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Saturday morning quotes 6.3: Good vibrations?

June 4, 2016

CanBeltoAs much as we like to immerse ourselves in research and understanding the aesthetics of early music, and as much as we would wish to achieve an honest approximation of the transparency and purity of sound that honors and serves those aesthetics, we simply cannot deny the fact that we are affected by the changes that have intervened between then and now. We must accept the fact that modern trained musicians are reluctant to let go of what are rightly or wrongly seen as improvements to mechanical techniques of tone production; techniques that enable the singer or instrumentalist to dip into a staggering variety of historical and modern repertory.

Use of vibrato in early music is an issue that has arisen frequently among revivalists ever since the 1970s, and was once a defining line of demarcation separating modern musicians from those seeking an “authentic” sound. Since most pioneering early music revivalists were trained classical musicians, and since the use of vibrato was (and is) a basic ingrained element of tone production for trained vocalists and string players throughout much of the twentieth century, deliberate denial of the technique was seen as a necessary sacrifice to be made in the martyred musician’s quest of the “authentic” sound. For many, forgoing vibrato was akin to giving up shoelaces, with the apparent result of a great deal of slippage and stumbling about.

Today, diverse vocal soloists and baroque divas add a great deal of relatively wide vibrato to their interpretations. Among instrumentalists, even our best lutenists sometimes employ Segovia-like vibrato—justifying the technique based on a description of vibrato, notated (sparingly) as an ornament in Nicolas Vallet’s Regia Pietas (1620). But when it comes to ensemble music, the question of vibrato really becomes a practical question of fine tuning and good taste.

The question of vibrato arose recently while we were auditioning singers for ensemble work. When asked for our opinion on the use of vibrato, my (RA) response was:

“As for vibrato in singing, it’s an effect that was once considered a tasteful ornament in solo song but was incorporated more broadly into vocal technique mostly as a result of the piano with its wide tuning, as well as the need to aid in projection. While it works for modern rep, and as ornamental seasoning for singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Patti Lupone, early music really demands a purer sound, particularly when blending with other voices.”

A reasonable explanation which I stand behind. Pitch wobble was simply not necessary in accompanied song until more easily managed but widely-tuned keyboard instruments became popular and edged out the more transparent and finely-tuned plucked strings. And while there is the occasional historical mention of temperaments pertaining to organs and other wind instruments, it was simply a non-issue until the rise of the keyboards. Singers sang in tune and lutenists sometimes adjusted their frets. But our prospective singer responded:

“I would argue that the true reason vibrato is used in vocal technique is due to physiological need and vocal efficiency. It has been my experience with this era of music that a healthy vibrato between 10 and 20 cents allows for a balance of “healthy” voice production and ensemble blend. I would use Chanticleer as a good example of “healthy” vibrato in this genre of repertoire. My reason for asking about your use of vibrato is to make sure that you are not a proponent of the “straight-tone is better” school of thought.”

A word about the reference to Chanticleer: They are a fabulous professional vocal ensemble and are capable of delivering very effective performances of early music. But they are modern musicians who apply their considerable technique to a very broad range of styles from many eras, including performances of very modern music. Use of vibrato in ensemble is an artefact of the singers’ modern training, and simply because they can do it does not necessarily make vibrato an acceptable element of interpretive quality, particularly as applied to 15th and 16th century polyphony.

My response was as follows:

“As for the “straight tone” versus vibrato question, it has seldom come up in ensembles we’ve had in the past. It seems to be an issue with highly-trained singers who think quite a bit about their production. I have noticed that vibrato in ensemble can be infectious and can spread: one person indulging enables others and it can create the sort of harmonic tremor that could cause a suspension bridge to collapse killing thousands of unsuspecting motorists. But we’re talking about a wide vibrato that a truck could be driven through the misaligned sine waves, and not a bit of natural seasoning that helps shape the arc of a phrase or helps color a held note. And I have the sense to not bring out the meter and measure oscillations, but rather trust that good taste will prevail.”

“As I mentioned, Donna has a natural voice, which is really the most appropriate voice-type for the music we perform. Projected voices are absolutely necessary in later rep, and you are right in saying that vibrato is a healthy component of a projected voice. But our concentration has been on intimate music, balancing polyphony with a solo voice and the most ridiculously quiet instrument you’ve ever (barely) heard. Of course, we sing sacred music in sometimes very large cathedrals, and that takes a different sort of voice with more projection involved. But in such cases, vibrato in polyphony sung in a spacious acoustic can begin to sound like the phase-shifter dialed up to eleven.”

At this point in the discussion, I made some remarks about “straight tone” versus vibrato and the English choral sound; remarks I will judiciously keep to myself in this forum. Instead, I’ll give voice to one of the most respected representatives of the English choral sound, Peter Philips.

“Here is the essence of a constantly recurring problem: the young and untrained sound is the one that has now established itself in most people’s minds as the ideal for polyphony. This may have been allowed to grow in recent years, but it remains the starting-point for the accepted modern sound, and maximizes the chances of achieving the good tuning and blend I insist upon. The moment we hear older recordings of polyphony with the kind of vibrato which was thought to be desirable not long ago for every ‘proper’ singer, we reject them, for good reason. But the problem is that in reality the young and untrained formula won’t do either.”

“These voices tend to lack stamina, which is an essential requirement on long tours, as well as the kind of projection that can bring music to life for large audiences in big buildings. What is needed in the modern context are strong voices, trained not to wreck themselves when under pressure, yet capable of singing music written at a time when voice production was not a burning issue. Our singers need to master something the original composers would have known little about, while not losing sight of what their music seems to require of us.”

“Here we come back to the necessary mixing of historical knowledge with the modern situation. Too often one hears that the historical evidence requires a modern conductor to find singers who will approximate to a dogmatically defined sound-world. The problem is that no one actually knows what that sound-world sounded like, and the raw material has changed. One may ask a contralto to sing ‘like a countertenor’, and she may adapt her sound to some degree, but a woman with modern training who sings parts that may be out from their intended pitch by as much as a 4th cannot possibly represent what Tallis heard. We have to make it work for us, knowing the options.”

– Peter Phillips, “Treble or soprano? Performing Tallis”, Early Music, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, 2005, pp. 495 – 502.

Questions of vibrato really have to do with an individual’s technique, and individual technique really must be adapted for an effective ensemble sound. On that note, we leave you with Peter Philip’s remarks on ensemble, wisely drawn from someone who knows better.

“Whatever the music—from the simplest anthem to the longest antiphon—the singers only need to get used to each other, react to each other as in chamber music, blend and phrase with each other, and whole concerts of music are within their grasp. This listening, understanding and reacting must occur both between the singers on each part and then between all the parts. By this means the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.”

“Or, to put it as the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once did about his craft: ‘In order for you to play jazz, you’ve got to listen. The music forces you at all times to address what other people are thinking, to interact with them with empathy, and to deal with the process of working things out. You have yourself, your individual expression; and then you have how you’re going to negotiate that expression in the context of that group. It’s exactly like democracy’.”

– Philips, p. 500.

One Comment
  1. Truly disconcerting that certain trained singers don’t seem to recognize or care about the difference between a projected vocal performance and a historically informed, natural, and integrated interpretation, which applies here. Straight tone is undoubtedly better in this context, not only because it’s reasonable, but – yet more important regarding passion-based music – because it’s the only way that feels right. I suggest taking Donna’s doppelgangers from the Ravenscroft video as ensemble members. 😉

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