Countertenors are not castrati

So many important things to witter on about this morning: famine in the Horn of Africa, assorted national debts, irresponsible extremist politicians, ZDoggMD’s tongue-in-cheek video on neonatal care, the terrible prospect of the only watchable TV channel in this country showing Desperately Seeking Susan tonight…

In search of inspiration I start reading my favourite blogs. Quite a few of them deal with subjects I’m not qualified to discuss, which is good: I want to learn, not have my prejudices and superiority confirmed. Sometimes I come across stuff I am qualified to discuss, which can be scary when it’s an unexpected old chestnut like this. It was a comment replying to (and partially quoting) an admittedly daft comment on a blog post about medical circumcision, of all things:

“Castrating males extends their lives by at least a decade!”
And, if done early enough, can give them promising careers as countertenors!

One can only reply: bollocks. Countertenors are not castrati, barring the occasional unfortunate accident. Countertenor is generally considered to be the highest natural singing voice for an adult male (with some surprising exceptions) and I am a total fan. The poor lads that got separated from their knackers in renaissance Europe were destined to be sopranos and if their voices ended up only mezzo-soprano or worse, contralto, they’d really drawn the short straw.

Here is Ian Howell’s useful explanation (reposted from his blog):

First of all, let’s set some terminology ground rules. There are several broad categories of ‘men who sing high’ as determined by the physical manner in which the tone is produced. I divide them into three groups:
1) An haut-contre: a tenor with an unusually high voice, most likely the result of a smaller than average larynx. These are the guys who can sing high, and have a naturally high speaking voice.
2) An endocrinologically challenged countertenor: Those who through surgery (almost none), disease (some), or wild boar accidents (yeah right Senesino) never experienced the hormonal effects of male puberty.
3) What is commonly known as a ‘Countertenor,’ sometimes incorrectly labeled a ‘Falsettist’: These are the guys who sing as altos/sopranos, but do not sing with a full length of vibrating vocal cord. Their full voices are usually lower (bass/baritone) and they speak at a naturally lower pitch.

I am one of the third group. That’s all I have experience being, so that’s all I’ll talk about.

So… falsetto… means ‘false voice.’ What it describes is the vibrating of just the edges of a short length of the vocal cords. That’s why the sound is so quiet, breathy, and weak; as I’ll explain below, not enough mass is vibrating to produce a bigger sound. One could argue that it is just one more color in the palette; it works for Justin Timberlake (he is the future of sex, it would seem?) Where most folks get tripped up is believing that falsetto is the only way for a man to produce sound in that higher register. We are trapped in the paradigm of head voice/mix voice/chest voice. These are labels that resulted from a vocal pedagogy that predated modern scientific investigation, and they were based on the location of the sensation of resonance (vibration) as perceived by the singer.

What actually happens in the throat is much more interesting. When a man sings well in the Countertenor range, his larynx is stable. That is to say, his larynx does not move up and down as he changes pitches. If you have any doubt about whether you do this well, look at your Adam’s apple in the mirror while you sing. In fact, go do it now. I’ll wait…

You can read the rest on his blog. If you want to hear how he puts theory into practice, try wrapping your ears around this: Flammende Rose by Handel.

So that’s a classic countertenor. See also James Bowman, Alfred Deller, Andreas Scholl, and many others.

Cop a listen to French sensation Philippe Jaroussky who, in addition to being totally hot, apparently started out as a baritone. He has an amazing vocal range:

He’s also referred to as a mezzo-soprano/sopranist.  Here’s another hawt guy I suspect of having short vocal cords (Howell’s Ist group): tenor/sopranist Jacek Laszczkowski. I find this select group are capable of more expression, but I enjoy listening to the other countertenors too. Laszckowski can actually sing coloratura soprano parts, such as The Queen of the Night’s famous aria, and here he is doing his party piece: singing a duet with himself.

Those who still have lingering doubts about the presence of gonads should note the blue chin and incipient male-pattern baldness.

Nor are all modern countertenors/sopranists working in classical music, singing baroque and renaissance hits. Freddie Mercury of Queen had a four-octave range.

And there’s this promising, if spotty and skinny, lad from 1999. Another short vocal cords case, this time confirmed. The song isn’t exactly outstanding, plus he has a mild speech impediment and dodgy breathing technique (ironed out in the recording), but it does look like he might have quite a career ahead of him and his impressive three-octave range. Name of Matthew Bellamy.

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One response to “Countertenors are not castrati

  1. Pingback: Famous castrato | Collardandsons

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