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Chiara e Oscura

August 19, 2009

chiaraoscura.jpegAt the Great American Music Hall last night, my friend Brian and I heard two female vocalists. One didn't do it for me. I was bored silly by her voice, even though her songs were tuneful enough. It was breathy and bland. If it were edible, it would be French toast made with Wonderbread soaked in maple-flavored syrup.

The other, contrastingly, completely held my attention. It wasn't the greatest instrument I'd ever heard. But there was depth and charisma to it. Every now and again it did unexpected things, like fluttering, butterfly-like, in the low registers, and filling the room with warmth up high. Every word the singer sang was clear -- I knew exactly what she was saying. And I felt that every syllable had meaning for her.

Brian and I held the same opinion about the singers' voices. This launched a discussion about why we might feel that way. Why did one singer tickle our eardrums and the other, bruise them?

To a degree, beauty is in the ear of the beholder and the answer to this question could be put down to a matter of personal taste. What's wine to one person is vinegar to another, n' all that. But in the case of these two particular singers, I wonder whether the blend between two contrasting textures in the voice -- chiara and oscura -- that I've only recently started learning and thinking about might have something to do with my reactions to their voices?

I first heard about chiara (the Italian word for "light") and oscura ("dark") this summer from a brilliant singer and vocal coach who spoke at a workshop about the importance of being able to blend and balance these two qualities in the voice to get the most pleasing effect. Too much of one, and the sound is insubstantial; too much of the other, and it's heavy.

Last night, this theoretical concept became concrete for me. The singer who's singing didn't appeal to me was all chiara. There was nothing anchoring the voice. It floated up into the air and disappeared. The singer who's voice I could get drunk on quite easily, had a terrific blend of chiara and oscura. There were other qualities of her performance that made it very watchable -- she looked adorable in a very unusual watermelon-shaped dress and had great repartee with the audience. But I think it was the perfect balance between light and dark in her voice that made it possible for me to feel like I could have listened to her sing all night.

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