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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Vocal Curiosities: Yma Sumac and Ivan Rebroff

It is very hard to say what the most ancient expressive activities are. Whether dance preceded song, or whether they grew up together (the most likely thing) is hard to say. One thing is certain—there is a very wide and interesting range of human vocal activity, whether it be song, speech, or the imitation of sounds. Opera buffs are of course interested in the most refined and perhaps extreme forms of singing, and therefore tend to have a natural kind of curiosity about truly exotic voices, those which far exceed the normal usable ranges of even virtuoso singers. Two such individuals, who excited a lively interest in the last century because of the extraordinary range of their voices, were Yma Sumac and Ivan Rebroff. Most will know of Yma Sumac, who attained a rather extraordinary level of fame for her truly exotic singing and characterizations. Her voice covered an unheard of range of 5 octaves. She could sing from male baritone to a level of sound that was no longer truly human, and can only be compared to the characteristic sounds of birds. In her case, “songbird” was more a literal than a symbolic description. She was in fact a Peruvian soprano with a unique voice. What added to her fame—perhaps notoriety would be a better word—was a possibly ill-considered cultivation of the exotic, to the point of permitting herself to be depicted as descended from Inca royalty, or being a “girl of the jungle,” etc. It gave her an initial kind of fame, but it also raised eyebrows a bit. The following video shows her at her most characteristic, and the power to startle is certainly evident. I would call your attention especially to 2:50, when she is leaning against a tree. That sound is HER! I had to play it twice before I would believe it. Be sure to listen to the video all the way through. It is not long, but it is amazing:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KprLT-JxPY&NR=1


I do not know of another like her. Less well known, at least in America, is the voice of Ivan Rebroff. In spite of his Russian name, he was born Hans Rolf Rippert,in Germany, and was what I would call a "stage" Russian, or a “professional” Russian. He claimed Russian ancestry, but his Russian is thickly accented and not very cultivated. He was, however, a fine folk entertainer and quite popular. He sang into his 70's and made a great deal of money. He was a very big man, and dressed in (again) exotic clothing, to accentuate his size, perhaps making him seem more “Russian.” It was a show business act, and a good one. Like Sumac, he approached the 5 octave spread also. He could sing a legitimate basso profundo, and I have heard his recording (I’m not kidding about this) of the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor! In the following video, you will hear his range, as he sings from deep bass to coloratura soprano. Again, be sure to listen to the very end, because that’s where the vocal fireworks are:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOK9LusxZCc&feature=related


Certainly a startling effect, verging on cognitive dissonance; in this case, because of the size and virility of the singer.

It may not be high art, but there is no law that says it has to be! It's musical entertainment, and very engaging. Both he and Sumac were very popular singers—their effect was mainly to startle and amaze, and in that they were successful. They both had good careers. While they both surprise with their astonishing voices, it may be that Yma Sumac’s voice was the more astonishing of the two. What detracted a bit from Sumac, at least in my opinion, was the somewhat bizarre persona cultivated for her by her husband, who had a band of his own, and toured with her. In a word, he overdid it, and she was sometimes ridiculed, which is sad because I sense a lot of talent there that was never developed. In Rebroff’s case, he simply imitated opera and choral traditions, to flesh out his persona, which was a bit of all things for all people. He was German, imitating a Russian, and lived in Greece. But with him it was all an act, and a remarkably good one. He and his audience were fond of each other, and he played it to the hilt, and more power to him! He was a fine entertainer. Yma Sumac’s case is more complicated. She evokes, at least in me, a kind of sadness, a kind of regret, tinged with emotion. I feel there was much more there than we were permitted to know about.

23 comments:

corax said...

'much more there than we were permitted to know about' -- that is very well put. alas.

Edmund said...

Yes, there is a story there, I suspect. It's hard to put my finger on. Here was a potentially extraordinary voice, once shorn of gimmicks and extraordinary effects. Strangely, it reminds me of what started to happen to certain aspects of baroque music--including harpsichord music--in France, just prior to the revolution. It was a strange kind of decadence; a failure of energy, a love of special effects--bird whistles, exotic sounds, general silliness, all a bit depressing, really; a sign that the Baroque (itself often little more than a disquieting plunge into frivolity--the musical equivalent of ormolu) was on its way out. Things were changing--energy had dissipated. I think that's what I find upsetting about Sumac. There was a gold mine never exploited--a rush to glitz, to tawdry shock value, to vaudeville. I think that later in her life (and she just died a few years ago) there was a recognition of what might have been, and what had been lost. Or, more accurately, perhaps, never found.

JD Hobbes said...

Regarding Rebroff, one wonders how he sang that high and sounded much like a coloratura (though that soprano sound is not like a man's voice). His voice is louder than falsetto, and he appears to have more control than one would have in falsetto, because he trills on that tone. I suppose it lies in the physical structure of his throat.

Edmund said...

