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 Some background on Countertenors

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tuffy942



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PostSubject: Some background on Countertenors   18th December 2009, 14:26

What is a counter tenor? Countertenors are men who sing in the traditionally female alto or soprano ranges. Countertenor is short for contratenor altus which just means above the tenor. Two modes of vocalization available to both sexes are the chest voice and head voice. The chest voice, which produces low pitches, is what most people use to speak. For head voice, the larynx makes a gear shift, allowing for higher pitches. Most women use both modes when singing. Most men use only their chest voices.

Every human voice, male or female, has a “head” register and a “chest” register. People tend to speak in the chest register most of the time, and the head register has got tagged with the derogatory word “falsetto” as if there’s something false about it, but it’s natural. Singers work at developing the strength of both voices, along with a blended sound that brings in some characteristics of each. Counter-tenors and sopranos work in the head voice almost all the time, and singers of the lower voice parts work in the chest voice most of the time.

The human vocal cords operate pretty much like the strings on a musical instrument. You can’t make a string resonate below its basic frequency. However, you can make it produce higher frequencies, either by shortening the string’s effective length (which a violinist or guitarist for instance does with the fingers of his left hand), or by increasing the tension on the string (which with violins and guitars is done when tuning the instrument). Both these things can be done with the vocal cords, to a certain anatomically limited extent, but you cannot ever go lower than the lowest possible frequency.

This lowest frequency tends to be much lower in men than in women, because the human larynx, which has the vocal cords in it, is a secondary sexual characteristic, and in males undergoes a growth spurt at puberty (or, more colloquially, their “voice breaks”, and they get an Adam’s apple). Adult males therefore have longer vocal cords, on average, and a lower basic frequency to their voice than women. That was the whole idea behind castrati: by castrating a boy very early, he missed out on normal puberty, his larynx only expanded proportionally with the rest of his body (as it does with women), and he ended up with his voice in a soprano or alto range.

Sopranos use exactly the same vocal techniques to achieve their high notes that male falsettists use to achieve theirs (men and women do not have differently constructed larynxes, it’s just the average size that differs). It’s a matter of cultural prejudice that many people have grown used to hearing only women sing this way, not men (at least in classical music — in pop music, as has been pointed out, the falsetto voice has always been a very “natural” presence).

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t women with naturally very low voices, or men with naturally very high voices just as the fact that men are on average taller than women doesn’t mean that there aren’t any women that are taller than most men, or men that are shorter than most women. What we do have is a culturally determined problem where a low voice is associated with “masculinity”, which makes many men nervous about singing in a high register (to a large extent because “not masculine” is in turn culturally associated with “homosexual”), and makes many women nervous about singing in a low register for the same reasons.

A voice teacher on the countertenor voice: ” In my experience, the counter tenor is basically a singer who has developed the falsetto with such strength that it has similar power and resonance of a full-voiced sound. Often these singers possess a lower male voice; baritone or bass in the changed voice function. I have found that the lower male voices usually (not always) have stronger and more beautiful falsettos. In studying the successful counter tenors, I have found the singer often possesses the ability to hold back tremendous amounts of breath pressure with the body, which allows the falsetto to develop great strength and beauty of tone along with excellent agility. This agility makes it possible to sing the florid phrases demanded in the earlier vocal literature. “

In spite of all this, countertenors are viewed at times as “something of a circus” or at least a freak show. Philippe Jaroussky, David Daniels, Andreas Scholl and others have all experienced the nervous laughs from one or two spectators who had no idea countertenors exist! (Or what they sound like) David Daniels said once that every time he goes on stage he feels he has to convince the public of the virility of his role.

This prejudice definitely didn’t exist in the baroque time.It is a completely modern bias. It’s something counter-tenors have had to put up with since the voice type reemerged as a solo singing voice in the 1950s (it had never died out in the English choral tradition, of course). Even today every counter-tenor who’s interviewed can expect strange questions about his sexual identity and orientation — questions that nobody would ever dream of asking of a bass or tenor, or female soprano or alto, despite the fact that those people’s voices are just as “natural” or “unnatural” as his.This inexplicable association between the male alto voice and a sexual orientation, an association that’s made even more inexplicable because you apparently only have it with clasically trained singing voices, not with pop music singers!

