https://www.dw.com/-The pop icon, who died 10 years ago, often sang using melisma, a technique spanning time and cultures. Nowhere was it better than in her iconic hit, “I Will Always Love You.”
Some songs are so incomparable in their execution that they are perhaps best left uncovered.
Singing the first verse minus accompaniment, Houston’s voice takes the listener on an auditory odyssey: soaring, dipping, fluttering and pirouetting around the lyrics that speak of an aching goodbye and the promise of enduring love.
The song builds to a dramatic pause before Houston unleashes That Voice: the same one that wowed us with other soaring anthems like “One Moment in Time” at the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, 1990’s “All the Man That I Need” and her version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 US Super Bowl.
This gospel singer-turned-pop diva had a special ability to embellish syllables with a sequence of notes that a layperson might simply describe as “vocal acrobatics.”
In music jargon, this technique is called “melisma.”
Frankfurt-based vocal coach and former opera singer Sandra Toner-Uhl told DW that melisma is also known as coloratura in Italian.
“It means ‘coloring’ and you sing a lot of tones on one vowel. Every single composition has this in it,” explained Toner-Uhl, who sang in European operas for 55 years.
In “I Will Always Love You,” this effect was especially evident in the words “I,” “love” and “you.” There’s one “I” that Houston stretched for nearly six seconds, and there’s that final “you” that ascends several octaves.
Spanning time and cultures
Melismatic singing has long been used in various cultures and traditions: Gregorian chants, the Muslim call to prayer, or “adhan,” and Indian ragas all feature melismatic accents.
In the popular Christmas hymn “Angels We Have Heard on High,” the first syllable of the word “Gloria” is stretched for about 16 notes in the chorus.
Among modern-day genres, it spans opera, gospel, soul, rhythm and blues and pop music.
Houston, therefore, wasn’t the first to use the technique: Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin had all used it as well. It can be heard both in R&B singer Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” from the soundtrack of the early 1980s film “Footloose,” and in “Vision of Love” by in Mariah Carey in the 1990s.
But what set Houston apart?
“It was an attitude more than anything else. She truly believed in the artistic value of the melisma. Whereas the others were perhaps simply going along with the trends, she embodied that; she made it part of herself,” Los Angeles-based singer and vocal coach Steve Sweetland told DW. Sweetland, who is discreet about his clientele, has nearly 60 years of experience working with US performers from all genres “except rap and hip-hop.”
Michael Cooney, a former tenor who sang in operas in Europe for 40 years, adds that talent matters, too.
“I think this was the natural talent that she had, and she developed it through her singing. I don’t know if she was aware of the fact that it was melisma or whatever — it was just something that she did naturally,” Cooney told DW.
Best used sparingly
Dubbed ‘The Voice’ by her mentor and Arista Records founder Clive Davis, Houston’s singing is often said to have set the tone for latter-day singers like Beyonce, Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys.
Having sold over 200 million records worldwide and becoming one of the bestselling music artists in history, Houston has also often been imitated by aspirants in talent shows, though not always to the same effect.
“That describes perfectly what happens every time somebody comes up with something desirable and then everybody else jumps on it, and does not do it well,” said Sweetland.
Toner-Uhl, who has worked as a vocal coach for 30 years, also cautions against imitation without putting in the required years of practice, “like training for the Olympics.”
“You’ve just got to work so much harder than anyone can imagine to achieve what appears to be easy,” said Sweetland.
Toner-Uhl added that imitating established singers requires a good ear and good sense of how they do it. “It’s like you have to look down their throat to see what they’re doing. Whitney Houston’s voice was free; that doesn’t mean all these other people’s voices were free,” she said, noting that untrained voices can sound “strangled.”
Houston originally trained under her mother, gospel legend Cissy Houston. As choir director at a local church, Cissy was instrumental in honing the teenage Whitney’s technique, skill and delivery.
But, later in her career, did Houston overuse melisma at times?
“How does one qualify or quantify what that is? She was a serious performer, she did wonderful things. But I’m sure she got caught up in trying to make it the best every time and with her team of helpers, whoever they might have been, saying ‘You have to do this’ or ‘it’s got to sound like this’ and so on,” said Sweetland, acknowledging that sometimes less is more.
Remembering ‘The Voice’
It’s now common knowledge that while first discussing the song “I Will Always Love You” for “The Bodyguard” (1992) soundtrack, Canadian music producer and songwriter David Foster had balked at lead actor Kevin Costner’s suggestion that Houston sing it a cappella at the start.
“When she opened her mouth, I realized that Kevin Costner had come up with one of the greatest ideas in the history of movie music,” Foster would later write in his 2008 memoir, “Hit Man.”
Foster and Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” went on to win three Grammys and was later listed as one of Billboard’s “Greatest Songs of All Time.” The song topped the US iTunes charts hours after Houston’s death in 2012; a week later, the single reappeared at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 after almost 20 years, becoming a posthumous top-10 single for the singer.
So, what was it about this song that makes it synonymous with Houston?
“You heard her soul singing through this song,” said tenor Cooney. “There’s never been, and I don’t think there ever will be, a voice like hers, and the way she used it.”
Edited by: Louisa Schaefer, Manasi Gopalakrishnan