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Echo and the Chorus of Female Machines

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Gendered Voices widgetEditor’s Note: February may be over, but our forum is still on! Today I bring you installment #5 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice. Last week Art Blake talked about how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage. Before that, Regina Bradley put the soundtrack of Scandal in conversation with race and gender. The week before I talked about what it meant to have people call me, a woman of color, “loud.” That post was preceded by Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book, on the gendered soundscape. We have one more left! Robin James will round out our forum with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.

This week Canadian artist and writer AO Roberts takes us into the arena of speech synthesis and makes us wonder about what it means that the voices are so often female. So, lean in, close your eyes, and don’t be afraid of the robots’ voices. –Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor

I used Apple’s SIRI for the first time on an iPhone 4S. After hundreds of miles in a van full of people on a cross-country tour, all of the music had been played and the comedy mp3s entirely depleted. So, like so many first time SIRI users, we killed time by asking questions that went from the obscure to the absurd. Passive, awaiting command, prone to glitches: there was something both comedic and insidious about SIRI as female-gendered program, something that seemed to bind up the technology with stereotypical ideas of femininity.

"Maria the Maschinenmensch" by Flickr user Timothy Rose, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Maria the Maschinenmensch” by Flickr user Timothy Rose, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Speech synthesis is the artificial simulation of the human voice through hardware or software, and SIRI is but one incarnation of the historical chorus of machines speaking what we code to be female. Starting from the early 20th century Voder, to the Cold-War era Silvia and Audrey, up to Amazon’s newly released Echo, researchers have by and large developed these applications as female personae. Each program articulates an individual timbre and character, soothing soft spoken or matter of fact; this is your mother, sister, or lover, here to affirm your interests while reminding you about that missed birthday. She is easy to call up in memory, tones rounded at the edges, like Scarlett Johansson’s smoky conviviality as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her, a bodiless purr. Simulated speech articulates a series of assumptions about what neutral articulation is, what a female voice is, and whose voice technology can ventriloquize.

The ways computers hear and speak the human voice are as complex as they are rapidly expanding. But in robotics gender is charted down to actual wavelength, actively policed around 100-150 HZ (male) and 200-250 HZ (female). Now prevalent in entertainment, navigation, law enforcement, surveillance, security, and communications, speech synthesis and recognition hold up an acoustic mirror to the dominant cultures from which they materialize. While they might provide useful tools for everything from time management to self-improvement, they also reinforce cisheteronormative definitions of personhood. Like the binary code that now gives it form, the development of speech recognition separated the entire spectrum of vocal expression into rigid biologically based categories. Ideas of a real voice vs. fake voice, in all their resonances with passing or failing one’s gender performance, have through this process been designed into the technology itself.

 

A SERIES OF MISERABLE GRUNTS

"Kempelen Speakingmachine" by Fabian Brackhane (Quintatoen), Saarbrücken - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Kempelen Speakingmachine” by Fabian Brackhane (Quintatoen), Saarbrücken – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

The first voice to be synthesized was a reed and bellows box invented by Wolfgang Von Kempelen in 1791 and shown off in the courts of the Hapsburg Empire. Von Kempelen had gained renown for his chess-playing Turk, a racist cartoon of an automaton that made waves amongst the nobles until it was revealed that underneath the tabletop was a small man secretly moving the chess player’s limbs. Von Kempelen’s second work, the speaking machine, wowed its audiences thoroughly. The player wheedled and squeezed the contraption, pushing air through its reed larynx to replicate simple words like mama and papa.

Synthesizing the voice has always required some level of making strange, of phonemic abstraction. Bell Laboratories originally developed The Voder, the earliest incarnation of the vocoder, as a cryptographic device for WWII military communications. The machine split the human voice into a spectral representation, fragmenting the source into number of different frequencies that were then recombined into synthetic speech. Noise and unintelligibility shielded the Allies’ phone calls from Nazi interception. The Vocoder’s developer, Ralph Miller, bemoaned the atrocities the machine performed on language, reducing it to a “series of miserable grunts.”

From website Binary Heap

From website Binary Heap-

In his history of the The Vocoder, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, Dave Tompkins tells how the apparatus originally took up an entire wall and was played solely by female phone operators, but the pitch of the female voice was said to be too high to be heard by the nascent technology. In fact, when it debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair, only men were chosen to experience the roboticization of their voice. The Voder was, in fact, originally created to only hear pitches in the range of 100-150 HZ, a designed exclusion from the start. So when the Signal Corps of the Army convinced President Eisenhower to call his wife via Voder from North Africa, Miller and the developers panicked for fear she wouldn’t be heard. Entering the Pentagon late at night, Mamie Eisenhower spoke into the telephone and a fragmented version of her words travelled across the Atlantic. Resurfacing in angular vocoded form, her voice urged her husband to come home, and he had no problem hearing her. Instead of giving the developers pause to question their own definitions of gender, this interaction is told as a derisive footnote of in the history of the sound and technology: the punchline being that the first lady’s voice was heard because it was as low as a man’s.

 

WAKE WORDS

Screen shot of Amazon's page for Echo

Screen shot of Amazon’s page for Echo

In fall 2014 Amazon launched Echo, their new personal assistant device. Echo is a 12-inch long plain black cone that stands upright on a tabletop, similar in appearance to a telephoto camera lens. Equipped with far field mics, Echo has a female voice, connected to the cloud and always on standby. Users engage Echo with their own chosen ‘wake’ word. The linguistic similarity to a BDSM safe word could have been lost on developers. Although here inverted, the word is used to engage rather than halt action, awakening an instrument that lays dormant awaiting command.

