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The Male Soprano

A History of the Quixotic and Nature-Defying Feats of the Men Who Soar Higher Than Maria Callas and Mariah Carey
DISCUSSED
Lauren Bacall, A Bold Confession of Male Insufficiency, Head Tones, The Androgyny of the Angels, Obscurantist Folkies, An Illumination of Moshing, Gospelization, Daddy Grace, A Breathtaking Entrance, Those Girls, The Reign of the Castrati, Jack Black’s Laugh, Pig Squealing
by Anthony Heilbut
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The Male Soprano

Anthony Heilbut
18 Snaps

I. “I SING LIKE A CAT”

We love him because he defies ­nature. Because manhood roars in a bass-baritone, and the Adam’s apple is supposed to swallow the pure, high voice of babes. Yet male voices are always leaping octaves. Rebel yells, farm-boy hollers, broken-voiced shrieks, dog-whistle laughs sound virile enough to their listeners. For most of their teen years, some boys can squeal as high and loud as before their voices changed. And an artfully cultivated falsetto, crooned by an Al Green or BeeGee, has become a vocalized foreplay. That women swoon to such voices has long been apparent, just as men consider Lauren Bacall’s the archetypal bedroom voice. Both sexes are enthralled to hear their natural pitches claimed by a foreign power.

Yet there are some men who dream of notes far higher than Smokey Robinson or David Daniels. They dream of soaring higher than Maria Callas, higher than Mariah Carey. They don’t imagine themselves women; they call themselves male sopranos. Their quixotic attempt, rarely lovely but often thrilling, makes rigid distinctions of gender and culture, biology and physiology, most problematic. For what so boldly confesses male insufficiency as the need to reclaim the vocal birthright of a boy or a woman? In other words, to complete yourself by becoming what you transparently are not?

The soprano voice has never been exclusively female. During the age of the castrato, which sputtered out in the late nineteenth century, throat and chest combined, so that a capon’s range would have a bulldog’s volume. Sopranists (the classical term for male sopranos) have limited themselves to an archaic repertoire: the baroque and early classical eras when roles were composed for their range. But outside of classical music, more-casual attitudes prevailed. To many unsophisticated listeners, the whole apparatus of classical singing is thoroughly artificial, the ­soprano being only the most extreme ­version. Thus, the soul singer Wilson Pickett could insist that his falsetto shriek was an “opera note”—it was a soprano high C—and a YouTube clown will summon up “my opera voice,” one three octaves above that in which he speaks.

In the nineteenth century, an American man could hear falsetto coming from all directions: from the touring opera companies that provided a national entertainment, as well as from blacks and Indians. By the early twentieth century, ballad singing had become the province of sweet-voiced high tenors. John ­McCormack had the most memorable head tones; later singers, like Donald Novis or Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, couldn’t match his technique, and their top notes were lighter with more of a feminine sweetness. Extreme ranges were cultivated. One of the earliest record stars was Charles Kellogg, a naturalist on the order of John Muir, who cultivated the ­vocal range of some American Indians, one that allowed him to sing bird songs with an open throat, supposedly granting him a ten-
octave range. The biggest star in vaudeville was a female impersonator who packed them in with his F above high C. Alas, we’re not informed whether that was an F 5, which would have made him a Beach Boy, or an F 6, which would have made him a Queen of the Night.

In all these instances, the sound was identified as genteel and consoling, a lover’s cry as opposed to a bully’s taunt. Perhaps because of the prevalence of castrato singers in the Catholic church, or perhaps because the notes seemed other-worldly and desexualized (a bewhiskered man with a female voice), the sound also became identified as “angelic.” This may have been an echo of the angels’ androgyny, or a forecast of heaven, where neither men nor women exist. The angelic sound wasn’t sexual, except when it was.

Falsetto was embraced most completely in black music. Moans and hollers were often pitched in yodel territory. Alfred Lewis, in 1930, reached notes almost as high as a lyric soprano, but he combined them with his harmonica playing so that harp and voice completed each other’s lines. Falsetto was sent out to astonish and delight; it required agility and singing sense.

