6th March 2012
Melisma. The very word makes me cringe; a slimy, oily word that Smeagol might have hissed or Uriah most ‘umbly muttered under his breath. When I first heard the word, I thought it might be one of those peculiar, new-age names for a girl.
The accepted and acceptable definition is: noun: several notes sung to one syllable. The current definition seems to be: as many hemidemisemiquavers as humanly possible crammed into a single syllable. In the absence of a verb, I have chosen, ‘to melismate’ and since it seems more prevalent amongst female pop singers, the culprit shall be hereafter called a ‘melismatroll’, which may or may not be an abbreviation.
Used sparingly, as originally intended, a colourful embellishment to the occasional note, it can be most beautiful, as at the end of a Gregorian chant or in an operatic aria. In pop music, it has become an intensely annoying affectation – unless it’s Aretha or the very few others who sing from the soul.
Is this affliction caused by some kind of nervous tic - or a phobia, perhaps? Melisma: fear of mel-ody. It could be that the prospect of holding a single note becomes too terrifying to contemplate. I tried to simulate this overused technique by sitting on the washing-machine and setting it to fast spin and the resulting vocal effect was quite impressive. The recording was a bit of a wash-out however, because of the noise of my trainers beating against the drum – I think my undies would have been a better choice of wash, since they’re not as loud.
I have a suggestion for a new quiz show; an updated version of ‘Name that Tune’. A celebrity melismatroll guest would be invited to confound the panel by singing a single line from a well-known song. Having struggled to identify the tune they would then have the added challenge of guessing the lyric. This is a very silly idea, so it might just work.
Melisma’s parallel in terms of vocal style is that of the coloratura soprano. Impressive though it is, it’s basically showing off – all technique and no emotion and, like its pop counterpart, it leaves me cold. Such a shame, when there are some wonderful voices around. I’ve always wondered why, if the melody’s really so bad as to be avoided at all costs, they don’t just pick another song.
In an effort to be more tolerant, however, I am thinking of installing a bespoke vocal booth in my studio. My patented design, the Melismatron, inspired by the great Woody Allen, will accommodate one or more singers. The vocalist is placed inside the cabinet with both feet in contact with a vibrating rubber pad which, once the first note is detected, produces the desired effect. In the case of a duet, an inexperienced couple could melismate quite impressively, and reasonably expect to arrive at the climactic end of a love song at the same time – an otherwise rare occurrence.
That’s all I have to say on this subject, but I finish with a heartfelt message to any prospective parents; please don’t even think of naming your poor child, Melisma – she’ll never hear the end of it.
Until next time…