So You Really Think You Can Sing?

Western popular vocal music is short-changing us musically.

If you have been subjected to television singing contests such as: The Voice, America’s Got Talent, Glee, American Idol, the Masked Singer, and the like, you already know what passes for popular – meaning “potentially financially successful” singing. The invention of the microphone and the PA (Public Address Speaker system) has enabled singers to sing at talking levels (known originally as “crooning”) and reinforce the volume of the singer’s voice to reach audiences in the back of vast halls and stadiums.

Popular singing in contest shows follow a well-trodden path: opening with a narrative or soft-spoke vocal until after the requisite two minutes reaching a sustained high-pitched finale – often accompanied with a patch of “melismatic” singing or vibrato. This faux-operatic display is intended to prove to the audience and the judges that the vocalist has a) worked very hard to put across the song and b) is emotionally vested in the message of the song. The singers are also judged against each other by way of youth versus age, attractiveness, hairstyle, attire, attitude, weight, height, race, gender and any avowed sexual orientation. The popularity of using “melisma” – the technique of squeezing multiple notes out of one syllable – is best heard in Gospel singing and has been dragged into popular music forcibly by singers such as Maria Carey and Whitney Houston. Vibrato is simply a warble in the pitch or frequency of a sustained note – intended to produce a richer tone.

So bear in mind none of the following singers would ever have “qualified” for any of these singing contest shows: Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Fred Neil, Lou Reed, Bjork, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen. Iggy Pop, and Donald Fagen. They would all have been screened out of the contest in the preliminary stages of entry as too “amateur” – or unlistenable.

Given that we’ve come to a point where we have narrowed the number of characteristics that denote successful or popular singing in the Western World – how many vocal techniques have been left behind or ignored?

In 1475 monks who had completed their geshe studies could be invited to join another tantric institution named Gyoto in Tibet. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet – 60 Guyoto Monks fled to India where they established their order, they now number about 500 and are based in Sidhbari, near Dharamsala, in India. The Guyoto Monks are renowned for the vocal tradition of “overtone” singing – also called “chordal” chanting which is created by the vocalist changing the shape of their resonant cavities (the mouth, the pharynx and the larynx). Their singing was brought to the Western world in 1974 when Windham Hill Records released a record of their chanting. To the unaccustomed ear this vocalization can sound like a train driving through a cavern with multiple fog horns blaring from the carriages. In 1990, when Manual Noriega was hiding out in an Embassy in Panama, psychological warfare experts played Gyoto Monk chanting and rock music at loud levels around the clock to disorient him – he surrendered after several days. Western ears are not attuned to this kind of singing.

In Italy the “cantu a tenore” is a style of overtone singing from the Isla of Sardinia which deploys different styles of polyphonic singing: “cuncordu” typically sung by men. The Ainu of Hokkaidō, Japan also used “rekuhkara,” a type of throat singing. The English word to “yodel” comes from the Bavarian “yodeln” (meaning to express the syllable “yo”) achieved by using abrupt switching from the singer’s chest cavity to the falsetto generated in the head. Much imitated in early Country and Western music in the States in the 1950’s – it’s now generally out of favor.

Tuvan throat singing is still in practice by people in Mongolia, Tuva and Siberia. The Tuvan Rock Group “The Hu” have achieved worldwide notoriety mixing traditional instrumentation (the horsehead fiddle “morin khuur”, mouth harp “tumur khuur” and Mongolian guitar “tovshuur” ) with modern rock drums and bass and throat singing, which they call Hunnu Rock – based on the Mongolian word for human “Hu.”

Mongolian rock band The HU perform using traditional instruments, bass & drums and throat singing.

In 2008, Brad Wells, an Artist in Residence at Williams College, Massachusetts, booked a three-week residency at Mass MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) to be followed by a concert. Mass MOCA is a museum in a converted factory manufacturing complex in North Adams, Massachusetts. It is one of the largest centers for contemporary visual art and performing arts in the United States. Mass MOCA hosts music events year-round and have a sold-out show on March 9, 2019 on their events calendar for George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic.

Wells auditioned a slew of vocalists, narrowing down their eventual number to eight who all had perfect pitch and could sight-read. He invited experts in yodeling, Tuvan throat, overtone and death-metal singing to visit the and train the singers at Mass MOCA and commissioned original music to be composed specifically for this ensemble now called “Roomful of Teeth.” The result is far more melodious and pleasant to the ear than you would imagine from reading about it.

Roomful of Teeth performing: “The Fence Is Gone” by Wally Gunn, “Cesca’s View” by Rinde Eckert, and “Otherwise” by Brad Wells for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series.

What does this mean as far as “popular music is concerned? In my opinion, using all the vocal abilities available to expert singers is a fascinating experiment but like most jazz, too difficult to comprehend for the majority of people who listen to music for enjoyment. In the future, we may become more educated about world and modern music but it’s a very slow learning progression – most music being composed now is a re-tread (if not direct sampling) of past successful compositions. Lawyers are working around the clock litigating copyright infringements for and against composers who haven’t ever stepped outside the field of “acceptable” popular music. The loss is ours.

Conrad Warre