Nature’s Way: Vocal Production in Social Context

By  | February 1, 2011 | Filed under: Features

The meandering path that led me to undertake a sociological study of countertenors began rather inauspiciously in the fall of 1976.  All of my high school dreams were about to come true as I stepped into the role of Tony in West Side Story.  This was decades before Glee, but that’s exactly what I was feeling.  At the first music rehearsal my rendition of “Maria” was coming along nicely; the sound seemed effortless, heartfelt, and strong.  And then I hit the wall. At its sweet conclusion, the song asks for a sound that I didn’t know how to make, or rather, wouldn’t allow myself to make.  I’d heard Larry Kert do it a hundred times on the original cast album – why couldn’t I?  “Use your head voice” advised my vocal director.  My what voice?

A few years later and still entertaining delusions of theatrical grandeur, I enrolled in a college course entitled “Freeing the Natural Voice.”  This exhilarating class immediately became my favorite.  We did lots of feral grunting, primal gesticulations, serious stretching, mutual massage, and group chants.  Imagine a crowded room of 75 undergraduates slowly chanting “uh-uh-uh-uh” in perfect unison up the scale, with increasing volume and intensity.  This exercise culminated in something like a collective vocal orgasm (as I recall we were all instructed to say “aaaaah” together at the very end).  This most satisfying class of my undergraduate career was enormously instructive in that it taught me how to relax, and how to get out of the way of the sound I was producing.  But I’m not sure it really taught me anything about what might constitute a “natural” voice.  Was it “natural” that I still couldn’t access my head voice?  Or was it something else?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it was something else.  In fact, my current academic interest in countertenors is fundamentally grounded in the pursuit of that “something else.”  Long before I became a sociologist, I realized that on some level the social environment mattered.  Even at that first high school rehearsal I realized that my inability to produce the haunting and ethereal sound the score required had something to do with my imagined audience, and the specter of my male peers’ disapproval loomed especially large.  Since becoming a sociologist, I’ve been able to put my high school trauma into a much broader social and historical perspective, colored significantly by the changing social consensus about what constitutes “the natural.”

The Stories We Tell: Naturalizing Narratives

The importance and malleability of naturalizing narratives (i.e., ways of thinking or explaining that place the practices and mores of a particular group within an agreed-upon understanding of “nature’s way”) were revealed to me in one of my earlier studies [1].  In my research on three subcultures of gay/queer men, I was amazed by the persistent presence of robust naturalizing narratives.  Whether my research subjects were deep into leather sadomasochism, the conventional masculinity of gay male “bear” culture, or the playful antics of the neo-pagan Radical Faeries, each offered accounts of their behaviors and preferences couched in the language of the natural.  This was especially surprising given that many of these same men had earlier in their lives been the victims of more conventional naturalizing narratives, deployed against them as a powerful means of stigmatizing and condemning their same-sex activity as “unnatural.”

I believe that applying this insight to vocal production may help us to resist the primary assumption about countertenors so eloquently described by Ian Howell in last month’s feature: “That what the human voice has historically done in this higher register is representative of what it can do.”   Sociologists know that if you take seriously the social and historical environment informing vocal production (or virtually any other bodily practice) it strongly suggests that individual choice can never be fully divorced from social context.  Techniques and innovations that from the standpoint of the individual singer may be perceived as freely chosen are almost always shaped by the social environment, albeit often in ways that register below the level of conscious thought.  Indeed, Emile Durkheim’s seminal sociological study Suicide effectively demonstrated that even at our most isolated, in that desperate moment when we may be seriously contemplating suicide, even then social forces are present and powerful.

