Naked Voice

Stephen Higa singing "Ave Maria," photographed by Phoebe Neel.

Medieval song is about the nakedness of the human voice. In fact, the human voice itself is about nakedness; singing is the only musical endeavor that relies solely and completely on the body’s own resources. It becomes the most intimate expression of self. When I stand before you to sing, you will hear my breath, my throat, my lungs, the softest viscera of my interior projected before you in sound. Medieval song, which is founded on the primacy of the unaccompanied vocal line, is the repertoire that demands the most violent—almost indecent—exposure of the voice. It forces me to thrust my voice into the emptiness of space and wait for it to echo back, or simply to be swallowed up in nothingness. Singing medieval song is supreme vulnerability.

As much as medieval song is rooted in the body, modern performers of historical music use their minds as well. They have to do their musicological homework. Finding this balance should be simple enough, were it not for the awkward mind/body duality that still reigns over Western culture. Interpreters of early music are no exception. At the birth of the early music movement, performers of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music had their focus fixed on a single Holy Grail: authenticity. They took “authenticity” to mean verisimilitude to the musical sounds of the past, and it became the raison d’etre of their entire enterprise; this is the way Machaut/Dowland/Handel/Bach was actually performed, they enthused. This is the way it should be performed. However, no one could agree on what, exactly, that “way” was. Performers and musicologists gathered in warring camps, and it looked like the arguments would never end.

But then, in the 80s, there was a miraculous, seismic paradigm shift. Everyone seemed to pause for breath. Informed, perhaps, by recent developments in critical theory, the early music world took a step back and reevaluated what it meant to be authentic. Performers stepped forward and spoke of artistic authenticity, of the authenticity of musical affect, of genuine personal expression and true aural rapture. Suddenly, the early music world was freed from the tyranny of a construct and “authenticity” became a word that was well-nigh taboo.

Now, the dust has settled. The authenticity question has become only a fossil of an earlier time. But I, for one, am not prepared to let it go.

As a singer of medieval religious song, I find that there are fundamental elements of the authenticity question that remain unresolved. Sacred music demands a shift in focus away from engaging the music as “object” and a turn toward subjectivity, toward complex and multilayered experience. When we add questions of authenticity to the mix, we get the elusive and complicated notion of the authentic experience, not simply the authentic performance. Here in the 21st century, what can be an authentic experience of medieval sacred song? Is it even possible to have an authentic experience of sacred song in a postsecular, postmodern world?


There will always be a tension between intellect and voice. My engagement with a given repertoire demands a great deal of historical and musicological research; like all performers of early music, I am preoccupied with uncovering the repertoire’s native beauty. But the moment I open my mouth to sing, it is utterly impossible for it to be a solely intellectual endeavor. There can be no “reconstruction” in the act of singing, no “historicity” or musicology or evidence or citations. There can only be a presence, a present, a now. That is the problem with the authenticity question as it stands now: either it assumes a certain sort of referentiality and seems to smack of the forger’s craft, or it boils down to the rarefied egoism of “artistic expression.” Neither option speaks to my condition, because I know that the only authenticity of medieval singing lies with utter nakedness, with singers and listeners in aural communion, with the rise and fall of a state of transcendence.

Few people would argue against the notion of musical transcendence; we’ve all experienced it. But things get confusing when we consider religious music. A transcendent experience of religious music must go beyond aesthetic rapture, mustn’t it? Does a transcendent experience of medieval chant equal religious rapture? When I am made vulnerable through a tender “Ave Maria,” what exactly is this experience? Is it a religious experience? Is it an authentic experience?

I don’t think that I can ever give satisfactory answers to these questions. But when I prepare to sing that “Ave Maria,” I strive to spend time in the spirit of the piece. I focus on the fluctuations of the melody, the points of rest and departure, of tension and resolution. I focus on where it sits in my throat and mouth and lungs. I try to approach the chant with the same assuredness and openness and closeness that it asked of those who first sang it. But there’s an obvious problem. I am not a medieval Catholic. I am not even a modern Catholic. So, when I sing medieval chant, won’t I always be at some level of remove?