Not the least at all is the prejudice existing among singers, such as mezzos, or directors, about the competence of countertenors. The jokes about “avian” sounds and general hootiness are widespread as well as the idea that the natural singers to succeed castrati should be female. But in this visual age, looks are important even (or especially?) in opera, and Julius Cesar as a woman is harder to swallow than a countertenor with a soft voice.

But countertenors are not all created equal. Some use techniques that are very effective and insure good projection and even tone. Of course Philippe Jaroussky comes to mind, as also David Daniels. The voices range from full, plummy sounds to pure transparent, almost “white” singing. Again the voice teacher :…”‘hooty’ sound comes from a low soft palate position and a high larynx position. What causes a low palate and high larynx is the pushing of too much breath pressure in an attempt to However, the trademark ‘hooty’ sound that some counter tenors develop is held in the mind of many as a vocal characteristic….Breath control alone does not solve the problem of lack of beauty in the voice altogether. The missing piece is not just a high soft palate and lower larynx position, but one huge key is the tongue position. If the tongue is trained in the ‘ng’ position, then the singer can begin to feel nasal resonance, a concept that allows many higher overtones into the vocal production. Without these higher overtones, a counter tenor (and any other voice type for that matter.) can sound hooty and pushed.”

As a final note, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. In this case, the listening. And when you listen to a good countertenor, chances are you will feel amazed at the sound. Different from a woman’s, it will carry you to a place where beautiful voices , be them men’s or women’s, surround you and fill your soul. After all, isn’t this what singing is all about?

This piece has been compiled from various forums and other sources in the net and written material available. M.
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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   25th February 2010, 18:13

Great article, many thanks, dear Maria!

We´re even changing the set here and I would like to have an extra theme for the history of castrati, baroque music etc....SOON! :cheers:

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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   22nd March 2010, 23:26

When I clicked 'draft' the text disappeared. I apologise if it's duplicated. Here goes again.

tuffy

Thank you very much for your hard work. I find it most interesting, especially about the ‘culturally determined problem’. You can see it in most video clips of Philippe’s concert where the audience is visible: male audience very often look distinctly unimpressed if not somewhat resentful. Do you think they feel as if their own self image as male is threatened?



As for singers, as you quote David Daniels, to convince virility seems to be the heart of countertenor singing but for me, that has always been a kind of ‘sticking’ point. I very much enjoy Andreas Scholl singing quiet English songs with lute accompaniment but when he sings arias in which his voice expresses unmistakable maleness, my mind often fails to adjust the balance between the voice and the gender. Now, I must tell you this remark made by one of Radio3 (BBC) presenters about Philippe. He said ‘even with the best countertenors like Andreas Scholl, you know that it’s a bloke putting it on, but he seems to have cracked the gender paradox (I expect his inbox was jammed with hate mails from all those loyal members of Andreas Scholl society!!)’. He was interrupted by another person and did not explain what he meant but I think he put it exactly right. What is so special about Philippe’s singing is (to me, at least) that he is not in the least bothered about proving his virility as such. He simply sings, letting his voice take him where the song wants to go.



Another very special thing about his voice is, I think, that it does not show any trace of being ‘trained’. A very good demonstration of this is in the Vivaldi video, the bit after Philippe’s performance, where the other two contenders are shown singing in their full power, whereas Philippe is just singing to his heart’s content, at least that’s how he looks. This is why, I think, his voice is described as ‘natural’, ‘pure’, or ‘innocent’. It’s getting late. I’ll write more another day. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts.
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karenpat