While an occasional entertainer like Cab Calloway might send out a chilling note, the sound became a convention of church singing, probably because it had always been so adventurous (if not theatrical). Perhaps the first male gospel soloist—he recorded a year before the ­spectacular guitar evangelist Blind ­Willie Johnson—was a tenor named Homer Quincy Smith. His intonation was almost academic, except that his falsetto soared well beyond that of an Irish tenor, into the range of a mezzo-soprano. His singing of spirituals like “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” was expressive and stark, enough so to fascinate ­obscurantist folkies, who have discovered him in an anthology of American Primitives. Yet his technique was highly sophisticated—he’s the first gospel singer I’ve heard to employ the bluesy melisma (convoluted note bending), later ­perfected by ­Mahalia Jackson. His falsetto gifts later earned him a spot in the Southernaires, a vastly influential male ­quartet with its own weekly radio program. With that quartet, he would inspire the falsetto specialist Billy Williams (an early star of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows), who would in turn inspire gospel-quartet stars like Ira Tucker and Claude Jeter. Since Al Green claims Jeter as his inspiration, you can draw a clear line from the so-called primitive Homer Smith to the insidiously calculated Al Green. (To make the appellation “primitive” more risible, Smith was no country bumpkin but the nephew of W. C. Handy, the blues popularizer disdained by country blues fans.)

Smith probably had his own models, men who employed a semi-operatic falsetto to raise church-members from their seats and out of their pews. Certainly high notes have become a time-honored way of wrecking a church—and, ­after rock and roll secularized gospel, a proven way of getting pop fans to shriek, half in mimetic response, half in mindless bliss. But high notes have often made strong men weak. According to David Huron, a professor of ­music and cognitive science at Ohio State University, “When singers sing high and loud, the brain releases the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, causing a general increase in psychological arousal—higher heart rate, faster respiration, increased perspiration, and greater attentiveness.” This illuminates the ways church members fall out and rockers mosh—and also why Lord Byron and Walt Whitman were both known to faint during the solos of their favorite sopranos.

Though Homer Smith’s ­falsetto was redolent of female sopranos and Irish tenors, his ­descendants commanded a technique that was as high but neither Irish nor womanish. Claude Jeter, lead singer for the Swan Silvertones and my nominee for the Father of Falsetto, once told me, “Nobody ever said I sing like a lady. They say I sing like a cat.” It would be a good twenty years before male gospel singers would proudly draw their inspiration from women. After that, the male soprano became a pioneer, the avatar of rock, and a ­figure to be celebrated on all continents, from Asia to South America: not a freak but a champion.

 

II. “I LOVE YOU, HONEY, BECAUSE YOU MADE ME A STAR”

gospel soprano can evoke an opera singer’s trill and a field-worker’s holler. She also wields a penetrating vibrato, huger and more quivering than would be acceptable on a concert stage, just one of many ways the church tweaks and confounds the expectations of white America.

Yet nowhere, outside of opera, is the soprano voice so dramatic and expressive an instrument as it is in gospel. And just as opera fans, at least since Walt Whitman, have hollered, wept, and fainted over their heroines’ high notes, gospel has made the soprano sound a singular call to worship. In gospel, a slurred, wordless moan can be as devastating as a sermon. A high soprano note can have the same effect, somehow merging the abstract instrumental quality and an unuttered, but fully understood, emotional content.

It’s all in the timing. The first significant gospel soprano was Mary Johnson Davis (1899–1982), a Pittsburgh native, who toured America during the first years of gospel’s golden age. She was among the first to apply the freer, more improvisatory gospel technique to traditional hymns. Marion Williams, who first heard Davis when she was a girl in Miami, remembered, “Mary Johnson Davis would sing any hymn out of the Baptist hymnal, and tear up worse than anyone you ever saw.”

Clara Ward, one of Davis’s accompanists, would later front the most important gospel group, the Famous Ward Singers. The group’s star would be that same Marion Williams. But while Marion had obviously learned from Davis, she brought in qualities all her own. Initially she was famous for her floating high notes. And yet, from the start, she found means of gospelizing the operatic. She usually applied a growled “yessir” to the coloratura “wow” (most likely the source of James Brown’s scream). And if that wasn’t country enough, she would simultaneously turn to her side, singing in another direction, a down-home gesture that conveyed transcendence: hey, saints, this one’s for me. Her notes were bold and varied, sometimes sustained to virtuosic lengths, other times stuttering like a Rosetta Tharpe guitar solo. She’d hit a falsetto note, then top it with one sung in her natural voice. And typically, she’d hit a note with her hand on her hip, a gesture that was either triumphantly confident or bawdily flirtatious; within the complexity of her persona, the tension between vulgar and transcendent was a given.

