4.1. Interview subject: Martijn Padding, the Modern Composer


            For the interview to show the composer’s side of this issue, I chose my old composing teacher, who is also the head of the Composing Department in The Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and a student of Louis Andriessen (the composer in my case study in Chapter 5.) A bright, energetic, sparkling personality, playful and intriguing music, large background knowledge, and a somewhat alienated feeling towards classical singing, all makes Martijn Padding the perfect subject of my interview for the topic.


Find his bio here (link to his website).


            Martijn is mainly an instrumental composer, yet has worked with singers, and has written two operas. He grew up in a family of amateur and professional pianists. He himself sung only in a Gregorian choir, but had no further experience with singing. His excitement with vocal music is mainly derived from the pop of his youth: “The Who, Rolling Stones, so that really exciting, avant-garde, radical pop music. So, my musical background is a mixture of those two ... I like everything that is sober, like songs of Schubert, that is great, Schumann, Faure, that kind of stuff, that kind of sound in singing. I like old music singing of course, and some contemporary singing. All traditional cultures - which I directly love! But the big opera repertoire is I think still a problem. That's also what I encounter as well. I wrote two operas, and I made a lot of musical, theatre pieces, but then very often I prefer actors to sing.” He often uses singing as a tool while teaching composing: ‘Can you sing it yourself?’ - he asks his students. Yet, it is not part of his every day life (music) practice: "Of course I can sing, but it doesn't feel good physically to me.”


4.3. Composing – always a collaboration with the performer

            Composers often couple up with the singers they liked to work with. They have a new sound image in mind, or they get inspired by a new singer – or both, like in the case of Martijn. Sometimes this common experimenting results even in creating new voice types (for example the Rossini tenor) or new instruments (the Wagner tuba). It is a bit a case of the egg before the chicken (or vice versa): was it the invention of the composer first that performers satisfied, or a unique ability of a performer that a composer got inspired by?

            Martijn always works closely with his performers, and gets to know a voice so well that when he composes for it, he can hear that specific voice in his mind. Speaking of his great collaboration with Jannie Pranger, he notes: “I could really be like a sculptor, I could do things with her and she liked to work with me in that way. We found out many things together.” 



4.2.  ‘What do I feed it with?’ Education in vocal composition

           – how much do composers know about singers in general?


4.2.1.   Mapping the voice


            When composers have to write for singers, they often forget about defining the instrument they have to compose for. As the 20th century opened so many possibilities for performers, a creator can easily take these for granted and forget about the opportunities that come from the classical training of singers. The human voice has no limits! Yes, but that is the voice of all of Humanity, not just one person. To compose for a voice, we first have to get to know it.

Voice types, the repertoire that a singer sings, and the specialities in their range, colour and expression all define the voice – and each and every instrument is different, as it is the resonating body and personality of the singer.

            Before starting to compose for a singer therefore, a little background research is needed. Also, the type of music that he/she sings will speak a lot about how their instrument is developed, and what can we expect. Is it a Lied or Opera singer? There can be a range difference for example of circa a minor third up in operatic repertoire (I remind always my composing students, that a song for soprano wouldn’t go up to a high C, but usually only to an A, and similarly a mezzo wouldn’t sing high A-s in songs but F, F# etc.) Is the singer mainly singing Romantic repertoire or early music (the latter of which is closer aesthetically to the ideal of ‘natural voice’ and is not focused only on big sound production). Nowadays we start realizing that this question is no longer equal to using vibrato or not, as the rigid non vibrato early music approach is more and more replaced with a view preferring great expressivity. So the question is how much vibrato is in the voice, what main colour or tone the voice has, and even what languages does the singer sing in or speak—all of which affects the type of voice we are working with. Is it a soloist or an ensemble singer? How much experience does he/she have in other genres of singing, or extended techniques, or exotic folk sounds? Mapping the voice can thus be essential to starting a collaboration – from both sides! For this I developed a voice map, which is found in Chapter 8.