Amazon’s much-parodied promotional video for Echo is narrated by the innocent voice of the youngest daughter in a happy, straight, white, middle-class family. While the son pitches Oedipal jabs at the father for his dubious role as patriarchal translator of technology, each member of the family soon discovers the ways Echo is useful to them. They name it Alexa and move from questions like: “Alexa how many teaspoons in a tablespoon” and “How tall is Mt. Everest?” to commands for dance mixes and cute jokes. Echo enacts a hybrid role as mother, surrogate companion, and nanny of sorts not through any real aspects of labor but through the intangible contribution of information. As a female-voiced oracle in the early pantheon of the Internet of Things, Echo’s use value is squarely placed in the realm of cisheteronormative domestic knowledge production. Gone are the tongue-in-cheek existential questions proffered to SIRI upon its release. The future with Echo is clean, wholesome, and absolutely SFW. But what does it mean for Echo to be accepted into the home, as a female gendered speaking subject?

Concerns over privacy and surveillance quickly followed Echo’s release, alarms mostly sounding over its “always on” function. Amazon banks on the safety and intimacy we culturally associate with the female voice to ease the transition of robots and AI into the home. If the promotional video painted an accurate picture of Echo’s usage, it would appear that Amazon had successfully launched Echo as a bodiless voice over the uncanny valley, the chasm below littered with broken phalanxes of female machines. Masahiro Mori coined the now familiar term uncanny valley in 1970 to describe the dip in empathic response to humanoid robots as they approach realism.

If we listen to the litany of reactions to robot voices through the filters of gender and sexuality it reveals the stark inclines of what we might think of as a queer uncanny valley. Paulina Palmer wrote in The Queer Uncanny about reoccurring tropes in queer film and literature, expanding upon what Freud saw as a prototypical aspect of the uncanny: the doubling and interchanging of the self. In the queer uncanny we see another kind of rift: that between signifier and signified embodied by trans people, the tearing apart of gender from its biological basis. The non-linear algebra of difference posed by queer and trans bodies is akin to the blurring of divisions between human and machine represented by the cyborg. This is the coupling of transphobic and automatonophobic anxieties, defined always in relation to the responses and preoccupations of a white, able bodied, cisgendered male norm. This is the queer uncanny valley. For the synthesized voice to function here, it must ease the chasm, like Echo: sutured by a voice coded as neutral, but premised upon the imagined body of a white, heterosexual, educated middle class woman.

 

22% Female

uWf1j1iP_400x400My own voice spans a range that would have dismayed someone like Ralph Miller. I sang tenor in Junior High choir until I was found out for straying, and then warned to stay properly in the realms of alto, but preferably soprano range. Around the same time I saw a late night feature of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, struggling to lose her crass proletariat inflection. So I, a working class gender ambivalent kid, walked around with books on my head muttering The Rain In Spain Falls Mainly on the Plain for weeks after. I’m generally loud, opinionated and people remember me for my laugh. I have sung in doom metal and grindcore punk bands, using both screeching highs and the growling “cookie monster” vocal technique mostly employed by cismales.

EVAGiven my own history of toying with and estrangement from what my voice is supposed to sound like, I was interested to try out a new app on the market, the Exceptional Voice App (EVA ), touted as “The World’s First and Only Transgender Voice Training App.” Functioning as a speech recognition program, EVA analyzes the pitch, respiration, and character of your voice with the stated goal of providing training to sound more like one’s authentic self. Behind EVA is Kathe Perez, a speech pathologist and businesswoman, the developer and provider of code to the circuit. And behind the code is the promise of giving proper form to rough sounds, pitch-perfect prosody, safety, acceptance, and wholeness. Informational and training videos are integrated with tonal mimicry for phrases like hee, haa, and ooh. User progress is rated and logged with options to share goals reached on Twitter and Facebook. Customers can buy EVA for Gals or EVA for Guys. I purchased the app online for my iPhone for $5.97.

My initial EVA training scores informed me I was 22% female; a recurring number I receive in interfaces with identity recognition software. Facial recognition programs consistently rate my face at 22% female. If I smile I tend to get a higher female response than my neutral face, coded and read as male. Technology is caught up in these translations of gender: we socialize women to smile more than men, then write code for machines to recognize a woman in a face that smiles.

As for EVA’s usage, it seems to be a helpful pedagogical tool with more people sharing their positive results and reviews on trans forums every day. With violence against trans people persisting—even increasing—at alarming rates, experienced worst by trans women of color, the way one’s voice is heard and perceived is a real issue of safety. Programs like EVA can be employed to increase ease of mobility throughout the world. However, EVA is also out of reach to many, a classed capitalist venture that tautologically defines and creates users with supply. The context for EVA is the systems of legal, medical, and scientific categories inherited from Foucault’s era of discipline; the predetermined hallucination of normal sexuality, the invention of biological criteria to define the sexes and the pathologization of those outside each box, controlled by systems of biopower.

Despite all these tools we’ll never really know how we sound. It is true that the resonant chamber of our own skull provides us with a different acoustic image of our own voice. We hate to hear our voice recorded because suddenly we catch a sonic glimpse of what other people hear: sharper more angular tones, higher pitch, less warmth. Speech recognition and synthesis work upon the same logic, the shifting away from interiority; a just off the mark approximation. So the question remains what would a gender variant voice synthesis and recognition sound like? How much is reliant upon the technology and how much depends upon individual listeners, their culture, and what they project upon the voice? As markets grow, so too have more internationally accented English dialects been added to computer programs with voice synthesis. Thai, Indian, Arabic and Eastern European English were added to Mac OSX Lion in 2011. Can we hope to soon offer our voices to the industry not as a set of data to be mined into caricatures, but as a way to assist in the opening up in gender definitions? We would be better served to resist the urge to chime in and listen to the field in the same way we suddenly hear our recorded voice played back, with a focus on the sour notes of cold translation.

Featured image: “Golden People love Gold Jewelry Robots” by Flickr user epSos.de, CC BY 2.0

AO Roberts is a Canadian intermedia artist and writer based in Oakland whose work explores gender, technology and embodiment through sound, installation and print. A founding member of Winnipeg’s NGTVSPC feminist artist collective, they have shown their work at galleries and festivals internationally. They have also destroyed their vocal chords, played bass and made terrible sounds in a long line of noise projects and grindcore bands, including VOR, Hoover Death, Kursk and Wolbachia. They hold a BFA from the University of Manitoba and a MFA in Sculpture from California College of the Arts.

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On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice—Yvon Bonefant

I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity—Regina Bradley

As Loud As I Want To Be: Gender, Loudness, and Respectability Politics

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Gendered Voices widgetEditor’s Note: Here’s installment #2 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice! Last week we hosted Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book; she introduced us to the idea of the gendered soundscape, which she uses in her analysis on women’s radio speech from the 1930s to the 1950s.  In the next few weeks we’ll have SO regular writer Regina Bradley, with a look at how music is gendered in Shonda Rhimes’ hit show Scandal, A.O. Roberts with synthesized voices and gender, Art Blake with his reflections on how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage, and lastly Robin James with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.

As I planned for SO!’s February forum, I wondered about my own connection to the topic: how is the loudness of a voice gendered? Does it matter who we call “loud”? As a Latina, I’m familiar with the stereotypes of the loud Latina, and as a Puerto Rican I faced them at every gathering. So for this week I decided to reflect upon my experiences in a personal essay. Lean in, close your eyes, and don’t let the voices startle you.–Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor

I was 22 years old when someone called me deaf. I was finishing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. After four years of living in San Juan, I still hadn’t gotten used to the class and race microaggressions I encountered regularly because I was a brown girl who grew up in the country and was going to school in the urban capital, el área metropolitana. These microaggressions were usually assumptions about who I was based on how I talked: I called pots a certain way, I referred to nickels in another way, and I couldn’t keep my voice down–all indications, according to my “urban” friends, that I grew up in the country. But being called “deaf” was a new one.

My boyfriend at the time had no cellphone, and his mother would call me regularly to see if he was on his way home from a gig or to ask him to run an errand. She and I were not close, but we were cordial. I always felt we didn’t click on some level. This particular weekend day, she had called to ask if he had left San Juan already to come visit her, and I told her I had just seen him that morning before he left. Somehow she and I went from small talk into a conversation.

In my head, I thought I was making headway with her and that this was a huge step forward in our relationship. We talked about his gig the night before, about how my family was doing, things like that. Then she asked me if my family had a medical history of people losing their hearing. “No? I don’t think so. Why do you ask?” I said in Spanish.

“Because you talk so loud, and so do your father and your sister. Your mom isn’t loud.”

That was over 10 years ago, but the comment still stings. I am certain that wasn’t the only time someone called me “loud” or pointed out the tone of my voice, but it’s the one time that still rings in my ears when I think about the intersection of gender and sound. It wasn’t just that I spoke at a high volume, it was that I was a woman who spoke at a high volume. I was the girlfriend who was loud.

 

Of course we’re not born loud- or soft-speakers – we learn to use the volume level that prevails in our culture, and then turn it up or lower it depending on our subculture and peer group.

-Anne Karpf, The Human Voice

 

What does “loud” mean, anyway? Denotations fade into connotations. As I write this, I struggle to think of how to describe loud in a way that doesn’t feel negative. Because every time I think of “loud” its negative connotations float up to the surface. Just take this Merriam-Webster online dictionary entry for “loud.” Aside from the reference to volume, “loud” also means sounds that are offensive, obtrusive—annoying.

To be fair, I’ve always been self-conscious of my voice, and not in the way most people hate the sound of their voice. I always felt my voice was not girly enough. I always felt as a teenager and a young adult not “pretty” enough, not thin enough, not “feminine” enough, so my insecurities also extended to my voice.

Growing up, I heard people tell me time and time again to keep my voice down, that I was talking too loud, that people next door could hear me, et cetera. Grandparents, cousins, parents, friends: I got it from every corner. Shush. But I don’t recall anybody saying that about the boys/men I hung out with. Add to that the comments I got about my appearance: “you’re too fat,” “your hair is too frizzy,” ‘you’re ugly.” I associated being loud with being unattractive. Just another flaw.

It’s no coincidence then that describing a woman as loud is almost never said as a compliment. Although a man can be loud—he might even be expected to have a deep, booming, commanding voice, as the above video describes—when a woman is described as loud, it’s almost never in a good light. Karpf mentions in The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent that “Loudness certainly seems to be judged differently depending on the sex of the speaker. Talking loudly is considered an act of aggression in women, but in men as no more than they’re entitled to.” In other words, society deems men to be allowed to be loud, and by extension loudness comes off as a masculine feature. So loudness, something that at its base means high volume, ends up being constructed as more than just decibels. Women who are “loud” become noisy, rude, unapologetic, unbridled.

 

Mija pero que duro tu hablas.

 

In Puerto Rico, the word for “loud” was alto (high) but also duro (hard). I knew early on that when someone told me that I spoke duro they didn’t mean it in a kind way. The voice was described as hard, harsh, shards of glass. It hurt to be called loud. It hurt to be called hard. Especially when you understand that society accepts only certain ways of being a woman: soft, delicate, fragile, dainty. It was never meant as a compliment to have someone call your voice “hard.”

If I was listening to my mother and my aunts or cousins speaking, and then chimed in, I would get the “shhhh” or if they wanted to be discreet they would make a gesture with their hands to indicate to me that I should bring my voice down. I learned early on that a lower voice was more appealing than the loud voice hiding in my vocal box.

kotm-ross-gesture-anim

I am Puerto Rican, and even though I was born in New York City, I was raised in a small town on the western side of Puerto Rico. I was already well-aware of stereotypes and digs about my being born in New York, even at a young age. My cousins would tell me I was stuck up, I thought I was better than other people because I had cable, I only listened to music in English (I guess that was a bad thing to them). When I moved to San Juan, I was no longer a displaced Nuyorican but a country bumpkin. Peers, friends, and new acquaintances would not classify me as a Nuyorican but, because I was living in San Juan at the time, would categorize me as an islander, de la isla, which basically meant I was not from el “area metro.” I was, in short, a country bumpkin to them.

The loudness of my voice was not just a marker of where I came from (the country, with all of the classicism that the phrase entails) but for me became conflated with gender. I knew that even when I wasn’t living in the city, I had been called loud. It’s just that when my peers asked me to lower my voice or to not speak so “duro” it was also because they thought of me as jíbara, country.

Sometimes I would get carried away when I was telling a joke among my female roommates, or I’d be excited to share some news, and eventually someone would tell me to tone it down. Baja la voz. As I reflect upon my college years living with roommates in a crowded apartment in a crowded city, I remember that we often got together and laughed, talked over each other, shouted across the apartment. But I would get carried away and then someone would say something about it. Mira que nos van a mandar a callar. Someone’s gonna tell us to shut up.

It was in college, however, that I learned to modulate my voice. I am physically capable of whispering, but when I spoke in English in a classroom setting (I was an English major in a school whose language of instruction was Spanish) I felt even louder in English. So I made the effort to tone down my voice, literally. I equated English with career, and by extension with my professional persona.

Ultimately, English would be the language I spoke (and still speak) in academic circles; with the language came also the tone and the volume. Men in my classes seemed more often to initiate conversations in my classes, and sometimes even in the ones where they were a minority. Meanwhile, the driven graduate student that I was, I wanted to step in but not stand out because of my voice. I didn’t want to give them (or the professor for that matter) a chance to discount me because I was a loud Puerto Rican woman at an American school. Eventually I learned how to switch back and forth. So did my fellow female classmates.

I remember as a teacher modulating my voice so I would be less loud and less abrasive in a college classroom. I wanted to assert my authority. If some women resort to vocal fry in order to be taken seriously, as this 2014 article in The Atlantic (online) suggests, I resorted to modulating my voice. That was my way of passing: passing for creative elite, passing for feminine, passing for authoritative. I tried to assert my credibility as a burgeoning scholar and professor by tweaking my voice. I laughed a little softer, I spoke a little slower, I sounded a little lower. I teetered between trying to sound feminine and trying to downplay my femininity through my voice.

Was I trying to sound more like the stereotype of a woman so I could be more credible in the classroom? Was this my own version of respectability politics? “Don’t be so loud and they’ll listen to you”?

 

“White supremacy grants white people the ability to be understood as expressing a dynamic range; whites can legitimately shout because we hear them/ourselves as mainly normalized. At the same time, white supremacy paints black people as always-already too loud.”

-Robin James, “Some philosophical implications of the “loudness war” and its criticisms”

 

The negative rhetoric about women and loudness is also connected to respectability politics. Take for example the stereotype of the angry black woman (which is in the vicinity of the loud Latina). If women must be delicate and feminine, being loud would be unattractive, unseemly. Loud also means “not being silent,” in other words, speaking when not spoken to. Robin James touches upon “loudness” in contemporary music, and how the turn toward less loud tracks also has to do with racialized ideas about who can speak and who can be loud–in other words, what counts as noise and what counts as harmonious sound. She cites Goldie Taylor’s piece in The Daily Beast about how, regardless of how angry she felt about the racial injustices in the United States, she would never be able to scream and shout without consequences. Loudness is something racialized people cannot afford.

The stereotype of the angry woman points to how the notion of who is loud and what tone of voice is considered loud are constructed. Although there are studies that point out that the sound of one’s voice indicates to others that one is in a position of authority or that one’s voice can make or break one’s career, there is yet to be a study that shows how the biology of the body that produces the voice affects what one can or cannot do. In other words, the connection between voice and our abilities, or our social class, is constructed—in our heads.

