I reviewed Elena Passarello’s “Let Me Clear My Throat” for the Rumpus:
“Confession: I spend a lot of time hanging out in a dive piano bar in Oakland, and I can just imagine Elena Passarello, author of a quality new collection of essays about the human voice, walking in. A former actress and winner of the 2011 Stella Screaming Contest (a quirky credit she leans on a little too hard in her book), she’d set her Scotch on the piano and quietly size the other singers up. She’d meekly wait her turn, but as soon as that mike got in her hands, she’d suck in enough breath to power a category five hurricane. Then she’d sing from the gut with the same brute voice you will hear on the page when she analyzes “ripped to shit phonemes” or describes Robert Plant’s flat F in the fifth octave as “a double backflip of sex and longing that nails its ten-point landing, twice.”
If Elena Passarello walked into the Alley, I’d think, I sure hope that annoyingly loud girl will do her thing, get her rocks off, and leave.
But Passarello on the page is another matter, an informative, insightful, inviting guide to the bizarreness of our vocal being. I picked up her new collection, Let Me Clear My Throat because I wanted to learn about the complex physiognomy of the voice—this full-body instrument of larynx, epiglottis, cords, sinuses, diaphragm, lungs, and more. And I found Passarello’s essays a wonderfully literary way to gain this education, while absorbing the life tales of a few great crooners, actors, and sportscasters besides.
Her essays on singers strike me as especially smartly structured. She builds her consideration of Frank Sinatra’s genius, titled “Teach Me Tonight,” upon the sections of a guide to popular singing published in the forties by Sinatra’s vocal coach: Preface, General Instructions, and Mouth Positions UH, AYE, EE, and OO. Did you know that Sinatra created his style by modifying Bing Crosby’s “plucky AH” into an UH sound? That, as Passarello writes, “The sonic thrill of any yodel is a vocal byproduct that Sinatra learned to mask early on: the rough ‘break’ in the voice as it pops from chest to head” on an EE? That, after a strep diagnosis, Sinatra “spent a week of vocal rest in an oxygen chamber, miming hand signals to his valet” and that he “suffered a ‘submucosal hemorrhage’ onstage at the Copa”?
Perhaps Passarello is strongest when connecting the blood-and-sinew science of singing to the emotional self-sacrifice of artistry.”
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