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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   23rd March 2010, 07:17

interesting points, hermit. I agree that Philippe's voice is different from Andreas Scholl's in the way that he doesn't try to "prove" his masculinity as much. (to be fair I think sometimes media adds that perspective and that those singers who have so called distinct masculine voices aren't really trying to make them sound that way) He said himself that he thinks his voice sounds not like a man nor like a woman but more of a child, which I think is more accurate. I have that comment in mind sometimes when I listen to him and he's right. I played "Sombrero" from Verbier for my mum once and she said "..............that's weird, it's a man trying to sound like a woman", which proved to me she didn't get it. He really doesn't sound like anyone or anything, which I suppose is an attractive factor in his voice.
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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   23rd March 2010, 22:17

At the first, Philippe never tried to "sound like a woman" - never! He told about it already a thousand times - rather as a boy. He wants to keep a piece of childhood in his voice, the purity and the innocence of an boy´s voice even. To stay " a big child " . Yet. I guess, this phase is quite the right way to preserve all these intentions.

He is an incredible person, very rare for our time , very human, honest and sensitive in his emotions as well as in his expressions of them . And very hard working .
His voice is the mirror of his soul - that´s all. He sings like he breathes.
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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   24th March 2010, 16:31

I thought I’d have a break (I work at home) and think about what you said, and I thought it would be nice to have Philippe’s voice in the background while I think about his voice and singing. So I put on Opium. No good. I couldn’t write a line, as I had to stop thinking about anything else and just listen to his singing. So, back to rather boring symphony on Radio3.

I think karenpat’s mum’s reaction is perfectly natural. To us (to me anyway), Philippe’s voice is the most natural thing in the whole universe but to most people who are not into classical music, countertenor is something as unfamiliar as some ideas in astronomy to most of us (in case some of you are astrophysicists). So to these listeners, if the voice is not child’s or man’s, it can only be woman’s. There are a lot of countertenors, some very well know ones, but they are well known mostly amongst people who know about it. It looks to me that Philippe is crusading singlehandedly to make people understand, and even better, to enjoy something they haven’t so far discovered. I don’t think David Daniels or Andreas Scholl has actually made that much effort to talk about it as often and as patiently as Philippe is doing.

He says in the interview on French TV that countertenor being associated with the voice of angels is a bit of a nuisance, because angels are not capable of expressing human emotions. I thought that was the most insightful comments I’d ever heard about countertenor. Who would have thought (Philippe would, obviously)!? I’d say his voice is like liquid diamonds if such thing existed. Then Philippe’s voice is bordering on the impossible: it’s too good to be true.

I won’t go on here but I’ll open another thread later in Forum page. Do please come and join me all of you. I am dying to hear your thoughts.
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carolineleiden



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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   4th October 2011, 09:48

To open up this discussion again:

I find it fascinating that the countertenor voice is, in this society, immediately associated with homosexuality.

But then again: Any high pitch voice is being associated with somebody overdoing it. The female soprano is often, in the eyes of the non-operaloving public, (and they outnumber us greatly, alas!) considered to be a fat lady making a fool of herself acting like a Diva with demands that cannot be fulfilled and who has a piano accompanist for a slave. The cartoon image of the TinTin character Bianca Castafiori immediately comes to mind. Terrible woman with an awful sound, the cartoons show.

So, countertenors have to fight a lot of prejudice. They sound like a woman, they sound like an awful woman, they are gay.

My thought is, it is not so much homophobia, as it is still Misogyny, the hatred towards women. With gays riding the crestwave of that hatred. Men that do not act masculine are deliberately LOWERING themselves to the level of women, and THAT is what makes it bad. Not the sodomy as such. Of course, that was outlawed in Leviticus, but so was masturbation, and nobody gives a damn about that anymore. (Besides, Onan's sin was disobedience, not obeying God by preventing his brothers wife from getting pregnant so she would not inherit anything, like God had instructed him to do: that was the sin, not the spilling of his seed. It was Plato with his emphasis on the distinction between body and mind who influenced the early christians that sex was decadent and sinful, and that idea has stayed with us all the way up to now, in spite of the sexual revolution of the sixties.