Assertive, aggressive, leader: these descriptions benefit men, for the most part. Aggressiveness is seen as a masculine trait, and along with that a loud tone of voice is also seen as masculine. (This idea is also problematic, for it sets anything that isn’t aggressive and assertive as female, and therefore negative.) The opposite applies to women; the same way our society associates fragile delicate things with femininity, a fragile, soft, low tone of voice is the acceptable range for a woman. And James and Taylor’s comments point to how race also changes the equation. Damned if we speak, damned if we don’t.

***

Over the years, I’ve become more comfortable with the way I sound. I’ve also become more comfortable switching between my aural codes, like I do with English, Spanish, and Spanglish. I know that there’s a volume that I use in certain spaces. I also know that in other spaces I don’t have to watch over how loud I am. If I am in a familiar space, with people I am close to, I feel less inclined to watch myself. I feel safe, not judged. I can be as loud as I want to be. But loudness is also an accepted way of speaking around my family. If I spoke in a low tone, I’d probably be picked on for that. My father, for one, has a booming, deep, loud voice, and so do many of my family members.

For me, embracing my voice is also a kind of body acceptance. My body, plus-sized and all, takes up space. My voice takes up space too. As a teenager and an adult I was constantly shamed for the way I look (skin too brown, voice too loud, face too painted, hair too short), and for a time tweaking my voice became a way to try to fit in. But I later learned how to respond to the remarks. I learned to be sarcastic. I learned to make jokes. I learned to talk back. I didn’t find my voice; I embraced my voice.

 

Dear readers, let us know in the comments: have you been chastised for being loud? Or for not speaking loudly enough?

Featured image: property of the author.

Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.


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I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity–Regina Bradley

Learning to Listen Beyond Our Ears: Reflecting Upon World Listening DayOwen Marshall

An Ear-splitting Cry: Gender, Performance, and Representations of Zaghareet in the U.S.–Meghan Drury

 

Vocal Gender and the Gendered Soundscape: At the Intersection of Gender Studies and Sound Studies

"ateliers claus - 140522 - monophonic - Radio Femmes Fatales" by Flickr user fabonthemoon, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Gendered Voices widgetEditor’s Note: Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s annual February forum! This month, we’re wondering: what ideas regarding gender and sound do voices call forth? To think through this question, we’ve recruited several great writers who will be covering different aspects of gender and sound. Regular writer Regina Bradley will look at how music is gendered in Shonda Rhimes’ hit show Scandal. A.O. Roberts will discuss synthesized voices and gender. Art Blake will share with us his reflections on how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage. Robin James will return to SO! with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy. Me? I’ll share a personal essay/analysis of what it means to be called a “loud woman.”

Today we start our February forum on gender and sound with Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book Radio and the Gendered Soundscape in Latin America. Below, she introduces us to the idea of the gendered soundscape, which she uses in her analysis on women’s radio speech from the 1930s to the 1950s. She will make you think twice about the voices you hear on the radio, in podcasts, over the phone…

In the meantime, lean in, close your eyes, and let the voices whisk you away.–Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor

Several years ago, while aboard a commercial airline awaiting take off, I heard the expected sound of a voice emerging from the cockpit, transmitted via the plane’s P.A. system. The voice gave passengers the usual greeting and general information about weather conditions, flight time, etc. What was unusual, and caught the otherwise distracted passengers’ attention, was the fact that the voice speaking was female. People looked up from their magazines and devices not because of the “message” but because of the “medium”: a voice that deviated from the standard soundscape of commercial aviation, a field comprised mostly of men.

For this historian, interested in vocal gender and the female voice in particular, the incident was a fascinating demonstration of both the voice as performance of the gendered body, and the fact that the human voice can and often does communicate beyond (and sometimes despite) the words being spoken. In this essay I want to briefly discuss some of the ideas I explore more fully in my forthcoming book, a study of women/gender and golden age radio titled Radio and the Gendered Soundscape in Latin America: Women and Broadcasting in Argentina and Uruguay, 1930-1950 (forthcoming, Cambridge 2015). In this book, I use the stories of five women and one radio station to explore the possibilities and limits for women’s radio speech, and to pose some larger questions about vocal gender and the gendered soundscape. For this post, I present the conceptual framework that I use to understand how gender is constructed through the voice.

"DSC00814" by Flickr user  jordan weaver, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“DSC00814″ by Flickr user jordan weaver, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gender and sound have both been explored as categories of historical analysis, but largely in isolation from one another. The historiographical impact of gender analysis is almost too obvious to mention; suffice to say that attention to gender has altered the very questions historians ask of the past and the way we understand structures of power and historical change. More recently, historians have begun to incorporate R. Murray Schafer’s concept of the soundscape and what Jonathan Sterne has called “sonic thinking” into their analysis of the past (The Sound Studies Reader, 3). But not enough consideration has been given within the field of history to the ways sound may be gendered and gender sounded.

