Vocal radicalism

When discussing vocal articulation, I mixed in some ideas on sonority, and basically produced a disjointed and rant-like article. There is no question but that articulation and sonority are intimately connected. In my own thoughts, I focus on articulation, because I focus on phrasing & slurs and such basic horizontal issues of timing. These are the factors which often set performances apart, at least performances of a mixed soloistic conception, such as those of the courtly songs which form such an important core of appreciation for late medieval music. My emphasis on articulation goes to the core of more general issues of vocal technique, but also frequently makes discussions move at cross purposes, as other people focus on related factors. Choices regarding vocal sonority are critical to ideas on a mainstream as well as to fusion endeavors. That my first attempt to circumscribe fusion resulted in an emphasis on vocal technique, completely out of line with usual fusion priorities, speaks volumes regarding my own idiosyncrasy on this point. The present article seeks to establish a framework for vocal radicalism per se, issuing a quasi-manifesto in favor of radical reexamination of techniques for this, the most basic human sound-making apparatus.

Although my ideas on contrapuntal clarity & construction in Franco-Flemish polyphony have become increasingly accepted, if not necessarily by the conservative record-buying public, who tend to prefer whatever they hear first, but in the world of leading performers, my ideas on vocal technique have not been so well-received. When I say "my ideas" I mean only the views I hold, and suggest no special advocatory power or ownership. I view the contrapuntal ideas as inevitable, and so not personal in any real sense. Are the vocal ideas, though, somehow really my own? No, they are not, but we can also appraise confidently at this point that they are anything but inevitable. When John Potter's book Vocal Authority appeared, confidently dispelling many of the myths repeated about historical singing, I felt relieved. Finally, there would be some movement on this issue, and indeed Potter and I had somehow struck up a conversation on this very point while he was in the preliminary stages of writing the book, something I did not know at the time. The result, however, has been modest at best. Although I offer this book as a detailed evaluation of why what Potter calls the "early music voice" is a modern creation, others in discussions simply ignore the suggestion, and go right ahead repeating that the "early music voice" is historical technique. This is an incredible situation, is it not? They have no evidence, but they know it to be so.

Fixations on particular vocal styles are all the more incredible when one notes how many singing styles can be found in cultures around the world. When I mention this, likewise, few people care. The "classical music fan" is generally interested in only one of two styles: The c.1900 operatic voice with its heavy (or "expressive") vibrato, and the straight & unarticulated "early music voice" deriving from English cathedral singing (developed in the post-Restoration period into a living tradition today). In some circles, criticizing the latter is immediately seen as advocating the former; vibrato is the only aspect which can be mentioned, and it is circumscribed entirely by a "yes or no" dichotomy. What is more, most people seem to want the same singing style used for all repertory. They have their favorite singers (they are fans, i.e. fanatics or sycophants) and they want their favorite singers to sing everything they want to hear. So it should not be surprising that, for some listeners, one style of singing has come to define all of early vocal music. Many insist that English cathedral style be used in Renaissance (and even medieval) music, despite the unequivocal scholarly demonstrations that this vocal technique is unhistorical, flying in the face of their own insistence on HIP for everything else. HIP aside, and I would never hold HIP per se as the end-all of music, I do not like this style of singing. I do not like it because it is inarticulate, because it involves a constant throat position and booming breath support, and not because of anything specifically to do with vibrato. (It is also true that individual vibrato ornaments were named in even medieval sources, but that is merely another way the technique is unhistorical.) The modern "early music" style comes with the same open-throated loudness as Wagnerian opera singing, but without the vibrato. They are more alike than different... the difference is cosmetic, no vibrato is merely one type of constant vibrato, and both sound artificial.

The styles share not only loudness, but an aura of professionalism as well. The variety of regional styles from different eras of medieval & Renaissance music would undoubtedly sound grossly untrained, even common, to Western voice enthusiasts today. Modern ideas on how to hold the throat & chest would not be reflected, and there would be a disturbing variety of sonority. I say "disturbing" because a homogenous and unarticulated sound has become a touchstone for the rising popularity of medieval music, and because a more homogenous tone in all areas of classical music was one of the dominant trends of the twentieth century. This trend has been credited(?) to Stravinsky, and means that all orchestra violins sound the same as much as it does that all "early music singers" sound the same. Call if Neo-Classical Blandness. A Neo-Classical movement in early music makes even less sense, but it was a desire to present early music as "classical" which dictated this allegiance, in order to distinguish it from folk or traditional singing. The distinction is inherent, if one wants it, since early music was written by & for elites, but it would sound common (i.e. unartificial). Or maybe it would sound more like the highly trained voices from other parts of the world, a fusion idea I find appealing. Loudness can easily be explained by the concert hall setting (unhistorical, but practical) lacking microphones, another effort to keep classical music pure & distinct, but also one which distorts its sonorities for the larger space. While no fan of electronics, I must note that Carnatic music brought the microphone into the concert hall instead of changing its marvelously nuanced & precise singing technique.

It is entirely fair & practical that the early music movement originally drew from an existing European vocal technique. Call it a first step. It is understandable that some listeners have come to love the sound of English cathedral-style singing outside of English cathedral repertory. What they cannot be allowed to do is stifle the development of period vocal technique, not only on account of the historical insights it might provide, but on account of the increased range of musical expression it will likely open. Singers must not be browbeaten into conforming to a false orthodoxy. They must be allowed to experiment with new techniques, perhaps traveling the world for inspiration, hearing other traditional options which allow for a healthy voice. Singers must think radically concerning what the voice can or cannot do, how it can articulate, how it can communicate music. Any resulting lack of artificiality is fundamental to reclaiming human expression in music, a radical idea.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb