Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Bright Spot amidst the gloom

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I have always had varied and eclectic musical taste.  Baroque, Classical, Modern, Dixieland jazz, Be-Bop, rock, 50’s doo-wop, Heavy Metal, Euro-dance, Techno, New Wave, World Beat…  Note that this is not the same as being indiscriminate - far from it!  Within each category, I am quite particular.  For example, I love Jefferson Airplane, and have no use for the Grateful Dead.  The difference is virtuosity: the Airplane were really good with their instruments and they had some great voices, led of course by Grace Slick.  The Dead, not so much, no matter how charming you might find their sloppy, self-indulgent jams (if you want to hear a band that can jam, try the Allman Bros.)  I sometimes wondered if they even knew how to tune their instruments.

Some genres get a “no opinion” because I simply haven’t been interested enough to dig into them.  One such is “vocalists”.   Most of them strike me as soulless technicians obsessed with being the center of attention (yes, that means Streisand and Sinatra, first and foremost), or belters with lots of heart but middling voices (most rock and soul singers when they are not being drowned out by their bands).  Celine Dion and Whitney Houston are/were megastars with huge followings, but in all honesty, Dion’s voice is ordinary, and both she and Houston wasted themselves on a lot of atrociously bad material. Popular, yes, but so is Yanni, who puts out the musical equivalent of Pop Tarts. 

Popular singers increasingly get by on staging, recording tricks (Autotune has become ubiquitous, the great leveler that makes talent almost unnecessary) or vulgarity.  It is the rare singer who can transport the listener purely by the sound of her voice.  I can think of three from the pop realm:  Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Orbison and Linda Ronstadt.  They were vastly different from each other, but had flawless instruments.  They also did great material (Orbison had the added distinction that he wrote almost all of his own stuff).  They packed an emotional punch without having to force it.  Fitzgerald and Ronstadt covered a vast range of material, almost never sounding an off note.    There have been others with the emotional gut-punch effect, but they did it despite, or perhaps because of, unconventional, even bad voices:  Billie Holliday, Edith Piaf, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin come to mind.  I love all of them, but not because of the sheer beauty of their voices.

Then, of course, there is opera.  It takes focus and dedication to really “know” opera, so I plead relative ignorance.  While I love the great Puccini arias, and I find the mythology behind the Ring fascinating, I have sat through very few full length performances.  Still, there is no denying the power and beauty of voices like Placido Domingo, Leontyne Price, and Anna Netrebko.  No “pop” or “R&B” singer has their quality (just listen to Aretha Franklin trying to sing opera…then again, don’t, because you can’t un-hear it).  Crossover singers like Brightman and Bocelli are closer, but still not in the same league.   Then again, they don't claim to be opera singers.

I never really thought systematically about any of the above--it was just part of the background, the context for my taste in music.   And so, when I stumbled across Jackie Evancho, I was completely unprepared.  My reaction almost scared me--a tightening in my stomach, a desire to weep, an out-of-body sensation, a feeling of astonishment.  I dug around and found the videos of her performances at the ages of 8 and 9, and, to quote a professional singer who had performed with her, I was “gobsmacked”.  The videos of her as a 10 or 11 year-old remain jaw-dropping even after many viewings. I went on a month-long binge, and I can still listen to her for hours and feel the same sense of astonishment.  Shortly after her 11th birthday, as a guest of Britain's Got Talent, she sang Nessun Dorma, an aria that some have said women should not even be allowed to sing (few have ever tried).  She completely owned it.  Watching that video alone is an almost life-changing experience:


When I first came across some of her fan reviews, they sounded unhinged.  There was talk of her literally being an angel sent by God, or, echoing a comment from one of the judges of America’s Got Talent, that she must be an alien.  Admittedly, most of her fans use such terms metaphorically, but the message is real:  She is other-worldly.  She induces a kind of ecstatic trance, or involuntary weeping, in many of the people in her audiences.  Watch her concert videos, and you will see grown men and Grammy award-winning stars wiping tears from their faces as they listen to her.  Humans invent supernatural explanations for things that they can’t explain any other way, so it is with Evancho.

