A good way to get people yakking is to ask them how yakking started. There are lots of questions and theories, but no real answers to what some describe as the greatest mystery in science: How did speech/language start?
Was it a genetic mutation some 100,000 years ago that spontaneously got everyone talking – sort of a big bang in the brain – or was language something that evolved over time as a way for people to establish and maintain social connections with some while keeping others out? The latter seems the more persuasive. I’m foraging in one part of the forest. You’re foraging in another. How are we going to meet up later for coffee at some prehistoric Starbucks unless we vocalize our plans?
The one certainty is that from our first wail to our last breath – when “the rest is silence,” in the words of that great conversationalist, Hamlet – speech, singing and vocalizing help define human experience and individuality, for no two voices are alike.
“It’s that primal cry,” says voice teacher Jeanai La Vita of the Music Conservatory of Westchester, who’s fond of the line, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” It’s no surprise that the sentiment belongs to Walt Whitman, a poet. In ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, Greece and Rome, poetry melded with music, drama and dance as a way to praise God or the gods, exult in nature and explore the terrifying, wondrous mystery that is the human spirit. Homer was one such poet – or several poets – who held others in thrall with spoken-sung stories of the gods and their equally flawed but fascinating heroes.
From the ancient traditions, the early Church created various forms of chant – syllabic (one note per syllable for clergy and congregation), neumatic (several notes per syllable for choristers) and melismatic (many notes per syllable for soloists.) It was in the Middle Ages that chant was organized by Pope Gregory the Great (hence Gregorian chant), musical notation as we know it was established and singing moved from monophony, one melodic line, to polyphony – two or more lines beginning at different times, as in a round, or moving against one another in counterpoint.
Whether or not you were singing monophony or polyphony in public, the sound was always the same – pure and male, with little vibrato, the slightly tremulous quality of adult male and female voices. In other words, medieval vocal performance was sexless and definitely not feminine. Indeed, the aversion to women in liturgical singing or in the theatrical singing that began with the rise of opera in the Baroque led to one of the strangest and most barbaric performance practices – the castration of often impoverished prepubescent boys to preserve their beautiful singing voices. Castrati like Farinelli and Senesino, who combined great lung power with very high voices, were superstars throughout the Baroque and the 18th-century, when the taste for this style of singing – and the cruelty it took to accomplish it – began to wane. Today, the castrati’s operatic parts are pants roles sung by mezzo-sopranos and contraltos, the lower two female registers, though there are still some naturally occurring male sopranos as well as male altos, or countertenors, like David Daniels, who thrilled audiences last season at The Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare.”
Throughout the 19th century, under masters like Schubert, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini, opera and lied, or art song, were enriched melodically, harmonically and dramatically, so much so that it’s not surprising that they retrenched in the 20th century. Classical music became more abstract, atonal, posing some of the greatest challenges for singers since the metrically free, vibrato-less days of the Renaissance.
But just as classical music was becoming more austere, pop music was heating up, spurred by mass media and technology and inspired by the melding of classical and folk influences, especially the rhythms and spirituals of African-Americans. Blues, jazz, R&B, folk and rock required a different kind of singer, one who was not so wedded to the score or music sheet, who was willing to play with melody and rhythm and put his or her individuality on the line.
Though opera has always had its share of outsize personalities like Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti, they were stars first and foremost because they could sing. As the great pop music critic Robert Christgau wrote in “Any Old Way You Choose It” (Cooper Square Press, 2000, expanded edition), classical singing is about beauty of tone, while pop singing is about projecting personality through the voice. It’s no surprise then that 20th-century pop music has produced some of the great, idiosyncratic singers from Billie Holliday and Al Jolson to Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald, to Barbra Streisand, Mick Jagger and Whitney Houston.
Today, everyone sings everything as musical styles come together. Renée Fleming might trill Mozart at The Met, warble jazz on CD and riff on opera’s greatest hits for David Letterman’s Top Ten. Gone are the days when Farinelli sang for popes. Now it’s Kelly Clarkson.
Meanwhile, the hip hop and rap – half-spoken, half-sung – echo recitative and Sprechstimme in classical music, the patter songs of Mozart and Cole Porter and the poetry of the ancients. Homer, meet Kanye West and Lady Gaga.
But perhaps the greatest change in, and challenge for, vocal performance has been the constantly shifting, ever-deceptive technology. Microphones, recording equipment, YouTube, karaoke and shows like “American Idol,” “The Voice” and “The X Factor” can turn virtually anyone into a pro. Or can they? (Revisit – or don’t – Roseanne Barr’s controversial rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a 1990 San Diego Padres-Cincinnati Reds game.)
“It’s a double-edged sword,” voice teacher La Vita says of programming like “The Voice.” “I love that it makes people interested in singing. But the danger is that it makes everyone an expert, and for that reason, it cheapens the experience.”
And yet, that’s where we are in 21st-century America, with everyone wanting to sound his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.