Marion did what no other female soprano had done before. But that was largely because her inspirations were not always female. Gospel soprano takes androgyny for granted. Marion was a virile soprano, deploying her instrument with the confidence of a male preacher, beating him at his game by adding her notes to his growls. By the mid-’50s, the two male stars of gospel and rock and roll were both indebted to Marion’s technique and showmanship. Alex Bradford, a ravenous ­baritone, was the most flamboyant soloist of that era, the self-proclaimed “Singing Rage of the Gospel Age.” ­Marion showed him many things: how to holler and Suzy-Q, how to be both flamboyant and sanctified (admittedly he had a host of effeminate male preachers to advance that education). After years of battling each other at venues like the Apollo Theater, they became the costars of Black Nativity, the first gospel musical. In this dizzying round of women and men doing each other, if Marion was a virile soprano, Bradford was a womanly baritone—albeit in a tradition where women sang as hard as men, and where Bradford himself had a neck as wide as a stevedore’s or mill-worker’s, the jobs of his youth.

In 1993, shortly before her death, Marion received a Kennedy Center Honor. Among those saluting their mentor, including Aretha Franklin, was an ebullient Little Richard. “I love you, honey,” he yelled out to Marion, “because you made me a star. Because you gave me my note.” She had given him more than the falsetto shriek that became his vocal signature, the note that changed everything and made him “the architect of rock and roll.”

What Richard did with ­Marion’s note was to make a high-pitched holler the mark of rock bravado (not so much dude walks like a lady as screams like one). Richard himself gave birth to many sons; Otis Redding and James Brown always claimed that he was their major influence. Both men probably detected the Marion contained in Richard. But her name was most likely unknown to the many white rockers who would proudly scream in the years ahead. Mitch Ryder acknowledged where he got his sound, and by the 1960s, when they would jam together, Little Richard would let Ryder provide the “screams.” In a series of records he made after leaving the Detroit Wheels, Ryder revealed an impressive technique. His notes were not as full-bodied as Alex Bradford’s, but he could twirl and finagle them with obligatos that frequently soared past soprano high C. Inspired by Ryder, the young Bruce Springsteen would scream even higher, his notes more constricted and whistle-like. Few of Richard’s acolytes attempted to make their tones as round and feminine as his. But they all delighted in their virtuosity. Steven Tyler had been screeching athletically for decades when he recorded a song that took him to a resounding E above soprano high C.

A more legit-sounding male soprano would occasionally appear in rock and roll, and invariably he, too, had a gospel pedigree. By far the most gifted was gospel’s greatest male soprano, Carl Hall. Though Carl often claimed that Marion was his biggest influence, his soprano idol was another Philadelphian, Carrie Williams (no relation to Marion). Short and cute, with a manner as flirtatious as Marion’s, Carrie was raised in the extremely devout church founded by Daddy Grace, in which members frequently express their devotion with hours of athletic dancing in the spirit.

True to her upbringing, Carrie could dance quicker than anyone. But her notes contradicted her sanctified persona: they were huge and operatic, bordering on a parody of Wagnerian technique. Those notes would be re-created by Hall, the seventeen-year-old lead singer of Raymond Rasberry’s group. Rasberry had worked with Clara Ward, and imagined a male version of the Ward Singers, with men singing as high as Marion or Carrie did. Carl was willing. “Carrie was short and funny-looking and hit crazy notes. And
I was short and funny and decided I’d hit me a few.”
The notes were remarkable, topping out at E-flat above soprano high C. Other men have gone higher, but none have sounded clearer or more forceful. Carl’s other voices included a smooth and consoling lyric baritone and a screeching countertenor. He also made high singing seem an act of hard work. While Marion supported her notes with a hand on her hip, Carl’s torso would contort as if he were pulling magic up from his diaphragm.

