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Ravens, Simon. The Supernatural Voice: A History of High Male Singing.

Ravens, Simon. The Supernatural Voice: A History of High Male Singing. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2014. Cloth, x, 244 pp., $80.00. ISBN 978-1-84383-962-0 www.boydelland

While high male singing encompasses several voice designations, including tenor and castrato, the subject of this book is falsetto. In the prefatory material, Simon Ravens identifies himself as a disinterested party on the topic under discussion; a self-described "indifferent baritone," he is not a countertenor, nor is he critical of the voice type. Rather, he presents an account of the male high voice for interested readers, and to inform singers in their quest for performance practice that is both aligned with the past and palatable to modern artists and audiences. The author begins the historical overview with a relatively recent occurrence: the meeting in 1943 between composer and conductor Michael Tippett and alto Alfred Deller. Tippett dubbed the singer a countertenor and presented him in a concert of Purcell songs. The effect on the music world was far reaching. Despite the reaction by some listeners who initially dismissed the performance as a gimmick, the countertenor today is firmly established in opera houses and concert halls.

The Supernatural Voice chronicles high male singing from the ancient world to the modern era. The research is thorough, well documented, and presented in a style that is interesting to read. The overview begins with an explication of falsetto. As opposed to the common speaking tone (which Ravens labels as "modal"), the falsetto voice is produced using only edges of the vocal folds. Although the term "falsetto" has been used at certain points in music history in reference to the tenor voice, Ravens uses it in its strict physiologic description; thus, the term "falsettist" describes singers who use falsetto to the exclusion of the modal voice. Armed with this anatomic knowledge, the reader is led on the circuitous etymologic path of falsetto from its earliest usage. In the writings of the middle ages, the term held a wide range of meanings, from a semitone in organ tuning to vocal sounds that were deemed as weak. Ravens maintains that while the occasional sound of falsetto was perhaps part of the medieval vocal landscape, there is no definitive proof that falsettists were the norm. The author postulates that flexibility and fluidity (with similarities to Eastern Mediterranean and Indian vocal music, as described by historian Timothy McGee) may have been more important than pitch level.

The study of high male singing is inextricably linked to the castrati. In Renaissance Europe, it is often difficult to discern from the historical record whether sopranos in a specific choir were falsettists or castrati. In addition to the challenges of the passage of time and incomplete records, the subterfuge and obfuscation that surrounded the practice of castration further clouds the issue. However, the influence of the castrati on vocal music is undeniable; composers not only wrote music for their vocal abilities, but their technique also influenced voice pedagogy. In his treatise on voice production, castrato Pier Francesco Tosi recommends the use of falsetto for all singing students, including tenors.

Ravens does not overlook the tenore di forza who emerged in the 19th century. The storied competition between the full voiced high range of Gilbert-Louis Duprez and the falsetto of Adolphe Nourrit reflects the evolution of high male singing; listeners thrilled to Duprez's high pitches sung in full voice, while Nourrit became "the most famous casualty of changing vocal taste." Among modern countertenors, there exists similar disparate techniques; Ravens characterizes Deller as a falsettist, while Russell Oberlin eschewed the falsetto voice.

The volume is divided into nine chapters. After each chapter, Ravens presents an interlude, entitled "extempore," that delves into relevant research and related material. The essays afford Ravens a platform for the discussion of correlated topics. In "A Famine in Tenors," the author cites research that shows a relationship between laryngeal size and pitch, and laryngeal size and height, respectively. If today's humans are taller than their Renaissance counterparts, reasons Ravens, singers of that bygone era had, by sheer virtue of their smaller stature, higher voices. There was an abundance of tenor voices available to sing the alto lines, speculates Ravens, which enabled composers to use falsettists for color at the upper range. "Are We Too Loud?" explores the impact of volume on singing styles. As venues have become less acoustically favorable, and the dynamic capacity of instruments has increased, singers have begun to sing more loudly. In addition, ambient noise has increased. In the extempore titled "The Angel's Voice," Ravens examines the presence of falsettists in popular music, from the Beach Boys to Coldplay. Styles from soul to Motown employ this vocal production, and the prevalence of its use, writes Ravens, is due in no small part to the use of amplification. Singers heard via recordings or in settings where the sound is carefully managed are no longer reliant upon acoustics to project their sound.

Ravens concludes that singing in falsetto is not likely to disappear any time soon. As mentioned earlier, he believes that as humans have increased in stature, the size of the larynx has increased proportionally. The resultant drop in tessitura necessitates that singers perform high notes in falsetto. In addition, many untrained singers rely upon falsetto to access the high range. This is especially true among the high baritones who are often pressed into service as tenors. They are unable to sing the tenor range in full voice (as are many untrained tenors) and rely on falsetto to produce the highest pitches in the part.

Ravens is a singer, writer, and director of a professional ensemble that specializes in the performance of Renaissance sacred music. His deep interest in the subject of the voice is apparent throughout the volume, and anyone interested in a detailed discussion of the history of falsetto will find this book enthralling.
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Author:Greschner, Debra
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2016
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