Tuesday, March 29, 2005


The American musical began in vaudeville, and progressed to the fabulous reviews of Ziegfeld before reaching the play based, story musical that we think of as the true Broadway musical, the musical of Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. But life went on. We went on to Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the golden age passed.

Rule of thumb: if Marni Nixon didn’t dub it, it’s probably not from the golden age of musicals. This is a better generalization than it sounds at first. Marni Nixon isn’t the sound you want for Dream Girls, though she might work for Phantom of the Opera.

Styles of singing change from generation to generation, too. In my youth white singers didn’t ornament. Ethel didn’t ornament. Marni Nixon didn’t ornament. Styles have changed even for black singers. The great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson ornamented, but not to anything like the extent modern gospel singers do. Her style of ornamentation feels very middle-of-the-road to us now, and we forget that when we first heard her she was shocking.

When they sing off the expected, composed note on purpose, that's ornamentation.

Ornamentation in pop music is a fascinating subject. They’re the same old ornaments they always were with blue notes added. We are in a period of extreme ornamentation. Fantasia’s recent performance on the Image Awards was an example of this. She is in the center of the style of ultra-ornamentation. Farinelli wouldn’t have let a good song go by unornamented, and neither does Fantasia.

Expression is found in ornamentation now, not through the cooler, more rhetorical styles we liked. Idol isn’t causing it—they’re just bringing it to our attention. Interestingly, the current crop don’t ornament as much as Kelly or Fantasia. Problems arise when they feel like they have to do it, but can’t. Everyone who tries to ornament doesn’t succeed.

There’s not a lot interesting going on in music today, and ornamenting is a way to pick up the slack, to counter the boredom of blandness. Try to enjoy it. The clock never runs backwards.

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