Elvis: why the tenor gets the girl

Laura Boyd

Andrew Ford

Andrew Ford

From the way the audience leaned forward in their seats as he spoke, you would think Andrew Ford was addressing a group of old friends, rather than the crowd gathered to hear his Curiosity Lecture ‘On Elvis’ Hips’ on Thursday. Indeed, for many, his voice is a familiar one that has guided them through their breakfast or a hot cup of tea every Saturday morning since 1995 on ABC’s Radio National.

The multi-award winning composer (most recently his piece Last Words was named Vocal Work of the Year 2014 at the Australian Art Music Award) has spent years writing and speaking about music. A 40-minute discussion on primitive elements in music was barely enough to skim the surface, he said: “It’s so hard to talk about. Because we feel it before we understand it. And we understand it when we feel it. If we could talk about it, we wouldn’t need music – it fills that hole in our lives, that need for non-verbal sound.”

Mr Ford’s most recent book, Earth Dances: Music in Search of the Primitive, looks at the moments in history when musicians have broken away from the known form and returned to a more instinctual, primal method of composing. (As a young musician he had a formative meeting with British composer Sir Michael Tippett, who encouraged him to trust his instincts and forget musical systems.) “By primitive, I mean what the Oxford dictionary defines as primitive: getting back to the beginning,” Mr Ford said.

Elvis’ aforementioned hips were the beginning of a new, more primal and sexual era of music. Mr Ford invited the audience to picture the year 1956, when the handsome young Elvis burst onto television screens with Hound Dog. The crowd laughed as Ford noted that no one in the room was likely to remember the year 1956, but nonetheless invited them to picture Elvis doing “this thing with his hips… you wouldn’t see it in 1957, because Mum and Dad would have been so shocked, they’d have written a letter of complaint. So they only filmed Elvis from the waist up, after that.”

More significant than his hips, Ford said, was Elvis’ voice. For many middle class listeners, he “sounded black… or at least they wished he was black”. The voice also sounded slightly higher than others, which was hugely significant, according to Mr Ford. Other famous singers of the era, such as Bing Crosby, were baritones. Before the development of the microphone, singers had belted out tunes at the top of their lungs, whereas the microphone allowed singers like Crosby to sing in a much more intimate, personal manner. “Then here comes Elvis with his tenor voice. You don’t have to listen to many operas to know that the tenor is all about sex: the tenor always gets the girl,” Mr Ford told a delighted audience.

Sex is the element that links all the composers Mr Ford discussed in this talk and Earth Dances. In his words: “A lot of trained artists are controlled, and self-centred. Other artists want to reconnect art to how we live our lives. How we die. How we’re born. And that starts with sex”.

For example, the Beatles 1963 recording of Twist and Shout, and specifically John Lennon’s singing, was so so urgent it’s almost uncomfortable to listen to, Mr Ford said. “Lennon didn’t hold back. He destroyed his voice; he’s screaming. Maybe in terror, but more likely in sexual angst.” Mr Ford makes the point that whatever you’re hearing, it’s something real, which sets the song apart from earlier more rigid popular music.

It’s not only rock’n’roll that’s primitive. Another example of primitive sounds is the traditional lament, one of the simplest and oldest forms of music. “There’s a short step between wailing and grieving, and then turning it into a lament,” Mr Ford said. And as to legendary soprano Maria Callas’ in the role of Carmen: “There’s nothing beautiful in her performance of Carmen when she’s dying. And that is why Callas’ performance is so strong”. The emotion, according to Ford, is raw, real and primitive in nature.

Mr Ford’s talk spanned hundreds of years of composing, fuelled by his encyclopaedic musical knowledge. When asked why classical music education was important, he said: “We teach music for the sake of music. It’s important because it’s a vitally important part of being human. It’s as important as literature. It is literature.”