I don’t know who would believe me if I said that I was a Barbra Streisand virgin until yesterday. It wouldn’t strictly be true; I’ve seen clips of her on The Judy Garland Show, and in Meet the Fockers and Guilt Trip, but I wasn’t exposed to the dazzle of her music making until I turned on The Barbra Streisand Album for my drive home last night.
The album was Streisand’s studio début, and I won’t forget the experience of hearing its opening. After a short meandering solo by a plucked double bass, Barbra’s mezzo voice pierces the open silence above it, with a rhythmic incisiveness and mercurial inflection. She starts with the now-famous six-note falling scale that opens “Cry Me a River,” and that her distinctive tone immediately renders new and unfamiliar.
I was surprised to hear the wide range of approaches she takes on in one album, to convey her meanings. She veers from poise and precision – an elegance that may befit a salon in fin-de-siècle Paris – to brassy, growling roars, where she loses (that is, gives up) her control over pitch, pronunciation, and other aspects of making a nice sound. Her broad spectrum of expression covers infinitesimal nuances, subtle gradations in colour and timbre, and always seems to arise from a spontaneous idea or impression – moments become masterpieces, flung out on the wing.
Streisand’s distinguished artistry, and the sound of it on my inadequate speakers, made me think of the immediate recognisability of many of my favourite artists – Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, Emily Dickinson, Terrence Malick, Maria Callas, Chantal Akerman, Wes Anderson, Glenn Gould, Clint Eastwood, Nina Simone, or Jean Seberg – and how their style is more than an idiosyncrasy, or a brand. Style (at least, that of a great artist) is an outward expression of an entire personality; it’s the shuddering of a great soul, rendered as a physical experience. It’s why the styles of the artists mentioned above – as highly influential as each of them was – are so inimitable, why any attempt to reproduce them can only come off as the shallowest mimicry, and why coming across it in their work, in each moment-by-moment encounter, can feel like an enlargening of life itself.