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Too Much Heaven on their Minds

The New Castrati

Coldplay frontman Chris Martin aims high in California, 2009. © Tim Mosenfelder / Corbis
Coldplay frontman Chris Martin aims high in California, 2009. © Tim Mosenfelder / Corbis
Cover: February 2011
February 2011Medium length read
 

Ever since the world began, I suspect, men have been showing off to women and to other men by singing high. Sure, the manly stuff – hunting animals, smashing enemies, guarding the fort, singing baritone – has always played well, identifying a fella, in the words of John Lee Hooker, as a “solid sender”. But, so often, when a guy’s up against the odds and needs a miracle, it’s upwards he reaches, calling on the gods to augment his powers.

It may be Skip James wanting to be the devil rather than “that woman’[s] man” in ‘Devil Got My Woman’ or skull-faced John Jacob Niles strumming and singing ‘Go Away From My Window’ with his Sunday school acolytes humming around him. It may be the Fleet Foxes staggering through premonitions of death in ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’ or Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant incanting ‘Whole Lotta Love’. It may even be Gurrumul keening “I was born blind” Arnhem Land fado style, Frankie Valli calling on Sherry to come out tonight, or Jordan Ireland from The Middle East singing of cancer and generations, and “waking up in a cold sweat on the floor”. Across time and continents, all of them seeking transcendence.

The above examples are from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries only. It’s a pity that King David – that great lover of women, leader of armies and writer of songs – didn’t leave any recordings behind. If you could travel 3000 years back in time and hear him perform one of his psalms – “Listen to the voice of my cry, my King and my God” – it’s a good bet he’d be busting out a high falsetto on some of the lines, at least; perhaps the same falsetto he used to call across the rooftops to Bathsheba at her bathing.

A few recordings do exist of the man considered the last of the castrati, Alessandro Moreschi, who, at around the age of 40, sang ‘Ave Maria’ into a wax cylinder in Rome (1902 and 1904). Listening to him now, an unearthly sadness floats through the static of a hundred years. Our modern ears are tuned differently and affected by our abhorrence of the damage done in the name of Art. But even in his pomp it was said of him: “He has a tear in each note and a sigh in each breath.”

By the time castration of boy singers was finally banned in the mid-nineteenth century, the golden age of the castrati was long over. However, for around 100 years during the Baroque era, you couldn’t stage an Italian opera without a castrato in a leading role. They were the first pop stars. Singers such as Carlo Broschi – who, in true superstar tradition, changed his name to the single word ‘Farinelli’ – commanded huge fees and created hysteria wherever they sang.

Fashions changed, as ever, and eventually the castrato’s role as thrill machine was taken over by tenors who pushed the male chest-voice to its upper limits in their heroic quest to blend Earth with heaven.

There have been, and always will be, many thrilling female singers – but women are made to sing high, whereas men who do so seem to vault nature – to cross into border country, into a no-man’s-land of shamanism. They seem not quite themselves, as though channelling demons, or angels. When a woman pushes away from the norm of her sex – as Nina Simone, Ruby Hunter, Mavis Staples and Renee Geyer do – she heads downwards, to Earth not to the sky. The effect can be eerie but doesn’t soar in the same way.

The closest thing we have to the castrato in classical music today is the countertenor – a man trained to sing in a highly developed falsetto or head voice. On a recent album, aptly entitled Opium, Philippe Jaroussky sings ‘À Chloris’, the Reynaldo Hahn ‘art song’ often sung by women despite the male point of view of its lyric. The sound is spine-chilling, supernatural and weird – an effect heightened by the fact that countertenors singing the romantic repertoire are rare. Not quite as rare as the Gouldian finch but exciting the same kind of rapture when displayed in full plumage.