Thanks for the comment. Good question. I think the secret is in the folds of the vocal cords. The cords are muscular tissue with many folds. In the case of a large man with a deep voice, there tend to be more sharply differentiated cords, with a predominant use of the longer, thicker cords in normal singing and speech. In such voices, the shorter and higher pitched folds are also larger than nomal and not so much incorporated into normal speech. If they can be brought under muscular control, they produce a sound that is stronger than a normal falsetto. Their tendency toward sharper differentiation makes some of the very shortest available for use, where this would not be the case in a man with a normally high voice. Leonard Warren was said to have a spectacular high C, for example. One would think that a tenor might have the most access to falsetto, but that is not actually the case, because a natural tenor voice has shorter cords to begin with (and many tenor are short people generally) and the very highest cords tend to be very short and difficult to control on their own. In fact, the very highest folds on the cords of tenors are usually already incorporated into the tenor head voice.

Anonymous said...

i agree partially with your comment according me I think Sumac
much more interessing than Rebroff cause she was unique in her style and may be because all the fuzz about her origins she was not taken seriously as a singer and her repertoire was too strange
to be very popular she was considered by a lot of people a curioisity more than a singer.
as for me i had the chance to see her concert in France in 1992
despite of her age around seventy she had a tremendous impact
on the audience a true diva
may be she needed some body to guide her she was rather lonely in her private life at least she was awarded in peru in 2006 by the governement and she past away november 1th 2008
jean marc B.

Edmund said...

Merci beaucoup, mon ami, et bienvenue sur mon blog. Je suis tres heureux de vous rencontrer, et je vous remercie de votre commentaire. It is always a pleasure to hear from someone who has actually heard the singer in live performance, because it brings a direct and living impression to their comments and opinions. I agree with all you say. It is a great pity that she was manipulated by those around her into all of that silly "Inca Princess" business. I think that hers was potentially a great voice. She also had a powerful sense of herself, and a very strong and emotional presence. She was, as you correctly say, a true diva.

Thanks again for your comment.

Anonymous said...

:):)I like very much what you’ve written about Rebroff – “a professional Russian”. The description in general is very amusing. This song is a classic, which great sopranos like Nezhdanova and Barsova sang, but he added a drum-machine and other electronics. Awful. His high notes are amazing and the timbre is good, but the style is kitch , as you said. I prefer Yma Sumac too. Her songs are more original, some of them remind of jazz. She traveled the USSR in the 1960’s and my mother told me about her. There were radio translations of her concerts ( another tremendously popular Latin American artist was Lolita Torres, but she was a ‘normal” singer. It’s hard to say who was more popular in the USSR, Torres or Robertino Loretti:). Yma Sumac was a great star too) I couldn’t find any recordings of her until now. Her voice is unique, of course, and she is closer to art. She is a good pop-singer, though could have been an operatic singer, as it seems to me.
N.A.

Edmund said...

Thank you, dear friend. Yes, I thought you might appreciate the Rebroff comments. :) Thanks to you, I have, over the last year or so, got to the point with my love of Russian culture where I can distinguish real Russians (and real Russian art) from the many imitators and wannbe (from "want-to-be") Russians. I know a certain number of people who speak Russian, but, I have discovered, they are not real Russians. It made it easy to spot Rebroff :) The foreign accent sticks out like a sore thumb, doesn't it? And I totally agree about Yma's potential as an operatic soprano. Can you imagine a voice like that in Lucia di Lammermoor? Those dark, fiery, looks, coupled with so extraordinary a top voice could have been a very potent combination. (Sort of a Netrebko with dignity:) Thanks so much for another informative and insightful comment!

Edmund said...

Sorry...make that "wannabe" Russians. I type too fast for my own good sometimes, and I still haven't learned to edit anything once it appears. I date back to the age of the mimeograph machine, so I guess patience is the order of the day........

Edmund

Juju said...

lucia di lammermor? rebroff? where?

Edmund St. Austell said...

I'll see if I can find it for you. It's on an old tape that I have at home, made from a long playing record that goes back a good 25 years. It was a whole series of songs, all in Russian, and, in addition to the standard fare, such as the Volga Boatman Song, it had this rather amazing rendition of part of the Mad Scene. I'll have to take a look and see if I can find it. Whether or not it would still be availabe, I couldn't say. Edmund

Juju said...

well, i know there are equipments that turn a tape or a vinil record into mp3, i think i will buy one of these, those rare and good music wouldn't be so hard and stressful to find, maybe need to be that way. anyway, thank you for the attention and congratulations for the very interesting work.
Juscelino

Anonymous said...

"He lacked any real musical talent".

