Freaks, Phenomena, and the Mother’s Betrayal: What is the Future of Contemporary “Classical” Singing?

This post was originally published on December 12th 2021, on Ema’s original blog, called Soprano on the Verge (you can check out the original blog here)

Cathy Berberian’s 1966 manifesto “La nuova vocalità nell’opera contemporanea” (“The New Vocality in Contemporary Work”) still rings true at the turn of 2022. It starts with the question: 

“Cosa è la nuova vocalità che appare tanto minacciosa alla vecchia guardia?”  

“What is this new vocality that seems so threatening to the old guard?” 

In 2018, I attended one of the many grifts which have sprouted up in Italy around the teaching of opera and so-called bel canto singing. This particular grift was founded and directed by a soprano named Gabriella Ravazzi. It took place every summer in the historical Italian town of Orvieto and centered around several full productions of operas, usually Italian bel canto or verismo ones. That particular year, I participated in a production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera as Oscar. For three weeks, I was subjected to the slow torture of anti-pedagogical public humiliation and behind-the-back bad-mouthing by signora Ravazzi to her students which partially stemmed, in retrospect, from her inability to accept that I was the only soprano there who did not study singing technique with her. I stormed out of rehearsals two days before the premiere. 

Well, it is an irony of our time that the tight-lipped, conservative Gabriella Ravazzi, who taught her students technique appropriate only to the singing of the most depraved kind of verismo at D-level opera houses, was part of the new music scene in Italy in the 70s and 80s and even performed with Cathy Berberian herself! Ravazzi did not exactly brag about this because, in her world, it was not a good look that she had not instead sung all the major Romantic heroines of 19th century Italian repertoire; when I asked about her career, her students answered that she did a lot of new music because, you know, she had perfect pitch. 

Imagine my glee, when I found the following anecdote, as recalled by soprano Carol Plantamura, in the book Cathy Berberian: Pioneer of Contemporary Vocality. The following took place, according to Plantamura, in 1971 during some concerts in Genoa which included Weil’s 7 Deadly Sins and Laborintus II by Luciano Berio: 

Soon after we began the Laborintus [the audience] started to yell. And then some little things were thrown on stage. The conductor stopped conducting–which was a mistake I think. And then Cathy [Berberian] said into the microphone, “I have never in my life seen a more uneducated public!” Maleducato publico! [sic]. And there was an uproar. I remember thinking, “oh God …” And then a can of tomatoes–tomatoes in the can!—landed on stage. At which point they lowered the fire curtain. […] 

Of course these people were probably paid to cause a riot. 

I think it was opening night when, as I was getting ready in my dressing room, a little man came and said to me, “Signorina, sono il Capo della Claque. The head of the Claque.” And I said “Oh I am glad to meet you.” I had no idea what I was supposed to do. So we talked for a minute or so and then [he] left to go next door to Cathy [Berberian]’s room. Later she came to me and said, “What did you give him?” and I said, “Give him? I didn’t give him anything!” And she said “Oh God. Well, I didn’t either,” and she said, “but if you want the audience to yell your name you should have given him like 20,000 lire or something”—which was like $30.00 at that time. Well we didn’t, but obviously the third singer in our trio, Gabriella Ravazzi, did because the crowd was yelling “Ravazzi! Ravazzi!” And what our part consisted of was singing a three-part Italian madrigal with this orchestration around us! [line breaks mine]

When I finish laughing, I must soberly state that this meeting of the old and the new is endemic of the singing education scene today and really the “classical singing” scene in general. I don’t mean the tomato cans thrown by claques – the claques, like so many things in Italy, are fading, though they do still exist. (I would, actually, welcome tomato cans over those glazed-over smiles most contemporary classical music receives.) No, I mean the fact that a singer like Gabriella Ravazzi, who paid to have her name chanted at a new music concert where she was singing in three part harmony with a legend of 20th century “classical” singing, continues to teach a warped, perverted form of operatic singing, a kind of imitation of bel canto which is outdated for how unusable it is in music written before and after verismo (and there it is only usable because versimo has become the elephant graveyards of broken voices). I have met numerous iteration of her in the voice education scene, in fact, and very few Cathy Berberians. 

This “new vocality” Cathy Berberian was naming and creating, and her particular approach to it, was, in fact, postmodern. It eschewed seriousness, questioned the lines between high and low art, was self-referential, often pastiche, eschewed pathos for irony, and at its core was motivated by a questioning of norms, that is, questioning of an agreed-upon reality. Even in potentially serious works she helped create, like “Sequenza III” or “Visage,” which were among the first to explore “extended,” that is, non-classical sounds in “classical” vocal pieces, I always feel Berberian is not quite serious, that she is just a little above this game, and to me that was very much her postmodern sensibility – and that’s even more the case in her own “Stripsody.” The fact that Cathy Berberian and her composer-husband Luciano Berio were aficionados of James Joyce and created works inspired by him is no contradiction to their postmodernism, on the contrary. 

