Last week, Paul Mealor announced that his search for a record breaking bass singer had begun. Finding a voice capable of hitting a low E in a choral setting is certainly no small task, but other singing extremes are out there waiting to drop jaws to the floor.
Here, in no particular order, are 10 of the most extreme singing and vocal feats in music.
10. Queen of the Night from Mozart’s Magic Flute
Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen is the second aria sung by the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s legendary opera, The Magic Flute. Famous for its difficulty, the aria features a high note of F6 within a challenging section that darts up into a demandingly high register.
Often referred to simply as ‘the Queen of the Night aria’, the piece has become a byword for difficult operatic sings and extravagant, high-low vocal changes. It remains to day, however, a challenging prospect for Sopranos around the world.
The castrato have become infamous symbols of musical myth, black humor and examples for some of the supposed cruelties of a less civilized past.
The video above features a performance by Alessandro Moreschi, the most famous castrato of the 19th century and the only one to make a solo sound recording of his voice. He was in his mid-forties when these recordings were made and past his peak, but to hear such a tone from a middle aged man is quite startling.
Moreschi was born in 1858, well before the practice of castrating pre-pubescent boys to preserve their singing voice was banned. Today, some highly talented singers can produce similar performances, albeit following years of falsetto reinforcement and specialist training to do so. Arno Raunig is a renowned Austrian male Soprano who has developed his voice to a level of astounding power, tone and control, and is able to perform pieces that would have been the domain of the castrati in centuries gone by.
8. Berio – Sequenza No 3
Berio wrote fourteen of his sequenzas overall; pieces for solo instruments that often required the use of extended techniques and interpretive graphical scores. The third such sequenza was written for the female voice. In the video above, the piece is performed by Cathy Berberian, who also happened to be the Berio’s dedicatee.
Is it a performance art piece? An extreme example of avant-garde vocals from the 1960s? It certainly defies what many people would consider to be the conventions of ‘normal’ music, and is far from an easy or enjoyable listening for those unprepared to hear it.
Detractors may quickly rise dismiss the piece as a mess of thoughtless nonsense, but Sequenza iii is a technically demanding piece to sing and entirely intentional – structured and composed by Berio and notated on a graphic score. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is without doubt extreme and experimental and worthy of a berth on the list.
Beat-boxing seems to have become strangely mundane recently thanks to the number of viral videos spreading the feats of its finest practitioners to every corner of the internet. Sometimes though, you see and hear something that gives you that same hit of disbelief as the first time you came across a top class beat boxer in full flow.
In the video above, French artist EKLIPS runs through a medley of the history of hip-hop in one, impressive non-stop 4 minute take. Whilst pumping out the kicks and snares EKLIPS also manages to reproduce the melodies, sound effects, scratch samples and accents of the MCs and DJs his run imitates almost flawlessly. Such a wide ranging and complete show of skill will always produce a candidate for any list of extreme vocals.
Beyond bleeps, clicks, thumps and humming though, the human voice can imitate other musical sounds. Remember Michael Winslow and his hilarious array of vocal sound effects from Police Academy? Here he is somehow replicating a distorted guitar, Robert Plant and a drum kit with only a slither of reverb for to assist him.
6. Bjork – Medúlla
In 2004 Bjork released her sixth studio album, Medúlla; 14 tracks comprised entirely of sounds produced by the human voice. A capella music is nothing new of course, but Medúlla wasn’t your tyical ‘a cappella’ album.
Rather than compromising and limiting her usual creative vision to the conventions surrounding ‘vocals’, Bjork treated and manipulated the voice as if it were any other musical element in her writing. By combining and arranging beat-boxing, choral arrangements, vocal processing and throat singing (more on that later!) she was able to create textures, layers and harmonies as rich as her electronic and instrumental works. The result sounded unmistakably like a Bjork album, written through an exciting and fresh new timbre, paradoxically as old as music itself!
Take the track posted above for example. Every sound, texture and note heard throughout Desired Constellation’s five minute play through comes purely from the voice, with a little help from some computer processing and clever arrangement too of course.
5. Mike Patton
Mike Patton doesn’t qualify for this list thanks to one outrageous feat or performance. Instead, it is the sheer breadth and variety of styles, techniques and projects he has turned his hand to over his 32 year career that set him apart as something of a vocal extremist.
