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Vocal Authority lives!

I’ve begun the process of updating the web version of the Biographical List of Tenors in my tenor history book, and have been reading Ian Bostridge’s A Singer’s Notebook.  It was quite a shock to discover that it  reprints IB’s ancient critique of Vocal Authority.  The review sounded pretty patronising first time round back in 1998, and it hasn’t improved with age.  He doesn’t really get it and gets all sorts of things wrong – and he certainly doesn’t like it.

V A  was my first book. It was based on my PhD thesis, and like many first books it’s very much of its time (as is Bostridge’s review). It still figures on university reading lists, especially in the USA, and I sometimes get asked if I would write the same book today. The answer is ‘no’ (often to the dismay of the enquirer).   I’ve come close to attempting a successor, but disillusionment with academia set in a while ago and the History of Singing that Neil Sorrell and I have just finished is definitely my last foray into anything remotely academic. I suspect poor IB won’t like that either, should he happen to stumble across it, but he can take comfort from the fact that it’s my last in this particular genre.

But having said all that, I have been touched by the reception Vocal Authority had (and still gets) in certain quarters.  Converting the thesis into a book was a long and frustrating process. In the thesis I put the theory chapter last as it was generated by the main body of material and I didn’t want readers to be distracted by my Gramscian analysis if they weren’t that way inclined.  At my viva the examiners asked me to move the theory to the front (in keeping with more usual academic practice). This was in the days when cutting and pasting meant literally that, and it took forever to make the change.  Then having finally done it, I collected the copies from the binders on my way back from a gig, fell asleep on the tube and woke up to find my bag had been nicked. Poor thief – three copies of Vocal Authority, my concert gear and the previous day’s shirt and underwear.  The upside was that my examiners – having eventually taken delivery of a second set of copies –  kindly said they thought it publishable  and suggested I sent the thesis  to CUP, who liked it but said they’d much rather the theory chapter was at the back…

It was worth the agony though. Being a performer can be a humbling experience – people being moved by what you do – but performances die even as they’re born, so their effect is confined to the moment (or the immediate memory). Writing on the other hand stays with you, right or wrong. The Cambridge UL copy of VA has been somewhat cynically (and definitely illegally) annotated in pencil by a reader of the Bostridge persuasion who thinks it’s complete rubbish, and you expect disagreement (better that than readers falling asleep). But the compensation when someone tells you that you’ve changed their life is quite something. It’s happened to me on a number of occasions in different parts of the world with Vocal Authority (not with anything else I’ve written, sadly).  I wrote it to try to explain the world of singing as I saw it then, but it clearly touched a nerve with many singers. There won’t be many bookshelves where it sits side by side with A Singer’s Notebook but both books have in common a singer’s musings on aspects of history and the sometimes rather unworldly profession that we inhabit, and the fact that we can have such differing perspectives is not such a bad thing.

2 Responses to “Vocal Authority lives!”

  1. liz garnett says:

    Hello John,
    Just wanted to pop in with a couple of encouraging words, as your post sounded a little down-hearted. For sure, Vocal Authority leaves itself open to critique in all kinds of ways, but those features are also the reason it stays on reading lists. It covers so wide a range of practices that it’s never going to be academically bullet-proof, but it’s that breadth that gives the reader room to theorise along with you. Which is where learning happens of course.

    And I liked the Gramscian analysis; those are the bits I find myself citing the most 🙂

    liz

  2. John Potter says:

    Thanks Liz. Glad you like the Gramscian bits – pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!

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