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Should The Same Rules Apply?

January 6, 2010

bottom.jpegShould the rules that apply to one genre of music apply to another?

This question popped into my mind last night in the wake of two very contrasting vocal music experiences

I spent the first part of the evening at the KALW radio studios in San Francisco recording a VoiceBox show with jazz and blues singer and jazz historian Kim Nalley about Ella Fitzgerald's voice. Critics are pretty much unanimous in praising Ella for her crystal clear diction, spot-on intonation and careening range. Every song we played during the hour-long recording session for the show substantiated these aspects of the singer's voice.

Later on that evening, I went to The Bottom of the Hill, a music club in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco to hear a couple of new bands -- Hey Young Believer and Blood and Sunshine. The members of these electronic indie rock groups, are -- at a guess -- all in their early to mid-20s -- in other words, a bit older than Ella was when she started out.

The musicianship, as far as instrumental beats and riffs go, was lively. Both groups created thick, woven textures with their synthesizers, drums and guitars. But the vocal lines were just about the weakest aspect of the music I heard. I could barely make out a single word the singers were uttering and the voices were raspy, limited in range and flexibility, often out of tune and lacking in support. I wasn't super impressed with either group.

Of course, the singers in some of my favorite bands right now, such as Florence and the Machine and Radiohead, make a habit of poor diction. Somehow this shortcoming matters less, though -- perhaps because the voices have such an extraordinary or unusual timbre, superlative range and are always in tune.

I'm not saying every singer should aim to sound like Ella Fitzgerald. But paying attention to the basics, such as diaphragmatic support and tuning, should probably be a foundation for all singers across all genres.


  • I have been interested in this question ever since my own writing about music made its major "paradigm shift" from emphasis on the score to emphasis on performance. My current thinking is that every performance rests on some kind of aesthetic foundation; and, if it is necessary, I shall take the time to write about that foundation as a prerequisite to writing about the performance. To put my money where my mouth/keyboard is, I offer, as an example, the way I wrote about
    Marc-André Hamelin
    last month. To be fair, however, this is not an easy approach to take when you encounter something for the first time, whether it is a new act at Bottom of the Hill or your first exposure to John Cage. Often, the only thing I can say about a "first encounter" is whether or not I want to have a second one and then try to justify the decision I have made.

    By Blogger Stephen Smoliar, At January 6, 2010 at 12:02 PM  

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