The Balanced Voice – Part 1: Introduction

After the long hiatus, the opportunity to hear voices singing live in real time – both solo and ensemble – has found me reflecting anew on what I most value in what I’m hearing. This is partly a response to remedial needs, to hearing voices that are in varying degrees out of practice, and having to re-imagine the ideal they need to find their way back to. But it’s also simply a function of the opportunity to listen with fresh ears after a year and more’s diet of processed recorded sound.

Bringing these reflections to written form has taken longer than I thought it might – my notes on the subject started back in the Spring – and has also spread out into a series of linked posts which will appear over the next few weeks in between other items more tied to specific events. Today’s post will explore the global ideas that shape my reflections, the second and third will break it down into a range of elements that contribute to it, and the last will return to the holistic level, to consider the kind of structure and relation between those elements implied by the various metaphors in play.

On Listening in Perspective

My brother tells a story of taking a photo of a mountain on a family holiday. Knowing that his wife considered pictures of nothing but landscape rather dull, he asked his then young daughter to stand in the foreground. The camera's autofocus produced a lovely picture of her, with the mountain an indistinguishable blur behind.

The happy sequel to this was how useful the picture became when he was teaching Music Technology A Level. He would show the class the photo and ask them what it was a picture of. ‘A little girl,’ they’d all say. ‘No,’ he’d reply, ‘a mountain.’ And then he’d go on to teach them about how microphones don’t give you an objective representation of the sound they pick up, but bring out certain aspects of that sound, depending on the mic itself, the space it’s used in, and what the recording engineer does with the settings.

Musings on Music and Sport

musicsportSince the middle of May the peculiar circumstances of England’s covid restrictions have brought a particular cultural trope to consciousness rather more explicitly than usual. The circumstances have been that singing in groups has continued to be severely restricted while major sporting events have gone ahead, bringing us images of large crowds not only in the stadiums but also in bars, public spaces and in transit.

The trope has been the idea that music and sport are rivals for attention and resources, and that sport is often handed an unfair advantage in this competition. The trope arises in normal times primarily through issues in the scheduling of school activities, which see clashes between for example choir practice and cricket matches, with the expectation that the latter will always take precedence.

On the Aesthetics of Perfection/Imperfection

We strive to perfect our musical performances, yet the idea that something can be too perfect remains a perennial counter-narrative in musical aesthetics. As far back as the early 19th century, ETA Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber celebrated musical imperfections as signifiers of honesty and authenticity, in contrast to the artifice of high skill.

Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’ similarly saw the polish of a classically-trained tone as smoothing away the individuality of the singer, in contrast to the vocal texture of vernacular styles, which he heard as vehicle for the singers’ physicality and life history.

Even more recently, Deke Sharon applied this criticism to barbershop in his keynote address at Harmony University in 2018. By prioritising continuity of ring over all other communicative elements, he suggested, the genre creates a shiny sonic carapace that can serve to keep outsiders at a distance, even while it affirms those in the know.

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