Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A History of Singing, Part One

John Potter, Neil Sorrell

John Potter: The idea for A History of Singing came out of The Cambridge Companion to Singing, which I’d edited as the 20th century was coming to an end. I was determined then to put together an introductory volume that would go beyond western art music (and the book actually starts with John Schaefer’s magical introduction to world music). But the Companion really represented unfinished business, so I then I proposed to Cambridge University Press a history that would explore the topic in more depth (or possibly breadth). It was really the urge to explain the excitement I feel at all sorts of singing (not just the classical mainstream) that had driven the Companion, and I wanted the History, even though I knew it would only scratch the surface, to open readers’ eyes to some of the myriad varieties of singing that exist in parallel with the Western pop and opera that we’re all familiar with.

I’d done quite a bit of work on the western art music tradition (which I’d been steeped in since childhood) – and on some sorts of popular music and jazz –  but much of  the really exciting stuff – the non-western material – seemed for ever out of reach. It was partly that although the non-western material was in many ways what interested me most, I couldn’t invest it with the same authorial authority that I felt my performing activities enabled me to bring to writing about western singing. Then I realised that the solution lay in the very music department in which I worked: my colleague Neil Sorrell was a world expert in key aspects of non-western music, so I asked if he’d like to join me….

Neil Sorrell: I should say I jumped at the chance, as I was honoured to be asked by someone of John’s stature, but it was more of a nervous shuffle, for two obvious reasons: the world is a big place and the number of singing traditions almost as numerous as the number of languages; one person cannot be expected to know them all any more than he or she would understand all languages.  Another point that I often make (before anyone else does) is that while John is an expert singer I could hardly describe myself as a singer at all. At the same time, something that had been drummed (the right word here?) into me from my studies of “non-Western music” was that singing lies at the heart of just about everything. In India it is always placed first and all musicians are expected to sing; even I had to in several lessons and felt it was neither unnatural nor uncomfortable. Or, perhaps most remarkable was being told by Ghanaian drum teachers that the rhythms were as melodic as rhythmic and had to be internalised as a kind of singing. As part of my study and teaching of gamelan music singing usually comes in at some point and I tell the students that they should sing whether or not they consider themselves to be “singers.” In other words, singing should be no stranger or more of an imposition than speaking.

When it came to writing copy for the book I spent as much time thinking about what to include and all the things that would have to be left out as in the actual task of writing. Once I had decided that most manifestations of singing would have to be omitted (though I must say that John stepped in with far more non-Western material than might be expected) it was that bit easier to focus on a few things and even indulge myself in writing about some traditions, styles and singers that had inspired or intrigued me most. Thus a few superhighways (such as Indian music) are explored, as well as quite a few picturesque byways. Hopefully many of the observations and lessons from this limited material can be applied more widely and encourage the reader to explore further and further, and, if a “non-singer” like me, even join the nearest choir!

What kind of examples do John and Neil include in A History of Singing? Read Part Two.

About The Authors

John Potter

John Potter is the author of Vocal Authority: Singing Style and Ideology (2006) and the co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Singing (2000). He has contributed articles to many ...

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Neil Sorrell

Neil Sorrell is the co-author of A History of Singing (2012). He was a recipient of the 1999 Hafiz Ali Khan Award, an international award in recognition of contributions to Indian ...

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