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« He Snapped! He Snapped? (Norman Costa) | Main | Lucknow - come for the history, stay for the food »

March 21, 2012


You said it, Sujatha. Heck, I'd argue that many old recordings on vinyl, despite the surface noise and in fact sometimes because of it, are not at all terrible. Take the work of Ward Marston, whose output consists of entirely digitally recorded transcriptions of playbacks of old opera and song recitals. He won't tinker with the noise, for fear of compromising fidelity to the original performance. I further appreciate the evocative quality of the noise itself. Perhaps that misses the point of appreciating the performance, but I have no illusions about hi-fi audio playback technologies. The really good ones are marvelous substitutes for the real thing. Still, their perfection resides not in their capacity to fool the listener, but to present a derivative performance that can hold its own. I don't expect, let alone seek, a "perfect" reproduction, because it can't be delivered, period.

On the other hand, I'm not opposed on principle to engineers, producers, and musicians futzing with effects after the fact. Glenn Gould, anyone? Even better, I adore some kinds of hyper-futzing. The "perfection" sought isn't the banal target practice facilitated by Auto-Tune, though. It's that other perfection, the kind we like to ascribe to a work of art, even when we're fully cognizant of its flaws. John Oswald comes to mind, he of plunderphonics notoriety. He produced his recordings Plexture and Gray Folded, among others, by digitally pasting together the briefest of passages of recordings of others. Gray Folded is a pastiche on steroids of hours and hours of live recordings by the Grateful Dead (grayfolded) of their frequent show-stopper "Dark Star." Oswald mixes layers of shows from disparate eras and cobbles together solo performances second-by-second. It is at once the perfect fetish for Dead fans and a work of inspired originality and technical wizardry.

I wish that someone or something somewhere will magically or technically make me sound good singing, even for just a few minutes:-) I would love to hear myself sing in tune just once before I die. But then I did hear the Autotune guy tell the singing astronomer that if a voice doesn't have good tonal quality, digital enhancement can do nothing. Rats!

Good singing isn't a purely technical virtue. I'll never forget Fred Hiatt of KPFK's wonderful Opera Show spinning great recordings of great operatic and vocal performances Sunday mornings. He featured the canon, naturally, but his tastes were wide and, I'd say, refined. I learned a lot from catching a half hour or so of his show. Once, he demonstrated how great singing is not all about the voice. After spinning records by, I don't know, Conchita Supervia or Fritz Wunderlich--simply enthralling singers, among my favorites--he played one by Jimmy Durante. The entertainer, the "Schnozzola," that Jimmy Durante. It was just perfect. Durante talked his way through the tune, but he exuded charm and taste and wit. Auto-Tune would have completely spoiled the performance.

Dean & Sujatha,
One of the highlights of my recent India trip was being in Delhi when a most excellent retrospective of the brilliant Indian artist Ramkinkar Baij is showing at the National Gallery of Modern Art. One of the masterful touches of the exhibition is that the recording of a Bengali "baul" song sung by Baij himself plays in the background. The artist sang a cappella and began with a hoarse, cigarette soaked voice and in a slightly off tune manner. But as Ramkinkar settled down into the long song, his voice cleared of the phlegm and the melody flowed with amazing heart and grace, still in a slighly raspy and cracked voice. Walking through his brilliant two and three dimensional works of art while a lilting folk song in the artist's own voice filled the rooms was a far more enchanting experience than looking at great art in a hushed gallery.

Ruchira, maybe the newer generation Auto-Tune will be able to handle tonal 'correction' as well- so there's hope for your dream to be fulfilled, yet!

Not all great vocalists have fantastic voices, nor were they consistent over the years. What they did have, was the ability to make the best of what they currently sounded like, imperfections and all. But that philosophy is sadly fallen out of fashion now. New and shiny is better, and with the current crop of tools, not even initial perfection or technique is needed.

This isn't to say that an unschooled voice can't sound good. Indian playback singer Mukesh is a perfect example, or even the poor tonal quality of Semmangudi's voice didn't prevent him from taking his spot among the Carnatic music greats.

The Tyson clip is marvelous. He might well be the best low-calorie science popularizer working today.

My go-to example of a superb singer with a terrible voice is Gangubai Hangal. Makes things quite clear for me actually - she sings with her daughter, a relatively mediocre singer, who, because she has a more conventional and pleasing voice actually sounds nicer for the first few minutes, even on the umpteenth listen. Then you keep listening, and quite imperceptibly you shift to wishing she'd stop interrupting her mother with her noises. Not that a good voice is a hindrance to virtuosity, quite to the contrary, but the two are distinct.

Actually, looking at wikipedia, I see Gangubai died a few years ago :( Must've missed it.

I wouldn't call Gangubai Hangal's voice terrible- it had power,even if lacking in a smooth elegance, as evidenced by this clip of a recording of hers from 70 years ago. Age doesn't help musicians who rely on their vocal cords- it is always downhill from the peak of condition and perfection in the 30's and 40's. But technique and experience more than make up for the failings in the voice.