I bring these three threads together – gender, sound, and history – via the concept of the gendered soundscape. Helmi Järviluoma, Pirkko Moisala and Anni Vilkko introduce the term in their book Gender and Qualitative Methods (2004), which asks readers to contemplate the way gender – and gendered hierarchies – may be projected and/or heard in sound environments. We not only “learn gender through the total sensorium,” as they put it; gender is also represented, contested and reinforced through the aural (85). Thinking historically about gendered soundscapes can help us conceptualize sound as a space where categories of “male” and “female” are constituted within the context of particular events over time, and by extension the ways that power, inequality and agency might be expressed in the sonic realm—in other words, tuning in to sound as a signifier of power. Although many of us have been well-trained to look for gender, I consider what it means to listen for it.

"Untitled" by Flickr user  Observe The Banana, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Untitled” by Flickr user Observe The Banana, CC BY-NC 2.0

The soundscape, of course, is not only gendered; other aspects of social hierarchy, such as race, class and sexuality, are also performed and perceived in the aural realm. Greg Goodale’s analysis in Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age (2011) of “the race of sound,”  which argues that sound constructs rather than simply reiterating race, provides a useful framework for understanding both what we might call the gender of sound and the ways gender and race might intersect in the soundscape (76-105). As we learn to become more “ear-oriented” scholars, in other words, we come to perceive power, oppression, and agency in entirely new ways.

One of the most immediately gendered sound categories is the human voice, a richly historical convergence of human biology, technology and culture. We can and do hear gender in most human vocalizations; linguists seem to agree that, when listening to adult (non-elderly) voices speaking above a whisper “gender determination is usually a simple task” (See, for example, David Puts, Steven Gaulin and Katherine Verdolini in “Dominance and the Evolution of Sexual Dimorphism in Human Voice Pitch” and Michael Jessen in “Speaker Classification in Forensic Phonetics and Acoustics”). When we hear a voice without visual referent, as in the airplane example above or when listening to the radio, we immediately tend to classify the voices as “male” or “female.”

"my vocal cords." by Flickr user Dan Simpson, CC BY-NC 2.0

“my vocal cords.” by Flickr user Dan Simpson, CC BY-NC 2.0

Voice differences have roots in biological sex difference. With the onset of puberty, the larynx is enlarged and vocal folds increase in length and in thickness, resulting in a decrease in frequency (Hz) of vocal fold vibration and thus a lowering of voice pitch. But while bodies classified as biologically female experience about a one-half octave average drop in voice pitch with puberty, biological males tend to experience a full octave average drop in pitch, with the result being that adult male voices tend to operate within a lower frequency range than female voices. However, gendered constructions of the human voice vary widely over time and place.

Biology (body size, hormonal secretions, age, and other physiological factors) is no way destiny when it comes to the human voice. Linguists distinguish between “anatomical voice quality features,” which in essence set the parameters of comfortable pitch range given a person’s vocal anatomy (the range outside of which is difficult to easily maintain one’s speaking voice) and “voice quality settings,” which refers to where someone places their voice within that range (See Monique Adriana Johanna Biemans’ thesis, Gender variation in voice quality.) Bound to some degree by these physiological parameters, humans can and do place their voices in ways that are consistent with the performative aspects of gender, and voice pitch is both highly variable and subject to cultural/historical framing and self-fashioning (For more on this subject, see Anne Karpf, The Human Voice: How this Extraordinary Instrument Reveals Essential Clues About Who We Are, 2006). Thus like other aspects of gender, voice is culturally and historically constructed and performative.

Conceptualizing the voice as a sonic expression of the gendered body requires revisiting both the tendency of feminist scholars to equate “women’s voice” with writing or discourse, and the tendency of some media scholars to refer to voices without immediate visual referent (in film, radio) as “disembodied.” In their Introduction to Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture (1997), Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones concisely articulate the challenge for scholars interested in the sonic/acoustic dimensions of women’s voices:

Feminists have used the word “voice” to refer to a wide range of aspirations: cultural agency, political enfranchisement, sexual autonomy, and expressive freedom, all of which have been historically denied to women. In this context, “voice” has become a metaphor for textual authority…This metaphor has become so pervasive, so intrinsic to feminist discourse that it makes us too easily forget (or repress) the concrete physical dimensions of the female voice upon which this metaphor was based. (1)

Thinking about voice in terms of vocal gender brings us to the complex relationship between voice and body. The concept of disembodiment conveys the sometimes uncanny effect of hearing (especially female) voices without an immediately discernible source. It also underscores the destabilizing effect of these unseen female voices liberated thus from patriarchy’s specular regime. Yet to refer to voices from an unseen source as “disembodied” is to suggest that the voice is somehow separate from the body, a problematic formulation.

"Untitled" by Flickr user  Luci Correia, CC BY 2.0

“Untitled” by Flickr user Luci Correia, CC BY 2.0

Simply: if the voice is not the body, what is it? Even when it travels over long distances (via telephone or radio, for example) and/or if its source remains out of sight, the body is there, present via the sound vibrations it produces. Stepping away from concepts like disembodiment frees us to explore the nuances of the relationship between the voice and the body, and the presence of gendered bodies in the soundscape, particularly with regard to the vertiginous relationships between bodies and voices that are gendered female.

