Friday, June 8, 2007

Bass Kar Bhagyavaan!

A colleague, worried about her deep voice, asked her friend "Mere voice mein baas zyaada hai na?" The friend, taken completely by surprise said no, but told her to use breathmints if she felt that bad about it (baas in Hindi means smell). The colleague is now scarred for life and refuses to talk to anybody without gargling 27 times and practicing "Jhumka gira re" in her bathroom all night.

To avoid such misunderstandings in the future, I will now explain what all this Bass Tenor rubbish is all about. Why am I doing this to you? Because (a) I'm jobless, (b) I'm fed up of explaining why you need a huge choir to sing "such a simple song" and (c) I just like confusing people.

Indian melodies are complex and note-intensive. Though Western melodies appear to be simpler, they actually have the same degree of musical complexity because they combine many notes together and play them all at once. The resultant sound is called Harmony. You can't achieve harmony using a single human voice obviously, and that's why a song sung by a western choir needs to be broken up into sections, with each section singing a different note at any point of time. A conductor (or conductini amma as the case may be) waves a stick about furiously and coordinates everything.

There are typically 4 sections (or parts) to a choir:

Sopranos: Squeak squeak (Leddis)
Altos : Coo coo (Leddis)
Tenors : Howl howl (Jants)
Basses : Growl growl (Jants)

Sopranos are flighty, well dressed, giggly and female. They sing in the voice range of Lata Mangeshkar and Minnie Mouse, and are invariably the slowest to learn their parts. They are also in perpetual danger of their heads exploding when they hit impossibly high notes. Most Sopranos are fresh out of school and happily pile onto the few senior sopranos in the section to carry them through the piece. A pretty section to look at but not hear, especially if you are a champagne glass.

Altos are pleasant, salt of the earth women who sing sensible notes in the lower female range. They weave the wonderful web of harmony that the Sopranos usually shriek their melodies out of. Alto parts are often cruelly complex and involve sharp and flat notes that only geniuses can execute. Most female Indian classical musicans are altos. They make very pleasant friends, especially to the Basses, who are also terribly cool people.

Tenors are the male equivalent of the supersonic sopranos. The sort that could easily out-howl a wolf on a full moon night. Twitchy eyebrowed, pouty lipped and unpunctual, they are the SP Balasubramanyams and Pavrottis of a choir. Unfortunately they are also in maximum demand, as few men will sing those torturously high notes and enjoy them. Since you can't ignore a loud howly shriek easily, tenors usually manage to get all the juicy melodic sections in the piece. Altos can never understand why tenors go red in the face and bust a gut singing notes that they can hit without batting an eyelid. Some Tenors will try unsuccessfully to sing along with the basses during their more macho moments, but they are usually shushed into silence by the conductor.

Basses (pronounced Bases btw) are the coolest people in a choir. They provide a nice growly background for all the singing. They make ghastly grimaces when they hit very low notes, and blend into a pleasant rumble for the tenors to chirp their twitchy-eyed parts off. Bass parts are simple, deep as a well, and have long, never-ending notes. Basses react to the few and far between melodic sections in their parts with an enthusiasm akin to that of schoolboys at a games period. Most composers don't utilize them to their full growly potential, except for ol' Bach and some East European composers, who really give them a run for their money. A choir without a Bass section is like Sambar without curry leaves. Besides their musical essentiality, Basses are also invariably the most eligible men in a choir.

And now for the wiggly-scrawlies - the neither here nor there varieties, that are occasionally used in a choir to compliment the 4 main parts:

Mezzo Soprano: Slightly lower than a normal soprano. Most really good women soloists fall in this voice range.

Contralto: Lower than an alto. A deep woman's voice, usually in the D.K Pattammal voice range. My favourite.

Castrato: Sung by not quite a man. In India this type of singing is done with heavy clapping and lurid dancing. The methods of creating a castrato in the west have been banned for over a century, and so castrato parts in a musical piece are now sung by counter tenors.

Counter Tenor: Usually a tenor that sings falsetto (in a little girl's voice). Quite strange to an Indian musical ear, but extensively used in Renaissance pieces. Every tenor aspires to be a counter tenor, though deep down, he really wants to be a hot looking deep voiced Bass.

Baritone: An effortless Frank Sinatra/Jesudas male singing voice, lower than a tenor, but higher than a bass. Not as popular for solo parts in western classical music as a tenor, but is often used to relax a note-intensive piece with a soothing passage.

Second Bass: As their name implies, second basses aside from their prowess in other departments, have the deepest voices in the human range. Tibetan monks probably make the best second basses, next to M.D. Ramanathan, the dude from Boney M and the sky train in the Singapore airport.

Those that guess the part that I sing in a choir correctly, will be rewarded generously with a growl of appreciation.

16 comments:

Pri said...

bass, u r having meethi aawaz eh?
i sang in the choir throughout middle/high school. Then i got to college and suddenly i was too cool for the choir.

Tamu said...

Hello Bass!!!!
I never sang in a choir but oh how I wish I did... but compensating for that with guitar classes...as of TODAY!!!!

Bikerdude said...

pri: I dont know abotu meethi, but its fun singing gumpalli govinda with the whole junta. Besides its a fun way to meet cool (ish ) ppls I think

tamu: Great going! Lemme know how that goes!

RustyNeurons said...

Singer?! OMG - phul impressed.

Bikerdude said...

heheh. blush

comment_raja said...

very talented singer this boy is.

Bikerdude said...

Aye what ya. Full shy nature is coming.

Bikerdude said...

Comment Raja itseems.. heheh :)

Krish Ashok said...

Dear Saar,

full tanks for naleej about leddis and jants voices. You are knowings/singings/playings mujikaa?

Bikerdude said...

Welcome pa, welcome. Yes little bit this side that side singing and guitrs playing available, though more of a carnatic singer.

PS: Couldnt stop laughing at your Carnatic post. Uff. Madness!! LOL

I took the liberty of linking it here, if you dont mind The world needs this:

http://krishashok.wordpress.com/2007/06/27/carnatic-transliternations/

Krish Ashok said...

Thanks man.

I do play a bit of guitar and occasionally sing myself. Would love to meet up sometime when I'm in boiled-lentil city.

Nice to find fellow COMRADES :)
(Carnatic Orizinal, Morphed to Raack And Disco ExhibitionistS)

O Raghava said...

castrata aa?
:)

Bikerdude said...

O raghava: Hae hae hae, tu kya bolta hai re raju.

Bit Hawk said...

Highly informative post! Very well written too!

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Anonymous said...

Kwatle?