Vibrato: a repeated slight shaking in a musical note, either when played on an instrument or sung, that gives a fuller sound to the note. (Cambridge Dictionary)
Water cascades over the Izuagu Falls in Argentina. We watch it from on high, soaring like birds, our flight path tracing a slow arc that runs in parallel to the fall’s rim.
The water’s roar doesn’t reach us because there is music: a sumptuous and propulsive march of strings in Cadd9 (I think) which achieves the strange trick of sounding warm and inviting yet also like teeth shredding a heart to pieces.
Above this flytrap of strings glides Caetano Veloso’s croon, mimicking the call of the mourning dove: Cucurrucucù, Paloma. His voice trembles as the protagonist of Wong Kar-wai’s film, Happy Together reels from his latest breakup with his gay lover, the sadness and heartbreak intensified by the music and a magnificent, indifferent backdrop.
That voice. The pain is exquisite. Is Caetano singing in spite of the vibrato or leaning into it? Is it surrender or defiance? Maybe it’s both. Listening to it in the darkness of The Prince Charles Cinema in London this January, Caetano’s trembling voice brings me closer to the edge of the falls, dangles me over the edge in its ambiguity.
Rewind two years and it’s the year 2020. I’m folding myself like a piece of origami slowly and deliberately, performing as one of the dancers in choreographer and dancer Dinis Machado‘s show, Normcore.
A shell of sportswear is shed to reveal layers of latex and prosthetics, panels of exposed skin. It’s a slow, meditative practice: one where each movement is interrupted, sent on a tangent, and then held – as if frozen. It quiets the mind, and I start thinking about someone who died a few days ago and who I haven’t really cried for. And and my leg is trembling and I could stop it by shifting my weight ever so slightly but I don’t. Because it feels so good to relinquish control and persist.
I’ve been taking my first singing lessons and exploring Klein Technique™, a movement practice that aims for “understanding the full use of the body as an integral whole to maximise full function of each individuals unique movement potential.” I’m frequently surprised by the connections between body and voice, the parallels in the practices. And then surprised that they hadn’t occurred to me before. It seems so obvious…
As I lean forward to grab my tracksuit bottoms, the pool of sweat that’s been collecting in my latex vest decants on the floor and I think: could these be tears? Is my body crying? Earthquakes reveal long-forgotten hidden wonders and my body’s vibrato sends buried feelings floating to the surface.
I wonder who (if anyone) in the audience noticed this overflow, this cryptic expression of grief tonight?
Vibrato can be serious business. For some anyway. As Judith Malafronte writes in Early Music America.
“Many people think a peace treaty was signed after the vibrato wars of the 1970s, when the plush string textures of the modern symphony orchestra were challenged by the leaner sound of historical instruments...But recent online discussions following the reprinting of an article by Beverly Jerold in The Strad magazine revealed that perhaps the calm in hostilities was nothing but a temporary cease-fire. The V-word can still raise blood pressures in musicians and music-lovers of all ilk.”
Long story short: there are some fiery debates about if, when and how much vibrato should be applied to pre 20th century music. But it doesn’t stop there. According to this (unattributed) claim in the Wikipedia article on vibrato: “some modern classical composers, especially minimalist composers, are against the use of vibrato at all times.”
Which puts me in mind of one of my favourite pieces of minimalistic music. Balance (Trembling) by Windy & Carl: a deep, cavernous drone accompanied by a rapid pulse like rotor blades spinning, suspending us in mid-air, hovering above a terrifying drop such as the Izuagu falls in Argentina. OK, technically its tremolo rather than vibrato…but still, it leaves me trembling.