4.3.1.   Writing for a singer or an instrumentalist


            According to Martijn, writing for a singer “is special, because for many years I avoided it as I just could not find the right solution. This has to do with the upbringing in two different cultures.” Studying and listening to only instrumental classical music and having the vocal influence of the new pop and rock made him – and two generations at least, if not three, along with today’s young composers – feel problematic about ‘classical singing.' Martijn says he prefers to compose for instruments, because he likes the precision and virtuosity of his notes over the sound. Yet, if the first thing we have in mind when we choose to work with a singer is to take away half of their instrument (no vibrato, poppy singing, no exaggerated text) then we often limit the virtuosity of the voice. "I think when you start working with a singer there's directly more emotion and more content, interpretation."

            Another topic that made me think was about giving feedback while working together. An instrumentalist will listen to comments about what to change or how to play a certain line differently, but for the singer it can be taken ‘personally.' That might be because in singing the instrument is the body and the personality itself. Martijn however mentions a few singers with whom he had a great and fruitful collaboration. Most of them possess qualities such as: flexibility, devotion, and years of working together, until he got to know their voices perfectly. And above all, they had an ‘understanding’ of his music: “Many people who sing (play) my music just don’t get it. And they try and they just don’t get it. Whatever I say to them, they don't change.”

4.3.2.   Modern opera – a hybrid


            So in most cases composers find their vocal muses and work closely together to create new vocal repertoire. The problem comes however, when they get an opera commission, and instead of working with the material there is in such an institution – namely, opera singers – composers ignore the singers’ style of singing and force them into a previously discovered, desired sound. Operatic singing style is the furthest you can get from modern sound ideal (as shown in chapter 2. and 3.3.2.).

In this constellation both can find the work difficult. As in the case of Martijn’s first opera, that, despite its great success in Russia and Poland, ended in catastrophe:

“It was a nightmare. When I came back, I remember with the plane, and I travelled with the singers, we were standing in Schipol to say goodbye and I told them in the face, I will never in my life work with you again. I'm so so so disappointed, we had huge success, but I would never want to work with you again. I never did as well.”

What made him feel like that? “Exaggeration in every phrase they did, not singing rhythmically, only singing because of them, not because of the music, sound that I didn't like, too much vibrato. I'm not against vibrato at all, Georgi, I do know it is beautiful when it is really used as a style thing, as an articulation. Beautiful. But not automatically. Yeah, so that terrible experience was a mixture of the way they sang, but also the way they behave. They really behaved like all the clichés we've heard.”


            “Laika”, the second opera, was a different case: here, the composer could pick his own singers. The process was peaceful, and fruitful. Yet, in the final result he found them not enough extreme on stage: “I don't say that it's only their fault, also in my coaching maybe I was not rigid enough to them, maybe I was not rigid enough in the parts. That's very possible. But they just they wanted to be beautiful, they just wanted to be nice. That is what I like very much about actors, they directly pick this up. They become dirty persons, you know. But of course in opera you really want them to do wonderful singing as well and I have also this fetishism for pitch of course, so I want the intervals to be precise. That is a sort of contradiction.” What strikes me is that he didn’t use a specialist or mediator in any of these processes, but relied on working only with the singers themselves. Yet, in both cases, the results and the process wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been. Meaning also that the singers didn’t know how to achieve the wishes of the composer and find better solutions on their own instruments. This demonstrates to me how helpful it could be to have vocal composers (like myself) mediate in such creative processes, especially in operas and other big productions (Radio Choirs for example) where the gap between the knowledge about vocality from the composer’s side and the compositional thinking from the singers’ side could be addressed by a ‘specialist’.

Indeed, when I ask if his lines were extreme enough to make the singers be extreme on stage, he considers trying to make them more virtuosic vocally, by consulting someone who could mediate with knowledge about both composing and singing.

4.3.3.   Conclusions: Actor or singer? A matter of taste


Two important topics that Martijn mentioned, and are crucial to understand the gap between the two worlds.


One is taste – Martijn mentions, that many times singers (and also very classically trained instrumentalist, who don’t play modern music) have “bad taste”.

