The New Year, Handel, and Technological Disruption

January 4, 2013

I suppose I should think about a New Year’s resolution or three. One obvious resolution might be to post a tad more on the jolly old blog. On the other hand, maybe I should give up. According to a new poll over at Telescoper, the only thing worse than Peter’s blog is mine.

Another resolution could be to decide once and for all whether I am elitist or populist and act accordingly. I’ve noticed I tend to be snooty about books and populist about music.

A couple of days back I went to the annual New Year performance of The Messiah at the Usher Hall, with classically minded friends. The interval picnic was rather fun. I also enjoyed the classical concert version of the seventh inning stretch. When the Hallelujah Chorus bit arrives, everybody stands up. Apparently this may or may not be something to do with George II standing up at this point in seventeen umpty ump. Chum Robin calls it “Heaven’s National Anthem”. The music is rather good. Lots of fine tunes, and enough complexity to entertain. Occasionally very profound and moving. But the singing … hmmm. Still can’t get this. Opera singers and classical singers don’t seem to actually sing the note, but kinda surround it in a sort of weird oscillation. Compared to normal modern popular music singing, operatic style singing just doesn’t seem musical.

Of course, historically, this weird ugly style of singing came about because it was the only way to sing loud enough in big halls and approximate being in tune. It didn’t take long after the invention of the microphone for Bing Crosby et al to re-invent the art of singing. Together with recording technology and the radio, this completely transformed the performance, distribution, economics, and demographics of music.

But ”classical” singing remained unchanged.   Opera and classical fans seem to have an instinct that the wobble thing is a truer and better way to sing, and that amplification is always distorting, but I ain’t convinced. It looks to me like hanging onto the weird singing style is a sociological thing, going along with the picnics and the standing up bit, as well as the performer dress code and the unspoken rules about when you applaud and when you don’t, and never speaking to the audience, and so on and so on. Its particularly strange when performing Handel, or Monteverdi say – its not that it preserves the original atmosphere, but a strange upper middle class Victorian atmosphere from a time somewhere in between the creation of the music and our own time.

There are some analogies to academia here … but thats another post…