Tuesday, May 20, 2003

MY MELISMA HELL: We're slightly wary about mentioning melisma as the last time we stumbled across the subject we got email suggesting we didn't know our arias from our Elbow, but the subject's come round again with the New York Times slamming the current vogue for cramming as many notes into a word as possible, exemplified by American Idol contestants attempting to stretch sounds as far as possible and cram just more notes in than the other cccc-ooooo-ohoh-oh-mmmm-peeeeeeeeeeh-teeet-teaaai-arrrrrr-zzzz: On the one hand, the quavering voices of today's singers tell us something meaningful about music history. The sanctified sound that migrated from the church to the charts a half-century ago has proven unusually resilient. Listening to hit radio, it is clear that the enduring music of the 1960's is not post-Beatles guitar rock but post-gospel soul.
But that grand tradition has been largely reduced to a signature trick; through sheer overuse, singers are sapping melisma of its expressive power. Soul innovators like Mr. Charles and Ms. Franklin were capable of melisma that could singe the false eyelashes of divas like Ms. Carey and Whitney Houston, but they used the technique more sparingly, and more meaningfully — as fevered expressions of emotions beyond words[...]
Ms. Carey and Ms. Houston are technical virtuosos, but their overwrought melismas communicate nothing but ego. The difference between "Come Back Baby" and Ms. Carey's melisma-saturated "Hero," between Ms. Franklin's transcendent 1972 recording of "Amazing Grace" and Ms. Houston's showpiece ballad "I Will Always Love You," is the difference between a musical performance and an athletic exhibition — the difference between soul and "soul."


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