I have only recently learned (today, in fact) that the age of postmodernism, according to the experts on paradigms, is over. This new age does not have a name yet – suggested names include performatism, metamodernism, digimodernism, post-postmodernism, trans-postmodernism, postmillennialism, metamodernism, remodernism. But of course it doesn’t matter what we call it. Apparently, there is some kind of return to the belief in concepts like love and God, at least in the feelings attached to them, even if their unreality remains. 

Now for some more gossip, this time around Cathy Berberian and Joan la Barbrara, a vocal experimenter and composer who built much more broadly on what Berberian broke in. La Barbara’s 1977 album Tapesongs opens with “Cathing,” a swipe at Cathy Berberian, which begins with footage from an interview during which Berberian ascertained that the world of extended vocal technique had hit an “impasse” because few of its practitioners could sing “in the true sense of the word.” Berberian says about experimental singers: “They’re freaks, they’re phenomena – what they used to call me, but it wasn’t true in my case because I can also sing, you see, but the freak element, the phenomenon element, with them is all.” 

A quote by La Barbara appears in the liner notes of the album: 

“She basically trashed those of us doing extended vocal techniques… She used the interview for her own self-promotion rather than taking on the mantle of the ‘mother’ of vocal explorations. Rather tragic, I thought. So I created a work exploring extended vocal techniques and manipulating her spoken voice.” 

Rejection of the mother! Where the father is so often rejected for his incompetence, the mother is rejected for her lack of care. And yes, I am self-aware enough to know that my blind rage at signora Ravazzi had as much to do with this feeling of primal betrayal as my outrage at her pedagogy. 

La Barbara’s “Cathing” begins with a simple recording of that passage from Berberian’s interview, only slightly acoustically modified to give off the vibe of “footage,” and when she finishes speaking there is a dramatic pause followed by a kind of ironic tonal wash of a chorus of la Barbaras doing various chirping sounds and humming which together sound like a forest of little creatures in a strange natural environment. Fragments of Berberian’s voice break through only occasionally, just barely comprehensible, and at one point the word “freaks” echoes bitterly over the ironic chirping and clicking and vocal fry which sounds so much like a forest of oppositional bird babies. 

In an interview in the early 2000s, la Barbara is clearly still mad about Cathy Berbarian: “What [Berberian] did was not all that extended. She did some gasping and gurgling, humming, laughing, sounds like that, but not really extending the sound of the voice. It was more including what we would consider as, sort of, everyday sounds in the vocabulary of vocal music. And actually towards the end of her life she disavowed any interest in extended techniques. She was very interested in making sure that people knew that she could sing.” That last sentence was an unconcealed jab. Here, I have to defend Cathy Berberian a bit – her reason for a return to a kind of traditionalism (if singing Beatles songs in the style of oratorio, a very postmodern endeavor, can be called traditional) was already foreshadowed in her 1966 manifesto and had little to do with her ego (though, having known a few famous singers, I’m not saying that didn’t also play a role) and more with her understanding of the dual, interdependent, importance of both having a tradition and breaking it: 

Having a tradition is as important as having a mother and a father to enable birth–but the inevitable moment always arrives when we must leave the security of the old life in order to be able to create a new one. However, the word “tradition” is also a trap. Just remember that the tradition of the recital is relatively new. Liszt was one of the first virtuosi to give a soirée with solo piano. Recitals for voice came much later–they were preceded for years by those frightful “traditional” soirées which brought together the famous dancing horses of Vienna, Anna Pavlova, Enrico Caruso, dwarf acrobats and a symphonic movement. At a certain point, someone assumed the responsibility for “breaking” the potpourri soirée in favor of the recital and so created a tradition. But a tradition is always an artifact and when it becomes no more than a legitimized fossil (look at the semi-deserted music halls, eloquent testimony to the mummification process), then it must make way for the “new” tradition. 

In this sense the New Vocality not only refers to contemporary music, but also to the new way of approaching traditional music, exploiting the past experience of sound with the sensibility of the present (and a presentiment of the future). [Translation by Francesca Placanica in Cathy Berberian, Pioneer of Contemporary Vocality]

What Berberian’s critique of experimental singing, which la Barbara took such issue with, puts me in mind of (though she wasn’t quite naming this phenomenon) is something I heard anthropologist David Graeber call “flameout.” In a talk he gave called “How Social and Economic Structure Influences the Art World” he put it this way: “At certain moments of global revolution, you have a moment where some genre of expressive cultural activity kind of goes mad and runs through every radical possibility…and sort of runs them all out within a matter of three or four years.” According to Graeber, in art, this happened already in the beginning of the 20th century with the avant-garde. “This is the reason why a hundred years later, you know, you read about radical art, and they still always go on and on about the dada and the surrealist, because they kind of did it all and they didn’t leave anybody else any formal radical gestures to do. And when you think about it, in 1968, the exact same thing happens again, a world revolutionary moment, with the tradition of continental philosophy. Essentially, everybody goes mad and within about five or six years, they say every radical thing you can say… So suddenly everybody’s saying ‘Yes, truth is a form of violence,’ ‘man does not exist,’ and then the rest of us are left with ‘well, what do we do now?’”

