On wings of what?

When I tell people I'm a singer, they tend to back off with a nervous giggle, or say, "Oh, yuk. Opera, I suppose." Convincing them that there are other things to sing doesn't help. "All that fa-la-la-ing, and old churchy stuff," they conclude, looking for the nearest exit.

Most people won't listen to singing, I've found. Visitors flick impatiently through my record collection, looking for "some proper music". (With instruments, they mean.) Friends won't buy tickets to the choral concerts I'm in unless they're guaranteed at least a harpsichord to shield them from the horror of unaccompanied voices. People in pubs - owners and patrons - throw you out if you and your mates commit the social blunder of bursting into song.

Most people won't sing, either. "I was chucked out of the school choir when I was six," they boast. "I'm tone deaf." These are the lucky ones - at least they had a school choir. Children learn early in life that your voice is for talking with: if you do anything else with it, everyone will laugh at you.

Why is singing such a touchy issue? Here we all are, walking around with a built-in musical instrument at our disposal. It costs nothing, is portable, easy to use with just a little practice, and needs no maintenance. Why rely on the artificial voices of strings, woodwind and brass? Originally imitators of the voice, they surpass it in volume, but not in flexibility and expressiveness. Perhaps, in this technological age, music has to be a matter of keys and strings and coils: vocal cords are too simple to impress us. They're also as common as dirt.

Singing reminds us of unsophisticated things: magic, physical labour, religion. All those savages singing themselves into a frenzy over a birth or a death or an eclipse of the sun. All those sailors toiling round the capstan in time with a shanty. All those choirboys lisping their mysterious Latin. We're too clever for that mumbo-jumbo these days: music must be as irreproachably rational as science, and as impersonal.

The intimacy of the singer's self-revelation makes us squirm. Thank goodness for the orchestra: there's safety in numbers. (It's a pity about conductors and their histrionics, but at least they have the decency to turn their backs.) Thank goodness for the electronic organ and the synthesizer, where the antics of the performer are virtually eliminated. And most of all, thank goodness for Muzak, disembodied and antiseptic, wafting us into the only emotional experience we seem to want: anaesthesia.


Page created 13 October 1996; last updated 12 March 2000

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