The Sound of Whiteness: Early Music Vocal Performance Practice in Britain

Critics love to tout the pure sound of early music. Think Emma Kirkby. Coupling head voice with minimal vibrato evokes sexual purity and innocence (Yri), or disembodied angels (Grieg). As the term ‘white tone’ suggests, purity is connected with race and historically it also indicated class. It is a neutral sound, lacking ‘grain’ (Barthes), against which others are measured. The dominant vocal sound of women early music singers thus carries intersecting gender, class and racial connotations.

This paper examines early music vocal ensemble performing practice in Britain since the 1950s in relation to race. It focuses on the interplay of difference and sameness through the discourse of purity and the practice of blending. I argue that aspects of the practice and its reception are rooted in unmarked whiteness.

Britain’s early music movement introduced a new sound world through repertoire, historically-informed techniques and experimentation with multicultural musics. To mixed reception, Musica Reservata used folk and world instruments and vocal techniques. As John Potter noted, the choral-scholar sound of the Early Music Consort of London eclipsed Jantina Noorman’s ‘holler’ (Brown); the Anglican a capella sound became the quintessential sound of British early music vocal ensembles. Class and gender axes of difference within the practice are well documented but there is an elephant in the room: whiteness.

Like Victorian voice culture the balanced, blended sound (achieved with modified Received Pronunciation and matched enunciation) minimizes difference, maximizes sameness, promotes assimilation, and reflects the relative homogeneity of the ensembles that initially defined the sound. In effect, it is the sound of an elite whiteness, one that contrasts with diverse singing traditions (e.g. Gaelic psalm singing, shape note singing, musical theatre and pop singing).

The paper ends by taking on the attempt at multiculturalism that now permeates the British early music movement. Although originating in anti-racism, rather than decentering whiteness, such fusion might serve to highlight it without dismantling power structures embedded in the sound. British early music practice may not be ready to be an equal multicultural partner until it addresses the ‘waves of sameness’ (Deleuze and Guattari) in the early music vocal sound.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.