I do not think Graeber’s is the only possible lens through which to view the artistic and philosophical movements of the 20th century, but I find this idea interesting because it situates what Cathy Berberian and later Joan la Barbara and others were doing with their voices within a larger framework – an artistic flameout in the beginning of the century, and a philosophical flameout around its inception. 

What now? Well, we are due for another revolution – in fact, we are probably living it right now – and I am not hearing any truly original directions in vocal art and music, mostly rehashes of what has been (some very good and meaningful!) – but I say that knowing I still have much listening to do. In any case, I suspect we’ll continue mucking about and criticizing each other, and by “we” I mean the women experimenting with their voices, writing music, commissioning works, organizing contemporary vocal music festivals. I look forward to it. 

I also believe this new age will be one in which science and art come together to an even greater extent. There are fascinating things happening at the far reaches of so-called extended vocal techniques, these days. Voice science has progressed enormously in the last decades, which means that techniques based in, for example, vocal fold asymmetry or ventricular fold vibrations can be better taught and used in the context of contemporary classical music, or are at least being studied and promoted by some composers, like Michael Edward Edgerton, the author of what seems to be the current bible on extended vocal techniques The 21st-century Voice: Contemporary and Traditional Extra-normal Voice, on whose website you can find many examples of these intimidating vocal noises. It is testament to the fact that extended vocal techniques have had a difficult time in the world, that the Lexicon of Extended Vocal Techniques out of the Center for Music Experiments and Related Research at UC San Diego, which was put on tape in the 1970s, is only now being digitalized online. The Alfred Wolfsohn Voice Research Centre, founded in the 1930s, the first center in Europe to conduct research on extended vocal techniques, fared even worse, with most of the research buried and hard to access. 

I am more of a dreamer than a scientist, though, and, recently, I have begun to dream of pushing contemporary singing away from the self-referential, anti-serious, or campy which Cathy Berberian embodied and the neo-folksy, non-linear, anti-dramatic, introspective, suspended-time that I associate with la Barbara. There must be something more there, I keep thinking, not just this disjointed study of the voice which mocks or floats above emotion and motivation, the very building blocks of identity and character and of storytelling. And I now realize that my instinct, however inchoate, must be of this new era that we are supposedly in, this time that comes after postmodernism. 

In an email exchange I had recently with a soprano working on a PhD on the subject of extended vocal techniques (an Italian singer, as it may be, so that I’m not only ever complaining about Italians), she pointed out that what is “extended” is defined from a Western perspective, and that the techniques being studied today, those “far reaches” of vocal techniques which I find so intimidating, often come from cultures where they are considered “natural” – she gave the throat singing of the Tuva people as an example and said these various techniques are often meant as imitations of natural sounds. She was pointing this out because I was trying to draw a parallel between the theatrical naturalism of Stanislavski acting technique and its American offshoots at the beginning of the century and the supposed “naturalism” of what Cathy Berberian was promoting in the 60s and 70s – a use of a greater range of vocal sounds, most of them quite objectively “naturalistic,” like coughing, laughing, grunts, sighs etc. My idea was really directed towards a possible approach to performance practice which would more rigorously wed theatrical naturalism with vocal “naturalism.” However, it’s true that calling it “naturalistic” was misleading. I think of the term hyperreal, one associated with the post-modern, but that seems wrong, too. 

So, sure, in this new scientific era we should understand speech, coughing, laughing, grunting and the like as non-extended techniques, and everything from the operatic singing of Europe to the throat singing of the Tuva people as extended. La Barbara (who is here with us in this new era, after all) may have been hinting at that when she critiqued Berberian as not really “doing” extended techniques. But we live in a strange time in which extended vocal techniques have had their flameout, even as most classically-trained singers in the West still aren’t really acquainted with most of them, let alone able to perform them. This has stalled the process of exploring their theatrical and storytelling possibilities, suspended as they were in the cerebral zone of “experimentation,” of introspective, meditative improvisations of artists like Joan la Barbara who is still, as recently as 2020, put in the position of explaining her techniques as some kind of new invention or personal quirk. I say “put in the position of” because I’m sure she is well aware of her context, but lives in a world where her life’s work is still somehow experimental, instead of being rightly regarded as part of the new tradition (even when it seeps into pop culture, like with the use of fragments of her music and imaginary language in the score to the movie The Arrival.) 

Or perhaps, more cynically, it’s that the new tradition is all about acting like one is experimental, an experimental posture devoid of content. “Content” is buzzword, these days, in a different context – most of us are creating “content” online all the time. Yet I’m often disconcerted by the vapidness of it all, both in the mainstream and the so-called experimental. I suppose I think we have better things to build on what the foremothers of vocal art have toppled – not in terms of the vocal techniques, but in terms of the content. Some 20 years in to what the experts on paradigms call something-that-comes-after-postmodernism, I’m not sure we are doing that. Perhaps it is that very dissatisfaction, the same dissatisfaction that Berberian describes in her manifesto and the one la Barbara, in turn, expresses in her critique of Berberian, from which all new things spring.