Well, that’s the trouble. None of us are medieval Catholics. None of us can ever hope to interact with medieval chant with that sort of authenticity. Our experience of the chant will always be distorted by the filter of modernity. Of course, I understand this. But if the story ended there, I think I would have to abandon medieval chant entirely; after all, who wants to pursue something that can never be authentic and must always be false? Or, worse, a schmaltzy caricature of true experience?

I think there’s far more to it. I know that medieval chant—somehow—can still be authentic to us. I can’t pretend that it happens all the time, but I see it in the haunted faces of an audience as I sing for them. I have looked directly into their eyes and seen them torn, conquered. I have seen their walls crumble. I have seen them there, naked as the newly-converted Augustine hearing chant in Milan: “Those voices overflowed my ears, and the truth filtered into my heart; pious passions seethed over, and tears gushed forth.” What musician—of whatever genre, of whatever era—does not, ultimately, long for a reaction like this?

The heart of medieval chant does not lie with the vapid chant muzak that gluts the marketplace these days, nor the philological intricacies of historical musicology. The heart of chant lies with the radiant, tear-streaked face of St. Augustine. When we experience medieval chant, we must be open to this kind of authentic experience. Augustine’s tears reveal the authenticity—the true-ness—that medieval people themselves sought from their sacred song, and that authenticity is certainly not the rarefied blend of the academic and artistic that the early music world today so often seeks. When I sing medieval chant, I am performing a bodily resurrection of something ancient. I am looking into the streaming eyes of Augustine.


In the time of Charlemagne, when the repertoire we now know as Gregorian chant was being formed, everyone consciously looked back in time to the “source,” the bouquet of songs that Pope Gregory the Great had, according to legend, received from the Holy Spirit. So even in chant’s early years we find a conscious turning toward the past, a yearning to resurrect and re-experience an ancient moment of inspiration. But this was not an “early music movement.” This was a drive to reunite with the transcendence of a primordial experience and revivify it there, in the present, for living throat and quivering ears. By mining this antique repertoire, early experiencers of chant sought to align themselves with the archetypal form of Gregory—submissive, yet beatific as the Holy Spirit who first, in the form of a dove, sang in his ear.

When I say that there can be no reconstruction, historicity, or citations in the act of singing, I ultimately mean that there can be no verbality, no semiosis; chant is ineffability and non-representationality. It is the body itself, projected in and affected by sound. It is closeness to the affections of the flesh, pure sonorous viscerality. Because chant will not be encapsulated by words alone, it can never be the instruction in dogma that some of the Church Fathers hoped it would be. That is, it can’t really be about “religion” per se, or the sort of gnosis many people expect from their religious experiences. Chant catapults us straight into the dangerous realm of sensual experience, a realm that completely transcends any distinctions between sacred and profane, past and present. This realm is a safe, unsafe space—a sacred space?—for true human communion, even across the bounds of time.

I long for, in the words of musicologist Christopher Page, “transhistorical humanness.” I long to sense, for a moment, that time is shallow. When I act as a conduit for ancient affections and sonorities and vulnerabilities, bodies are knit together in ways that shatter distance and chronology. I have come to understand that this is what medieval people wanted from their chant. This is the face of Augustine.

Singing and listening involve projecting the sounds of one body to another. Don Ihde, preeminent phenomenologist of the voice, joins singers in recognizing this fundamental fact. I believe that when this involves some sort of authentic experience of medieval sacred song, those singing and listening bodies can come to empathize and resonate with bodies that have long since turned to dust. Perhaps, in this way, medieval chant can regain its original, authentic role of creating space for the eternal.

Stephen Higa is a graduate student in Medieval History at Brown
University. He directs Resonanda, Brown's medieval music ensemble,
and makes frequent trips to the outer fringes of the musical