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Sounding Out! Podcast #34: Sonia Li’s “Whale”

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Reflecting on Whale, an interactive, multichannel sound installation, this sound art piece documents how the installation came about. When designing Whale, Sonia Li used sound to communicate the often visceral emotions underlying her personal narrative.

Whale creates an environment where one experiences oneself. By laying in darkness on a subsonic vibrating bed, users openly confess their thoughts and feelings into a sonic field, which then translates their words into correlating amplitudes of whale sounds. This process of transduction prompts listeners to consider how sound works to shape a perception of themselves as they hear a distant and alien rendering of their own voice. By experiencing Whale we can consider how sound challenges our physiological and psychological perceptions of self.

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Sonia Li is a Brooklyn based artist, designer, and creative technologist. She holds a Masters in Interactive Design from ITP/NYU, 2014, and a BFA in Interdisciplinary Sculpture/Papermaking from SUNY Purchase, 2005.

Sonia has performed with musicians, exhibited in various group shows, and has been featured on various websites such as Prosoundnetwork.com, create-hub.com, modcloth.com blog, and fashionista.com. She produced soundscapes for the Poison exhibition/iPad app at the American Museum of Natural History, worked in Art Direction for film, architectural lighting, and Art Studio Manager positions.

Sonia is currently working on designing private art storage facilities and personal projects. To find out more about her work, go to www.soniali.org/artandtech

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Toward a Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or ReSounding Binghamton – Jennifer Stoever

Sounding Out! Podcast #21: Jonathan Skinner at the Rutgers University Center for Cultural Analysis – Jonathan Skinner

Playing with Bits, Pieces, and Lightning Bolts: An Interview with Sound Artist Andrea Parkins – Maile Colbert

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice

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Sound and Pleasure2After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul–a three part “Inside the Game Sound Designer’s Studio”– and a post on sound and black women’s sexual freedom from SO! Regular Regina Bradley, our summer Sound and Pleasure series keeps doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well, this week with a beautiful set of meditations from scholar, artist, performer, and voice activist, Yvon Bonenfant. EVERYBODY SCREAM!!!--JS, Editor-in-Chief

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What I have to say about sound and pleasure can mostly be summed up this way: everyone deserves to take profound pleasure in their body’s sound.

Not only this, everyone deserves to both engage passionately with social sound and negotiate the exchange of social sound on pleasurable terms.

Like other expressive systems, however, these inalienable sonic human rights are mostly ignored, curtailed, or otherwise ‘disciplined and punished’ in the Foucauldian sense by our social systems.  So, we are mostly neurotic, or otherwise hung up on, what kinds of sounds we make, where and when. We fetishise sound, particularly virtuosically framed sound, because it is part of a series of sublimated impulses, or we repress it because we think we aren’t supposed to emit it, or we ignore it.

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"DSC_0296" by Flickr user Anastasia CW, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“DSC_0296″ by Flickr user Anastasia CW, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In any given human relationship within which all parties can vocalize, the voice is an evident, key relational tool. It is full of gesture and meaning and text and sends rapid-fire, complex, layered, even self-contradictory or oxymoronic messages. It is a truly tangled web, and of course, for those who can use speech, transmits language.

However, I’d like to disentangle our sound from our language for a moment. Indeed, sound is not necessary in order to develop and transmit linguistically carried ideas, information and impulses. It has long been accepted that sign languages are fully developed languages, with intricate grammatical systems, vocabularies, and all of the other features of spoken languages.  It is thus not necessary to use sound as a carrier of language. Yet if we have a voice, we almost always use sound to carry our language. And we force deaf people to try to fake having a voice and to fake listening to voices through lip reading and gesturing.

The last twenty years has seen a real boom in speculation and even scientific experiments that theorise why human bodily sound – the most evident aspect of which is our vocal sound – is so important to us. Musicology, biomusicology, evolutionary psychology, neuropsychology, and cultural studies of many kinds have tried to account for this. I have my own favorite reason, one I’ve tried to describe in a number of scholarly articles. This is that sound is much like touch. Like, yet unalike. It reaches and vibrates bodies, but at distance. It voyages through space in other ways, but it evokes haptic responses.

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Sound isn’t solid, but it takes up space. This is expressed by Stephen Connor within his concept of the vocalic body.  When we sound, there is a resonant field of vibration that moves through matter, which behaves according to the laws of physics – it vibrates molecules. This vibratory field leaves us, but is of us, and it voyages through space. Other people hear it. Other people feel it.

"GAELLE" by Flickr user Pauline Thomas, CC BY-NC 2.0

“GAELLE” by Flickr user Pauline Thomas, CC BY-NC 2.0

I’ve said that sound is like touch. However, one key way that it is not like touch is that it can do this thing. It can leave our bodies and travel away from us. We don’t need to grip it. We don’t need to hold on. And once emanated, it is out of our control.