From his teenage years spent as lead singer for experimental rock band Mr Bungle and alternative metallers Faith No More to more recent operatic projects in Italy and his vast array of collaborations and team ups, Patton has stretched his range and abilities to through countless genres and sounds.
At the time of writing, the American vocalist’s list of collaborators includes John Zorn, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Björk, Subtle, Rahzel, Amon Tobin, Team Sleep, Massive Attack, Fennesz, Zu, Norah Jones, Tanya Tagaq, the Qemists and Kool Keith, to name but a few.
Patton has also moved into the world of film soundtracks, as well as video game music and voice artistry – in the Hollywood blockbuster, I Am Legend, he provided the voices for the movie’s monsters whilst his name can be found on the vocal credits for chart topping computer games such as Portal, Left 4 Dead and The Darkness.
The video above is just a small sample of the singer’s musical work. Be it crooning, scatting, growling, screaming or acting, Mike Patton is the renaissance man of extreme singing!
4. Jazz scat
Scatting is an improvisational technique in vocal jazz that offers singers the ability to solo in a similar manner to an instrumentalist but using their voice. It can include words, nonsense syllables or no lyrics at all. Ella Fitzgerald is often cited as one of the greatest scat singers of all time, and an example of her scatting can be heard in the clip above along with some added samba for flavor.
Her masterful combination of improvised lines, humor, pastiche and sharp references to well known standards and popular songs creates a lively and engaging vocal spectacle, but behind her knowing smirks and cool composure lies some impressive and technical musical accomplishment.
The late psychologist and music academic, Jeff Pressing, who studied improvisation extensively, commented on the lack of ‘feedback redundancy’ that instrumentalists take for granted when jamming and improvising. A trumpet player or guitarist can benefit from aural, visual and touch as well as an awareness of their body shape in relation to their instrument whilst playing.
In contrast, a vocalist is limited to their sense of hearing and self. Pressing went as far as to comment that “for every first-rate scat-singer in the world, there must be 500 talented jazz saxophonists”.
3. Basso profondo of the Russian Orthodox choral tradition
Basso profondo ranged vocalists are not unique to Russia or Russian music, but the deep, resonant voices and arrangements of the Russian Orthodox choral tradition often create an impressive and imposing first impression on new listeners.
The thick, rich colour of their voices the low, rumbling lines common with their repertoire, has lead the music to be described as “Russia by sound, not words […] In the deep sounds of the male voices I feel the Depths of Russia, it’s Beauty and Strength, it’s Soul”.
Thanks to its affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church, singers with a basso profondo range have become a source of traditional pride for Russians, as well as becoming dubbed as ‘the Russian sound’ by casual choral enthusiasts both online and off.
2. Throat singing
Throat singing, or overtone or harmonic singing, is an umbrella term that covers a number of different traditional vocal styles from across the globe. The technique allows vocalists to manipulate the resonances created when air travels through their lungs, throat and lips to produce a melody.
Check out the video above of some Tuvan throat singers from Siberia. The technique allows them to create the illusion that they’re actually singing multiple notes at once. This effect comes from the harmonics of their deeper vocal sounds, tuned by the physical manipulation of their vocal folds and lips. The harmonics, or overtones, produced trick the human ear into thinking it can hear other, separate notes high above the drones below.
Other traditional styles are practiced around the world too, especially in Mongolia and Inuit communities in North America.
Throat singing from various traditions has become something of an exotic element in popular music in recent years, with examples of the technique appearing on Bjork’s a capella album Medúlla and Massive Attack’s hit, Karmacoma.
1. Death Metal
It must be said, first and foremost, that death metal vocals and music are not for the faint hearted. They are divisive by design, intended to either shock and appall or engross and engage depending on the tastes and values of the listener. If your ears are easily offended, turn away now!
Less enthusiastic listeners regularly question death metal’s musical worth and value, preferring to view it, and its vocalists, as a racket of discordant and unpleasant noise. Regardless of whether the result is to an individual’s taste, the physical and technical demands placed upon the death metal vocalist to scream and growl properly are enormous.
The deepest, most ‘brutal’ vocals can be only be achieved through dedicated and finely honed technique that allows such power and distorted textures to be produced without damage to the vocalist’s body. These vocal styles should not be ‘tried at home’ without first seeking a reputable teacher or vocal coach who can offer up exercises, drills and instruction to ensure you don’t destroy your throat!
What’s the most extreme vocal performance you’ve ever heard? Have we missed anything on the list that needs to be there?