singing style

An individual singing style often involves a singer’s imitation—for better or worse—of a popular artist’s tone quality. It sometimes calls for a sudden break in the voice, plaintive bleating, or wild screeching: all these effects, however, are purely ephemeral and continually change with their originators.

These devices by which some singers develop a vivid, individual, and compelling style are quite familiar to us from the music all around us. They may bring to mind specific artists who have used them successfully. These will doubtless be performers of great (and perhaps somewhat uninhibited) expressivity. Some readers will think of certain now-venerable jazz singers, others of soul, folk, or rock singers whose vigorous expressive devices fit such norms of what we might call mal canto. What the quoted remark of course will not describe at all well is the goals and achievements of our best “classical” or operatic singers. Their more or less bel canto interpretation of the standard repertory of the past has become a sort of international standard. It is widely considered to have the only valid claim on the serious attention of people of elevated musical culture.

The quotation, which deserves to be read with great attention, is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s musical dictionary of 1768. (The philosopher’s untranslatable expression here rendered as “particular style of singing” is gout de chant.) The passage refers to the best usage of Rousseau’s day. The musical events that involved such singing were naturally rather different from the specific decorum of modern “classical” occasions both in aesthetic posture and in the whole atmosphere that surrounded them. (If they weren’t considerably more highly-charged before the singing began, they certainly must have become so in the course of the breaks, bleats and screeches.) Rousseau’s description was originally applied to repertory that is now generally referred to as “early music,” which a curious chronological reflex in us will, if we are not careful, associate with the prim and the restrained—even despite the most feverish exertions of such as Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus to disillusion us.

But, in the early twenty-first century, we here and there find people willing—or perhaps driven is not too strong a word—to try to go back to earlier musical repertories with an openness to experimentation involving even the most extreme of the old expressive ways. (Joseph Kerman has described the singing of one of the best of them as “inspired screeching.”) Insofar as they do so, they bring together crucial aesthetic ideals of the “pop” culture and of the early-music nook of the “classical” culture, which manages to be rarified and frisky at the same time—not unlike some esoteric jazz circles. (Both the jazz and early-music movements, significantly, have tended to be viewed with suspicion by the same people.)

The Rousseau excerpt provides a simple and useful first example of the sort of radical anomalies in our musical life that can be considerably and usefully cleared up by a serious view of music-as-event. Somewhat different musical bedfellows are found together through an event-directed, performance-oriented approach than through the more customary chronological or social-class segregations. These latter groupings may scrupulously play by their own historiographical rules without sufficiently taking into account the nature of the musical art itself.

The works of Rousseau are of course not unknown. But the certain testimonies that his, and vast numbers of comparably illuminating sources contain, have not been as useful as they might have been: the greater cultural world has not found them sufficiently striking without adequate reference to the larger event that music indissolubly belongs to.

And that greater world is right. We will here endeavor to look at some things, both familiar and novel, with the freshest eyes that we can possibly assume. Doing so can be an exhilarating imaginative experience. Doing so will teach us much about our musical culture. It is a prerequisite to finding what that culture itself can tell us about what we are accustomed to thinking of as wider issues.
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