By The Landlord
"Don and I are infamous for our split, but we're closer than most brothers. Harmony singing requires that you enlarge yourself, not use any kind of suppression. Harmony is the ultimate love." – Phil Everly
In 2012 I walked across part of a glacier in Iceland in winter, and ahead of me, by a hut, was gathered a pack of around 20 huskies, resting in the snow by their owner. In that bleak, yet beautiful white setting, something extraordinary happened. After they were fed, first one dog stood up, and softly at first, began to howl. Then another and another, until all of them joined in, each a different pitch, creating a spine-chilling, melancholic chorus of dissonant beauty, ancient voices of the wild echoing into the present.
Daily choral practice for them, obviously, but for me, a song I'll never forget.
Something happens to our brains when we hear voices in close harmony. It resonates. It stimulates an emotional response. It is an expression of something primal, of a deep connection between individuals, where two or more melodies intertwine, move in parallel lines, and oscillate with each other. It can work with two, three or many more voices. And it is deceptively difficult to get right, as there is a tendency to all veer onto the one melody, but when singers achieve it, in perfect harmony, following each other but keeping to their own path, it is pure magic. And to be within it, that hum, then buzz and sudden purity of chord, can sometimes feel like a form of transcendence, the musical equivalent of passing through a rainbow.
So let's listen to some examples. This week our theme will take us all all around the world, from duos to trios to barbershop quartets, to mass choirs from all cultures. But first to the country of Georgia, where the Basiani Ensemble sing an ancient love song, Tsintskaro/წინწყარო. It's one you might recognise this as one used by Kate Bush in the second side, The Ninth Wave, from her landmark album, Hounds of Love:
Why is this so profoundly beautiful? Analysis could throw up many reasons, but too much could also overdo it, so the key is to just listen and feel it. The secret to this music is not only in the purity of the voices, but in the intervals between notes. We don't need to get bogged down in technicalities of this, but conventionally, the combination of two or more different frequencies can have different responses. In western music this is across the 12 chromatic notes of the scale, and in other cultures some frequencies sometimes in between these in quarter tones. Intervals of a major third, fourth, or fifth for example, tend to be pleasing on the ear. A sixth produces mixed emotions, a minor third is associated with sadness, and a second can be dissonant. The Basiani Ensemble use a variety of these intervals, including the more dissonant ones, to evoke emotion.
Just as extraordinary, and playing with and against what conventional western instincts of harmony might be, are the women of The Great Voices of Bulgaria:
Certain frequencies also seem to reach within us. The standard for note middle note A, for example, is 440 Hz (440 vibrations per second) with the other 12 notes at different frequencies, harmonious or otherwise, but there are slight cultural variations on this where in India, or other Asian cultures, it can be set at 450 Hz. Quincy Jones has now coolly strolled into the bar, and here's what he has to say about that: "To me it's no accident that all the symphony orchestras around the world tune up to the note A. And A is 440 cycles, except in Germany where it's 444. But the universe is 450 cycles. So what I'm trying to say is, I think it's God's voice, melody especially. Counterpoint, retrograde inversion, harmony... that's the science and the craft."
And with that, we have a host of stars now propping up the bar with more to say about harmony, blending in, not only with fine whiskeys on offer, but with musical ideas. Here's the Beach Boys' Mike Love: "What we look for when we need to find someone who can fit in with our music, the vocals and the harmonies and the way they blend are very important to us because if you listen to Beach Boys music, the harmonies, not only are the notes being sung, but there's a blend to it. The voices have to blend."
And now here's the great Yehudi Menuhin: "Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous."
So how to you bring all these elements together? Now the ridiculously handsome American composer and conductor Eric Whitacre is here. Known for his choral, orchestral and wind ensemble music, he is obsessed with vocal harmony: "When I had my first experiences of choral singing, the dissonance of those close harmonies was so exquisite that I would giggle or I would tear up, and I felt it in a physical way." He loved so much so that he created a mass virtual choir taken from hundreds of voices and video recordings all put together. It's slightly disturbing, but definitely impressive and beautiful:
So your choices might come from hundreds of voices or just two, from subject matter that's sacred or profane. They may be sung live, or as overdubs, but recorded live, is definitely preferable and more natural. And behind exquisite harmonies, there are inevitably the opposite. The Everly Brothers, ironically spent portions of their career in separate hotels and cars, only communicating on stage in perfect harmony singing. Beyond the scenes disharmony could be said of many great harmony singers, including Simon & Garkunkel, and of course, McCartney, Lennon and Harrison. Why? Just because:
Some of the great close harmony music found its roots in religion. Let's enjoy now some beautiful close-knit breadth, and rich depth fropm the Blind Boys of Alabama:
Religious music can still sound great, but look a little comical nevertheless. The white gospel equivalent? Here's a little dose of Mississippi's The Blackwood Brothers, opening their souls, and mouths, loud and wide to the Lord:
Or, more recently, your vocal harmony band, could still produce great music, but somewhat resemble a cult? Let's join, then, I mean just in the music, Dallas's The Polyphonic Spree:
Perhaps the greatest vocal harmony groups tend to come between siblings, having practised with each other all their lives, knowing each other intimately, and because the music is built on family tensions behind the scenes. Here then comes a huge history of choices, from multiple gospel groups grown up in churches, such as the Jacksons. But let's now enjoy a little from those 1940s-era greats, The Andrews Sisters:
Many similar groups have followed, such as The Chordettes, but the Andrews' true modern equivalent are The Puppini Sisters, who though not actually siblings (Marcella Puppini usually sings in the middle) are a tribute to them. They are comparable in skill and humour, and arguably cover a wider range of styles. Let's now enjoy them working their own vocal dexterity on Missy Elliott's Work It:
But rounding this sample selection off, I'd like to mention singer Carris Jones, who this week became the first female singer to join the St Paul's Cathedral Choir after 1,000 years of all-male membership. The cathedral's musical director said she stood out as a singer "with a beautiful voice which has both power and lyricism", and no doubt she will blend in with equal perfection.
I was in a church choir when I was young. We tackled all the great church music. I'd say the early-life experience of doing this has been invaluable. Even Keith Richards did it when he was as an angelic choirboy. But his career didn't go quite the same way as Aled Jones. And while I messed about with my friend Michael during sermons, even occasionally drawing tits and knobs on prayer books and laughing to ourselves, we were never in doubt as the wonder of the music we were singing, and how great it was to be in harmony with a variety of voices.
So putting aside the religious, and even the context or occasion, it's hard not to admire the music. So, in tribute to Carris Jones, here's a sample then of, not my old choir, but of St Pauls doing what they do best. I Was Glad – indeed:
So then, please place your close harmony singing suggestions in the collection box, known as comments below. I'm delighted to welcome, and announce, that conducting the choir this week, and no doubt hitting some high notes, will be our special friend from Japan, Hoshino Sakura, whose playlists from your song nominations will be published next Wednesday. Deadline? 11pm on Monday evening UK time. Time to make harmony.
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