After finishing his military service—and it was a treat to see him at the Apollo Theater, wearing his soldier’s uniform and singing his immense high C’s, the male soprano as warrior—Carl became a pop singer. I first heard him performing in a Broadway musical, Inner City, where he made his entrance hollering “Shit, motherfucker.” Hearing this quintessential gospel voice in full power, singing those words as if he was praising Jesus, left me breathless. After the show, I introduced myself, and he confessed, “I’d still be in the vineyard but I’ve got me a wife and kid to support.”

Carl’s pop career never took off. He was versatile enough to improvise with Albert Ayler, sing exhaustingly fervent soul ballads like “You Don’t Know Nothing about Love,” and perform comic roles, for example, playing the eponymous figure in The Wiz. But mostly he became a background singer for numerous less-gifted artists. “Who are those girls singing so hard behind [whomever]?” I’d ask. “I’m the girls,” he’d reply. Not until the early 1990s would a male soprano achieve, albeit briefly, superstardom. His name is Edson Cordeiro, and, sadly, he came to my attention exactly the same week that I attended Carl Hall’s funeral. (He had been a chain-smoker for years; it’s a wonder that he retained any soprano at all.) Cordeiro, a Brazilian, grew up in a favela, and quit school before he was thirteen. Even he had a gospel background, having been raised in a São Paulo Pentecostal church with a black pastor. A reckless, feckless singer, not unlike the wild American Mike Patton, Edson determined to sing anything in any voice, drawing on a range of over four octaves.

He had a strong, rangy baritone. But he only parked his clothes there. Instead, on his first albums, he chose to mimic women, ranging from Adelaide Hall (“Creole Love Song”) to Aretha Franklin and the Brazilian jazz star Elis Regina. But his dream was to sing like the New Zealand diva Kiri Te Kanawa. His first and biggest hit was an in-your-face rock arrangement (originally conceived by Dollie de Luxe) of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and Mozart’s “The Queen of the Night.” Bending gender and genre, the recording opens with a rock combo backing a deep-voiced contralto, Cassia Eller, who sings the Rolling Stones’ song. Then an orchestra intrudes, and Cordeiro sings the coloratura cadenza, complete with the two high F’s. In the video, both the female baritone and male soprano look like street fighters.

He seems not to have recorded in Brazil for several years. Perhaps the novelty wore off. But the fact that somewhere in the world a male soprano could become a national figure is illuminating all the same. (The Romanian Mihai Tra˘istariu, advertised as “the male Mariah Carey,” is another rare superstar of the stratosphere.)

Recently, a young singer named Vitas has become famous in both Russia and China with a bastardized opera. Video clips show glamorous young women accompanying him on the violin as he flirts with the camera and delivers a modest countertenor and some ambulance-siren D 6s. His version of Lucia di Lammermoor is a disheartening window into Russian kitsch. Yet millions of YouTubers find his shrieks electrifying.

If viewers from Great Britain to Hungary to Taiwan could fall in love with unthreatening, high-voiced males, why didn’t Carl Hall become an international star? After his funeral, one of his admirers offered an explanation. “When you sing so hard and high and pure and effeminine, they won’t accept you.” The church might embrace that inspired chiasmus, “pure and effeminine,” but elsewhere, men outsinging women was a deal-breaker. It remains the most common indictment of American Idolers from Adam Lambert to the excellent Joshua Ledet. In this equation, singing with expression is tantamount to coming out.

 

III. THE MALE SOPRANO GOES LEGIT

Something about this cultural moment has liberated high-voiced men. For just as rock and roll seemed to grant male singers a whole new octave (mostly false, but sometimes architectonically high, as in the heavy-metal acolytes of Rob Halford, singing chest notes way above tenor high C), so has classical music proved friendlier to them than it had for two hundred years. Not since the reign of the castrati have so many countertenors and sopranists made names for themselves.

I’d like to think that hearing long-haired rockers sing in feminine registers made it possible for men, dressed formally in tux and tails, to do the same. I’m old enough to remember when high falsetto was considered funny (or scary, or both). Perhaps the voice has to stop sounding freaky before it can be valued for its particular charms.

