Oh no, not again. ‘The thing I love about saxophone,’ says Steve Norman of Spandau Ballet in a Guardian article, ‘is you’re virtually singing into it: it’s the closest thing to the human voice.’
That’s a funny thing, because I swear Steven Isserlis wrote, also in the Guardian, that the cello was ‘the instrument most like a human voice’. Or perhaps it was Alison Balsom, talking to Kate Kellaway, who described the trumpet as ‘one of the closest instruments to the human voice’. Hang on a mo, what’s this I find? It’s jazz trombonist Robin Eubanks saying, ‘I feel that the trombone is the most versatile of all the wind instruments. It’s the closest instrument to the human voice.’
Now, I’m pretty sure I can tell those four instruments apart. I’m also pretty sure that none of them sounds like the human voice, but leave that crucial point to one side. And clearly, all four musicians seem relaxed with the idea that their instruments should sound like the human voice. They aren’t complaining about it. It is as if the condition of the human voice is something to aspire to. As if sounding like the human voice is the ultimate object of instrumental music
But it’s nonsense, isn’t it? It sounds like it should be profound. But it’s actually the sort of remark that you nod to and give one of those little laughs that seem to indicate you find the speaker wise when actually you think they are an idiot.
For a start, what human voice? Male, female; adult, child or adolescent? And doing what? Singing, shouting, asking the time? Giving one of those little laughs that seem to indicate you find the speaker wise when actually you think they are an idiot? Whimpering at the futility of it all?
And since when has resemblance to human characteristics been a criterion of aesthetic value? Do we admire a flower for its human scent? Does anyone but the sniggeriest adolescent admire a landscape because it looks like a naked torso?
That annoying pleonasm is the giveaway: ‘human voice’. What other kind could it be? (‘The bagpipes is the instrument which sounds most like the voices in my head’? ‘The bandoneon is the instrument which most resembles the passive voice’?)
The ‘human’ is a sure sign that someone is overstating their case. It’s not that their instrument actually sounds like a human voice, but that it is somehow blessed with more human qualities than others.
That’s all very well, but as we know, humanity has been and still is responsible for most of the bullshit in the world. More or less all the bullshit that isn’t actual bullshit, in fact. And the human voice is responsible for talking it. If that’s your aesthetic ideal, fine, but I’ll stick with trying to make my viola sound most like a viola. Why would I want it to sound like anything else? I mean, I’ve got a human voice of my own, why would I spend years learning to play an instrument that will at best only sound close to it? (Incidentally, assuming I had deluded myself that my voice would add to the sum of the beauty around us, what’s my aspiration then? My voice already sounds as much like a human voice as it ever will. Does that mean I don’t have to practise? Or is there something else I should try and sound like? The moon?)
So, Iss-face, what are you implying? I should stop playing the viola because it doesn’t sound as close to the human voice as your cello? Or that I should carry on, pitied by you? (‘Of course,’ he sniffed, ‘you try your best, but you’ll never make the closest sound to the human voice.’ The great cellist returned to his Strad, from which he produced the sound of assorted drunks discussing whether it was to be kebabs or fried chicken that night. Astonished by his virtuosity, I had to admit the bastard was right.)