Review | Vocal Authority: Singing Style and Ideology, by John Potter

Vocal Authority: Singing Style and Ideology. By John Potter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-521-56356-9 (cloth). Pp. 217. $54.95 (cloth).

In this fascinating book, John Potter, himself a professional singer, examines why singers are more likely to sing in certain styles than others, and furthermore, how singing styles evolve, change and relate to one another. Basing the project on his PhD thesis, he constructs the book in conventional fashion, beginning with singing in the earliest times and ending with the present day. Two chapters, one on the relationship between singing and social processes, and the other outlining a theory of vocal style, provide a conclusion.

The reader is invited to explore the seemingly uniquely authoritative status of ‘classical’ music and the inherent ideologies behind different styles. The relationships between different types of singing are shown to change as various influences shape the performances of singers and the demands of audiences. There is a strong focus on an intriguing attempt to discover how the transmission of meaning is enhanced or inhibited through different singing styles or techniques. The concealed messages of slave songs, the effect of microphones and recordings, and the emergence of the singers as songwriters are all investigated for their influences on the way meanings are communicated.

Some interesting notions emerge from Potter’s journey. From the earliest Christian times, singing was associated with discipline and restraint and it is but a short step to also include the idea of morality. This is easy to understand when we think of the inhabitants of monasteries using Gregorian chant in the performance of religious offices but is more vividly illustrated with the example in the baroque era of young castrated boys training to be singers in religious seminaries for many years and being drilled in vocal technique for up to fourteen hours a day. As we enter the nineteenth century the foundations of the modern voice are laid. The larynx is lowered in order to maximise resonance, breath control is all important, and vibrato is ubiquitous. The result is that the quality of the sound produced is more important than the audibility of the words being sung. In contrast to this, the singing of ordinary people does not concern itself with such techniques. A folk song, for example, is sung using the larynx in its natural, high position, the sound is allied to speech and the words audible. The two modes are contrasted in the book with an analysis of Barcelona, the album by pop singer Freddie Mercury and opera diva Monserrat Caballe, whose photographs appear on the front cover.

Potter has some important things to say through his expansive survey. The link he provides between singing and English Received Pronunciation, which even extends to the performance of songs by American composers such as Aaron Copland, demonstrates the influence of class on the ‘art song’. Important also is his opinion that what he describes as an elite form of singing will eventually be reduced to a stylized art form with little relevance to modern society. This process can similarly be identified in other art forms, much in the way of the Noh Theatre of Japan. All in all, Vocal Authority is an intriguing book which, while covering some familiar ground in its historical survey, provides valuable insights. Potter writes fluently with an easy, confident style, and is fully in command of his material. He has achieved that rare publication that is of interest to academics and at the same time a ‘hard to put down’ bedtime read.

Ian Spiby and Judith Ackroyd
University College Northhampton