More than one emanation can co-exist within matter. Their vibrations interact with one another, waves colliding and travelling in similar or different directions, and the vocalic bodies that they represent are morphed, hybridized: they intersect and invent composite bodies.

We hear the resulting harmonies. Historically policed into ‘consonances’ and ‘dissonances’, we have the power to let the negativizing connotations of either of these words go and simply hear the results of the collisions. Voices sounding simultaneously create choreographies of gesture that can be jubilant, depressing, assertive, aggressive, delightful, morose… or many of these simultaneously and in rapid alternation.

The fields of human sound in which we bathe are a continually self-knitting web of sensation. They are full of gestures pregnant with intention, filled with improvisatory spontaneity, success, failure and experimentation. They are filled with a desire to act upon matter, and to reach and engage one another.

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My Ukrainian-origin mother was ‘loud’, I guess, at least by Anglo-Saxon standards, and her voice was timbrally very rich. And my father was a radio announcer (he disliked being called a DJ immensely, even though he worked in commercial radio and worked on shows that spun discs – he preferred being associated with talking). His voice was also very rich, as well as extremely crafted. It could be pointed and severe: a weapon. He had professional command of its qualities. We were not a quiet family; none of us were vocal wallflowers. But were our soundings pleasure-filled? Certainly, we were allowed to make lots of sound in some circumstances. However, just being allowed to be loud – though it might sometimes be a pleasure – does not necessarily lead to a pleasure-filled dynamic. Weightlifting makes us stronger, but it doesn’t necessarily feel good.

The amount of sound and whether ‘lots’ of it, or heightenings of its qualities – lots of amplitude, or lots of other kinds of distinctness, let’s say things like pitch or emotional timbre – are key variable features of family life in our cultures. Sound takes us directly into the meatiest of interpersonal dynamics – the dynamics of space and gesture, the dynamics of who takes up space with their sound and when. Families are, of course, microcosms of this sonic dynamic, but any group within which we generate relationships and encounters is subject to this dynamic, too. Our very own bodies end up developing what Thomas Csordas might call a ‘somatic mode’ that embodies our experience of these dynamics.

"Scream" by Flickr user madamepsychosis, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Scream” by Flickr user madamepsychosis, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Whether we start from psychodynamic, neuropsychiatric, or even habitus-based  models, it’s clear that repressing the expression of bodily sound regulates breathing impulses and other metabolic processes in ways that might become, well, habits.

Let’s put this in other ways.

The classic, Freudian, psychodynamic model of neurosis – as disputed as it is, and with all of its colonial, sexist, homophobic, racist and even abuse-denying overtones – did at least one thing for our understanding of what repressed emotion does. Repressed emotion affects the body.

Today, a popular understanding of this kind of emotional repression from a biophysical perspective might be: the use of the conscious mind to hold back emotional flow, and along with it, the emotional qualities of certain associations,  memories, or even the content of the memories themselves.

Repressing this thing we might call emotional flow represses the voice. The literal, physical voice. Now, this kind of repression of the voice can become what Freudians would call unconscious. To allow it out isn’t any longer a choice that can be made, because we’re so used to holding back, that we don’t realize we’re doing it any more.

Somatics have taught us, through the contended practices of the body psychotherapies descended from Wilhelm Reich’s work, or Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering, or any numerous other somatic practices – from certain styles of yoga through to Zen meditation and beyond – that emotional flow is at least partly dependent on how we breathe. And neuropsychology and physiology bear this out.

"Screaming Out My Hell" by Flickr user L'Orso Sul Monociclo, CC BY 2.0

“Screaming Out My Hell” by Flickr user L’Orso Sul Monociclo, CC BY 2.0

Whatever might ‘cause’ an emotion – and the roots of the causes of emotion are a source of debate – once it gets going, it isn’t just a thought process. Emotion is meaty and full of pumping hormones and breath pattern alterations and gestures and rushes of fluid. Chemicals get released. Chemicals get washed away. Heart rates speed up and slow down. Our breath rises and falls and its patterns change. Digestion patterns speed up or slow down or get interrupted. What happens in the body affects the body. What happens in the body affects the voice. Ever heard that kind of voice that seems hardened against the world? Or that media voice – the voice that is carefully shaped to invoke reason? Maybe these vocalisers can never let go of that sound: maybe it’s the only sound they can do, now. It’s just too habitual to let it change.

