| At the Corner of Technology and Culture

The Ineffable Whatsit

This spring, I went to Anna Bolena by Donizetti, the last opera of the COC’s season. Sondra Radvanovsky was honestly astonishing in the title role. Beyond the obvious – her voice, her acting – there was something hard to put your finger on going on there. It’s a cliché, but I actually did have chills. Tears came to my eyes. I’ve seen a lot of operas over the last 20 years, but this was something I’d never experienced before. A sort of transcendence that was beyond the story, or the character, or even the music.

It made me wonder if I would have felt that way just listening to or watching a recording of the same performance, and whether there might be some artistic or virtuosic performances that can’t actually be captured by recording media (bear with me. I know this sounds a little ‘woo woo’).

For example, there’s the concept of duende in flamenco, that dark, intense emotionality that I’ve heard some compare to a sort of haunting.

The excellent podcast, Cocaine and Rhinestones, about the history of country music, has an episode about The Louvin Brothers, much of which deals with their freaky, close harmonies (“blood harmony” it’s called, for the intimate way voices from the same family meld). In it, they talk about the tradition of Spirit Harp singing, where communities of people get together and sing a capella, all facing each other, with a single family in the centre of the circle. According to the podcast, Charlie Louvin maintained that there was something in Sacred Harp singing that could never be recorded with a microphone.




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