The ancient Greeks did not mind sodomy. Many men, especially the soldiers, had a boy to share his bed. But the greeks were very misogynistic. Women did not get to vote. (Nor did slaves or non-greeks, so this whole greek democracy thing is not what is is cracked up to be.)

Almost every society from the dawn of civilization has been misogynistic. Even us in the west did not allow women to get college degrees or the right to vote until about a century ago. Remember the suffragettes?

Another observation: among our muslim friends, a man who has sex with other men is ONLY considered a homosexual if he is the guy who receives, because he turns himself into a woman. The other one, well, he has his urges, it is forgiven. Doing it to a goat or a sheep is also NOT a sin, whereas christianity has outlawed bestiality. (Again: Plato!)

Just some random thoughts, and I'm off to work. Who knows more of the relationship between the sexual mores of ancient judaism compared to Plato? The relationship between jews and muslims is obvious except to themselves, btw.

And who knows more about the castrati and the Vatican? Because castration has ALWAYS been against Canon Law, since ANY mutilation of the body is against catholic law. There was one pope who tried to ban the practice, by forbidding them to sing in churches, but his entourage told him that too many believers would stay away if he did...they were that pop\ular among the general public.

I know that castrati sang in the east-catholic empire before they came to Rome. I do not think they were created especially and solely for the purpose of the sexual pleasures of the men in the Vatican.



Last edited by carolineleiden on 6th October 2011, 18:21; edited 1 time in total
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karenpat



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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   4th October 2011, 20:20

Interesting views regarding Plato, jews and muslims, I probably should answer back with something as intellectual since I am taking a history of ideas class this term...however you've already covered what our curriculum has to say about the matter, so instead I could say...did you see Glee last week? Laughing
A character there, played by Chris Colfer (who has been called a countertenor in some articles), auditioned for Tony in West Side Story by doing a Barbra Streisand song and the jury said he wouldn't get the part because of his physique and well...gayness. He then auditioned again with a scene from Romeo and Juliet, complete in tights, to show that one can show a sensitive side and be what today's society terms feminine, and still be the leading man. The jury (and his Juliet) laughed at him. Sad
I'm very drawn to the storyline of this character both because of my fascination with countertenors/high male voices and the fact that Chris Colfer portrays this character so realistically. I think it's great that society sees that there's nothing wrong with a man with a high voice.
...oh look I found the youtube link! [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]
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carolineleiden



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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   5th October 2011, 10:42

I have seen some episodes of Glee, so I know the singer you mean. He has a amazing voice. He once told in an interview with Oprah that the part of Kurt was written especially FOR him, because he made such an impression during the auditions that they wanted him even though there was no part for the kind of guy he is. So they added him on, and what a wise decision that was!

But again this association of "gay" and "high voice". They will never get out of the stereotyping this way.

Still, it is probably a good way of getting the taboo on being gay a little smaller in the Puritan States of America, since Glee is such a big hit. And maybe it will encourage some more young people to start exploring the head-register of their voice. People are afraid to. They fear it sounds funny. I remember when I was a girl soprano, my father would never let me use it. I had to do it all in chestvoice. Singing headvoice was considered cheating. It was falsetto, and it was wrong and ugly and I got smacked over the head if I did. surprised

Well, at least it did give me an enormous chestrange I still profit from. wink
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karenpat



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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   27th October 2011, 13:32

I really recommend the blog of British countertenor Iestyn Davies. He clarifies aspects of what a countertenor is and does (and what a countertenor isn't) while giving updates on his own career and does it all with great sense of humour and articulation.

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carolineleiden



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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   27th October 2011, 14:24

The man has the gift of gab! I nearly split my side every ten sentences. Very Happy

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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   27th October 2011, 16:39

karenpat

Thanks a lot, he is brilliant! heat

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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   20th February 2012, 08:10

Really interesting site, thanks to Marie Lehmann for sharing!

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PostSubject: Re: Some background on Countertenors   1st April 2013, 17:13

An really debatable article!

Signor Farinelli could be a ....... woman???? What do you mean?

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