As a specific manifestation of this kind of influence, any social consensus about what constitutes “the natural” ought to be regarded with skepticism.  To begin with, history is rife with examples of widely varying preferences experienced as a “natural” extension of gender norms.  In the court of Louis XIV it was only natural that a normatively masculine man would want to show off his long, shapely legs by adorning them with fine silk stockings.  No doubt most modern men would find this practice bizarre, an assessment their 17th century peers would probably share were they to encounter the 21st century practice of wearing baggy pants belted below the waist, often exposing a significant portion of the wearer’s underclothing.  Likewise in the 17th century it was common knowledge that a man who enjoyed too much sexual congress with women would naturally become effeminate; such a man today naturally enhances his masculinity as a studly “player.”  Many people still consider homosexual behavior unnatural despite documented evidence of its widespread existence among a wide variety of mammals and birds [2].

The Mystic Chords of Musical Memory

Each of these examples reflect a changing consensus about what is normal, a concept that is almost always grounded by some sort of argument linking the normal with the natural.  What I find so fascinating about the current position of countertenors is that they are actively engaged in a process of self-creation that is defined, not merely by shifting musical preferences (although surely this plays a significant role), but by the stark refusal of many contemporary countertenors to be confined by tradition, whether that be traditional notions about the “natural” range of the male voice and a dismissal of the countertenor as a “mere falsettist,” or traditional notions that dictate the proper countertenor sound and repertory, often restricting him to Early Music.  This impulse at its most obsessive yields a rather bizarre and suffocating form of competition, exhibiting what composer John Musto once referred to as an “earlier than thou” mentality [3].

But again, a note of caution is in order.  To paraphrase Marx (Karl, not Groucho) [4], “countertenors are making their own history, but they are not making it just as they please.”   In other words, as liberating as the possibility of casting off the shackles of outdated gender norms or cultivating new musical styles might sound, it is  important to remember that countertenors are not reinventing themselves out of whole cloth.  Their current situation is ultimately limited by the same kinds of social and cultural factors (although their specific contents are very different) that have shaped past musical practice. Every social innovation is intimately bound to the past.  Perceptions of groundbreaking work depend upon a widely shared understanding of the status quo; transgression implies a widely respected  normative structure; novelty can be perceived only within the context of the mundane.  The practical implication of all this is that countertenors who want to venture into innovative music and technique are in precisely the same position as Alfred Deller was at the beginning of the Early Music revival (described by Watkins Shaw and cited in Ian Howell’s January post):  “ . . . he [Deller] was in part the creator, but also in part the creature, of that revival.” [5]

On the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that all such singers today are “lucky at the right time,” something Shaw also suggests of Deller.  This is because of the  enormous appetite for innovation among the more adventurous segments of the listening public, which I see as the outcome of at least three broad-based social changes:  First, scientific and technical advances have greatly increased our knowledge of the physical aspects of vocal production as well as the acoustics of various types of performance venues.  Second, a relatively stable market for the countertenor sound has evolved in recent decades, contributing to an incentive structure that is already yielding more trained countertenors, and consequently making some degree of innovation a practical necessity for the countertenor who wishes to distinguish himself from his peers.  Third, perhaps the most consequential feature of the contemporary countertenor’s world is its rapidly shifting gender terrain.

Gender Stories Old and New

The countertenor is often (and not without controversy) linked to the much earlier castrati tradition. While the differences in the two traditions significantly outweigh the commonalities, the rock star status of the castrati is instructive in reading the radically different gender schema informing the times.  As Roger Freitas so compellingly demonstrates [6], the body of the castrato occupied a kind of “middle ground” between masculinity and femininity in a world that operated under a one-sex system.  Male and female bodies were understood as essentially the same (as opposed to the modern contention that the sexes are “opposite”), with the male body regarded as the more highly developed manifestation of a generically human form [7].  This idea yielded more fluid notions of gender, creating an intriguing space for the castrato’s appeal.  The eighteenth century saw the emergence of our current two-sex model, leading to increasingly bifurcated and mutually exclusive notions of gender, culminating in its most restrictive form in Victorian England’s doctrine of separate spheres.  According to this doctrine, women were consigned to the private realm of home and hearth, while men enjoyed free reign over the public world of politics and commerce.  For our purposes, the most important aspect of this new way of thinking about gender is that one becomes a fully realized man or woman through the careful cultivation of appropriate dispositions, virtues, and skills. This had far-reaching implications, in that it became increasingly important to bring what one was cultivating into line with the newly restrictive schema that defined masculine and feminine activities in starkly binary terms.  Obviously, this included the cultivation of musical tastes and abilities.  Thus I theorize that one of the consequences of the doctrine of separate spheres is the production of gendered bodies unwilling to accept the countertenor sound as anything other than “unnatural.”

