Saturday, September 8, 2007

Delicate Clusters of Sound

I have had enough of death and mourning. I need a chuckle. Maybe even a belly laugh.

I have a thing for REALLY bad singers. Some think that I listen to them merely to laugh at them. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Well, okay, there's an cube or two of truth in it, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.

About two years ago, I was toying with the idea of writing a book about some of my favorite bad singers. It still may turn into an article. Or sit on the back burner for a few more years and turn into something horrible and tasty and the same time.

At that time, I began a list about what was particularly treasurable about these singers. I think at the time I was laughing at them a lot more than I am now.

My list focused on the elements of humor, grotesquerie, shock, and horror that one experiences upon hearing such performances. But that is so obvious. There is something else at work here, and while I don't pretend to have completely cracked this nut, yet I have a few ideas.

Of course it is a bit of a relief to see someone else making a bigger fool of themselves than we ever possibly could, no matter how embarassing and humiliating we think our last audition or performance was. We could never possibly make the same shocking gaffes, singing the wrong notes, making up the rhythms, forgetting the words, or just plain getting lost.

Yet I don't think these artists are even aware just how bad they really are. And it is their sheer obliviousness that makes them all the more treasurable. They just sing for the joy of it and if it makes people happy, then they have done a service, and done it lovingly.

In fact, these singers often have a much wider range of vocal expression than one normally encounters. And it is precisely because of their vocal limitations that they are able to wield their instruments in a wilder way than we would ever find appropriate.

So we gasp and hoot and shriek and holler at their vocal flights of fancy, but I think that somewhere down deep we are envious of their fearlessness. Imagine what it would feel like not to stand up there and give it one's all , not giving a damn what anybody else thought. I can't fully appreciate their vision, but I can admire them for sharing this mysterious inner world with me.

In fact, these "fools" may have stumbled into another universe, a place where judgment is suspended, and where sincerity, kindness, unflinching honesty and clarity of vision are the order of the day.

Just exactly which artists am I referring to? I'm sure everyone has their favorites, but I include the following in my all-time favorites list:

Wing (also see below)
Olive Middleton
Sylvia Sawyer

Mrs. Miller
Mari Lyn (see below)
The Shaggs
Natalia de Andrade
Congress-Woman Malinda Parker Jackson


Wing embodies all the traits enumerated above. She emigrated to New Zealand from Taiwan in the nineties; as such she can't really embody the "American Dream" but she certainly has fulfilled the Immigrant's Dream. And all of this because she performed karaoke selections in hospitals and nursing homes and her audiences loved her so much that they encouraged her to put out a recording. Wing offered these recordings for sale on the internet and, a true beneficiary of the information age, she suddenly found herself with a worldwide fan base, which increased exponentially with her guest appearance on South Park two years ago.

I love almost everything she does, whether that be fumbling her way through The Lonely Goatherd, squeaking her way through Dancing Queen, not quite mastering the extreme vocal range of The Phantom of the Opera. It was her rendition of the Carpenters' "Sing" that made me completely fall in love with her, though. Who else better exemplifies the dictum "Don't worry if it's not good enough for anyone else to hear"? Learn more about her by perusing some articles posted on her website. And watch her delectable performance of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and prepare to be enchanted.

Mari Lyn

There are countless marvelous operatic counter-divas out there (how else should one refer to them?) Of course Florence Foster Jenkins is the most famous, but other favorites are Sylvia Sawyer (who actually recorded Azucena and Amneris for Capitol Records!), Olive Middleton, Tryphosa Bates-Batchellor (whose unique work can be sampled on the magical collection entitled The Muse Surmounted, which features the work of those singers just mentioned plus many others). I think my very, very favorite, however, has to be Mari Lyn, who hosted a cable TV show called The Golden Treasury of Song in the early- to mid-eighties (as best I can surmise). She wore a different wig every week and presented well-thought out and invariably intriguingly vocalized programs. She had the charisma of a limp dishrag and yet she tackled everything from Lakme to Norma without fear. And every so often, a flash of temperament would course through her not-delicate frame, and I would find myself folling on the floor in paroxysms of delight. Watch these clips on her website and see if you aren't on the floor yourself.

My favorite Mari Lyn moments are her unforgettable scat rendition of "Summertime," her southern belle impersonation in the program entitled The South Anti-Bellum Era [sic], her narration and dramatic rendering of Violetta's letter scene from Traviata, and the entire program entitled Hosanna by Ebentide, in which she shares with us her favorite hymns, including "Casta diva" (for is this not a hymn to the Moon Goddess?) She also regales us with some of her own personal religious stylings, and receives a "surprise" visit from two wacky Italians representing the Della Robbia Foundation who present her with a plaque honoring her as the Greatest Operatic Soprano of the Year. And who could forget her famous "Una voce poco fa" from the priceless Art of the Coloratura episode? Below find her rendition of "Sweet Hour of Prayer" (along with a vital, life-altering sermonette):

And while I could go on and on all night, I will end by posting a few more soundclips to supplement what I have already posted here. Click on the links to hear:

―the deranged passion of Natalia de Andrade's Santuzza as well as
―her cascades of laughter in the Manon Gavotte.
―Congress-Woman Malinda Parker Jackson cautioning against the destruction wrought by "Cousin Mosquito"
―Mrs. Miller duetting with herself in the country fave "There Goes My Everything."
―The Shaggs, quite possibly the idiot savants of music, and probably the most tragic of the figures celebrated here, in their own composition "Philosophy of the World".

In admiration and gratitude to these artists, I conclude my traversal of the underside of singing.

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