Saturday, 30 October 2021

God in the body

To say that a musician's style is cantabile is one of the highest forms of praise.  We mean by this 'singable' that it is as if the instrument were an extension of the player, another voice through which can be expressed plangency or exultation as directly as human sobs or shouts of joy might.

At the root of this phrase is a recognition of the primacy of the voice, that all music continues to aspire to its original condition of singing.  And rightly: if playing any instrument is a marvellous undertaking - producing infinitely subtle gradations of sound from mere wood and metal - how much more miraculous is the process whereby the singer's body itself becomes the instrument, both player and played.

The vocalist's pre-eminence is hard-won.  Unlike flutes or pianos, no two bodies are the same; learning to sing means gaining intimate knowledge of the body's deepest recesses and cavities, for it is these - in the chest and the head - that lend the weak vibrations of the throat their character and their impact.  The situation is complicated by the fact that singers rarely hear an accurate representation of this sound: conduction through the skull to the ear means that in singing as in speaking we are always listening to an internal impostor.  Hence the perennial disbelief we feel upon hearing our unfamiliar external voice relayed by a recording.

The coincidence of the vocalist's body and instrument means that in our inevitable identification with a singer - as with any artist - we feel the notes doubly within us: both metaphorically as the ersatz performer and literally as a physical object responding to the waves of varying pressure we call sound.  No wonder, then, that the voice dominates every musical culture - ethnic or eclectic, from the most cravenly populist to the most disdainfully high-brow: all are hopelessly and helplessly swept up by the imperious power of the the singing body and its resonance.

This explains in part the pull of grand opera, even for those who are otherwise quite unmusical.  Aside from its seductive glister, its residual social cachet and its blatant display of privilege, the real draw of this deeply implausible form is the concentration of good voices singing music designed specifically to show them off to the best advantage and to move us as directly and shamelessly as possible.  And just as the voice seems to be a stage past that of any mere instrument, so there are singers whose vocal gifts seem to exceed all human norms.  These are the voices the sheer sound of which send deep, delicious shivers down the spine, the voices everyone recognises as supremely great simply as voices.  They are the names which are exempt from ordinary fashion; they are the Carusos, the Callases, the Pavarottis.

We worship them not just for this frisson; we recognise something beyond their artistry or our pleasure.  In their singing they transcend their mortality because they are living triumphs over their bodies.  They have turned muscle and bone and sinew into a divine machine that seems to deny the brutish facts of life.  In the sublime sound they produce we sense something that surpasses the mundane: we hear the god in the body.  In this greatest of singing we bear witness to a redeeming theophany.  

(1990)

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