Following the success of bravura countertenors like David Daniels, a few sopranists have moved out of the baroque ghetto. But they find themselves hapless Cassandras, offering a voice without a home. The biggest sound I’ve heard comes from Robert Crowe, a native of Virginia, currently living in Germany. He classifies himself as a spinto rather than a soubrette, and his notes are large and heroic, reminding me of the thrilling heights reached by Carl Hall. He also sees a through-line that begins with the melisma of the castrati arias, the spellbinding twists and twirls between octaves that supposedly required the range and flexibility available only to an altered male. He follows the note-bending from baroque opera to the ornamented congregational singing of Renaissance England (which used to drive Shakespeare crazy). That ornamentation was retained by English settlers in America, and absorbed by African American Methodists and Baptists. In turn they made the ornamentation their own by imbuing it with a special, blue-noted tonality that, of course, would permeate spirituals, blues, gospel, and jazz.

So it was most apt that the male soprano’s godfather has proved to be Joseph Jennings, the former music director of the esteemed male chorus Chanticleer. He was raised in Augusta, Georgia, and grew up playing in gospel churches. Until his late teens he, too, could reach high F. Carl Hall remains his favorite male soprano, and Marion Williams simply his favorite musician. While he has encouraged the ­university-trained altos and sopranos of Chanticleer to sing some gospel, he considers such experiments a jeu d’esprit. (He calls his gospel screamers “the eenas,” as in “It takes a big man to be an eena.”) The rest of the time, his arrangements are disciplined, complex, and strictly adhere to all the classical conventions. Aretha Franklin’s version of “Nessun Dorma,” with a failed high note converted into a melismatic rescue job, would not be tolerated in Jennings’s scheme.

For many years, he has insisted that the male soprano is both natural and common. In his church days he heard too many people who sang any part, high or low, without giving it a second thought. His arrangements have allowed classically trained singers to claim the same freedoms. The male soprano becomes his vehicle of liberation. His coup is fundamentally rhetorical: a male soprano is no less male because he’s sprung a whole new octave.

An even more audacious claim was made by the vocal coach Alfred Wolfsohn, a German Jewish émigré, who fled to London during the late 1930s. Wolfsohn contended that everyone had a limitless voice, the lows of a contrabasso, the highs of a newborn baby. His students included young and old, male and female. His most famous acolyte, Roy Hart, caused a sensation in the London theater with his varied attempts at song, speech, and Sprechstimme (talking to a tune), stretching over five or more octaves. He liked to mimic a violin, a pitch that seemed to deny not merely his age and sexuality but even his species. (At least Charles Kellogg, the bird singer, drew his inspirations from nature.) After Wolfsohn’s death, his method became the foundation of a therapeutic approach to queerness, not unlike Eli Siegel’s aesthetic realism. Hart also claimed that freeing the voice would turn gay men straight. This was perhaps the only time that singing high became prima facie evidence of heterosexuality.

 

IV. MOUNTING OCTAVES

All of these men, whether they were working in gospel, rock, or classical, aspired to sing something beautiful, pleasing, or at least expressive. As a result, they all topped out in “Queen of the Night” country, high F being reckoned the highest note that doesn’t ravage an ear. But high F is where some guys just get started.

Once again their model tended to be a woman, Mariah Carey, the best-known exponent of F and G 7s. (Minnie Riperton and Rachelle Ferrell have also made careers of their notes, and improvise more freely than Carey does, though they lack her physical beauty and repertoire of hits.) But even here the androgynous stands revealed. When Carey first started singing, she was known as “the female Michael Bolton” (which makes the male Mariahs only semi-drag acts) because Bolton was noted for thin, whistle-like notes that reached to C 7. These notes were arduously sung extensions of his natural tendency to laugh up there. (The soul singer David Ruffin and gospel singer Jessy Dixon also converted their laughter into high notes.)

The hyper-male world of metal, both thrash- and death-, has proved friendly to freakish high notes. One Canadian heavy-metal singer calls himself Lord Castrato, and has the F 7s to prove it. Von Lee Smith, a short, young Southerner, sings as high and fervently as the grand divas of Broadway soul, Jennifer Holliday or Patti LaBelle. He can also whistle notes up to the seventh octave. The interesting distinction is that most heavy metalers don’t aim to be pretty or to sustain melodic lines, whereas Smith does. Perhaps in his fantasy life he hears voices, and the rockers hear guitars.

