This Belgian early music group, founded in 1999, takes its name from the title of Barthes’ famous essay Le grain de la voix. The group is a striking example of an interesting trend in early music, not exactly new, but these days being taken farther than ever before, some would say to the point of extravagance. The trend seems to be more in evidence in Europe than here.
Barthes, who studied music in his youth, develops in that essay a contrast between singing voices that he felt were accomplished but lacked character, such as that of Gérard Souzay, and voices with “grain,” which is maybe not quite the same as what we would call “grainy,” but close enough. That was the kind of voice he liked. His example of a voice with grain was the Swiss baritone Charles Panzéra. Both Souzay and Panzéra were classical singers, and wonderful ones at that. I suspect that the writers on pop, rock, and jazz who occasionally cite Barthes’ grain as if it were the very definition of those genres, would have trouble telling the two apart; I don’t find the difference so dramatic myself (here is Panzéra singing Fauré’s lovely setting of Verlaine’s “Clair de lune,” and here is Souzay).
The classical-vs-other-traditions angle does seem quite pertinent to the question. Paul Hillier wrote, in his 1992 essay “Framing the life of the words” in the Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, that the exploration of vocal timbre and voice placement in early music had barely begun. The first step, indeed, had been a “straightening” of the voice, eliminating the heavy vibrato of conventional classical singing and substituting a clear, boyish tone for the lushness and heavy coloration valued in the opera house. This “white” voice is still the kind preferred by many early musicians. But other kinds, more and more varieties of voices, are now being heard. Those in graindelavoix are not the most extreme, but they are striking and distinctive, at times uncomfortably so.
The group’s approach to the voice naturally concerns more than just timbre. They handle words in various ways, depending on the genre, and they are very interested in styles of vocal ornamentation. The combinations that emerge can be surprising. Here is the beginning of a Mass by Nicolas Champion (1475-1533) that combines the rock-solid nearly vibratoless intonation pioneered in the seventies by groups like Hillier’s original Hilliard Ensemble with melismas and ornaments that sound Byzantine or Arabic (this has become something of a fad in any early music with a possible historical connection or even mere geographical proximity to those traditions), and a blare in the inner voices reminiscent of American Sacred Harp singing. I find it absolutely compelling. On the other hand, here they are doing a dialogue from the 13th century minstrel Henri III de Brabant. Compelling as well, in a totally different way (it’s worth watching the video here, if only for the facial expressions).
First clip is from this disc.
Second one is from here.