In Praise of Ugly Singing

Throughout grad school I sang in a choir that performed Siberian folk songs that were basically impossible to describe without using the word “shouty.” We worked hard on the songs, and there was a kind of precision that was important to them, but at the end of phrases, the idiomatic delivery was for everyone to do a sort of glissando into a grunt, and for that not to be synchronized, and that was secretly everyone’s favorite part.

[Here’s an example but it’s from years and years later and I feel like kids these days have taken the edge out of Siberian folk music]


To my delight, there was such a choir here in the Bay Area, but it turned out to be 1) terribly inconveniently located and 2) filled with people enough older than me that it didn’t feel much like a social thing. I mean yeah from here it’s basically one undifferentiated slide into the grave and all, but like they were retired and stuff.

So I talked Dave into going to a Sacred Harp Singing. If you’re not familiar, it’s an American protestant vocal tradition now enthusiastically taken up by a set of dorks who are about my speed. It has its own folkways, to say the least. And the performance aesthetic is one of loudness, also to say the least. Actually the director of the Siberian choir use to tell us that Sacred Harp alto parts sounded much like what we were doing. It’s shouty.


The title of the posting is of course wildly overstated. I don’t think any of this stuff is ugly. But it hits the same pleasurable nerve for me as some singing that verges further into the realm of the more undeniably ugly. Oh here’s a thing.


I can seriously watch that over and over. That is million-year-old Slovak soprano Edita Gruberova singing with the remains of a once rock solid but, to my ear, always ugly voice. The great thing about opera from this period is that it’s written as a showcase for beautiful singing (“bel canto” is the name of the style) but the only way to make it truly enjoyable is to gild it with ugliness. Callas, who had a hand in bringing these operas back from obscurity, had an undeniable curdle in her voice that made these roles tragic and real instead of sounding like conservatory exercises.

It would be easy to do a million more operatic examples, but also dull.

I don’t need to speak to you people of Dylan.

12 responses to “In Praise of Ugly Singing”

  1. Bryan says:

    I think you should create an “opera” category and then just post in it forever. And then we need a “Bravo!” button instead of a like one. It’s just enough outside my set of things I know anything about to be totally interesting to me every time you write about it.

  2. Bryan says:

    I also love that the kids in the first clip made no effort at all to appear like a uniformed ensemble. You just get what they put on that morning, man.

  3. Bryan says:

    Although to be fair it’s pretty clearly a rehearsal video and not an actual performance. Or it’s just a club?

    Hey, look! Three comments!

  4. GF says:

    I bet it’s a rehearsal. The director of the choir, at least back in the day, was this guy I never got along with, and one of his things was that we sang our concerts in corny Russian folk costumes.

    I always just assume opera is of interest maybe quarterly. This clip, though, and half a box of Thin Mints, totally made me stop hating life yesterday after a lousy day.

  5. Trixie says:

    That looks so fun to me! Makes me want to see if there’s a group I can sing with near me. Are you joining the group there?

  6. GF says:

    Most cities seem to have some “singings” you can attend. The Bay Area happens to have grillions of them. But like for example:

    They are very welcoming to the point that if you show up a few times, you may think you have joined a cult. It is a very benign cult, however.

  7. LP says:

    That “Save, Mighty Lord” clip refuses to play. Clearly the devil is at work!

    At 1:23 In the Gruberova clip, I love how the blue-suited people in the background look shocked and bothered the minute she hits that high C or whatever it is. It looks like they all just had their eardrums pierced simultaneously. Also: her voice sounds gorgeous to me – what about it seems ugly to you?

    Also: Thin mints. MMMM.

  8. Dave says:

    Trixie — you should come to the all-day singing out here in April!

    I’ve enjoyed doing shape note so far, although the tunes and harmonies get stuck in my head more than I’d like. It’s challenging, because you’re always sight reading and the musical idiom is different from modern church hymns. Here is one of the first songs I led, here done by the Ireland singing which has a ton of videos of the different songs.

  9. GF says:

    LP: I love that Gruberova’s voice is gorgeous to you, because it is all 100% subjective. It’s hard for me to back far enough out to say what it is that’s ugly in the voice per se…it probably has something to do with typical Slavic vocal production, but that’s not really an answer. In this clip there’s some clunky vocalism (the big high note at the end is shrieky for example) but because she’s smart, she’s able to make dramatic use of what time and work have done to her voice. I do think she’s great, taken as a whole phenomenon, and honestly she is…let’s google this…approaching 70 and has been singing professionally for 45 years. I seriously sat and watched this at the same time as an opera friend in London last night who hadn’t seen it and we just sort of flipped out about it though I have watched it at least ten times.

  10. T-Mo says:

    There is something totally gripping and mournful about the kinds of harmonies I have heard in Slavic folk songs like the first clip. Is there a particular kind of harmony used? It’s always, to my ear, really distinctively Slavic, but I’m not sure if I’m right. I dunno. It’s just that it always kind of makes me tighten my innards and sit up straight in a way that says, “You are now alive, but someday you will be dead.”

    Shape-note singing does the same for me, so maybe it’s something else. Again, I dunno. I love listening to shape-note singing but have never tried it. I aspire to do so, but am aggressively untalented when it comes to carrying a tune, so am very skeered to try. If you haven’t seen it, watch “Awake My Soul,” a documentary about the Sacred Harp. It’s amazing.

    I second the motion for a more regular series of posts about opera. I love to read what you write about it, even though it is not something about which I know much at all.

    You want “ugly singing”? I’ll give you “ugly singing”. Check out Jandek. I am friends with people who love him. I do not get it, and I like a lot of stuff that many, may people find weird and unlistenable. In fact, remove his vocal from this clip, and I’d pretty much dig it.

  11. Mister Smearcase says:

    The Jandek clip wouldn’t start up but I’m listening to a clip on youtube and moderately into it. Despite little resemblance, it reminds me of another sometimes ugly-singer I love, Jim James. On some of the early My Morning Jacket stuff before they went frat rock or whatever it is they do now, he would sing these notes right at the outside of his range and hold on to them until his voice broke, right in the middle of some tender country-inflected song, and it really broke me in pieces in the right mood.

  12. T-Mo says:

    Smearcase, do you remember which Jandek clip were you watching? Because every note of everything I’ve heard him sing is outside of what a conventional scale would call for. Very often I like it when there’s an unusual or surprising note or three, but when I can’t hear a tune that is being messed with, my ears are at sea, and there’s little or nothing for me to enjoy.

    Plus which, Jandek’s singing, for the most part, seems to me to be lacking any enthusiasm or joy, so there’s no real connection or spark for me. Arthur Doyle is another “ugly singer” whose work I do like (though not always in large doses), primarily because he sings and plays with such enthusiasm and abandon. I lovethis cover of “Nature Boy.” In case you can’t make it through the sax solo that begins the piece, the singing begins around 2:54.