Saturday, February 19, 2011

Voice, Class and Barthes Revisited

I while back, I got a bit grumpy about Barthes and his seemingly over-rated article, “The Grain of the Voice.”

I was delighted when my wife spotted a promising article on the voice and class that addressed some of these issues and, though referencing the dreaded “Grain” article, found something in it that surprised me.

Grant Olwage’s “The Class and Colour of Tone: An Essay on the Social History of Vocal Tone” appeared in Ethnomusicology Forum in 2004. His central topic is the notion of the “black voice” in South African choral singing, as it was described by white music teachers and commentators.

The concerns of the article focus on how voices, during colonial times, were classified as “cultured” or “primitive;” as “musical” or noisy, and ultimately as white or black. Olwage is quick to point out that the “white” voice corresponds not simply to a racial or even cultural whiteness, but one tied directly to class.

By coalescing as a cultural force in the 1830s, the British middle class emerged at the same time as those singing pedagogies that brought us the modern classical singing voice. Its main feature was a purity and openness of tone, in which no part of the body audibly obstructs or modifies the sound. Thus, the ideal of a “pure” voice contrasts with a “throaty,” “nasal,” “chesty,” or “guttural” sound – note that all the latter adjectives are derived from body parts.

Generally, he observes, any singing voice that middle-class Victorians encountered that ran afoul of this “pure” ideal tended to be treated as both [different] and inferior. Children, for example, sing with shouting, rough voices until (maybe) taught to refine their approach. Choral singing in one London slum, one source recounts, was considered “harsh, ugly and noisy” until sufficient training was brought to bear.

Olwage’s survey of choral singing’s history among black South Africans, principally drawn from commentary by white observers, found much the same descriptions being applied to the black choirs: too loud, too harsh, too chesty, thus unrefined and primitive.

But Olwage suggests that language also played a key role in creating the timbral character of the singing being described. This was where he discussed Barthes: “The grain [of the voice] is…the materiality of the voice speaking [or singing] its mother tongue.”

So language affects timbre, and affects grain.

Victorian middle-class English, he suggests, was full of vowels which tend to promote a softer, rounder vocal tone (e.g., “oo”). Working-class dialects (the “twang” of the Cockney) used vowel sounds with much brighter qualities, and the Xhosa language in South Africa emphasizes a bright “ah” vowel. Olwage suggests that within such linguistic practices the singing will necessarily sound brighter, louder, and to the Victorian middle-class ear, harsher.

I wasn’t sure what to make of his emphasis on the harshness of the “ah” vowel – my own vocal teacher described this as the warmest vowel on which to sing. But if it is closer to the “aa” in “lather,” I can see how this would tend to produce an edgier, louder tone.

In any case, it the article provided a nice set of linkages between timbre, grain, class and culture as they concern the singing voice.