I like to believe that people who make it their business to write about music are capable of seeing beyond the limitations of their chosen specialties. There may be nothing “universal” about music itself; but it strikes me that the very act of making music has the potential to unite us in a global community, no matter how opaque the music of other cultures may seem to us. (I suspect I shall always remember the day I received a lesson in playing the monochord in a remote village in Vietnam.) I suppose this is one reason why I am so adamant about jazz being “chamber music by other means” (and why I enjoy anecdotes like the one about Thelonious Monk playing Frédéric Chopin in his “spare time” at the piano).
Then I read what passes for writing about pop music, and I realize that I am hopelessly naïve. The fact is that it is almost impossible for me not to cringe at the use of the word “diva” in the pop world. It may not be a full frontal assault on the semantic tradition of the word; but it is certainly a sign of disrespect consistent with the semantics of the rap community.
In today’s New York Times (in my once cherished “Section 2” no less), I find that another “classical” word is under siege. In writing about Christina Aguilera, pop writer David Browne describes her as “one of the foremost practitioners of the overpowering, Category 5 vocal style known as melisma.” For those (like myself) who did not immediately figure out what Browne was saying, Google quickly informed me that the reference was to the fifth Category in the GRAMMY awards. (This year there are 109 categories.) Category 5 is “Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (For a solo vocal performance. Singles or Tracks only.).” In other words melisma is a particular stylistic technique that female pop singers can use to strut their stuff (and the primary thrust of Browne’s piece is that melisma is falling into disfavor).
What follows is Browne’s attempt to explain the nature of the technique:
Although there’s nothing simple about it, melisma in its simplest form is a vocal technique in which a series of notes is stretched into one syllable. Its roots can be tracked back to gospel, blues and even Gregorian chant; Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder used it sparingly early in their careers.
The good news is that, whatever the GRAMMY judges may think, men have as much right to sing melisma as women do. Indeed, when we get past that dismissive “even Gregorian chant” remark, we realize that melisma as we know it is a product of religious incantation, as prevalent in Judaism as in Christianity, making its use in gospel just another brick in a rather impressive wall. (I would also hypothesize, on the basis of some of the more prudish remarks about music in Plato’s “Republic,” that the Ancient Greeks had some bricks to contribute to that wall.)
I suppose this is little more than my usual double-barreled moaning. The “primary” moan is about the extent to which ignorance of history has become practically institutionalized by our prevailing culture. The “secondary” moan involves a broader perspective of ignorance as a product of the deterioration of The New York Times as a reputable source of information. There are, of course, sources of refutations for both of these moans; but their appearances seem to be getting more and more seldom. At least in this case I really do not have to care very much about Category 5!