorative image of singers as old-fashioned in their aesthetics: that they don’t have good solfege skills, that they can only sing with a big vibrato, that they are not flexible enough, and especially, that they are difficult to work with. Again—accusations sadly often rooted in reality. The need arises, therefore, to create more understanding on both sides. 

1.1.2.   An instrumental metaphor/ analogy

            In the life of every musician comes a time of obligatory piano playing. If not from their own initiative, at least from an institutional pressure many people start by playing Bach for example. Playing his keyboard music on a modern piano resembles a bit a similar discrepancy between the modern sound ideal of vocal music and the real instrument of a classically trained singer. How should the piece be performed, when the composer had another instrument in mind? Should we play the piano as if imitating a harpsichord, or can we use the sustain pedal to make the instrument sound how it is supposed to?

                                                                                          (read additional thoughts)

And, taking this analogy further: why doesn’t the composer use the real potential of a piano instead of wanting it to sound like another instrument? Or—why are composers not writing for the full potential of a classically trained voice, instead of limiting it immediately and asking for the aesthetics of other types of singing?

Building Bridges Between

the Contemporary Composer and the Classically-Trained Singer

     Aesthetical oxymoron or fruitful relationship?



1.1.3.   Research Question


            Thus my primary research question for this project is: how can this aesthetic oxymoron between the wishes of modern composers and the needs of singers be mediated or resolved, and what changes could be made on both sides in order to achieve a more fruitful relationship, resulting in compositions that are both singable and that explore the voice's potential beyond its Classical boundaries? Bound up in this question however, are several sub-questions. From the composer's side: why are most modern pieces written without any knowledge and understanding of how a classical singer operates; why are the aesthetics of classically trained voices so far from the sound ideal of contemporary composers; and why do composers so often ignore the physical limitations of the human voice? From the singer's side: if bel canto is one of the finest systems for controlling all the bodily components of singing, why can't classical singers produce a ‘pure, flexible, diverse, non-operatic, non-dramatic sound' at the request of modern composers; and where does this sound ideal come from anyway (historical, psychological, acoustic, electronic/amplification contexts)?


            With increasing need for diversity as a performer, and perhaps especially as a singer, we have to explore the possibilities of how to develop a voice to its full operatic potential while still retaining the ability to perform in contemporary settings. As modern composers, we have to be true to our own voices and dare to create our own sound image in the vocal music we compose, according to our own background, personal taste, and diverse (musical) experiences. So how can we bring these two worlds closer? How can we create a common vocabulary—a method for translating and mediating the needs of both sides?


1.3. The process - Is research just what I do anyways?


1.3.1.   The two worlds – an inner need to unite


            When you chose to start a second profession, you will by nature experience the splitting of your attentions. To think again in analogies, when parents get a new child, they say: but we will love you the same! Yes, their love won't split. But their time and energy won't duplicate in proportion with the growing needs of two children. They will need to split their time. Similarly, for years I experienced how I don’t put enough time and focus in managing my career as composer, and how much time and energy it takes to become a classically trained singer. Slowly, the two sides started growing into common ground, and becoming a professional singer as well as a professional composer brought equality between the two from where I can see the similarities and differences, and build a common vocabulary on it.

1.3.3.   Chosen methods - What to expect?


- contextualize the problem

- conduct 2 interviews to show both sides of the issue (underlining the observations from my personal experience)

- documenting a case study of me being a singer of demanding modern music

(while also mentioning my composing activities for voice, but with less focus, as this research is part of my Singing MA)

- setting up two experiments for mediating between composers and singers (coaching and teaching)

- showing my conclusions in a list of suggestions for both, and creating a chart for ‘mapping the voice,' which could be used as a starting point in mediating such collaborations

1.2. Personal background

1.2.3.   What to do now? or, how to build a bridge?


            I will observe all of my activities; from the point of view of what is useful for the purposes of being able to mediate between the two worlds of singing and composition. Which experiences make me more receptive to the needs of both sides? How can I help composers and singers communicate with each other better and achieve an even greater collaboration? To find that out, I will need to set up my methods for this project.