Scientists are studying her to try to understand how she achieves her tone.  How does one describe it?  First, she is often described as “bell-like”, meaning that she hits her notes precisely, with purity and clarity, and no false overtones or distortion.  (Note: distortion is not bad per se—it is what gives some famous voices their unique character.  Evancho’s uniqueness is the astonishing purity of her voice.)  It also means there are no “holes” in her sound.  If you listen to her next to Streisand, with whom she released a duet, it is Streisand’s voice that sounds damaged, as though something important is missing. 

A sound engineer’s explanation is of little use to non-geeks, so I use the analogy of a rainbow.  Evancho’s voice is like a full rainbow, the colors bright and in perfect balance.  Almost every other voice I have heard is like the rainbow with some of the colors missing, or viewed through a smudged or cracked window.  Among female pop vocalists, the only comparable voice I can think of is Linda Ronstadt at her peak, and hers is still a distinctly "pop" voice.  A better comparison is with the great operatic sopranos Netrebko and Barbara Bonney. Even Maria Callas sounds out of balance, with too much yellow and orange, and not enough blue and purple, though that may also be an artifact of older recording technology.  And Callas (whose greatness lay in her emotional presentation) did not hit all her notes spot on.   Evancho's errors are so rare that some of her fans can list them (from hundreds of hours of video replayed over and over). 

Second, Evancho has almost the power of an operatically trained singer, without the “trumpet-blast” sound typical of opera.  She sings with a microphone, so any proper comparison is with singers also using mics.  As it happens, Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras used mics in their crossover concerts.  So do Netrebko, Sumi Jo, Fleming, Sissel, Villazon, Hvorostovsky and many others, as well as Bocelli and Brightman, so there are plenty of benchmarks.  Evancho has performed with many of these people --some the world’s biggest stars have lined up to sing with her. At the age of 10, she already belonged on the stage with them, not as a curiosity, but on a completely serious footing.  The common reaction people have to her, even now that she is 16, is that a voice this big can’t possibly come from someone so petite.  It creates a kind of cognitive disconnect that must contribute to the effect she has on her audiences.

There is yet another aspect of Evancho that sets her apart.  Back to our earlier image: We usually see a rainbow when the sun shines through the mist after a rainstorm.  The brighter the sun, the brighter the rainbow.  Now, imagine seeing a rainbow after nightfall, with no sun to illuminate it, yet somehow shining brightly in the darkness.  Evancho’s voice is like that:  luminous and penetrating, yet surrounded by something dark and melancholy.  It seems to come from nowhere, and carries a hint of an echo.  This may owe itself in part to what vocal trainers call “cover”, which can be taught as a matter of technique, but in her case seems in-born.  Whatever the explanation, I suspect that it is this combination of radiance and darkness that reduces her audiences to tears.  Ronstadt had a bit of that quality as well.  The only male singer I can think of that had it was Orbison, which was why he could stand motionless and sing for two hours and still have audiences weeping and calling for ten encores.

This darkness is also an odd juxtaposition with Evancho’s physical appearance, which is golden and innocent, almost angelic.  When she first appeared on the scene, as a 10-year old on a global stage, happy and poised and charming, instinctively in command of the stage and yet so unabashedly a little girl (what excited her most about one trip to California was finding a sand dollar on the beach), it must have shocked people. I missed it when it originally happened, and it shocks me now when I watch the video record. 

Evancho’s voice is maturing and deepening, yet her high notes remain pure and transcendent.  To get a sense of her progression, listen to her rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water, one of the few since the original by Simon and Garfunkel that does not sound ridiculous (Elvis Presley’s may be the only other).  Then move ahead a year and half, to her album “Awakenings”.  Many of her fans, used to a diet of classic arias, were bracing themselves for disappointment.  They need not have worried.  This album is beautiful, even if some of the song selections are ordinary.  She makes them her own in a spectacular way. 




There was a lot of worry (and too much malicious hope, from jealous or bitter people, one guesses) that Evancho would burn out, or ruin her voice, or grow out of her talent.  It was a reasonable concern. But she hasn’t burned out, appears to love what she does, and continues to grow.  If you have watched the videos, you know she is also ethereally beautiful.  It seems completely unfair, but she is so modest, humble and grateful for her gifts that it is impossible to begrudge her any of them.  May she shine on for a long, long time.

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