There are hundreds of whistlers on YouTube. But the champ has to be Adam Lopez, an Australian schoolteacher who has entered the Guinness World Records with his C-sharp 8. Actually, he has recorded an E 8. It’s a petite tone—you expected volume? To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, the amazement is that it’s done at all. Lopez says that he acquired the notion when he was in the conservatory. A soprano boasted that her gifts would always outshine his, so he proceeded to beat her in a competition. After that there was no stopping him. Edson Cordeiro, when asked why he dared to go so high, answered, “Nobody told me to stop.” Lopez was surrounded by academically trained naysayers. He defied them by recording a version of “Nessun Dorma” that sails off the piano. He, too, has re-created “The Queen of the Night.” But his version of Mozart includes the bass parts, and a transposition of the queen’s notes; it covers five octaves. He can accompany himself on keyboard and has enough confidence to improvise crazily if not inaudibly high notes in almost any context, from pop to “popera” to Latin.

Three singers have escaped the fringes where Lopez and Castrato belch and squeal. The first was Demetrio Stratos, a Greek singer whose early work bore traces of Tom Jones or David Bowie. He wound up fronting Area, an Italian prog-rock band. But he was also something of a visionary. After hearing his baby daughter make vocal sounds with a freedom and ease that she would never regain, he concluded that “a child loses the sound in order to organize his words,” the aural correlative to Wordsworth’s credo that “heaven lies about us in our infancy.”

“Voice in today’s music is a transmission channel that does not transmit anything,” Stratos said. In order to be most expressive, he had to abandon language and leap far beyond the prison cell of his woefully delimited vocal range. Rock quickly lost its charms; by the mid-’70s, Stratos was splitting his time between Area, wherein his vocals grew increasingly wordless, and the New York scene of John Cage. To recapture the freedoms of his baby daughter, he began experimenting with octave leaps and vocal distortion. Throat-singing came to inform his technique. He began hitting small, extremely high notes that, Tuvan-style, seemed to open up into little conversations among themselves. At times there seemed to be a quartet of noisemakers smuggled in his throat.

He was also politically engaged, an unabashed socialist sympathetic to movements of social liberation. Going beyond Alfred Wolfsohn, the German Jewish émigré, Stratos considered his vocalism a revolutionary tactic, since it was bourgeois society that had enfeebled those vocal cords. In 1979, as he seemed poised to be the left’s prog-rock troubadour, he was stricken with cancer. A benefit concert in Milan drew over a hundred thousand fans, but it occurred a day after he had died, in New York, where he had hoped to find a cure.

Blixa Bargeld, a Berlin ­actor, writer, guitarist, and vocalist, adapted his name from that of a ­German Dada artist, Johannes Theodor Baargeld. Fourteen years younger than Stratos, Bargeld joined an industrial-rock band, Einstürzende Neubauten, in which scrap metal and electronics usually stood in for acoustic instruments. These unnatural noises provided a cushion for his gloomy caterwauling. Frequently, after convincing listeners that he had a four-note range, he would soar three octaves into a series of garbled yelps and whistle notes.

Bargeld’s fans said this eerily unmusical tessitura was the sound of postmodern culture; a death rattle granted a temporary reprieve. Actually, he phrased in a loping, deep-voiced, and echt-Deutsch style that recalls Marlene Dietrich, reincarnated as—among his various rock personae—either an androgynous war orphan (he was born ten years after the war ended) or a jaunty, 1920s boulevardier. Even the fusion of cackle and whistle note seems a German thing, a vocal extension of Grimms’ fairy tales. These days, much stouter than the rock-and-roll wraith, he is primarily a theater artist.

Stratos’s most famous heir is the voraciously eclectic Mike Patton. Easily the most ambitious rock vocalist, Patton has tried everything from death metal to Italian pop (and even light opera, managing to produce a high C of sorts), from Chet Baker to Spike Jones. Bored by a stint with the band Faith No More (where he impressed some listeners with his parody of Lionel Richie), he began making home recordings of mouth noises ranging from grunts to shrieks, cooled by an occasional whistle, but in total as unlyrical a project as ever dared call itself Adult Themes for Voice.

