Wednesday, September 14, 2005

choral sound, and the bigger fourth

I was going through some of my notes from the Cape Town conference yesterday, and came across a series of comments I had written during a paper on Choral music that focused on two performances of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's "Homeless". The performances selected were from a 46664 concert, in Cape Town, and a performance the group did with the London Philharmonic. The presenter had used spectrographic analysis to determine that there was a variation in the size of the sung 4th between the two performances, and had concluded that the reason for this was that the latter-mentioned performance had been put through some sort of pitch-altering device. For anyone unfamiliar with the music, "Homeless" is usually performed acapella, and is in the isicathamiya choral style made so famous by LBM. The first of the performances mentioned above is acapella, while the second, obviously, is with orchestral accompaniment. The presenter of the paper assumed that the 4th, which was "in tune" with the orchestra was digitally altered in order to make it so, because in the other recording, the 4th was wider. My comment in my notes was "Couldn't the singers have made the adjustments themselves, by ear?!?
These are highly competent, experienced performers we are speaking about, with experience singing both with, and without accompaniment. The fact that they may choose to sing a wider fourth when performing acapella does not mean that they have to make the same choice every time, or even, as the presenter seemed to suggest, that they are only capable of singing a wider fourth. If they felt that the wider fourth did not suit the circumstances, I'm sure they would have (consciously or instinctively) made whatever changes they believed were necessary.
Later that same day, I had a conversation with a student from another university who was seeking an explanation for the "different sound" between black and white choirs in Grahamstown. His amazement when I suggested that it may be nothing more than habit would have been comical, had it not frustrated me so.
So much time and energy is spent on trying to understand and explain differences between black and white choirs, aesthetically and physiologically, and I can't understand how educated, intelligent people can still think that the difference has some fundamentally racial basis. I have a personal theory that I intend to investigate at some future juncture, that the language we hear in infancy, and the earliest languages that we learn to speak, may alter our physiology enough that they may affect the sound of our voices. The result, I think, is something along the lines of developing strength in muscles you use frequently, and loosing strength in those you use rarely. If you fain a limp for long enough, for example, you will eventually develop a real one. But essentially, it all boils down to habit. We sing by immitating what we hear. You can experience the effect of this by holding choral auditions. the voices you are likely to encounter will probably be of several types, and will fit with voice types you will encounter in other environments. Sure, it may be predominantly black females who have a particular type of gospel voice, white males who have a particular "Anglican Church" type, or whatever, but the reason for this is that the black women listen to, and hence immitate, that particular gospel style, mostly, while the white men sing most often in church. Habit, pure and simple. If you persevere long enough, you can get even the most unwilling singer to alter their sound for the purpose of a particular performance, or number. It really is all about will. And that doesn't mean that anything other than time and perseverance will turn your top lyric soprano into a belting contralto, but it is possible. Develop the right muscles, and anything is possible.
Just please, stop trying to essentialize race! we are beyond that. Singing is about community, not segregation, and calling for cultural "authenticity" on the basis that "black people sing bigger fourths" is counterproductive.

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