minstrel: Performance styles was Calling On Song

Lisa and Ken Theriot Lnktheriot at satx.rr.com
Wed Jun 11 13:44:00 PDT 2008

[<<Tim Hart doesn't choose to sing like that, he just does!>>

You should hear his Tam Lin.  Really, you should, especially since you
mentioned the narrative elements of the ballad.  His ornamentation is
superb and very, very natural.]

I probably have.  Years ago when I saw Steeleye Span (at the Cambridge
Corn Exchange-- gotta love those town market holdovers!), Tim Hart
"opened" for them, a shameless case of double-dipping, but he wanted to
do some of his favorite trad TRAD, not as SS does it.  He's a fine
musician, but he won't stay out of the upper registers that force him
into his nose (his accent tends him in that direction, also).  When I
hear him drop into lower registers and he leaves his nose behind, I
think, "Oh PLEEEEEEASE stay there!"  I've counseled more than one male
performer down at least a full step; it's easier to be heard when you
pitch up, but pitching down often makes it much more worth the hearing!

[This particular group, however, recorded multiple madrigals "in the
rustic style" side by side with others in the court style.  They must
have gotten the idea somewhere.  I believe I found the recording, by the
way, if you're interested.  It's The Jaye Consort, from Bawdy
Elizabethan Evening in Merrie Olde England, downloadable or listen to a
sample here:]

The chief difference I hear is the tone of the lead.  The lead in "Fair,
If You Expect Admiring" sounds like your typical madrigal (court)
performer, but the lead in "Daphne" sounds like Frankie Armstrong.

[I wasn't equating them, or didn't mean to.  I was contrasting the
Watersons with an aesthetic that favored straight tone and a "polished"
sound, which is hard to define.  Perhaps if I say smooth, with the burrs
rubbed out?  I could go further and add high pitch.  The English
schoolboy sound, if you will.]

And yet English chorister at a young age is at its best a very natural,
artifact-free sound (this has a huge reverb effect from their space, but
you get the idea):


It's the post-break choristers who pick up heavy artifacts, especially
those who stay in the counter-tenor range.  "Polish" to me involves an
intentional rounding of tone that allows a section to sound like one
voice.  The last thing a choir director wants is a section made up of
soloists, because it sounds cacophonous when you put it all together.
That's not a problem in a madrigal, where you actually WANT to hear each
voice separately.

I think what you're describing is what audio engineers put reverb on a
recording to eliminate, certain frequencies that do have a "prickly"
effect on the ear.  I happen to dig those frequencies, which is why I'm
always telling my husband to dial back the reverb on our recordings!  In
many cases it's the difference between a recording sounding like the
singer is in the room with you, or in the next room.

[Remember that the role of the hero in early opera...]

Yeah, like that's changed.  The soprano is still usually the heroine of
the Broadway show; the mezzo or alto is the plucky comic relief.  Just
like the heroine in the trad ballad is a fair blond, and the evil
schemer is a tan brunette.  We have certain cultural biases.  We
wondered in High School choir whether Kirke Mechem wasn't married to a
mezzo, because the SSA arrangement of "The Seven Joys of Christmas"
gives the lead/melody to the mezzos in five of the seven sections (the
sopranos HATED IT!).

[Whereas the Watersons are definitely singing in the lower ends of their
ranges.  I'm not a voice teacher, so I don't know what role, if any,
head voice vs. chest voice plays in this mixture.]

There's head voice and head voice.  You CAN sing in your head voice
without sounding like true falsetto, but most people don't.

[Perhaps - but vibrato and/or nasality are important features of the
vocal music aesthetic in many cultures.]

And generally those cultures have a nasal quality to their language.
The more a language's vowel sounds tend to the front of the mouth,
especially high front (think <i> as in <bit>), the more nasal are both
their speech and their singing.  The more vowels tend to be "low back"
(think <ah> as in <father>) the less nasality to the language.  As
English had darned few front vowels before the Great Vowel Shift (ca.
15th c.), I doubt there was much nasality to singing anything before
then.  Back to Tim Hart, he speaks nasally, so obviously he's going to
sing that way.

[There are naturally occurring forms of vibrato that are not
affectations and aren't necessarily taught.]

But most are.  (I had a friend who sang like "Snow White" even as a
child, and it drove our choir director crazy, so yes, it happens.)
People believe they should have it, and if they have to fake it by
panting or moving their jaw, they'll do it.  It takes a lot more air to
stay on pitch without any vibrato, which is why it's so frequently
taught.  If you've never read Mrs. Alverson's condemnation of vibrato,
it's a hoot:


[Part of my speculation here is whether there may have been an alternate
aesthetic in the British Isles at an earlier time, one that has
persisted to this day in some traditional music.]

Based on the phonological history of the language, I'd be more inclined
to think that an alternate aesthetic developed post-period and came over
to America with the settlers.  It wouldn't surprise me to discover that
the "traditional nasal" can be traced to the prevailing accents in the
textile towns (Manchester, York) of the industrial revolution.  To throw
in another joke song example, consider Tom Lehrer's "Folk Song Army":
"It sounds more ethnic if it ain't good English..."  It's very possible
that people started affecting nasal accents because if they sang RP
they'd lose their street cred as "folk" performers.  Some rap artists
speak perfect English but still affect "gangsta" to perform.

[I once thought about getting a vocal music degree, but decided against
it for just this reason.  I want my own voice, warts and all.]

Definitely.  How stupid is it to teach a singing style that will
eventually limit the type of music you can sing?


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