Wow! What a biased opinion of such an amazing singer. Sumac’s voice is very unique indeed but so was Rebroff's! He had around four an a half octaves of brilliant technique which explored bel canto, power and amazing tone. As a singer and vocal coach, I certainly haven't heard too many voices like Rebroff's. His chest and head voice had a very full and beautiful sound and his bass notes could shake a cup of wine from a mile away. His falsetto and controlled head voice were so well coordinated; he had no need to be limited by voice type. His ear for music was very good indeed and to top it off, he had a sense of show man ship about him, a vibrant, yet dark character which his wider loving audience were drawn to. I don’t intend to take away from Sumac, simply to place them as equals in their own right. "He lacked any real musical talent". The voice, as a living instrument, is the most spectacular and difficult instruments to master. I’m sorry Edmund, he lacked nothing. His character floors had little to do with talent. I don’t intend to argue this or write back- I don’t have time.

Edmund St. Austell said...

No problem, my friend. It would be a boring world if everyone had the same opinion. I am certainly in agreement that there is no doubting the spectacular technique. I guess we only have discussion points regarding the use of the voice, and stylistic and musical matters. But all that to one side notwithstanding, I certainly have all the respect in the world for your opinion on the matter. I could even be wrong:) it wouldn't be the firt time! Thanks for your well though-out comment. They are always welcome. Edmund

Anonymous said...

Ivan Rebroff is the most amazing voice I have ever heard in my life. I consider Odnoswutschno Gremit to be his greatest performance. The speed of transition from one octave to another and the passion are so deep that it resembles to the connection that exists between one's soul and the instrument chelo. I love your post and I would appreciate if you could tell me another singer like him with four octaves. I cannot find anyone else in the world.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I'm afraid I can't find anyone else either! The thing about Rebroff is that he had a particular kind of repertoire which made it possible for him to display his enorous range. If, for example, he had tried to do opera alone, his concentration on one particular range within his voice would soon have eliminated the other extremes of the voice, because he would have no opportunities to display them. Wisely, he stayed with his act, which permitted him to do many amazing things. I wish I could think of someone else, but I'm afraid he was unique! Edmund

Ricardo T. said...

Thank you for your comment and for posting mine. I have found very interesting all your posts and I have been educating myself through them. If you ever hear a singer that resembles Ivan Rebroff let us know! Very often, I find people who dislikes him because they say it is like a dow meowing, that a man should not reach those octaves. As you may know, I disagree, I admire great voice perfomances for there are not too many as compared with popular singers. It would be nice from you if you tell me your point of view regarding these songs, I do want it:

Francesca Gagnon's Malioumba (Cirque du Soleil's Alegria)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_wTgZXD8GQ

Colm Wilkinson's Bring Him Home
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFbsZu7ZN7A

Thank you very much for your time, and hope to hear from you again.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Your friends are wrong, actually. Many people--perhaps even most people, especially women--find the sound of a man singing in a very high register very attractive, as your video of Colm Wilkinson demonstrates. Rebroff was of course unique. I do not know of another quite like him. I wonder if you know of the work of the French alto Philippe Jaroussky? He does both popular and classical music. Here is a video of him doing an ancient classical piece. He gives a brief introduction to the piece (in French) before the singing starts at 1:26. You might find this fascinating:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTeTwY1sKX8&feature=channel

My regards, Edmund

Anonymous said...

hi edmund
I've just read your comment about what I' wrote about Yma Sumac
Rebroff was good in his own style but Yma has contribuate to the knowledge of the andean folklore mostly in her south american
period cause it was very authentic but later when she was signed
by Capitol Records she has to compose with the demand of that studio which means Hollywood orchestrations and echo chamber
to accentuate her vocal range .
but never mind she will remain for her fans the enigmatic and
beautiful inca priestess as seen in the movie Secret of the Incas
Kind regards
Jean Marc

Juju said...

I just remembered this post. what about that Rebroff's recording, is it still avaliable?

Edmund St. Austell said...

I"m sorry. I have not yet been able to find it. I don't think it is available. I know I have it around here on tape someplace, but I have so much stuff, much of it uncatalogued. I hope I find it before long.

brookings_biz said...

Rebroff was quite an amazing singer. I always felt that the true span of his talent was a bit obscured by the specialization of the Russian folksong niche and by some of the freakishness of his vocal (and personal) idiosyncrasies.

While many low basses are esteemed for the range and resonance they contribute to ensemble performances, only a very few develop sustainable careers as soloists. Rebroff was one of an even rarer group of low basses whose tonal quality can truly be described as beautiful...even when vocalizing in fry-tone production below C2!

While Rebroff is often cited as a basso profondo, I think he was much more likely of the basso cantante voice type. While he was certainly capable of singing very low, he didn't have a particularly low tessitura, and the kind of high note sustain that bedevils so many low basses came easily to him. This is the rarest type of bass and one that exhibits an agility that is impossible for the true basso profondo. RIP, Ivan; you were one of a kind.

Anonymous said...

Have a listen to Violetta Villas who possesed a 4 ocatve vocal range spanning from E3 up to A7 when she was young, and B2-E7 when she was in her sixties. She was named "Polish Yma Sumac". Classically she was a soprano sfogato, or sometimes labelled as lirico-spinto coloratura. Her timbre was so rich that most of her "greatest hits" CD cimpilations sound like 'various artists' because she easily changed the color and stylistycs of her voice.