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This Gift: sketching 'The Singer's Anatomy' part 1

What are songs for? What do they do?

Songs have been with us since long before we started to write or record history. In more traditional societies, songs do specific jobs. They glue the community together. They produce meaning. They preserve communal memory. In Brisbane in 2018 they are a contested form. They may carry values by proxy, or ironically. They are playthings, deconstructed, hybridised, inverted, subverted. Yet they persist as a force of nature. Because we are born pre-loaded to understand and memorise the fundaments of song, I predict we will never leave them behind. They are the reflection of our bodies and minds.

My relationship with songs is extremely earthy. Songs arouse me. They open the door to sensation, initiating chemical fires that flare into life as the blood flows faster in my veins, the breath falls deeper into my lungs, as I get ready for gooseflesh and chills. Songs are a gift of freedom. My impulsive, expressive nature makes sense on stage. I can open up there, I can be anyone, talk to anyone, through the song. I only wish to serve the vision of the song, the lineaments of each narrator manifest in my body and in my voice. And each identity is unique, even if there is just one detail that sets it apart from the plethora of other imaginary sung lives. The really great songs reveal something that feels essentially human.

Access to this source of arousal and identification has always been deeply comforting to me. It began in early childhood and it has been my motivation, my companion and my solace through life. And that’s why I still perform. Songs are spheres of safety and pleasure. No other reward in my life has ever been so certain. But I can’t say why anyone else would put himself or herself forward to perform songs in public. Even with decades of observation and empathetic imagination, I can’t really inhabit another’s voice. And I have a hunger to understand why other singers sing songs. Over the decades I have struggled to find useful common conceptions or terms to describe and explain the sensation of singing. That’s why my Doctoral research is centred on developing a way to talk about the specifics performance. I hope to be granted insight into how singing works from other singer’s points of view.

Songs are deceptively simple. From the raw states generated through our perceptions and responses to the strategic play of imagination and identity, framed by our negotiations with the gatekeepers of society and tradition, singing and songs are the outcome of complex and interwoven processes. The best performances may feel effortless, but they still draw on every part of ourselves, both for the performer and for the audience, given that the audience can only comprehend the meaning of what performers do on the basis that they also have a voice, a body, mind and emotions. Singing songs can be described as a ‘holistic’ experience, but there’s a truly ponderous inventory of specific functions that lie submerged in that whole. I am arguing that songs harness our ordinary gifts in extraordinary ways, connecting us to our own bodies, emotions and imagination, and to others, with whom we share our fundamental nature.

This is the song I wrote with Helen Russell, expressing some of these thoughts from the viewpoint of the listener. ‘This Gift’ debuted at ‘Women In Voice 24’ in 2016. At the moment I’m planning to use it to open the recital.

Leah’s Doctoral Recital is scheduled for:

The Ian Hangar Recital Hall

Queensland Conservatorium

6pm 17 November 2018

Photo by Jo Grant, Brisbane Powerhouse, 2005

This Gift

(Helen Russell and Leah Cotterell)

As I listen to you singing, so clear and strong

Somehow your voice, becomes my voice and I’m inside the song

But sorrow so poignant and sadness so fine

Bear no resemblance to this ragged

Un-loveable mess of mine

Did you work hard to get it right

Match the melodies with the rhymes?

You make it sound so simple

You never need to ask why

As though you dreamt it in the night

Your heart beating on in time

Did you know this gift, your song,

Would move me, and make me cry?

Stop my breath, anticipation, that soaring sound

Raises a chill, pricks at my eye, and I’m all unwound

A song for the weary, suspended, delayed

Warmth, love and laughter, long forgotten

And no time to play charades

Did you work hard to get it right

Match the melodies with the rhymes?

You make it sound so simple

You never need to ask why

As though you dreamt it in the night

Your heart beating on in time

And without this gift, your song,

I guess I would never cry

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