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Since the dawn of time, we have sung. Surrounded by birds of the air and beasts of the field that make noise, the sonic product of our own larynxes has likewise filled the air. This act provides a fantastic and endless subject for John Potter and Neil Sorrell’s new book. Spanning everything from ‘throat singing’ to Koussevitzky’s chosen pool of vocalists, the text is nothing if not broad.

Potter and Sorrell explore the mythological, martial and mechanical voice with great wit. Considering how easily the text could bog down in anthropological detail, both writers maintain a light touch. Citing the church’s dominance as a fundamental block to our knowledge of the pre-renaissance secular world, neither author is afraid of admitting defeat when faced with it.

But it provokes an imbalance in the book and, despite the buoyancy of the narrative, recorded music has to make up half of the text. Ruminating over Patti, Fischer-Dieskau and many other greats, the latter chapters are heavy with the navel-gazing tone of the recording cognoscenti.

Despite embracing the Hindustani world and various other folk traditions through recorded music, there are ethnomusicological lacunae. The book defines the Muslim call to prayer as ‘Koranic recitation’ – and with good researched reasons – but then fails to put that in context. There is, however, much to enjoy in the high- speed survey of popular singing during the 20th century and that plus outweighs any other minuses.

Taking up the authors’ professed ‘mea culpa’, this is resolutely ‘a’ rather than ‘The’ history of singing. The former is a breezy if hesitant volume, the latter will remain impossible to achieve. But the gap between the two is often marked and however well Potter and Sorrell tell their history – despite a preponderance of ‘possibles’, ‘probables’ and ‘maybes’ – you long for the full story.

GAVIN PLUMLEY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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