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Odyssey of the Voice
Review by: Linda Hutchison, August 2006
Jean Abitbol's book is, indeed, 'a long, adventurous journey'. But another meaning given in my Oxford English Dictionary - 'an extended process of development or change' - is equally pertinent to the subject. I am full of admiration for his impressively wide-ranging approach, and for the accessible way it is both written and set out.
The book has 489 pages (thirteen of which are the bibliography) and is divided into three parts: To the Roots of the Voice; Voice and Emotion; The Mystery of the Voice. Each section has several chapters which are then divided into shorter sections, with headings which give a clear idea of what's being discussed. Laid out like this, it makes it the kind of book that you can pick up at odd times and read random passages.
If I tell you that he starts 14.3 billion years ago, travelling through the creation of the universe and evolution before we reach such chapters as voice injuries, care, health, castrati, impersonators, ventriloquists, the grey parrot, voodoo and myths, to mention just a handful, you will appreciate the extraordinary breadth of M. Abitbol's interest and research. There is information and advice a-plenty.
I still remember with delight the little dance M Abitbol executed, when he came to speak at the BVA study day on Hormones, to help demonstrate the monthly cycle of oestrogen and progesterone. He spoke with humour and charm and that comes across in the book - although it has, of course, been translated (by Patricia Crossley) from the original French: which accounts for one of the case studies in which we learn of a man who can no longer roll his 'r' due to an operation to remove his uvula!
It's heartening to read that 'for the professional voice user, systematic vocal training cannot be overemphasized' and that 'all singers should continue singing lessons throughout their career'. Good to have it stated so emphatically in a book by a medical man.
The book covers familiar, vocal ground but in its own individual way. I found Chapters 11 and 12, Does the Voice have a Sex? and Does the Voice Age? full of interesting, if sometimes depressing, detail.
However there are some curious statements which may, perhaps, have become skewed, or misunderstood in translation. For example, in the section on vocal register and the classification of singers, it says, 'The lyrical soprano, also called mezzo-soprano'. And of the deeper voices we have 'The alto... nicely set off by Wagnerian operas or bel canto parts', followed by the deepest voice 'the contralto….found in Rossini operas'. He also says that 'contraltos often have recourse to the chest voice, something that cannot be said of sopranos'. And where do you place Violetta in La Traviata? Always a difficult one as the singer is required to fulfil the demands of three different types of soprano. Here she is put in with the dramatic sopranos. Hmm…
There is a lot of seduction mentioned in the book: in his preface he describes a nodule on the vocal cords (only occasionally are they called folds) as imparting 'sensuous charm to a voice' and 'an imperfection giving rise to vocal seduction'.
He also describes the voice as 'the Cupid of the soul'. At the PAS3 conference in York recently, one of the presenters described it as ‘the muscle of the soul'. Perhaps that highlights the Gallic nature.
In the chapter on the singing voice we are advised that 'the otorhinolaryngologist ...is the violin maker who fine-tunes the laryngeal instrument'. The singing teacher, on the other hand, 'guides as necessary the varied movements of the virtual bow that caresses the words'. So the style moves backwards and forwards between straightforward facts and poetic language and image. The author's personality feels strongly present.
It's certainly an unusual and fascinating addition to the library of books on voice. I have never come across a book on voice which, in one volume, covers quite so much ground and so many related subjects.
Going back to the subject of seduction, do you know how many sperm are contained in 1 cubic centimetre? I do. It's in the book... (I told you it's full of fascinating information).
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