Monday, July 30, 2018

We Have Great Singers -- We Just Don't Know It

It is probably not a secret that I don't really care for music that involves a guitar, a bass, drums and people either screaming, reciting words to a beat, or trying to sing in a drawl they didn't grow up with rather than letting the lyrics convey the story.  That means most everything since around 1955.  And if I have to listen four times to get even half the words, forget it.

If you didn't know that, please read this piece I did a few years back that says it all and which I stand by yet today.  I have always been this way about music.

Now, even some people who are not particularly musical may be aware of the phenomenon of the Russian bass.  Way back when, the composers of Russian church music wrote some bass parts that were extraordinarily deep by contemporary standards, to which very few basses could "get their pipes around them" and do a good job on.

So the composers started looking around for people with profoundly deep voices and pushed them to become singers.  Suddenly you had these big, deep Russian basses out there, impressing the socks off people.  But it wasn't that Russian men have particularly deep voices -- it was that the demand for ultra-low-voiced singers meant that Russian men with the God-given depth were more likely to end up as singers.

We have 330 million people or so in the USA.  Can you name even one USA-born operatic tenor?  Me neither, although I might recognize a couple if you mentioned them.  Is there any argument that the talent of one who can perform such roles, or perform the songs written for them as "art songs", vastly surpasses that of anyone on the radio today or out selling their songs on iTunes?

But "talent", per se, while it is certainly out there, is simply not developed.  When a spectacular voice appears on a competitive TV entertainment show like the frustrating America's Got Talent, the judges simply don't know what to do with them and they end up on the cutting-room floor, or the chopping block, and never get very close to the final competitions -- at least in the last few years.

So what do I want?  Well, if the Russian bass example teaches us anything, it is that if we want to see the talent within our community, we have to appreciate it.  The music written today simply does not value good singing technique, or even halfway-decent tuning.  What I want is for us to be raising a generation that values the kind of difficult-to-sing-but beautiful vocal music, and appreciates the singularity of talent it takes to perform it -- and the beauty of the result.

I certainly understand that the opera-loving community in the USA morphed into effete eastern snobs who insisted a century back that operas be sung in the original language so we couldn't understand the story (unlike the rest of the world, where they are predominantly sung in the local language).  That screwed everything up and kept us from appreciating the talent of the performers (even I can't sit there and watch people singing in French portraying a story I can't follow because I don't speak French).

But we still have 330 million people in the USA, not counting those who were born or who passed away since you read a few paragraphs back.  If America actually valued great voices, we would actually be developing them, and like the Russian basses, the USA would be lousy with great singers, because we already have them.

OK, I get it.  As long as sloppily-sung (or simply spoken-to-a-beat) stuff is making performers rich, no one is going to drive a movement to value actual singing talent anytime soon.  But I have a pen and a phone -- OK, I have a keyboard and a website -- and I'm going to use them.

I'm sorry, but I love beautiful music, and while billions of dollars are spent on contemporary "music" by poor slobs who don't understand that the emperor has no clothes (you did read the link, right?), I will continue to plug in my earbuds when I'm writing and listen to beautiful sounds, made by talented singers who survived the assault of crappy art to commit to developing into great voices.

If we appreciated it, there would be more.

Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There's a new post from Bob at at 10am Eastern time, every weekday, giving new meaning to "prolific essayist."  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at or on Twitter at @rmosutton

1 comment:

  1. There is no comparison to Rachmaninovs Vespers when well-sung, especially when some of the Russian greats like Wishniakov sang. A long time ago, I was heading home from the lab and driving around the beltway, very late at night when one of the 'Treasures of the Orthodox Church' CD's was played on the radio (you know...about midnight on a Sunday night). I have never forgotten the experience.

    You are right. There are not very many men who are trained in basso profundo here in the states any more. The parade of talentless hacks on the pop music scene is probably a reflection of too many people who don't understand music making up the bulk of the paying audience.

    There were many fabulously talented musicians that performed in jazz, though. The problem is, that many of their performances devolved into largely self-absorbed boring solos. The ability to compose is not synonymous with the ability to play an instrument...