New Book: The History of Singing - John Potter and Neil Sorrell

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 21 April 2012 | 1:50:00 pm

Highly interesting, although I am "saddened" at a Kindle price of £44 at the moment. But I suppose that is an entirely different subject. Publishers description below, followed by the first part of a Guardian review - follow the link to read in its entirety.

Why do we sing and what first drove early humans to sing? How might they have sung and how might those styles have survived to the present day? This history addresses these questions and many more, examining singing as a historical and cross-cultural phenomenon. It explores the evolution of singing in a global context – from Neanderthal Man to Auto-tune via the infinite varieties of world music from Orient to Occident, classical music from medieval music to the avant-garde and popular music from vaudeville to rock and beyond. Considering singing as a universal human activity, the book provides an in-depth perspective on singing from many cultures and periods: western and non-western, prehistoric to present. Written in a lively and entertaining style, the history contains a comprehensive reference section for those who wish to explore the topic further and will appeal to an international readership of singers, students and scholars.


A History of Singing by John Potter and Neil Sorrell - review

Ian Bostridge
 
On song – from lullabies to opera

Singing is a human capacity that seems absolutely natural and even constitutive of our humanity. Nothing could be more affectingly human than the imagined scene of a mother or father singing a child to sleep, or a child waking up singing to itself in the morning. An inability to sing is experienced as isolating, and those who claim that they just can't hold a tune seem to think of it as a great sadness.

Any worthwhile vocal cheerleader – Gareth Malone from the TV programmes The Choir and Military Wives is the latest, excellent example – will tell the terrified and tuneless that, actually, anyone can sing. Apart from the impediments of age or physical disability, the essentially psychological blocks that constitute being, in the loose and commonplace sense, "tone deaf" can be coaxed away.

John Potter is a distinguished singer (a longstanding participant in the English early music scene as a member of the Hilliard Ensemble and Red Byrd) and sometime academic; his co-author, Neil Sorrell, is a scholar of Indian and Javanese music, co-founder of the English Gamelan Orchestra. Their fascinating and dense book A History of Singing reminds us – one might expect as much from writers of such diverse backgrounds – of the disorientating variety of song traditions in human cultures, historically and geographically. Singing may seem to be a simple, natural ability, but it is always mediated by culture; the authors quote the French ethnomusicologist François-Bernard Mâche's account of the Toraja of Sulawesi (in Indonesia) who have no lullabies, wedding songs or dirges and "never make music for the sole pleasure of singing or listening" but only as a matter of ceremony.

Potter and Sorrell's first chapter, "Origins, Myths and Muses" comes up against the central problem of any historical account of singing: almost all of the evidence, written in the air, has dispersed. We know that the human vocal tract has been around for millions of years, but we're not even sure how or why it evolved – to make swallowing safer, or to aid human communication, or both. We can tell the sort of just-so stories favoured by the evolutionary psychologists, but Rudyard Kipling's originals often seem just as much evidence-based and a good deal more entrancing (my favourite account of singing in the mists of time is the Woman in "The Cat that Walked by Himself", who makes the first singing magic). "No genetic imperative for singing has been discovered in human beings," we are told, "although highly structured sounds are produced by members of every society." Highly structured sounds are one thing, singing another, though whether Potter and Sorrell's careful definition of singing – "a tuneful and pleasant vocalisation of discrete pitches" – will stretch to accommodate Lotte Lenya, Bob Dylan or Lou Reed is a moot point.

Once the historical record starts, of course, we have indirect evidence of what singing in western Europe was – increasing amounts of it, although it remains hard to interpret. Treatises on singing, for example, are often written by less successful singers, those with an agenda about declining taste or professional opportunities. Potter and Sorrell are imaginative and acute with sometimes fugitive evidence, pointing to the pictures of huddled monks singing to suggest that the relish for resonance that we associate with church singing (and singing in the shower) is not necessarily universal.
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