A bookish kid, the son of a schoolteacher, Patton made his debut with a high-school band, Mr. Bungle, with whom he cut work far bolder and more avant-garde than the pop of Faith No More. The band’s early albums were also filled with fabulously infantile and jejune songs like “Squeeze Me Macoroni,” “The Girls of Porn,” and “Bloody Mary” (a mournful ballad about menstruation). From his earliest recordings, he had been playing with vocal sounds. But he grew conspicuously more adventurous after discovering Demetrio Stratos, Diamanda Galás, and John Zorn. Zorn and Patton began performing duets in which the saxophonist scrambled between octaves, and Patton tried to match him, the horn’s immense, bullheaded
A 6s challenged by the voice’s tapered squeaks. About this time, fans rewarded his audacity by calling him “the man with eight octaves.”

By the late ’90s, Patton had quit both Mr. Bungle and Faith No More for a series of new bands, each one with a discrete scope and slant. Some fans were infuriated by the avant-garde experimentation. Pop-ballad singing was out, and double-entendre lyrics disappeared—though Patton allowed his old fans a small relief with his frequent and noisy cursing. In a series of concerts with Zorn’s small ensembles, within minutes Patton growled, yowled, belched, gargled, whispered, shrieked, knuckled his teeth, and slapped his lips.

His gestures are as anarchic as his vocal sounds. Carl Hall accompanied his notes with aerobic spasms. But Patton has been known to flop like a fish out of water, or pummel both cheeks, pushing sounds out of his mouth as if they were vomit. In one clip he makes two long, piercing shrieks. Assigned a pitch (even though Zorn boasts that the music cannot be notated), he exhales two A 6s. Then he spits, loudly, and shrieks again—the same A 6. That can’t be easy.

Compare Mike Patton with a youthful Austrian named Piet Arion singing a five-octave version of “The Long and Winding Road.” One wants to abuse the ears, the other to seduce them. In keeping with their different aims, where Patton follows his super-note with a percussive spit, Arion holds his B-flat 6 for ten seconds and then blows his auditor a kiss. Two instances of vocal chutzpah with completely different grounds for their ambition. (Not for the first time, the ideologies may be more interesting than the actual product.)

Patton’s “hideous, horrible sounds” (his term) reveal the weird ululations that a surprising number of men have mastered. Actors and especially comedians like to make dog-whistle notes. Catch how many comics, from Stephen Colbert to Jack Black, have laughs that break way above their speaking voice, and notice how lovingly they sustain them. Having discovered that the croak is brother to the squeak, they make their throats serve their comedy.

The sounds are not pleasing. But they are high, easily as high, if not as opulent, as those of most male sopranos. And the real shock is that male fans glory in those high notes. Mike Patton’s shrieks thrill his fans. Somehow he has made womanly pitches ugly, nasty, and indisputably male. No homophobic fan ever grumbles that Patton’s C 7s are “gay, gay, too gay.” (While they would abandon Piet Arion or Von Lee Smith in a moment.) Perhaps because they’re embedded between strong-man growls and baby squeals—for him, too, the ultimate freedom is not female but infantile.

Trailing Patton as he ages are scores of young men—death-metal vocalists—who have begun to cultivate the art of “pig squealing” and “inward screaming.” Whatever vocal manipulation allows a Filipino drag queen or a Croatian pig-squealer to hit that same C 7 (and both have, on YouTube), they have nothing else, temperamental or aesthetic, in common. Except they both come most fully alive when they succeed in abolishing the most audible distinction between sexes and, yes, species. To their millions of admirers, their sounds are musical—who wants tunes? who needs lyrics?—and they are heroes.

 

V. FRANCIS AND CHANNE

In James Ivory’s movie A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, the youthful heroine Channe (Leelee Sobieski) befriends an eccentric school-mate (Anthony Roth Costanzo) with the suspect name Francis, whom she first observes singing a Mozart aria to the smirking amusement of the other boys. Though Ivory saw himself in Francis’s inchoate striving, he was too smart to assign Francis a sexuality. Once Channe starts falling for the opposite sex, virile lads win her fancy, thereby breaking Francis’s heart. But until she moves into adult heterosexuality, they are inseparable.

At one point the two start running, overflowing with adolescent zeal. Channe shrieks like a happy kid. Francis answers her with beautifully rounded notes, as high and higher than hers. She’s a screamer, he’s a soprano. Her nature inspires his artifice. But his falsetto is as true as his love for her, impossibly pure, and, under the circumstances, totally authentic. Whatever or whomever he salutes, the male soprano loves himself. What a guy am I, he says, with all the voice in the world. 

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