Meaning, they would prefer music by composers who were virtuoso in their instrument, and wrote great “showing off” pieces, than seeing the real musical content and compositional greatness in certain other composers.

In that sense, al bel canto and a big chunk of the operatic repertoire further becomes a “showcase” for the taste of composers, thus they turn away from it, and anything connected to it, also the sound ideal (as Noa mentioned in chapter 3.3.2.).


On the other hand, seeing my development as a singer, my taste also changed:

I grew a taste in vocality. A taste, that comes from understanding and experience (dealing with singers, vocal repertoire, technicality etc).


When working on his operas, he couldn’t give real feedback about the singing, he says, as he doesn’t know enough about the technicality of singing.

So I realized, to make them come closer, each side should develop a taste: singers in modern music, and for composers in vocality.


(For example Martijn mentioned his collaboration with Claron McFadden, that she would do anything he wants, but she would immediately detect things, and be harshly stating what she is willing to do and what not – and that she has a great taste, so he could trust her. Building this trust could only be, when both show competence in each other’s fields.)


After one and a half hour of intense talking I am standing at the door of his classroom. Arriving to another conclusion that somewhat “defends” the singers.

Actors dare to become dirty persons on stage, while singers always keep some beauty, and that is a bit disappointing for Martijn and many composers.

Yet, an actor identifies with the character only for the time being on stage.

A singer, especially in staged pieces, but also even in a song, is an actor and an instrument at the same time. He/She has to take care of the voice and make the body produce free sound. Even in an effect of distortion somewhere we have to keep a free airflow to be communicative.

If an actor has to play for example a scene where he cries while he speaks, and he wants the text to be understood still, he wouldn’t go below a certain volume, or wouldn’t give himself so much to his emotions that he wouldn’t be able to speak.

Singers have to follow the vocal lines, the tempo, the conductor, the precision… as Martijn mentioned, this also as a contradiction, thus a singer can’t be as free in expressivity, as a spoken text actor.


We will identify what we heard from a singer in a piece with the singer itself. If the singing was ‘bad’, we would judge that the singer is ‘bad’.

So keeping your instrument running on stage indeed makes you ‘too beautiful’, but is necessary.


4.2.2.  Vocal Composing in education, and in the field nowadays


            Martijn agrees that there is not enough focus on education in vocal composing. As he was a student of Louis Andriessen, and they also didn’t address the voice in its classical form, but observed it already only from the perspective of the desired sounds. So one has to learn and research mostly by himself/herself about the voice, and discover his/her own solutions through collaborative work with a singer. Most of the focus in orchestration and instrumentation training doesn’t include much about vocality. Studying and investigating standard vocal repertoire could prove very efficient in learning the many amazing things the voice can do.

            In any case, the reputation also of vocal composing and especially choral composing is quite low, due to the misbelief that choir music (and vocal music in general) is always easy, kitschy and written only for amateurs, and that composers specializing in such fields are just ‘people pleasers with a good sense for business.' ‘Hochmusik’ is still instrumental chamber music, or orchestral works. Yet as Martijn reminds me, opera works in big halls in the mainstream musical world are still well respected.

4.2.3.   The aesthetics of the preferred voice


            As mentioned above, many composers from the ‘60s have their roots in pop, rock, or other light music, which shows in their vocal composing. Martijn too, tried often to make classical singers sound like that, and he agrees that it was mostly unsuccessful. The sound ideal, however, is anyway moving towards the lighter, more natural sounding voice production, even in mainstream opera one could say.

With the movement of The Hague school and Louis Andriessen (no vibrato, amplification, no bourgeois performing places or big orchestras) it becomes a standard requirement to sing non vibrato, with precise straight tones. Most pieces are written for female voices, and especially sopranos. One could argue that this is because most singers we have are anyway sopranos (and in male voices baritones) or because of the extremes of the voice are more attractive to composers.