The links here are wonderful. Gangubai's voice is splendid. A friend of mine long ago attended an Indian vocal recital in a famous series at Occidental College in Southern California. He marveled at how often the singer would pause to cough. Is this acceptable performance behavior? I mean, Celine Dion it ain't!

I'm a fan of the senior Dagar Brothers. In this clip, I think I hear a throat clearing at about 42 seconds. I've never noticed it on other recordings of vocal music.

The Tyson clip is indeed a treat. But how proponents of Auto-Tune can pretend they're achieving perfection, I can't say. You can clearly hear the machine at work. That's half the pleasure, if any, of the pop recordings that over-use the technology!

For a while I didn't know what autotune was, and thought the weird sound was some kind of deliberately created electronic distortion. That happens too, but learning about autotune, seeing the noise as incomplete masking of imperfections, has changed the way I see a lot of music.

I have many mp3 files of Gangubai Hangal, but they're all from after her voice became craggy. I attended a couple of her concerts as a child, and still remember being quite startled at the tonal quality of her voice, then growing to admire it through her singing. Ha, so she didn't always sound that way! I also think that just as the quality of the voice isn't the quality of the singing, the latter is much more than virtuosic ability, even setting aside issues like performing skills and charisma and such. Parveen Sultana, for example, has more pyrotechnic wizardry in her kit than most other professional singers, but I doubt even she thinks she's as "good" as Amir Khan, or Gangubai.

I once heard Gangubai Hangal live accompanied by her daughter. My reaction was exactly what Prasad described, "Stop interrupting your mother, girl!" Gangubai was a no-nonsense performer, one of few who could be heard at the back of the auditorium without the aid of a mic. During this particular performance, she suddenly halted her singing and admonished some one in the front row to stop "misbehaving" (Yeh kyaa bad-tamizee hai?). We learnt later that a poor enthusiastic but probably tonedeaf man was beating out a wrong rhythm with his hands and had irritated the lady to distraction.

Many wonderful Indian classical singers had conventionally "unpretty" voices. Some were heavy smokers - Beghum Akhtar comes to mind - (more were incurable drunks) and the habit showed up in their voices in late life, lending a raspy quality to their singing. Hence a lot of clearing of throats during performances.

Speaking of old singers, I was suddenly reminded of this woman. She was all the rage among the Indian college crowd during my DU days. I heard her live a couple of times, giving nearly pitch perfect renditions of western and Hindi popular songs sung by singers as diverse as Kishore Kumar, Engelbert Humperdinck and Miriam Makeba. What would you call Usha Uthup - a talented singer or a talented mimic? When music consists of playing back sound, should we even make the distinction?

Usha Uthup is in a category all her own, Ruchira. Her voice is unique and the ease with which she switches between the Asha Bhosle lines and Kishore Kumar lines in Hal kaisa janaab ka is nonpareil. I don't think any existing playback singers can handle that.
Throat clearings during live Indian music performances are not unusual, Dean. We don't have the same expectation that the singer will be in greatest voice at the start of a concert, we know that a voice can take a while to warm up. It's usually the case that it will be around the second third of the concert that the singer will be in full flow, both vocally as well as creatively.

We appreciate different musicians for the different experiences that they proffer. I, for one, would get totally tired if every singer started to sound uniformly perfect, something that is part of the off-putting experience one gets with music that has been manipulated through editing or effects.

Wonderful post and thread, Sujatha -- many thanks. Am I the only one here who actually remembers when London Recordings started to manipulate the sound of opera? Circa 1971, a singer could visit their sound lab on a really good day and record all the pear-shaped tones he was too frazzled for in the session the day before. These would be spliced in precisely where needed. Nifty, sure. But what it made me wonder then was how long it would be before they didn't need the singer at all, just the lab. As I had a schoolgirl pass to the opera in San Francisco, I went all the time in those years, and it occurred to me an advancing technology would have the real-world effect of depriving audiences of a sense of occasion by making a live performance necessarily technically less-than. Until around then, opera goers were used to being able to tell a great live performance from a successful one -- we were not looking for perfect.

I suspect that even earlier manipulations may have occurred with the advent of recording. Merely speeding up the recording slightly made for higher pitches along with the tempos, which may have been used to advantage to make older singers sound younger.
Case in point, I was listening to a couple of ancient recordings of my teacher, who used to sing for the radio, and suddenly realized that a couple of the songs were pitched higher than average. I ran it through Audacity, dropping the tempo by about 10%, and voila- the actual voice came back.
This kind of 'minor' adjustment may have been inadvertent (motors turning the large reels of magnetic tape on which the recording was made could have had slight variations in speed), or it could have been a deliberate choice, as they often do in Bollywood films, where the song-and-dance sequences are filmed slower, but speeded up slightly on screen.
The splice and dice was quite literally cutting tape and rejoining in altered sequences, before it became digital.

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