Gender and history impact how we read the tone, velocity and pitch of the voice, but they also shape parameters of where and when particular voices are invited to speak or expected to remain silent. And here of course we encounter the ways gender hierarchy is expressed and constructed in the acoustic/vocal arena, as well as racial categorization. Kathleen Hall Jamieson puts it succinctly in Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking (1990): “History has many themes. One of them is that women should be quiet” (67). While by no means absent, women’s voices have remained largely outside of the realm of what Schafer calls “signal”: sounds listened to consciously and that often convey messages and/of authority. Just as other aspects of gender inequality become naturalized, patriarchy tunes our ears to listen to certain voices differently. In these formulations, women’s voices are thus subject to categorization as “noise” or “unwanted sound” (see Mike Goldsmith, Discord: The Story of Noise) and therefore dissonant, disruptive, and potentially dangerous.

The discomfort (or dissonance) with women’s voices, especially women’s voices speaking publicly and/or with authority, carried over into and shaped the history of radio, making early and golden age broadcasting an ideal venue for an historical exploration of gender and voice. What did it mean to hear women’s voices on the radio? How did radio rework the gendered dimensions of public and private space, and by extension the place of the female voice in the public sphere?

The emergence of radio in the early twentieth century was part of a larger revolution in human communication which Walter Ong termed in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing the Word (1983) a “secondary orality,” an historical moment which reawakened older oral traditions and communal listening in a very different historical and technological context (3). It also reawakened a focus on the human voice, with all of its implications for the gendered soundscape.

"Jane Hoffman, Tobey Weinberg, Ruth Goodman, and Amelia Romano read for a radio broadcast about the Triangle Fire" by Flickr user Kheel Center, CC BY 2.0

“Jane Hoffman, Tobey Weinberg, Ruth Goodman, and Amelia Romano read for a radio broadcast about the Triangle Fire” by Flickr user Kheel Center, CC BY 2.0

In many parts of the world, the rise of radio also coincided with an upsurge in feminist politics and discourses calling for women’s full citizenship and other related matters. As Kate Lacey notes in Feminine Frequencies: Gender, German Radio and the Public Sphere 1923-1945 (1997), “the arrival of radio heralded the modern era of mass communication, while women’s enfranchisement confirmed the onset of mass politics in the twentieth century.” Researching the history of women and radio – and particularly the sometimes hostile reactions to women’s radio voices – led me to appreciate the ways gender is performed and perceived via the voice, and from there into larger questions about the way social hierarchies – of gender, but also of race/ethnicity, class and sexuality – are reproduced and challenged within the sonic realm.

In this way we can better begin to contemplate the historical significance of women’s radio speech in understanding the sonic construction of gender. Depending on content and context, these voices carried the potential to not only challenge taboos on women’s oratory, but to assert the female body into spaces from which it had previously been excluded—like the cockpits (can’t help but note the name here) of commercial airliners.

Featured image: “ateliers claus – 140522 – monophonic – Radio Femmes Fatales” by Flickr user fabonthemoon, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Christine Ehrick is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Louisville. Her second book, Radio and the Gendered Soundscape in Latin America: Women and Broadcasting in Argentina and Uruguay, 1930-1950 will be published by Cambridge University Press in Fall 2015. This book explores women’s presence and especially their voices – on the airwaves in the two leading South American radio markets of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Her current work looks at comedy, gender and voice, with a focus on mid-twentieth century Argentine comedians Niní Marshall and Tomás Simari.

Thanks to Cambridge UP for allowing me to use some excerpts from the forthcoming book in this essay.

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Look Who’s Talking, Y’all: Dr. Phil, Vocal Accent and the Politics of Sounding White– Christie Zwahlen

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonefant

Heard Any Good Games Recently?: Listening to the Sportscape–Kaj Ahlsved

Of Sound Machines and Recording, Sharing that Transcends Time and Space

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This is the conclusion to a two-part post by SO! regular writer Maile Colbert.  Read Part One from Monday, January 12th here.

As we are primarily a visual culture, no longer connected to what environments can tell us through sound, we’ve lost aural acuity once central to the dynamic of our lives.

From what we have just begun to see, it appears that ancient human beings had learned well the lessons imparted by natural sounds. Their lives depended as much (if not more) on their ability to hear and understand the audio information imparted by their surroundings as those given by visual cues. –Bernard Krause, Ph.D The Soundscape Newsletter 06, June, 1993

Birth 

All newborns emerge with the same cry, it is near impossible to distinguish one from another, even as a mother. This could be for many reasons and serve many purposes. Should something happen to a birth mother, the indistinguishable cry may help draw attention from another. It could be that, considering niche effect (in which animals adapt their calls to a frequency less populated by other environmental sounds), aside from biological reasons, a newborn’s cry is shaped by the wombscape from whence it came, and I speculate that generally speaking one wombscape is similar to another. Primarily what a fetus is hearing is low frequency. So it would serve that they would have an instinct to initially call out in a high frequency range. The baby then develops its cry according to its surrounding, such as a household in the city versus a country, a household with other children or not, a household with constant media sound.

My daughter has the most incredible earsplitting high frequency bark when she wants attention. If this doesn’t work (such as when “Baby, Mama has to wash the garden manure from her hands before she picks you up”), she’ll roll into a gritty horrific low growl that sounds like she’s being strangled. One of these always works, and I often wonder about these sounds’ relationship to the white noise (her specific mix in a more mid-range involving pink noise and a “rain on roof” recording) that has been a constant since her birth, and is still used for naps, some feedings, and bedtime.

