Vox Pop

By Steane, John | Musical Times, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Vox Pop


Steane, John, Musical Times


Vocal authority: singing style and ideology

John Potter

Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 1998); xvi, 217pp; 35. ISBN 0 52156356 9.

Like many other valuable academic publications, this one originated in the author's personal need - urgent inclination at any rate - to write it. John Potter has been a singer for most of his life, and is at present a teacher also: a good tenor who has been for some years associated with the early-music group Red Byrd and is a member of the Hilliard Ensemble. He was a chorister at King's College, Cambridge, and later became a choral scholar. At the same time, a young man in the 1960s, he started a rhythm-and-blues band, of which he was the lead-vocalist. He found himself, virtually and without too much difficulty, living a double life. Places, listeners, lifestyles, were different; the sounds he made and the techniques he used were different; yet both activities went under the same name. In both, he was called a singer.

His book follows lines of thought that the situation opened up for him. He wrote a thesis, on which the book draws, and this, perhaps, set the tone and nature of his writing. No doubt it could have taken a more 'popular', less academic form; for the argument is of concern to thoughtful people of whatever musical taste - and if 'classical' musicians and their public suppose that their counterparts in the various branches of 'pop' have no taste, or lack the educated intelligence to expound their ideas with precision and the use of a learned apparatus, then one thing that the book should be able to teach them is that this is not so.

The word 'subversive' appears in the text a number of times, and, to MT readers, it may be that 'subversive' will seem to be what the book uncomfortably is. Yet to say as much is probably to underestimate the changes of modern times, including a change in the readership of this magazine. Potter's approach to his subject is historical, and the periods of musical history on which he concentrates most are the early (medieval and renaissance) and modern (20th century). It is the old guard (the present reviewer, alas, being part of it) who are likely to find most difficulty in coming to terms with what he has to say.

For the MT reader of the 1950s and even the 60s, when John Potter was growing up, music meant what we now (to our annoyance) have to specify (wrongly) as `classical music'; and 'singer' meant singer of opera, oratorio or art-- song, whereas nowadays it is `classical singer' that has to be specified for otherwise it will be widely assumed that the reference is to somebody in musicals or pop. The repertoire - the subject of articles and reviews - still centred on the l9th century, with extensions backwards to roughly 1600 and a conscientious but cautious approach to modernity. With this went an assumption (it didn't have to be argued) that such a musical inheritance was supremely valuable, and that the duty of performers and their teachers lay in perpetuating a tradition which ensured that it could be enjoyed to best advantage. The authority for this was formidable, artistically and socially, for musical habits, whether in composing, performing or listening, related to social conditions and therefore to class.

This also is a concern of the book, and of course when class is mentioned in such a context 'elitism' is sure to follow. It does, and disturbingly so, because not used as a blunt instrument. The historical processes having been followed (with learning and perception), the main proposition comes into view, which is (to put it more crudely than the author does) that the time for 'classical' music may be coming to an end, and (possibly) no bad thing either. …

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