The Bee Gees did it. So do Smokey Robinson, Prince and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. They all sing in the high register usually associated with female singers.
Men have cultivated their upper range in falsetto for centuries. They're called countertenors — at least in the classical world — and today we find ourselves in a golden age of such singers, thanks in part to continued interest in early music.
One of the best of today's crop of countertenors is Iestyn Davies (pronounced YES-tin DAY-vis). Lately, he's been exploring the meticulously crafted, melancholy songs of Elizabethan composer John Dowland. Joining Davies is lutenist Thomas Dunford, who has been affectionately dubbed "the Eric Clapton of the lute" by the BBC.
Dowland was a master of melancholy, a condition viewed differently in Elizabethan England than it is today. You might say that, back then, it was almost hip to have the blues, and Dowland instinctively knew how to tap into feelings of rejection, regret and general malaise in his music. (Dowland himself seemed to nurse a lifelong disappointment in never landing a job with Queen Elizabeth.)
Yet not every Dowland song is a downer. The opening number, "Come again, sweet love doth now invite," finds the protagonist relishing the taste of love he's had, wondering if it will ever return. When he weeps over his bad dreams, Davies, an expressive singer with a sweet timbre and a keen ear for drama in the text, shades the music by lightening his tone to sound more vulnerable.
We can't forget the lute in this partnership; it's crucial and shouldn't be viewed as mere accompaniment. Listen for the delicacy in the colors and lines Dowland builds in the lute's part, as if the instrument itself were singing a duet with the voice.
- Dowland: "Come again, sweet love doth now invite"
- Dowland: "Now, O now I needs must part"
- Dowland: "Can she excuse my wrongs"
Producers: Denise DeBelius, Tom Huizenga; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Denise DeBelius, Faith Masi, Olivia Merrion