 

Sound Machines and Noise

From my late pregnancy insomnia, to creating a calming environment in the labor room at the hospital, to keeping a consistent calming environment in the recovery room, to using that sound as a signal that it is time to calm, time to sleep…a sound machine has been a constant already in my daughter’s new world. It started with an app in Paris, at a festival during my third trimester, my waddling condition wouldn’t allow me to walk around much nor meet friends for drinks, etc. So I choose to stay in the hotel room and read. The fetal babe wasn’t in the mood to read, kicking and dancing, perhaps excited from the music at the festival. For a little while I played with her, her kicking in response to my pokes and prods. But soon I knew we both needed to both settle down. I was always fascinated by my parents’ sound machine as a child, it seemed something magical. I found and downloaded an app that allowed you to create your own mix, and so it began.

But recent research poses the question of whether a sound machine can actually affect hearing development. Some researchers have questioned if prolonged exposure to consistent sound could affect auditory pathways to the brain. I wonder what then of infants who grow up near, say, the ocean…or like my mother near a stream and small waterfall, a constant sound in her childhood and soundtrack to her memories from then. Or near a busy road or even walkway. Of course I want the babe to grow up to enjoy and focus on a varied soundscape. But at certain points, the noise has been a lifesaver! It’s been especially useful now combatting construction sounds, as babies tend to focus on background sounds, most likely for survival:

.

Of course it is very important to be aware of the strength of the sound a baby is exposed to, all too easy for our very visual culture to ignore. Even a sound machine with the volume too high, or the proximity too close, could reach decibels over 80, a threshold that could cause the tiny hair cells in the ear needed for hearing to die. As we lose these, we start to lose our hearing. The amount of energy in a sound doubles with even just a three decibel climb. If any sound makes it difficult to hold a regular conversation, chances are it’s past this threshold and could be doing damage. Our world is in many ways getting increasingly louder. As our cities grow, its sounds grow, and we are exposed to more constant and louder soundscapes. Will an accidental evolution be for us to adapt to losing our hearing? For me of course, this is a very bleak thought.

 

Death

Your words are preserved in the tin foil and will come back upon the application of the instrument years after you are dead in exactly the same tone of voice you spoke in then. . . . This tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, dumb, voiceless matter, nevertheless mimics your tones, speaks with your voice, speaks with your words, and centuries after you have crumbled into dust will repeat again and again, to a generation that could never know you, every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word that you chose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm.

-Edison’s Ars Memoria, concept for the phonograph

Kauai O'O

Kaua’i `O’o, extinct since 1987

A recorded sound transcends time. It allows a listener to share a space and perspective with the recordist. It allows a future people to hear the songs of people passed, and of their shared past. It allows for an extinct bird to call into the future, for a child to hear that bird and wonder, and question, and to have that question affect her future and therefore perhaps the future of others. I often think about what soundscapes or sound I have experienced that my daughter might not have the opportunity to experience when she’s older. Already since my childhood growing up in part in Hawaii, three birds I knew, I had heard, that my mother grew up with, that her father grew up with, that his parents grew up with (and so on)…are no longer calling in the wild. But what the world and I can share with her and her generation, can give her, can leave her, are recordings.

Kaua’i `O’o: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/6031

Po’ouli: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/5125

Hawaiian Crow: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/13434

The library I am constantly creating, shaped by my choice and perspective…where to hit start, when to stop, where to point the mic, what equipment to use, how to frame this aural moment that captured me and invoked the desire to save and to share.

I think of this very often these days, as a friend and great soundscape ecologist and composer has passed. Steve Miller (www.stevemiller.net ) left a wealth of music, sound, and writing that his daughter and family can share. His daughter will be able to put on headphones and share a space her father formed with his perspective, his choices, his interests. A sharing active with him.

A sharing that transcends time and space.

 

The artist and her daughter in the studio, Image by JS

The artist and her daughter in the studio, Image by JS

 .

Future Memory, for Odette

Sound has a hold over my daughter in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. It’s almost a punch line that the daughter of two parents that work with and study sound would have such sensitivity. The smallest sounds can pull her from sleep, can pull her from eating. They can be a character for her, making her laugh, cry, yawn, widen her eyes in amazement.

It was only natural my partner and I decided to make an album as a gift to our daughter. We had wanted to do the same marking our history together years back, and had various sound recordings and unfinished ditties in a library marked “Future Memory.”  The idea behind it was an aural coming together of our history and feelings expressed and translated through sound and song. We realized, of course, in many ways this was Odette’s history as well, and she our future.

The album became Future Memory, for Odette, a lullaby album in dedication and celebration to her, and including sounds from her growing in the womb, soundscapes we hope will be a part of her life, and in recording them in some way ensuring that, a score written for her while I was in labor from a friend, songs her father and I began and finished together during the stages of pregnancy, birth, and her first year, and collaborations and contributions in sound and music from family and friends would be her legacy.

This is her first song:

Dedicated to Odette Helen, and to the family, daughter, and memory of Steve Miller

“Future Memory, for Odette” to be released in 2015 through Wild Silence (www.wild-silence.com ). A dedication album to a new born daughter…a mix of her parents’ recorded and shared sounds, memories, hopes, and dreams towards a future with her. Sounds of her womb-scape, birth, and first year…music in collaboration with friends and family across oceans and land…an album of lullabies for Odette.

Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonenfant

This Is Your Body on the Velvet Underground– Jacob Smith

Sound Designing Motherhood: Irene Lusztig & Maile Colbert Open The Motherhood Archives– Maile Colbert

 

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