Sunday, October 15, 2006

Songs from the Larynx


Sting hopes that the release of his Songs from the Labyrinth on the Deutsche Grammophon label will not provoke a "turf war". But although the likes of Bryn Terfel, Renée Fleming and perhaps even Andreas Scholl would no doubt dearly love a slice of Stings' patch, they're no more serious contenders for his market than he is for theirs.

As Sting quite reasonably claims, Dowland's songs are better suited to a chamber music environment than to the concert hall, so Rock n’ Roll’s intimate microphone technique is a more appropriate vehicle than the overblown operatic voice. It’s a good argument: so why then, is the result so embarrassingly dreadful?

To begin with, acoustic chamber music demands many more qualities of a singer than does amplified music. If Sting’s voice were really unplugged – exposed to a real acoustic and denied the pour-over panache of artificial reverberation - it would be quite, quite unremarkable; just like your average joe. This in no way detracts from Sting’s string of successes. It’s just that his strengths lie elsewhere. He doesn’t have the vocal technique to perform acoustically [especially with only the tiny sound of a lute for support]. Instead of vocal colour and variation – we get only peculiarities.

Sting’s claim that Dowland’s songs were 17th century pop, may have some truth in it but to take this as a sign that they will fit right in with his standard rocky repertoire is taking rather a lot for granted. Contemporary rock and pop performance is just as stylised as classical music. Sting’s pseudo American-pop dialect is no more inherently human or nadural than the overblown voice of an operatic tenor: each is a product of convention, era and tradition. 17th century singers probably sounded closer to the present day notion of a folk singer – who knows - but the truth of how they sounded is largely irrelevant to modern sensibilities. It’s not so much how things ought to sound, as whether they’re pleasing and beautiful to the modern ear.

Perhaps we should take the trouble to re-educate our ear? But the point is that we’re culturally conditioned [by exposure to the world around us] to like what we like. The margins for personal adaptation are small, and necessarily require the conscious overriding of innate predilection. Consequently, we expect to hear the music of Dowland and his ilk performed by classically trained singers – and more recent popular idioms by the innately talented, who do them best.

Each to his own, I say. If you're in doubt – compare these two versions of 'In Darkness let me Dwell'

* Sting * Andreas Scholl

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It's unusual to find myself taking a more conciliatory view than Pliable over On an Overgrown Path but having read his article, I can’t honestly say that I think Sting’s motivation was wholly commercial when he embarked on this project. There's an honest resonance to his interview in the Telegraph when he claims that he was far from convinced about releasing a recording of this project until “the very last minute”. And in Billboard magazine, "We really did this for love, and whatever happens next is in the hands of the Gods, really."

Although Sting claims it was the Cecil letter that persuaded him to turn his explorations into a record, I think it might be more revealing if we were to ask who was responsible for bringing Sting’s “labour of love, labour of curiosity” to the notice of Deutsche Grammophon. This, I imagine, is where the commercial exploitation begins – and it exploits Sting as much as the rest of us. An aging rocker, living a super-real life, whose lasting fame is founded on fickle, transitory pop music, is easy prey for a culture monger like DG. I’ve little doubt they sold him the win-win idea of establishing his credentials as a serious artist while broadening his appeal to wider, cultivated audience – quite an appealing legacy.

Everyone I think, admires Sting for his music, his questing and his exploration, but we should do him the honour of giving an honest appraisal of his work without leading him, or allowing ourselves to be led down the labyrinthine path of cynical marketing.

4 Comments:

Blogger Ben.H said...

Sting usually records for A&M, right? A label owned by Universal Vivendi, which also owns Deutsche Grammophon. It seems likely that Sting told the suits he planned to make a classical album, and then the project was turned over to DG. The main motivation would be to help DG's bottom line, which desperately needs crossover hits to try and stay out of the red, with puffing Sting's artistic credentials a distant second.

Monday, October 23, 2006 10:01:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Consequently, we expect to hear the music of Dowland and his ilk performed by classically trained singers – and more recent popular idioms by the innately talented, who do them best."

Lets just try and guess which will be remembered in 500 years?

Friday, November 03, 2006 8:25:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do you end with: "or allowing ourselves to be led down the labyrinthine path of cynical marketing" ?

First, none of us are led. Or do you think that only some people are allowed to have taste, while the rest of humanity is not clever enough to make artistic judgments for themselves?

Second, why is it only musicians who are allowed to earn a living? I am sure that the people who work in sales and marketing at DG also have families, mortgages, and the rest, and they too deserve to have their work not considered as merely acts of cynicism. I would say that you, not they, reveal the greater cynicism. It does not become you!

Saturday, November 25, 2006 5:11:00 pm  
Blogger Guthry Trojan said...

I ended with that phrase partly because I wanted to squeeze in a rather impoverished reference to the album title but more particularly because it seems to me that by traipsing down the sad and ineffectual old route of attempting to popularise classical music by associating it with popular culture, DG display a cynical abuse of both Sting and the record-buying public – some of whom still rely on the major record companies for informed guidance, which, in my view, is the proper role of a record company.

It is not a question of cleverness - but of trust. It’s the same in any field: those who are not especially well informed look for guidance to those who claim to be expert, who in turn, have it within their power to lead – or to mislead.

As to your second point: of course I don’t believe only musicians are allowed to earn a living but I do think that record company personnel – who depend on music for their living have a responsibility to support the art form, and not to exploit it ruthlessly for short term commercial gain.

Saturday, November 25, 2006 8:36:00 pm  

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