Behind the Scene

[after seeing the movie "Naked Lunch"]
Nelson: I can think of two things wrong with that title.

The Simpsons, “Bart on the Road” (3/31/96)


So I’m sure most of you have seen this video, which is one of your more recent bits of viral activity on the Internets:

It turns out that there’s a little bit of a story behind this guy who kind of reminds me of the “This Is Bob” commercials for the male enhancement product that you’d see all the time on Nick at Nite.

Most of you know this guy as “Edward Hill”, which is kind of peculiar for a guy in Russia, but don’t be dopey: of course that’s just the Anglicization of his Russian name. The song he’s singing—and he is singing; I’ll get back to that in a moment—is called “I Am So Happy To Be Back Home”.

It turns out that Edward is singing in a specific style, called vocaliz. Vocaliz is singing without the use of words. It’s essentially the musical version of pantomime. He’s supposed to be carrying across an attitude, or an emotion, without actually saying anything. It’s kind of like singing Scat-style in jazz, except Scat is meant for the human voice to approximate different musical instruments.

I have to presume that there is room for improvisation in the vocaliz style, otherwise Ed wouldn’t be having such a hard time lip-synching. I showed the video to Wee One yesterday and she couldn’t understand the point of the lip-synching in the first place, after awhile I had to tell her to just accept it that this is how a lot of TV shows were done, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.

I think that one of the reasons that most people are so “WTF?” about it is the combination of Ed’s looks, plus the TV performance, plus his rather resonant voice which is probably better suited to opera than a TV performance and really, who listens to opera anymore these days? But the other end of it is that there’s a certain “otherness” to it; that while it’s got some American-esque elements to it (e.g. the set and the color temperatures), it’s still a very Russian thing going on. If this guy had appeared on our television sets at the time he was a hot item (and apparently the song was quite popular in its day), we’d still wonder what the hell had gone wrong.

But that’s more of a xenophobia thing. We’re comfortable with Scat but not with vocaliz. Let’s move a little bit farther afield:

While it sounds like a couple of guys covering an old Bonnie Tyler song, it’s a technique called Siberian Throat Singing, which is meant to convey the song along with a sense of power (both symbolic and physical). It’s got a cousin called Tuvan Throat Singing (Tuvan being part of Siberia), which concentrates on pronouncing the melody as correctly as possible. This clip above may actually be a little closer to the Tuvan style, especially inasmuch as they’re harmonizing in places.

Weird? Yeah, kind of. But nonetheless also kind of cool, especially when you learn the back story.

6 thoughts on “Behind the Scene”

  1. Throat singing is a very geek thing. I think because it has some connection to Richard Feynman.
    You may be right. I knew about the throat singing because of Feynman, but nothing of vocaliz.

  2. um… I listen to opera… oh wait, I also sing it.
    The throat singing always makes my throat hurt.

  3. Despite my snarky comment, I rather like opera, however: I have to be there AT the opera to get some context. I can’t listen to opera on the radio or on CDs; I have to see the show as well. Otherwise I’m getting nothing out of it. It’s a multi-modal thing for me.
    Curiously, I have a harder time with English opera than in other languages. But there’s another story behind that.

  4. I studied classical voice for about ten years, and vocalizes were a regular part of my training, along with bel canto songs and operatic arias. The arias are actually quite a lot of fun to sing, even more so for me than American pop and standards. The Siberian throat singing kind of reminds of the sound people make when they have laryngectomies to treat throat cancer.

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