The second in a set of three (or more) postings on my mid-life musical musings:
The rural villages out in my neck of the woods still have the deeply ingrained habit of putting on talent shows, either in one of the many ancient churches or in a Legion Hall. The roster gets filled by the usual gamut of talent: a boy saws away at a violin, a young girl fumbles through the “Peanuts” theme on piano. These acts are buttressed by story tellers and various vocal arrangements involving all ages. Sometimes a version of karaoke ensues — canned music is employed on behalf of a singer behind a microphone.
Eventually a foot-stompin’, chicken-pickin’ band takes the stage. This group pointedly pushes away all means of amplification. They sing and play as loud as they can, and inevitably get the crowd riled up in a happy froth. The music is by nature infectious, but more than that, with the distance of amplification removed, the music’s emotional appeal gains direct access to the emotional center of the brain.
In this promo clip for the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss disc, Plant talks about feeling intimidated at singing harmonies in Krauss’s living room: “I’m alright hiding behind a microphone,” he says, a statement that sounds paradoxical, yet holds a surprising truth: our technology can camouflage and provide a protective distance between the performer and audience, even as it amplifies, empowers and emboldens them both.
It’s worth remembering this has been the case for less than 100 years. Prior to electricity, a large audience was best served by a group of performers singing in concert. Typically these groups explored natural dynamics of amplification. A traditional Barbershop Quartet, for instance, sings harmonies in a key that, even when sung quietly, naturally cuts through an incredible amount of street noise.
If a single performer wanted to reach a large audience, she had to have a resonant voice and an incredible set of pipes. Listen to the recordings of Hank Williams or Billie Holiday, and you hear the voices of performers who have learned not to rely on amplification — because they can’t. The next juke joint might have a mic and an amplifier, but it probably won't. The movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou frames this technological shift rather artfully: when the Soggy Bottom Boys first “sing into a can” they employ the harmonies and pitch of non-amplified performers; when Tim Blake Nelson later sings “In The Jailhouse Now,” he’s using a voice that couldn’t carry past a parlor full of people: a crooner’s voice, akin to Bing Crosby’s — one of the first performers to exploit amplification to its full potential.
Even as electric amplification allows a larger audience to experience vocal intimacy (Sweetheart, it’s Bing! Singing, “If I Didn’t Care” — as if he were here in our parlor!), it superimposes its own distance from that intimacy (Bing lives in Hollywood, and you sent him some money for the privilege of hearing him in your parlor). This paradox of amplification is not always welcome, and almost never comprehended. I know a few recording performers, and it’s quite rare to find one who acknowledges this distancing effect. It’s even rarer to find a listener with that awareness. Most listeners would be incredulous to learn just how wounded some artists get when they stumble across a blogger flaming their work, or even a mouthy kid on a sidewalk who says, “Bah, yer not THAT good.”
Meanwhile, the boy whose violin and bow just sawed through “Sunrise, Sunset” is applauded and encouraged to perform in the next show at the end of August. Coming up is a drumming circle, ages eight to forty-eight. They take the stage and begin their rhythm. It’s very basic — anyone could do it — but it has a collective, natural power that makes the foundations of the old church tremble.
Outside, a silver Civic cruises by, its stereo system droning out a monotonous THOOM, THOOM ... THOOM, THOOM ....
One of these things is not like the other....