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October 5, 2004

The Australian

Primitive man did not emerge from the swamp singing "I Should Be So Lucky". That behaviour had to be learned. Scientists are not certain when our ancestors first began to grunt, speak and sing, but it was possibly about 100,000 years ago. "Human speech evolved from manual gestures," says Jenni Oates, head of the school of Human Communication Sciences at La Trobe University in Melbourne. The most popular theory is that primitive speech developed to free the hands to do other tasks - you can imagine a friendly chat over a troglodyte kitchen sink. There was a gradual transition, Oates says, from gestural communication with the hands, arms and face, to the lips, tongue, teeth and larynx.

In the intervening millennia, human phonation - the act of using the vocal cords as a means of expression - became more sophisticated as civilisations developed and spread. Spoken language is our principal means of communication and also the defining characteristic of a culture. But the voice is also our oldest musical instrument. Its tonal qualities enable us to communicate with greater depth of expression than words alone can provide. It is a universal instrument too - there is no evidence of a single human society that doesn't sing.

One of Institute for Living Voice aims is to encourage a kind of cross-fertilisation between vocal techniques from different cultures. The last ILV was held in Amsterdam in June, where the program included simultaneous workshops by two seemingly disparate vocal harmony groups. In one room was the Hilliard Ensemble, a male quartet from the UK that specialises in renaissance motets and madrigals. Just metres away in another room were the three women of the Mahotella Queens, who sing the mbaqanga harmony style of the townships of southern Africa.

"We had people moving from one room into the other room," Moss says. "This is what we at the ILV are really hoping for, this mixing of origin points, to understand how different people sing, and what it is to sing that way." Moss does not want to encourage a kind of watered-down world music, where every vocal technique or folk culture is up for grabs. But nor is ILV a museum, concerned with cataloguing and preserving the world's unique musical forms - a task he would rather leave to ethnomusicologists.

What emerges from projects such as ILV and the work of other voice specialists - such as British theatre voice coach Cicely Berry - is the search for a different kind of authenticity. This is the authenticity that comes from within the individual. It adheres to certain conventions of technique and performance, but aims to rediscover what is unique and not merely reproduce what is known. More

Posted by acapnews at October 5, 2004 9:44 PM