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Thoughts on Singing and on Nina Simone (An Assay by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond)

I've contributed to the Blogathon over at Clever Titles Are So Last Summer.

As we're supporting the charity "Global Fund For Women" I saw it fitting to ask several artists about important female influences they had during their lives.

Shara Worden of the wonderful band My Brightest Diamond agreed to write some words and she came up with an extensive assay discussing the art of singing and her favourite singer of all time Nina Simone.

I posted this assay over at Clever Titles Are So Last Summer during the Blogathon, but I thought I'd repost it here, because I don't want to get this wonderful piece lost in the shuffle of 48 postings in the course of 24 hours.

Please read it, it's well worth it.

Thoughts on Singing and on Nina Simone

Western classical singers can be evaluated on a technical, musical, stylistic (the proper use of ornamentation appropriate to the time period of the piece) as well as aesthetic basis. In contrast, the evaluation of folk music (by “folk,” I mean all music that is not classical. Historically folk is known as the music of the people, which includes rock, R&B and pop, etc.) is quite different and based largely on aesthetics. And, of course, an aesthetic evaluation means that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

There are other qualities like a broad repertoire, flexibility, improvisation, intonation, phrasing or performance by which folk singers may be evaluated, but I will move on to my point: Nina Simone is my favorite singer of all time.

Let me set out my favorite qualities in a singer, my personal aesthetic. A singer should employ a basic understanding of vocal technique, which is an understanding of breath, ease of phonation and the easy use of multiple registers. (Technique and emotion are best friends. Try not to separate them for they go hand in hand.) It’s also important that one’s vocal production be sustainable. Each voice is different, so what is sustainable for one is not necessarily sustainable for all, for example I could never sing like Tom Waits or scream like Prince, but they do and must have vocal cords of steel. If a singer has a really cool quality in their voice, like a gravelly sound or a great scream, but can’t sing consistently or looses their voice by the end of a show because of their vocal production, I am concerned. The moment I become concerned for a singer’s well being, I’ve stepped outside the position of the receiver, the recipient of the music, and I am now a doctor or a caretaker (though that feeling is only internal). I do not want to be worried for the performer while I am listening. I want to be transported and moved to feel something, to connect to some other part of myself or to connect to humanity in a new way. I cannot be free to do so if I am concerned for a singer’s health. This is obviously a very personal issue. Certainly what makes me uncomfortable may not make someone else uncomfortable.

Ultimately technique is to aid a singer in employing different emotions in their interpretation of song. This can mean a million different things, but so often I find myself, or other singers, stuck with three different vocal sounds, three colors, three emotions: mad, sad or regular. Mad sounds like loud, screaming, gripping, veins popping out, whereas sad is breaking the voice, whispering or is sometimes quiet, high and pretty while regular is just normal. Regular stays the same and does not change, but the great singers use so many more colors to express themselves and therefore we are led, as the listener, to those other emotional worlds. Through song we may experience certain emotions for the first time and that indeed is a magnificent gift.

For me, Nina embodied all of these qualities. Her breath was under such control that she could sustain phrases for what seemed to be an eternity, as in “Wild is the Wind”. To take that kind of time in one’s phrasing, one must not over effort, the sound of “trying” cannot be in the voice. It is to be completely in the present. Mysteriously she propels the song forward with such long phrases that would by most singers sound like plodding through mud. For her, it’s like floating slowly down a smooth river. We are transported by her!!

Not over-efforting, let me explain that more. I saw Nina at the Beacon Theater several years ago. Aside from the concert having an audience with a full range of age, social economic status and race, the musicians being stellar, and the venue being my favorite in New York City, I was most struck by the sense that Nina didn’t have anything to prove. She was singing incredibly well and whipping us up into a frenzy with her horse hair fan, as we begged her for more encores. She was at the end of her life and needed not to win us over, because indeed we were already won. I thought of young singers in such stark contrast, metaphorically doing vocal back flips, shoving themselves down our throat, trying so desperately to get our attention. How different it was for Nina, who was not singing from a place of insecurity but of security. To be musically secure is to not rush. I am not altogether sure about the connection between how one truly feels about one’s self and how one sings. Musicality is not always connected to one’s emotions. The most emotionally secure people do not automatically make the best singers, but the connections between psychology and performance are interesting to think about. In any case, whether Nina was the most secure person in the world, I know not, but what I know is that in the voice, there was a freeness and musicality that I found exhilarating. My interpretation of what is needed for such phrasing has come through observation of my own experience in being able (or not able) to sustain phrases or believe that I could take the time to say something. For me, security and assuredness are paramount in achieving that suspension of time.

Over the whole of her career, Nina displayed incredible range of emotions, from her playful rendition of “Marriage is for Old Folks”, to her childlike “Beautiful Land”, the volatile and revolutionary “Mississippi Goddamn”, the desperate “My Man’s Gone Now”, the strained and stark “Strange Fruit”, or her oozingly sad “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except for Sometimes)”, the vocal colors didn’t seem to end. At times she risked intonation or safe beauty for higher emotional virtues. This is to lose control in a very controlled way I believe, to allow something unexpected or direct to occur without getting in the way of one’s self or in the way of the music. What makes that loss of control delightful is when someone as capable as Nina allows herself to go somewhere unexpected, the result is an even greater heightened emotion, not a static unchanging one. I am never moved to “doctor worry” in her loss of control. I am held within the song and the world is made even broader to me, the listener. That quality allows me to remain the listener, allows the performer to remain within themselves and the music to be above us all. We are all here to serve the music, so the moment the performer begins taking away from the music, something is amiss.

If you have heard only a few songs of Nina, please listen to more. In order to appreciate her, you need to have a wide listening of her recordings, for her repertoire extended from folk, to blues, to jazz, to rock, to show tunes with themes of social justice, love, loss and the color blue. My favorite compilation is the Philips Recordings, which Verve released a few years ago. It includes 5 different albums, some of which are double albums. Play “I Put a Spell on You” at volume ten and become a convert.

Nina Simone - I Put A Spell On You (follow link)