In the beginning, there was the Voice - the human voice. No, this column is not about the Book of Genesis. Bear with me and you’ll see where I’m headed.
The genesis of classical music in Western Europe began almost 1500 years ago, when Pope Gregory I ordered monks to prayerfully intone "Gregorian" chant eight times daily. Using a primitive form of written musical sign language, and studiously learned within the "Schola Cantorum" in monasteries, music in the early medieval Church was used primarily to celebrate the Mass. It embellished and heightened the spirituality of the holy text by adding its unique aural mysteries to worship.
Religious solo vocal and choral music, allied with pre-Common Era religious texts is even older, going back to cantorial singing in the ancient synagogue. Followers of King David composed the Psalms in his name to be sung; the same holds true for King Solomon’s "Song of Songs."
In essence, the human voice is the most basic and direct conduit to tracking the history of classical music - much more so than instrumental music. The voice is universal: everybody has one, and we all sing, don’t we?
A millennium and a half of gradual change brought about a trajectory from solo chant to the development of harmony; from monastic singing to the extended vocal range and expressivity of men and women singing together in mixed choruses; from the
The zigzag move away from the Church had already begun with the development of opera, around 1600, and continued, with the almost complete secularization of vocal music into new areas of expression and interpretation outside the religious and art music canon of Western Europe.
Fast forward to today, where we live in an exploding universe of vocally produced sounds and styles: folk and ethnic singing, pop, jazz, rock, Broadway, rap/hip-hop and everything else.
As an example of the trend towards ubiquity, in the innovative vocal ensemble "Roomful of Teeth," directed by conductor Brad Wells, the talents of eight gifted singers and a stable of young composers have come together to learn many new and exotic modes of vocal performance, and to dedicate their superlative talents to champion them in performances for their growing corps of adventurous audiences.
Here’s a quickie review by New York City radio station WQXR’s:
Daniel Stephen Johnson: "Šthe arrival of their self-titled debut on New Amsterdam Records surpasses all hopes. This is an ensemble that can do anything: One second they sing with the smooth, flawless blend of a top-notch vocal jazz group, the next they happily exploit every "extended technique" their voice teachers ever warned them against.
They could sound equally at home in Renaissance motets, on American Idol or on an ethnomusicological field recording from Northern Asia."
Hearing their new CD, I believe the hope he expressed is a modest understatement. I know I’ll be returning to listen again and again. The CD can be found at the group’s website and be purchased electronically via iTunes, or on Amazon or Arkiv music as a hard copy.
Johnson ends his review this way: "Let’s be clear: Roomful of Teeth, thanks to their peerless combination of virtuosity and versatility, are the future of vocal music. If there’s a composer alive who wouldn’t kill to write for them, play him or her this disc."
What would Pope Gregory say? Sign me up!