The duet in high register

August 16, 2020 sweet harmony

I know harmony when I hear it. I wish I could also sing it. I do know how it does that thing it does with my neck hairs—philoerection. It’s all about endogenous dopamine release in the striatum. But the how is not the wow. Take Carly and James.

To start, listen to the second movement of BWV 232, the Christie eleison, Bach’s only extant soprano duet. The notes are the same whichever of the many recordings you choose. incipit Open up your favorite streamer and listen to bunches. Same notes different pairs of massively talented musicians. But different effects. Some pairs raise the folicles while others do not. Judith Nelson and Juliane Baird do in Joshua Rifkin’s 1982 single-part, single-voice intimate performance of the messe as chamber music. See the NYT review. So does this more recent performance with Hana Blažíková and Anna Reinhold. You have to listen hard to detect that the notes voice words. And you have to think long to hear that all those notes are devoted to just two words: Christe eleison.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle, of course, did this for a career, and often double voiced a line that set up dueling timbres. Another sister act draws harmonic overtones from the same alike-but-not-alike voices—The Secret Sisters. Phil and Don are another sibling act, this time in the high tenor register, that created harmonies of what seem single notes.

More folicle raising still are distinctive voices that can sail en echelon like Blue Angels flying too close to the ground. Judy Collins, still in voice as a strong soprano with her years of regular voice lessons and Joan Baez whose vibrant young soprano has elaborated over a wide mezzo range play as porpoises passing a ball in Diamonds and Rust. Linda Ronstadt and Emmy Lou Harris do this all in For a Dancer—double voicing, straight-up harmony and lead swapping, notably on stanza ends.

Music as this tells us that we do not have to be alone. Or, if we do, we can steal some human connection.