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Saturday morning quotes 2.42: Singing Dowland

March 9, 2013

As we prepare for the release of our CD of music from John Dowland’s last book of songs, A Pilgrimes Solace, we can’t help but reflect a bit on how we approach the music and why.  The short answer is because we enjoy performing music that was composed for and intended to be communicated in an intimate setting.

The longer answer: Because we have done our interpretive homework.

Since there are no audio recordings of music from 400 years ago, we have to rely on the surviving clues and use our intelligence and musical sensitivity to zero in on an approach that balances the aesthetic of the music with an effective communication that makes sense to modern listeners.  Any other approach is either insensitive to the style or else treats the music as an archaic curiosity presented, viewed and heard as a quaint museum display.

We submit that the paradigm of generic ‘classical’ singing, an approach that treats pre-Baroque domestic music as a simpler subset of art-song, is missing the point.  Early music singers typically have smaller voices, a trait that is inappropriately seen as a defect that relegates the poor singer to a less demanding repertory.  We think a consciously smaller voice can enable the singer to underplay the mechanics involved in projection, allowing volume of sound to take a backseat to the more important task of communicating both text and musical nuance.

If we look at the basis of training for the ‘classical’ singing voice, it is all about projection of a sound that smooths over the natural faults of the human voice.  This is analogous to using only closed fingerings and avoiding the overly resonant open strings of the violin.  The vocal result is an artificial sound (in the modern sense) that denies the natural characteristics of the human voice – characteristics like warmth and intimacy.  Since we know the techniques involved in a loud projection affect interpretive qualities, we look back to a time when development of a new technology actually enabled the singing voice to become more natural.

The electric microphone actually eliminated the need for singers to be heard over an orchestra in a large hall, and the first ‘star’ to take advantage of this technology was Bing Crosby.

“[The microphone] was his ultimate ally, perfectly suited to his way with dynamics and nuance and timbre…Overnight, megaphones became a joke, as the tradition of vocal shouting receded into an instant prehistory.  Two years earlier Al Jolson had been at the peak of his popularity; now he would be recast as the beloved reminder of old-fashioned show business.  With the microphone elaborating the subtleties of his delivery, Bing was reinventing popular music as a personal and consequently erotic medium.”

– A Pocketful Of Dreams: The Early Years, 1903-1940 (Gary Giddins’s biography of Bing Crosby, p. 228)

A very good example of Bing’s integration of intimacy, rhythmic freedom and a rather natural projection is in the song, “Temptation” from the film, Going Hollywood (1933),  which can be heard here:

And his incredible command of rhythmic nuance in a favorite song, “I’m an Old Cowhand” from the film Rhythm on the Range (1936), which can be heard here:

To point out some differences in a stylish delivery, here is an example of the charming actress and classically-trained singer, Irene Dunne, significantly adorned with sparkling tiara and singing a rather precious and projected version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from the 1935 musical film, Roberta (with Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers).

Or a very special performance of the same song by one of the most communicative singers of all time, Judy Garland, singing with expressive directness that outshines her impressive vocal technique.

Our task is to effectively communicate very intimate vocal music that was meant to be performed in small spaces with accompaniments conceived and composed for “perhaps the most perfect, and certainly the most personal instrument of all.”  If one takes a strictly authentic position, conveying the true sense of the music is very difficult to accomplish in live performance, and simply cannot be done in a large auditorium while adhering to a true sense of dimensional proportion of both text and sound. Of course, there was music conceived for public performance for special occasions or for the theater, but the default setting for a lute song is domestic, personal and intimate.

It’s an odd aspect of modern life that recording technology allows listeners to indulge in a more authentically intimate  listening experience, as we heard recently from a colleague:

“What a pleasant  surprise to be awoken this Sunday morning with you both at my bedside!…6:33am – my clock radio set to WCLV, I lay there mesmerized by a ballad from the Italian Renaissance, thinking how beautiful the voice and how clear the lute. I kept thinking it all sounded hauntingly familiar. Not until Robert Aubrey Davis announced your names on Millennium of Music as part of a Valentine’s weekend program did I come to realize why it sounded so familiar…I’ve heard you guys in concert many times, but the intimacy of a recorded performance through a Bose wave radio was unparalleled…I was transfixed by the clarity and musicality of the lute…And of course Donna’s voice was absolutely beautiful. I can see why your CDs are being met with critical acclaim. I was enraptured. What a wonderful way to start the day.”

– A colleague who will remain anonymous

  1. Very good post. Most modern, opera-trained singers, especially sopranos, cannot be understood, however much they practice diction. Joan Baez and others who are not trying to project can almost always be understood. Donna has excellent vocal quality and great clarity of diction, just right for English renaissance songs.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Saturday morning quotes 3.51: Naturally | Unquiet Thoughts
  2. Saturday morning quotes 6.31: Performing Dowland | Unquiet Thoughts
  3. John Dowland: A Pilgrimes Solace (Mignarda recording) – Slugging A Vampire

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