Public Singing & Imperfect Pitch

published in the special section Freedom Principles, The Wire No.370, London, 2014
Jean Luc Godard’s A Woman Is A Woman (1961); Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964)

Despite Theodore Adorno’s philosophical speculation on the ethics of expression, poetry continues to be produced after Auschwitz. Similarly, freedom continues to be imagined despite pockets of totalitarian power limiting its existence. But whereas Adorno was considering how a survivor of Auschwitz could produce poetry, most musical expressions of freedom are produced by those who have never felt the guard’s truncheon. Innumerable songs speak from a privileged perspective while inferring that their freedom is somehow being compromised.

Freedom is often signalled in music – lyrically, sonically, polemically – due to the ease with which it can be coded and transmitted through performance. In its alignment of the sensorial effect of melody, voice and sound with the feeling of freedom, music reveals its core symbolic function. Sentiments of freedom conveyed through bare lyrics can ring hollow, but their meaning can take flight through the sound of singing. And nothing better conjures the idea of freedom than one singing freely in public. Like a rejoinder to Adorno’s thorny missive, singing in public enacts a theatre of self-expression within social conventions. Although many modes of group-singing are sanctioned, transgressive singing often resides with the solo voice. To openly sing by oneself in a public space for no apparent purpose other than self-expression is to run the risk of institutionalization. The symbolic gesture runs the risk of being psychotic symptom.

Jean-Marie Straub’s Moses And Aaron (1976); Kaige Chen’s Life On A String (1991)

Maybe this is why people to this day dislike Hollywood Musicals. Yet those gaudy repositories of kitsch often depict citizens breaking out into unrestrained expressions of, well, freedom. Just as Adorno was considering poetry after Auschwitz in 1949, Hollywood was bombarding audiences with camp Cinemascope synaesthesia. America and the Allied Forces won the battle for a ‘free world’, and the mostly European/Jewish-émigrés of the Hollywood film industry provided ersatz expressions of freedom through singing and dancing on-screen anywhere and everywhere. Could those tawdry Musicals be ripostes to Adorno? Or could they in their own way be celebrations of freedom from the Axis’ tyranny?

By the 1960s, political realists refuted the Musical’s symbolic freedom. While it became the most attacked of Hollywood’s genres, some attacks were prescient and articulate. A line of radical audiovision is evident in ‘anti-musicals’ – from Jean Luc Godard’s A Woman Is A Woman (1961) to Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964) to Miklos Jankso’s Red Psalm (1971) to Jean-Marie Straub’s Moses And Aaron (1976, an opera by Schoenberg) to Chantal Akerman’s The Eighties (1983) to Kaige Chen’s Life On A String (1991) to Tsai Ming-Lian’s The Hole (1998) to Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark (2000). These films collectively employ the Brechtian ‘distancing’ effect to jolt an audience by having its characters suddenly break out into song – spontaneously, irrationally, freely. Paradoxically, their soundtracks do not heed Arnold Schoenberg’s 1926 call for “the emancipation of dissonance”. But freedom here is represented by images of people responding to the soundtrack – not melody alone. In both musicals and ‘anti-musicals’, people sing because they are not allowed.

Karaoke singing in Japan; 8 Juke karaoke machine (1971)

By the 70s, the film industry had lost the battle to convince audiences of the utopia symbolised in its musicals. But public-singing underwent a new industrialization with the advent of the karaoke machine in Japan. The production of backing-music cassettes and 8-track cartridges initially catered to inebriated businessmen crowing maudlin enka ballads with harsh reverb enhancing their amplified voice. The success of karaoke was dependent not simply on technological application, but on the desire to declare one’s amateur status to the world. Its public singing operated as therapy, ritual, assuagement and celebration. One wonders what images of war trauma strafed their minds as they sung freely.

While the western world remained bemused by karaoke, the concept and form grew in Japan, shifting from solitary existential downers to office party uppers. In the mid-80s, karaoke ‘boxes’ created an artificial room-cum-stage environment where one could perform chosen songs to a small gathering of friends. These boxes were originally refurbished shipping containers, parked in disused lots in suburban Japan. (Would Adorno have likened these boxes to the Auschwitz-bound freight cars?) Their popularity led to franchises like Big Echo constructing multi-story complexes in city centres to exploit the growing addiction Japanese people had to singing in public, albeit in sound-proofed rooms.

Recent developments in karaoke cast curious shadows on the pursuit of freedom by singing publicly. Most franchises now utilise rating and ranking software, which displays on-screen real-time analysis of the singer’s prowess. Each note of a song’s melody scrolls left like old MIDI software, indicating the pitch and duration a singer aims to match. The stacked bars turn green when the note is hit; sparkles accompany a well performed phrase. Multiple screens open after the song, delivering extensive assessment of pitch, warble, duration – all crucial factors in enka singing. Aggregated charts finalise one’s percentage; one can check the national statistics for the same song and be ranked accordingly.

Big Echo karaoke chain; karaoke room installed with DAM software

It sounds repressive, but maybe it’s not. Pop music of all sorts over the past 15 years has been greatly affected by Auto-Tune and Melodyne/Celemony. Much of it remains hidden, simulating perfect pitch. The rating/ranking software of Japan’s karaoke boxes reverse-engineers this. While broadcast pop music plays the output of such endeavours, karaoke on-screen assessments evidence the input of the same. One’s public embarrassment is ameliorated by the feeling of not being pitch-corrected, reassured that one is free from the learnt, rehearsed or fabricated idioms of ‘good singing’.

Of course Auto-Tune has often been turned on itself, as singers deliberately overwork the tuning and formant functions to create fake robotic voices from real vocal recordings. In this way, they mirror the purpose of ‘anti-musicals’: to symbolically liberate through theatrical deconstruction. From Daft Punk’s vox-borg rendering of Romanthany on Discovery (2001) to Cornelius’ digi-simulation of idyllic choruses on Point (2001) to Max Tundra’s fractal hyperactive warbling on Parallax Error Beheads You (2008) to Kanye West’s po-faced pitch-freaked emotionalism on 808s & Heartbreak (2009), soulful, harmonious singing is ambiguously positioned. Their fixation on digital artefacts pushes Schoenberg’s ideals to suggest that dissonance is best emancipated at the micro level.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.