Embracing the power of the human voice

Martin CullingfordFri 20th May 2016

A London exhibition and your Hall of Fame votes both celebrate singing

There’s an interesting exhibition currently running at London’s Wellcome Collection entitled ‘This is a voice’ (until July 31, 2016). The ongoing mission of this museum-cum-gallery – the public face of a major health-research charity – is to explore the connections between medicine, life and art. Few facets of music-making quite so embody those three elements as singing. No luthier’s genius to alter or elevate the resulting sound, no man-made soundbox interposed between creator and listener: just a God-made one, if you like, whose vulnerability the exhibition throws into sharp relief by items detailing how the larynx works, and by footage of the kind of therapy offered when it all goes wrong. 

Is anything in music quite so direct, so human, as the voice? It’s telling how often our reviewers, when describing instrumental performances, reach for vocal phrases to make their point: a singing line, an instrument’s voice.

The Wellcome exhibition isn’t about music as such, though specific exhibits do deal directly with the subject, including a large installation exploring the higher registers, which you enter through a corridor shaped like an ear canal. Other topics covered include how the voice relates to class, or to identity both in terms of gender and nationality; and even how we communicate in the absence of voice. The exhibition explores how the voice can be both ordinary and extraordinary, from primeval sounds to the perfectionism of performance, but overall, how it is a human being’s most direct way of communicating with the world around them. All these aspects, I’d argue, are exactly what makes singing such a compelling and commanding form of music-making. 

Every year, when we invite readers to vote for the Gramophone Hall of Fame, singers are always far up the list of nominees. Indeed, looking at the full list of artists who have joined the Hall of Fame since we launched it in 2012, singers comprise roughly the largest single group (along with conductors – another topic for another day, perhaps!).

Singers hold a special place in our musical imagination. Their careers generally start later and finish earlier – a brief period of bright-burning brilliance in which the best are afforded a star status that eclipses all but the most hallowed of performers. Not for nothing is ‘diva’ a term of endearment for a singer but one that’s used pejoratively for everyone else. 

What’s particularly pleasing is that the four singers chosen this year – Dame Emma Kirkby, Anne Sofie von Otter, Gundula Janowitz and Jon Vickers – perfectly exemplify that being a great singer is about far more than simply having a magnificent voice; it’s about communication, characterisation, humanity, and service to the music. A more diverse quartet it would be hard to find – in all four cases, one can definitively say, this is a voice. We salute these singers, along with the other six and equally worthy names we welcome into this year’s Hall of Fame (all, interestingly, conductors, keyboardists or conductor-keyboardists). We’re grateful that some are still performing at the pinnacle of their profession, offering us music-making to enjoy for years to come. You can read more about them - including the tributes from ten leading artists who have worked with them or been inspired by them - in the new issue of Gramophone, available now

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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