1.2.1.   Why me?


            Being both a composer and a singer, I was always most excited to be part of the premiere of a new piece. When I started my professional training as a classical singer, my preconceptions of singers started to change—and so did my understanding of what ‘good vocal writing’ is. Slowly, I started focusing more on the singers’ side: this was the new lifestyle that I needed to invest more time and energy into. Last year I reached a level where my skills on both sides were matched. More and more frequently, I began getting requests for coaching and teaching–mediating between these two seemingly opposed sides. I felt finally that both of my studies, experiences, and all the in-between activities, were slowly coming together and ripening into a joint specialism.

I dedicate my master research to this process.

.1.2.2.   What do I do?


            I finished two masters in composition: one at the Liszt Academy, Budapest, and one at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. At the latter institution I started my Bachelors in singing in 2012, finished my BA in 2016, and continued to my Masters in singing with Sasja Hunnego. As a composer I have a wide spectrum of works: from oratorio to opera, from songs to chamber music, choirs, vocal and instrumental ensemble pieces, music for theatre and film, educational works and choir-improvisational etudes. I also have broad experiences with collaborative works with other art forms, open form pieces and text pieces.

            Yet, since I received the Tenso Young Composers Award in 2014, I began to receive more and more choir commissions and began to focus more on vocal composition. As a singer I have an extensive choral background (Hungarian Radio Children’s Choir, World Youth Choir, several professional chamber choirs and ensembles), which resulted in now having a part time job in the Groot Omroepkoor (Radio Choir of Holland). As soloist I also sing many premieres, but also early music and Romantic opera. I had smaller solos in oratory and chamber settings, and I still sing many new pieces. I also gained experience in conducting as the leader of the Chamber Choir of the Centre for young Musicians, The Hague, as well as being the guest conductor of the National Boys Choir of Holland. I am the vocal coach and vocal compositional supervisor of the Young Composers Meeting in Apeldoorn with orkest ‘de ereprijs’ and I teach a course at the Royal Conservatory in Modern Ensemble Singing, where I guide composition students in how to compose for a vocal ensemble (the Universe Birds), and where I also prepare singers for how to study modern music, and conduct them in singing the pieces of composition students. I am also the singer and conductor of The Odd7, an innovative instrumental ensemble of 6 people, for which I’m also the co-founder and composer of arrangements and original pieces. I will use all these experiences and background to create a guide for bringing classical singers and contemporary composers closer to one another.

1.3.2.   Setting borders, choosing frames


            After collecting ideas, recordings, topics, discussing the problem with many composing and singing colleagues, and thinking a lot, the first step was setting up a structure for the research project. I soon discovered that I needed guidelines to narrow my focus. To make the research practice-based, I decided to observe my activities that combine both worlds, and extract the information that could sum up into a language or method this ‘translation’ between creators and performers of vocal music. I also decided to not focus on the fact of being a composer and a singer at the same time, as such self-observation might be directed to fewer people (many of whom occupy the same duality as I do), but rather to use my diverse experiences to mediate between composers and singers.

1.3.4.   Where could it lead? - A guide for composers and singers


A summary of my findings could lead to a guide, where creators and performers of vocal music find some guidelines how to collaborate, such as:

-       Defining processes

-       Mapping the voice correctly from both sides (create a questionnaire, show both sides their own responsibility)

-       Finding the common impulse – intention – subtext

-       Prepare both sides for possible common traps

In this research I won’t aim yet to produce a booklet, but share an essence of my experience in conducting these interviews and experiments, as a mediator.


Further work however could result in a publication or a small book, that could be used also in education, interdisciplinary workshops and personal practice of both composers and singers - a booklet for those looking to create beautiful and exciting new vocal works together—not in spite of one another

The piece by Gyula Csapó: Trilce V. written for Georgi Sztojanov and Katalin Koltai

as an example of the result of a fruitful relationship (further mentioned in Chapter 6.4)

So, when one plays Bach on a piano, one might use the sustain pedal, as it is part of the instrument, it changes the overall sound, it helps legato where it is impossible to find continuous fluent fingering, and when used smartly, it can have a huge impact of the character of the music and is thus one of the most important tools of expression for pianists. Yet, according to some old-fashioned ideas, we shouldn’t use pedal when playing Bach, as that is a Romantic way of playing, and Bach didn’t have a pedal on his piano. Wait, Bach didn’t have a piano at all! We can't be playing authentic Bach on a piano, as his works were written for other keyboard instruments. So each and every attempt to play it on a modern piano is a transcription, an interpretation, for which one has to choose one’s own boundaries.

