Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hearing the Beauty Marks

When dearest makes new mixed music tapes for us to listen to on trips, we play the, "Who's this?" game. Since many of them are from the radio (folk music, mostly) and new CDs (folk, jazz, soul, blues, musicals, even some pop or rock) which we deliberately save until she's used them for mixed tapes, we haven't heard most of the music before. We have to recognize the artists by their style. Daughter and oldest son are pretty good at the game, and getting better all the time, but I'm probably the best at it.

The way I recognize even a singer I don't know well, some we might only have in one or two pieces on tapes from years before, is by letting my mind drift a certain way and letting the pattern of their singing bring other pieces of music to mind. The other tune is possibly more familiar, and their name pops into my head.

This has led me to gradually notice what it is that makes a singer's voice or style unique. It might be the tone color of their voice, or an accent that comes through the singing. But more often, it's got to do with technical accuracy.

This surprised me. I hadn't really considered (not being a musician) that there was much room for being "off" the note, or off the beat, without seeming unskilled. But in reality, the most distinctive singers have something different about the way they treat notes, rhythm or both. Some hit the notes a little late, or a little early. Some hold them a little too long. Some are just the tiniest bit flat or sharp (while I don't play music, I come from a family with many musicians, some professional, and I'm sensitive to pitch). Some don't nail the note when they hit it - they reach for it, and slide into it from a little to one side.

And it's these imperfections, which have to be very slight to be OK, that actually make their singing BETTER. Perfection would be mechanical. It's the nuanced stretching of the technique that lends charm, personality, humanity, charisma, life to the performance.

I thought about that more and realized that many things are like that. A face like Marilyn Monroe's was made more alluring and charming by the addition of a beauty mark. Women used to add them to their face artificially. During WWII, when nylon was all going to the war effort, many women painted stocking seams down the backs of their legs - the seam was sexier than bare legs - the imperfection of that line revealing the complex beauty of the leg curves. When I was learning to tie a bow tie I was advised that if I tied it too perfectly people would think it was a clip-on. A little imperfection proved it was the genuine article. I listen to classical guitar being played and if there is no sound of fingers squeaking on the strings, I feel robbed. Someone erased the human being from the performance.

So if you don't think it ruins pleasures to look under their surface, you might get additional pleasure from listening to distinctive singers and trying to hear what makes them THEM. On the way back from a walk downtown, recently, we were listening to Patty Lupone sing Your the Top, by Cole Porter (it would have been even better to hear her rendition of Blow, Gabriel, Blow from that same musical). I was enjoying her incomparable power and brassy sound, reminiscent of Ethyl Merman, several of whose signature roles Ms. Lupone has also sung to acclaim (like Gypsy). But I suddenly realized that her power and brass isn't what really makes her singing unique. It's the way she beautifully misses and nails the notes. She slides into them slightly, in a jazzy way that is more like a high trombone than it is like a trumpet. You're aware of how much room she has to play with - more room than most people could command, I'm sure - as wide as her incredible smile. She makes it sexy and very female, not like the perfection of a straight line, but more like the beautiful sway of a woman's hips.

>>>> Appendix de Grenouille #19 <<<< Several years ago I drew this portrait of Grenouille for my dearest (it's on her dresser). I took some liberties. I realized that his shape and the placement of his eyes, as well as the little curve of the center of his lips, were the real distinguishing qualities I loved. So I left off his back stripes, and I didn't feel I needed to stick to his real color or size.

I would draw him differently now. No outline, for one thing - I've largely stopped using them. And lately I notice his stripes more, and I would probably add them to a portrait. They show off the curve of his back.

But his shape and eyes are still the best thing about him. Unless it's the perfect way he fits in my hand when I carry him around for photos...


Anonymous said...

I've never been able to pinpoint how I can recognize a musician or singer in the way you describe it here. I've always assumed that it was a blend of tone and pronunciation, some unique, but undefinable quality to a person's voice.

I appreciate what you're saying about imperfections. I think our imperfections are what make us most interesting.

What a great picture of grenouille. He's such a good subject! I like how you positioned him in the square.

And it sounds like he's like my green stone. I carry it around and if fits just right in my palm and even has an indentation for my thumb when I need to give it a squeeze for reassurance.

Alex said...

Singing is an art-form. And in the same way the eye can pick out a painter's particular brush-stroke style or recognize a cartoonist's preferred proportions, the ear can identify a singer by the way they sneak up on or slide into the notes.

Of course, this could go back to your discussion about the difference between craftsmanship and art... nah, seven parts is enough.

okjimm said...

tapes ???? you still have tapes?

anyways.... "listening to distinctive singers" gees, if you haven't checked Tim Hardin or Phil Ochs..... two of the most distinctive voices that I have ever heard. unfortunately, both deceased....but years later still awfully tasty...

Steve Emery said...

DCup - Grenouille even has a little round hole in him (underneath) like most ceramics. It feels just right under my thumb. I don't carry him around too much, though - it makes him motion sick.

And about imperfections - I'd go further and say it is the things about our faces and bodies as we age that make us interesting and more beautiful, as well. Youth looks very blank to me - pretty, but blank. America's obsession with youth has me wondering (again!) about our national IQ.

Alex - I'm honored and impressed that you read those seven parts! (Well, at least you saw them on my post roll and paid that much attention...) And yeah, this sure does relate. What part does the singer's style play in the art of the music, and how does that lay on top of the art of the songwriter (who is often someone else)... And if the style is totally unconscious, can it be part of a conscious message - and thus is it part of the art... Nah - let's just enjoy the music.

OKJimm - Gotta go check them out. I'll let you know how they strike me. And 90 minute high-bias tapes are still a great way to mix up music for long car trips. We have hundreds of 'em! They're like time capsules, charting our musical tastes and knowledge over the decades. I made some, but my dearest makes most of them.

linda said...

hi steve, I appreciate your perpective on human imperfection...it is so much more interesting!

still stuck in bandwidth prison...ugh.