‘Hallelujah – It’s k.d. lang!‘ was prompted by a question.
This article attempts to answer the question: Why do audiences consistently want to see and hear k.d. lang sing the Leonard Cohen song ‘Hallelujah’. The answer is twofold. Firstly, kd. lang is an extraordinary singer with a remarkable voice and is masterful in her performance. Secondly, it is such a fabulous song. Of course, both are correct. However, there is much more.
To answer the question, I decided to investigate. However in that, one first must recognise and acknowledge k.d. lang’s vocal artistry, her unique personality, engagement with audiences, stage presence, musical, poetry and philosophical intelligence and of course her humanity and compassion. Included in this mix is k.d.’s drive to consistently produce her work as best as it can possibly be. This speaks of k.d.’s professional and personal ethics.
I see the key being intelligent use of and combination of lyrics, images, music, voice, conversation, body and mind being incorporated into performance art. This is why Hallelujah, k.d. lang is an event, perhaps a small songfest that audiences crave, perhaps constantly.
Looking at it from the audience perspective. Well… from my perspective there are four paramount elements; lyrics, music, conversation and performance.
Leonard Cohen’s lyrics for Hallelujah are visual/pictorial. Note: I am only referring to the k.d. version of Hallelujah where there are only four verses.
The four verse topics are:
‘The secret chord’
‘Baby I’ve been here before’
‘Maybe there’s a God above’
When we listen to music, in our minds we see pictures/images and/or experience feelings generated by the music.
The first verse ‘The secret chord’ generates images such as; David – the Lord, chord, king and music. The listener may see images of an image of God, sheet music, orchestra or a king etc.
The second verse ‘Beautiful woman’ generates images such as; a woman, bathing, rooftop, moonlight, rope, kitchen chair, throne, hair, scissors and lips.
The third verse ‘Baby I’ve been here before’ generates images such as; a person in a room, a floor, a flag, marble arch, a march and coldness.
The fourth verse ‘Maybe there’s a God above’ generates images such as God, heaven, gun, shooting a gun, crying, light, breaking of spirit and again some kind of spiritual image.
The chorus: ‘Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah’. Naturally, the chorus generates images of a spiritual nature.
So, all four verses plus chorus generates various images, depending on each individual audience member’s personal life experiences, faith and belief etc. The images are private and personal yet, each individual will continually experience internal images whilst k.d. is singing the song. Of course, as k.d. sings the song, images are in her mind as well as personal emotions that arise with each phrase. k.d. lives the song as do receptive audiences. This is one of the reasons why k.d. is recognised as the greatest vocalist of our time. During a performance, k.d. lives each and every note and lyric and this transfers to all who listen.
The music underscores the lyrics. As the song is sung, images generated by the lyrics, are counterpointed (if that is the correct word) by the orchestration. Of note is; ‘the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift’, a major musical point which has a major impact.
On a personal note, at this point on my heart’s journey in tandem with the progression, as soon as k.d. sings the word ‘lift’ and I hear the note I automatically choke up, it generates tears, even in bed at night. When I simply hear that progression and k.d.’s voice, I become emotional. I suppose it is partially k.d.’s voice, the chord or the chord progression. That is the way it works. Emotional stimulus, there are many chords in music that specifically stimulate sadness, joy or another emotion that generates various human emotional reactions
Following, the listener is visually, mentally and emotionally stimulated by the combination of the lyrics and music accompaniment and arrangement.
Here is the first important key to the lock of the success of k.d. singing Hallelujah.
The key is conversation.
The lock is performance.
Following the importance of the lyrics and music, the most compelling element of the key is conversation. A story is being told as conversation, in particular the following;
‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord, that David played, and it pleased the Lord. You don’t really care for music, do ya?’
Then the conversation continues as k.d. sings, again, explaining to a real or imagined individual;
’It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth the minor fall, the major lift, the baffled king composing Hallelujah’
k.d. is singing a story as conversation, which may be what Leonard Cohen intended. Then again, it may be k.d.’s interpretation.
As k.d. performs the song as a conversation, that conversation can be in k.d.’s own mind, directly to each and every audience member, the audience as a whole or, to an imaginary person who is present. Regardless of who k.d. is singing to, the audience feels they are either listening to an inwardly reflective conversation with herself or an invisible person present.
So, thus far, the audience generates their own images, allows their own feelings or emotions to emerge as k.d. is singing the story.
All of this, the lyrics, music and conversation of the song are important as they have been carefully thought out by k.d. However what also makes k.d.’s presentation of the song is its execution and performance.
k.d. does not simply sing the song, generate images and feelings and having a ‘song’ conversation. At various times k.d. has said she is not an actor because she does not ‘get’ it. However, I believe this is erroneous because every performance k.d. does, she is subconsciously yet perhaps intrinsically acting using her own feelings and emotions.
As mentioned above, Leonard Cohen’s lyrics generate images in the minds of listeners or audience. However, k.d. enforces those images by using her stage craft.
A couple of examples:
k.d. gestures to the moon: ‘Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you’
k.d. uses the microphone cord to simulate tying: ‘Well she tied you to her kitchen chair’
k.d. uses fingers as scissors: ‘She broke your throne, and she cut your hair’
k.d. simulates a gun: ‘…how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya’.
All of this is imagery, which probably began when first learning the song and putting the music together and the body, stage movements automatically came. This is how learning new songs and preparing them for performance works. It is a component of stagecraft.
My Personal Experience
As mentioned above k.d. performs Hallelujah as a dialogue, a conversation whether it is internal or with the audience.
It was during the one and only k.d. concert I attended (Ingenue – Redux – Sydney), that I became aware of the conversational singing of Hallelujah. It was almost an ‘internal’ dialogue k.d. was having with an invisible person about ten feet away. I could ‘see’ the person. I saw, the ‘to’ing and ‘fro’wing of the conversation she was having with the invisible person.
Singing, k.d. downstage slightly off centre right.
Singing, in front of k.d. I saw someone who was not there. I saw, felt the frustration as k.d. was not able to effectively communicate her message in the song with the person in her mind.
Living the reality in her mind. To the invisible person, while being down stage, between verses/chorus, k.d. turned her back on the audience (and the invisible person) , threw her arm in the air , shaking her head and in frustration walked upstage, turned front again to the invisible person and audience and explaining, she sang; ‘It goes like this the fourth, the fifth the minor fall, the major lift, the baffled king composing Hallelujah. Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.’
If while singing, you can get an audience to see an invisible person?
THAT my friends is acting!
THAT IS Performance Art!
That is k.d. lang!
This is why I feel and believe why fans and audiences constantly and forever will want you to see and hear k.d. sing Hallelujah.
k.d. lang is not only a singer or performer. In my opinion, k.d. is a performance artist in the true sense. No dancing girls or boys, no pyrotechnics etc. k.d. performs with a band and two backup singers, stage lighting and sound system, and a very good microphone. On stage, that’s it. k.d. is such a consummate artiste that excels and will never be surpassed. Talented, unique and committed. A very dramatic song sung by the best.
Added comment : Bare feet. It is always easier to sing in bare feet as when you walk, stand move, or sing, your feet are really grounded, your toes grip the floor and your body feels very strong and more in control. Oh, and if you run from one side of the stage, do an impala leap, with bare feet, landing on one foot, you can ‘stick’ the ground better. Doing this with shoes there is a chance you will land in the orchestra pit.
I hope you have enjoyed my article, my thoughts. I write them as a former performer.
Now, my academic life is also over and I now contemplate and write.
© V L. Verdeaux 2017