In pop music, however, the new castrati are everywhere. They’ve always been around, inspiring devotion – Roy Orbison, The Bee Gees – but in recent years they seem to be on the rise. In the indie rock woods the trees are thronging with these variegated songbirds. Some of them sing falsetto; some of them, such as Tim Rogers, favour the ratcheted, reedy high end of their voices; some are rock ’n’ roll screamers. Many of them combine singing low and high in the same song, following a template set by Nirvana in the early ’90s, David Bowie on Heroes and, going further back, The Loved Ones’s scarifying ‘Everlovin’ Man’ in 1966 – one of the great rock ’n’ roll performances.

Gospel music – the wellspring of soul, doo-wop and rock ’n’ roll – often aims its song high, and the evangelising of its preachers has made converts far and wide in the country of pop. From its smoother, more croony side, the avatars Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and Al Green have held huge sway. Think Fine Young Cannibals, Prince, Bronski Beat and, more recently, Beck, Antony from Antony and the Johnsons, Dan Kelly, Empire Of The Sun, and the Temper Trap.

You start trying to trace the threads though and you just get tangled. Music is such a messy business, a jungle of promiscuity. But a couple of albums in particular from the ’90s – Jeff Buckley’s Grace and Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs – still transmit a strong pulse that can be heard today.

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke echoes Buckley when he sings higher than PJ Harvey in their duet ‘This Mess We’re In’. Who’s the man and who’s the woman here? And Chris Martin does the same (his band, Coldplay, went down a path paved by Radiohead’s The Bends of soaring anthemic pop; Coldplay’s influence has in turn been broad).

After Deserter’s Songs, Mercury Rev’s bass player Dave Fridmann went on to co-produce several albums by The Flaming Lips, including Soft Bulletin. More high-singing weirdness amid a swirl of psychedelia, electronic sounds and trashy drums made a temple where many of today’s bands came to worship, including MGMT, whose 2008 album Oracular Vernacular had Fridmann again in control of the spaceship.

And so it goes. The song flies on from branch to branch. Hear them chirping in the hedgerows, while high above, a speck in the empyrean blue, hovers Neil Young, gazing down with his eagle eye. Gazing at The Shins, My Morning Jacket, Alberta Cross, Vampire Weekend, John Steel Singers, Cloud Control, Oh Mercy and Augie March.

It helps, of course, if you’re singing high, to name yourself after an animal. “We may sound a little womanish,” the high warblers seem to say, “but rest assured we are wild, untamed true men.” Band Of Horses, Grizzly Bear, Boy and Bear, Leader Cheetah, Gypsy & The Cat.

The images projected are often otherworldly; Jónsi on his song ‘Go Do’ sounds like a creature from another planet. (Planet Iceland.) Many of them have beards, just like the tall pioneer of twentieth-century countertenor singing, Alfred Deller. Justin Vernon from Bon Iver sings in the gentlest, sweetest falsetto on For Emma, Forever Ago but his publicity spiel makes much of the fact he recorded his album holed up in a cabin over winter, surviving off the meat of a deer he hunted himself.

During recent years a similar trend can be spotted among women. Flocks of breathy, girly-voiced singers, inspired perhaps by Joanna Newsom’s 2004 album The Milk-Eyed Mender, fly across the firmament. So the boys are trying to sound like girls and the girls are getting girlier. Is it part of a long-term trend – a deep social shift, the feminisation of culture – or just the wheel of fashion turning in the same old way?

Megan Washington, Australia’s new Queen of Pop, has a lot of things going for her – smarts, fertile musicality, sexy librarian looks – but not the least is a voice that pushes air with force. Perhaps the wheel is reaching the start of a new revolution. What goes around, comes around. Maybe somewhere out there, its hour come at last, a rough low-singing beast – the next Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Tex Perkins, Bill Callahan – slouches towards the microphone to be born.

About the author Paul Kelly
Paul Kelly is an Australian musician. He has led various groups including The Dots, The Coloured Girls and The Messengers, and performed as a solo artist. His memoir, How to Make Gravy, was released in 2010.
@paul__kelly