Moreover, I think what we are now witnessing in the 21st century is the emergence of a third gender schema, one that is marked in varying degrees by a revolt against the restrictions of the preceding binary conception, but which (unlike the castrati period) takes this rigid gender binary as its point of departure.  Acts of gender rebellion can range from the relatively mundane, such as the refusal of a modern woman to be confined to the role of wife and mother, or the high school quarterback who defiantly sports a bright pink shirt, all the way to the more radical refusals displayed by transgender and transsexual folk.  In any event, in the current period the concept of gender transgression is thrown into high relief, and it is precisely this transgression, so eagerly embraced in many quarters today, that my high school body rejected in 1976.  I have come to believe that gender norms, rather than any physical limitation, are what doomed poor Tony to a transposed ending of his most famous love song.  I also believe that at least part of the appeal of the countertenor voice can be attributed to its formerly forbidden status.

The Next Note

Finally, in addition to its embeddedness in this long gendered history, the development of the countertenor voice has been, and will continue to be, an eminently social process in a more immediate way.  Obviously, one of the reasons we are seeing such a rapid expansion in both the popularity of the countertenor and what is deemed acceptable as part of his repertory is that there is now a vibrant community (composed of both artists and audiences) who are actively collaborating to make this kind of change happen.  This is both good and bad.  On the positive side, an enormous amount of previously wasted talent has been unleashed, and countertenor training is now recognized as a legitimate career path.  Furthermore, this generous audience support (as long as it lasts) will encourage experimentation and undoubtedly produce unexpected and beautiful music.  On the other hand, such support is sometimes seen in less sanguine terms.  A colleague, referencing the dark side of a generosity that can threaten aesthetic standards recently complained that, “It is as if everyone takes crazy pills when they hear a countertenor.  Regular standards of vocal quality disappear… Countertenors are allowed to get away with issues of intonation, timbre, and top-to-bottom evenness of the voice that would sink a mezzo’s career.”

So what will the future bring?  Sociologists are not clairvoyant.  What they can offer is the notion that musical tastes and techniques always develop within a specific social and historical context.  Innovation will of course occur, and the talent and tenacity of individual singers matters enormously.  But innovation and talent can only ever be recognized through the lens of existing standards and expectations.  To me, the most exciting element of the current situation is the recent break in the gender logjam that challenges the unduly restricted idea of a “natural” range for the male voice.  Exactly where this will take singers and audiences remains to be seen, but what I do know is that the two will travel together, in a lively exchange that is already delivering a world with more music.  And who wouldn’t want that?  Why . . . it’s only natural.


[1]  Hennen, Peter.  2008.  Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen:  Men in Community Queering the Masculine.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

[2]  Bagemihl, Bruce.  2000.  Biological Exuberance:  Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press.

[3]  Siff, Ira.  “Face to Face:  Russell Oberlin and David Daniels.”  Opera News, Vol. 63, No. 10 (April 1999). p. 46

[4]  Marx, Karl. 1963 [1852].   The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, New York: International Publishers, p. 15.

[5] The Musical Times, Vol. 124. No. 1681 (Mar., 1983). p. 167

[6] Freitas, Roger.  2009.  Portrait of a Castrato:  Politics, Patronage, and Music in the Life of Atto Melani.  Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press.

[7] Laqueur, Thomas. 1990.  Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Peter Hennen


Peter Hennen is an Associate Professor of Sociology at The Ohio State University. He is currently in the process of collecting the life histories of countertenors at all levels of training as part of his ongoing research. If you would like to share your story, you can contact him here.

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