Posts Tagged ‘Voice’

Bye Bye Love

July 22, 2008

The Everly Brothers’ first hit was “Bye Bye Love,” released in 1957. Here they are in a television show from sometime in 1957. I have been unable to track down yet what the original show was or from where this clip came. If you have any information, let me know.


The Canon

July 11, 2008

Just to follow up a bit on the rock canon concept, Rolling Stone magazine recently published their 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time (June 12, 2008, pp. 41-69). The selections heavily favor the late 1960s and 1970s, but the list also includes numerous selections from later decades. For anyone who listened to the radio growing up, this is like the soundtrack of your life. But after the first nostalgic sweep of emotions, I immediately thought, “but what about…and what about…?” The reader comments on the website vividly portray this emotion. My favorite (and the one I think is more critical) was the response included in the print version the following issue. She said, “Apparently you need a p***s to be a guitar hero.” And I thought, “Yeah, sister, testify!”

Multitasking woman

Multitasking woman

And then I stopped to think, could we come up with a list of 100 great songs where women were playing the guitar? While I might want to argue against such an impulse, it’s still an interesting exercise. I’ll start with anything (almost) that Heart did. Nancy Wilson was an inspiration to a lot girls to pick up an axe and let her rip. And then there’s Joan Jett, Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow and the Indigo Girls. That’s just off the top of my head. There have to be more so send me your suggestions. I know the list won’t be excessively long (see Helen Brown’s article on this), but it won’t be as short as some would think.

Another list that would be interesting is the most memorable voices in rock. Most of the ladies above certainly would be on my list (don’t we all imitate Ann Wilson every time we say “Barracuda”?). Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger would make the list and they would probably make Rolling Stone‘s list, too. I would add to that John Mayer, James Taylor, Stevie Nicks, Dave Matthews, Grace Slick, Elton John, Billy Joel, Sting, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel, and others that might be too pop or too soft for the RS crowd.

So I’m not in sync (or ‘NSync) with the canon. But then I’m not really sure there is a canon anymore. iTunes and friends changed that notion completely.


July 9, 2008

Popular music cannot be owned by the “experts” and the critics in the way that classical music is. It resists that elitist tendency (but not always—see Sue Wise, “Sexing Elvis” in On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, 390-98, ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin [London: Routledge, 1990] and other writings that attack the cock-rock canon of popular music). Critics at Rolling Stone or other magazines and journals may make pronouncements concerning the value and worth of certain songs and artists, but we all know that if it does not match our view, we can seek out a sympathetic source or we can declare the critic absurd, out of touch, or “not one of us.” And then we can “vote” by buying the song or album, by attending a concert, or by repeatedly listening to the artist or song, thereby defying (in our little microcosm) the supposed expert. If it weren’t for these two aspects—freedom of choice and repeatability—there would not be the multitudes of popular music genres, styles, and artists. The volume alone testifies to the marginality of the expert.

Because of the lack of an authoritative voice, we can each listen to a song and form our unique interpretation, reinforcing Abbate’s concern over the “promiscuity” of interpretation that exists (Carolyn Abbate, Unsung Voices: Opera and the Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991]). The accumulation of one’s life’s experiences affect the interpretation, as do many other factors such as current events. Listening to a song twice in a row can yield multiple interpretations because various musical elements and textual items move forward and backward in our consciousness. 

The Origins of Part Singing

July 3, 2008

In my endless quest to understand vocal duos, I have, of course, been reminding myself about the history of part singing, reaching back to Medieval days. Here’s a video along those lines.


It’s also fun to listen and see if I can recognize a single word of the French. I could. Understand a single word, that is. Exactly one word. And I can’t use that one when I go to Paris this summer.

The Voice(s) – Part 2

June 23, 2008

Simon Frith (Chapter 9, “The Voice,” in Performing Rites [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996], 183-202) identifies four ways in which the voice can be discussed and understood: as a musical instrument, as a body, as a person, and as a character. For the most part, Frith, too, is concerned with one voice; he does address multiple voices briefly—I will return to this later. My purpose here is to examine Frith’s points from the perspective of two voices presented as one, whether in unison or not—it’s more important here that they are understood to be equal in the context of the duo. In other words, I am not considering backup voices or anonymous harmonies or double-tracking of a single voice. And I am assuming that any duo that presents itself as a duo allows audiences and listeners to conclude that the members of the duo have equal standing within the duo, whether that is the case or not in reality.

In the first category of understanding, the voice is a musical instrument. Voices can never simply be sound or wordless instruments. Whether we can understand the words being sung (because they are in a foreign language or are nonsense syllables like scat singing), we always read something from the sound made by the voice; we hear meaning and intention. I don’t think multiple voices really changes Frith’s argument here.

The voice as body, on the other hand, reads somewhat differently with two voices. Following Roland Barthes logic, Frith notes that the voice is the “sound of the body.” The voice gives us “access to [the body] without mediation” (191). From the perspective of the listener, this raises questions such as which body is being “accessed”? The connections can be to one or the other of the singers. Listeners may adopt different listening positions over time, connecting with one and then another and then back to the first one. A listener could also connect with both simultaneously, merging them into one entity. The grain of the voice gains an additional dimension in the case of the vocal duo.

When we sing along (moving our position from listener to participant or imitator), we believe we experience the same sorts of physical events that the singer is experiencing. While we may have been able to feel a simultaneous connection to the physical worlds of both singers when simply listening, once we begin to engage our own bodies in the experience, we must choose. Unlike the singers themselves, though, we can shift from one singer to the other, from one physical experience to another, at will.

We can “hear” characteristics such as gender, sexuality, and race. Further we believe we can hear something about the person in the voice. With two voices, the same still holds, but we must also determine what the relationship is between the two voices. What we believe we hear in the voices may be augmented or confirmed by external sources (or maybe it’s the other way around—we read or learn about the relationship then “hear” it in the interaction of the voices). Two voices suggests an intimacy, whether it is sexual, familial, or simply as friends. Three or more voices shifts into the territory of the corporate voice with a pragmatic division of labor—the intimacy is lost or suppressed.

Finally, the voice becomes a character. It can be the voice of the protagonist or narrator, the person the song is about, the singer as a public persona, but the voice can also, through its own characteristics and suggestions of personality, be its own character. With more than one voice involved, is there only character, the result of combining the two voices, or are there two characters? A third possibility is that all three exist and it may depend on the listener. It may also depend on how the music is structured (homophonic versus contrapuntal, one sound versus differentiated sounds).


The Voice(s) – Part 1

June 23, 2008

Roland Barthes sought to understand the “very precise space (genre) of the encounter between a language and a voice” (“The Grain of the Voice,” 1977, reprinted in On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin [London: Routledge], 294, emphasis in original). He refers to this as the grain of the voice and likens it to “the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue, perhaps the letter, almost certainly significance” (295). In other words, the voice is the physical embodiment of the music, it is what gives it meaning in the case of vocal music, not necessarily the specific text. 

Barthe examines this grain in terms of one voice. I, on the other hand, am interested in the “voice” that is created when two or more voices combine (but most specifically two voices). The issue becomes slightly more complex. First our position relative to the “voice” changes. In the typical discussions of the listener’s position, there is a one-to-one connection between the listener and the singer. I favor the model of a triangle with the listener, the singer, and the work itself at the vertices.

With an additional voice, we now have to understand the relationship between each singer and the listener, between the singers themselves, and between the singers and the work itself (works?). Conceivably the work itself is now understood in multiple ways by the listener.