Martijn however disagrees with me that such a generalisation should be made. He points out that in big opera houses, or big concert venues, the ‘mainstream’ music world is still all about 'loud singing,' and that my perception is different, because I tend to interact with many young composers, and the flavour of The Hague School (back to two generations). I convince him a bit by mentioning Barbara Hannigan of course, who is the name of today’s classical contemporary singing. Her flexibility, musical brain, beauty of voice, body and personality, make her one of the best contemporary singer of our times. 

 Indeed, another interesting question I had to omit while narrowing down this research project was: how could composers be brought closer to ‘classical vocal repertoire pieces’ and through that knowledge be influenced in their own vocal writing? (See pdf attached below of an essay in the topic - an unwritten chapter)

On my first lesson ever in The Hague I presented a Composition of mine based on a Bulgarian folksong – which I presented in traditional folk voice live – and then showed a recording of me singing all 16 voices, only the two lowest bases transposed digitally an octave lower – quite amateur, to be honest.

Martijn’s first comment about my singing was that he liked how I sang, because it is not sounding classically trained – artificial. 

Listen to the piece below

A singer in modern music often gets the comment: 'See, Cathy Berberian could sing everything!' Indeed, everything that she could sing, she sang. What she couldn’t, she didn’t incorporate into her singing. The human voice is limited, but some just have a gift to be more diverse – see more about this in Chapter 3.3.5.

About you 

What musical background you come from?

Do you often use voice in your compositions? Does it have a special place in your music?

Did you have a singing background from childhood?

Do you sing yourself?

When and how you met first singing?

Did you study vocal composing (ranges, technicality of the voice, categorization, analyzing scores, prosody, choir composing etc)?

Or did you have to research it yourself?


Composing for singers

Is writing for a voice different then for an instrumentalist?

Is your preparation/background study different? 

Do you have a specific sound in your mind when you compose for a singer?

OR do you listen to the voice first and get inspired by it?

Did you work with classically trained singers and also singers of other genres and vocal cultures and backgrounds? How would you describe the difference?

Did you take into account these differences when composing? Was there a different method during the rehearsals to achieve the sound you wanted? 

Would you say, when you use a classically trained voice, that you are interested in the special abilities such a voice can produce?

Or you start from a more ‘contemporary’ sound ideal, and you suffer sometimes from not enough flexible singers?

When asking for a ‘non-traditional sound’ from your singer, what terminus technicus you use to describe the sound? Are you familiar with scaling and specifying parameters beyond vibrato, such as resonance, difference between chest voice/head voice/ falsetto, exaggerated pronunciation, projection, etc?



How is the process to work with singers for you? Is it different from instrumentalists?

What are the obstacles? What are the specialties?

Could you mention a few examples of fruitful collaborations between you and a vocal performer of your piece?

Could you mention some examples of struggles and difficult relation for both sides?

Is there a singer who you work often with? What is the secret of your good relationship and fruitful collaboration?


Vocal composing education

Would you agree that in the contemporary field nowadays the aesthetics of the voices used tends to ask for lighter, non-vibrato, (mainly female) voices?

Do you also resonate with that in your art?

Why did this aesthetic separation happen, you think?

(amplification, style freedom, mixing genres, non vibrato - Andriessen)

Would you agree that nowadays there is not enough focus on composing for the voice, background studies for it, connection between singers and composers?

Would you agree that the reputation of vocal (and especially choral) composing is very low in comparison to chamber music, electronics and symphonic works?


Opera (singing)

Did you write opera? Was it for a ‘house’ or you could choose your own singers?

Do you compose differently if you know that you are writing for an opera singer

(a voice developed to its maximum to project sound in big opera houses, range higher, sound different, projection etc…)? 

Did you encounter different problems?



How do you see the future of vocal composition? Do you think it will get more in focus? Would you like to experiment more with working with classically trained singers/choirs?

What would you suggest to change in singers preparation/education who sing modern music? What do singers gain in their carrier and their regular repertoire by singing modern, you think?



How do you start writing a vocal piece? What questions do you ask your singer(s)?

Interview questions - the Composer (scrolling)