            In this analogy, if the first thing that a modern composer writes in the score is to forbid the singer from using a large part of his or her instrument—usually, vibrato—he limits the sound possibilities, expression and comfort of his performer. In most cases, it also turns out that behind the word ‘vibrato’ lies a whole other set of tools: resonance, projection, understandable text-projection, voice colouring, subtext and intention. So should one completely reject one’s own instrument, just because the contemporary composer didn’t take that into consideration as coming together in one package? Another example: When a composer takes apart a clarinet, to use it without the mouthpiece, and produce a beautiful and special sound, it is called a ‘kaval’ effect (from the traditional wind instrument of the Balkans that it imitates). It can be a very special moment in a piece to use this timbre, and it satisfies our need for the exotic, unorthodox sound ideals of contemporary music. But if a whole piece is written for only a kaval effect, the question arises: why wouldn’t then a composer choose to write for a real kaval, and not make the clarinettist play on ‘half of his instrument’ constantly? Besides this philosophical question, a more practical one arises: did the composer respect the limitations of what this ‘loss’ causes with the instrument itself (in range, speed, and expression)?


Short story from the first meeting of ‘The Vocal Project’

(later mentioned in Chapter 6.6)

 - It is out of range,

- The book said if you are a soprano you should be able to sing this!

- It's more like… a bad tessitura

                        - A what now?

- I can't sing that in one breath!

                        - Breath?

- I can't sing so high, soft and without vibrato!

- Why always so heavy and inflexible?

- There is no reference point in these chords…

                        - You don’t have a tuning fork?

            - This jump is too big!

                        - You just didn’t study your part!

- Can you show me what you mean by this sign?

- Why can't you do it? It's like this: *&^%($)#@

- I can do this effect but you over-orchestrated it, no one can hear me doing it!

                        - Have you no commitment?

- You don’t write any expression markings, what character do you imagine?

            - Character? Hmm… just… neutral, please.

- What is the subtext of this piece?

- … ( )

- You know, the message?

- If I could say it with words I would have been a poet.

- But what did you want with this piece?

- Why are you so 19th (century)?

- Why do I have to do all of this?

                        - Why did I have to write for you?



‘Hi, I’m Georgi, I finished two masters in composition. Im a tenor, but have a darker colour, so I can also sing baritone sometimes. I also do countertenor, then Im a higher voice, like more a mezzosoprano. I also do a bit of Bulgarian folk singing and some extended techniques.

It would be so nice to get a piece like a mini-opera for three characters, a heroic tenor, a fragile falsettist and a raw ethnopower-voice.

Who wants to compose for me?!

(Silence - all 10 composers looking shyly at the floor…)


A small overview


Introduce the questions

-       Where the conflict comes from

-       my own position in it

-       the desired result to find a way of guiding composers and singers wishing to work together


Spotting the problem

-       having a small historical overview of their relationship during the centuries

-       showing where this aesthetic difference comes from and where it is today

-       mentioning a few famous composer and singer couples


Interviewing a singer with diverse background singing both classical and modern music:

-       Does she use different technique to sing modern?

-       How does she prepare? What special skills are needed to do modern music?

-       How does she work with composers? How does she introduce her own voice?


Interviewing a composer, that worked with her:

-       how he thinks of the voice, what is his own singing experience

-       his background with vocal composing, studies and compositions

-       his view on the aesthetic differences, why and how it derived from a linear connection

-       His experiences with singers so far


Choosing a case study, where I was a singer of a vocally challenging modern piece:

-       A major masterpiece where I was thrown in the deep end, and had to sing a 'mission impossible' tenor solo. Problems with range, tessitura, stamina, text, forbidden usage of vibrato, voice type fitting, etc., and what solutions might be found in my existing training.


Sharing two experiments in mediating between composers and signers (coaching and teaching):

-       the Young Composers Meeting, where I was the vocal coach last year, and gave a lecture to the young composers about writing for the voice

-       the course I gave to composers and singers in the Royal Conservatory, The Hague, where I supervised composers in writing for vocal ensemble, and coached singers who performed their pieces