So, these habits can become so habitual that we don’t notice them anymore. We might change our breathing in some way to modify our expressive states. Because the exact nature of the sound our voices make is exquisitely dependent on how we breathe, and on everything else we do with our bodies, it then changes as well. Our choices to not let impulses flow – and the breath is only one bodily impulse among many –  get caught up in this web. What were once choices can become embedded, difficult, and stubborn. To go far beyond the psychoanalytic and neurophysiological models, we can end up embodying a culture of these choices, and invent together a cultural body that regulates vocal sound based on groups of people making similar choices or playing by similar rules of sonic exchange.

This can end up perpetuating itself within our very tissues, and it can be an incredibly subtle dynamic to identify and shift. The way we embody the complexities of how we structure our physical and psychological engagement with the world – the ways we breathe, look, move, gesture… the ensemble of these is how Bourdieu defined the habitus. Where these complexities start and end is perhaps an infinite loop, a continual cycle of turning and exchange and influence flowing from ourselves to our culture and back again. Our bodies are cultural, counter-cultural, infra-cultural, extra-cultural bodies: we react to culture; we interact with it: we take positions.

Sound – who gets to do it, and when and how – is negotiated, with others, but also, within our own bodies. The traces that others leave there, the things we might call sonic and vocal inhibitions, tensions, these held-back-nesses, eventually become ours to carry, live with, and/or dissolve. They are gifted to us by our culture…. by our environment… by our experience … and by our bodies themselves.

We negotiate sounding.

Pleasure is negotiated, too.

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"Quiet" by Flickr user Leo Reynolds, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Quiet” by Flickr user Leo Reynolds, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

We do this to our children: we shut them up. Oh, of course, we also facilitate their sound, and some do this more than others. But even if we give them sonic liberty at home, someone will shut them up, somewhere. We all know and we all remember being silenced as children by somebody, or at least, made to raise our hands in a classroom to ensure one speaker at a time, chosen by the authority in question. Later, teenagers, more often girls than boys, are called mouthy. The mouth: implicitly loud, and if too active, implicitly offensive. The term has been used against feminists, every identity we might include within LGBTI+, African-Americans, and the list goes on.

The wet, open, loud, loud mouth, just ready to mouth off, just ready to make trouble with its irritating, nasty, and above all, bothersome noise – bothersome because it makes us have to react – to have to consider the existence, the needs, the demands of those we might otherwise ignore – that moist orifice can be a source of great pleasure.

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And on the score of that poor mouthy mouth, let’s consider some other colloquial terms, like ‘sucker’. Sucking is bad, apparently. It expresses need. Thumb out of the mouth! Stop wanting intimacy, reassurance, warmth, contact, and above all stop wanting to satisfy your hard-wired, biological need to suck for comfort and food (my little child). And you there, you sexually active adult! You fucking cocksucker. You ass-licker. That gaping mouth should shut itself up: its gooey pleasures are disgusting. These pleasures involve direct skin-to-skin contact.

Perhaps there is a revolution to be had, in the simple facilitation of gape-mouthed drool.

The vocal tract – that long tunnel surrounded by tongue and palates and teeth and various bits of throat, with at its bottom, the resonant buzz of elastic membranes, through which air is squeezed – also grips the world with direct contact. It’s not just a resonating and sound-shaping cave.

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"Whistling Boy by Frank Duveneck" by Flickr user Mary Harrsch, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Whistling Boy by Frank Duveneck” by Flickr user Mary Harrsch, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I’m making some artworks for children and families right now, and I group them together under the project moniker “Your Vivacious Voice” [See SO! Amplifies post from 6/19/14 to learn more about the free Voice Bubbles App aspect of YB’s project—ed]. I’m collaborating with some scientists and clinician-scientists on this project. They all work with the voice – in psycholinguistics, in understanding infant language acquisition, in voice medicine, and even in laryngeal surgery. We interview these scientists, and use inspiration from our conversations as sources of metaphors for art-making.

One of these is the head Speech and Language Therapist at the Royal National Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in London, Dr Ruth Epstein. She sees and/or oversees some of the most difficult cases of vocal problems in the whole of the UK. When we asked her what concerns she’d most like us to address in artworks for children and families, she responded along the lines of: please, find a way to get through to them that voice is contact, human contact. She has begun using communication skills, such as eye contact and turn-taking exercises, in addition to vocal skills,  in families with children who have injured voices – because she realized at some point that in many of these families, the near exclusive modality of contact was yelling: yelling without contact – without relationship.

The contactless yell is the thrashing arm that somehow remains alone in a void. It’s a yell that might strike if it lands on other flesh, but somehow doesn’t grip, and can’t convert to a caress. It can’t hold… it only punches.

This reminds me of a rockish tune by Carole Pope and Rough Trade from the Canadiana of my childhood – the refrain went:

It hit me like, it hit me like, it hit me like a slap, oh-oh-oh, all touch…
All touch and all touch and no contact…..

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Back to our children, and to us.

Bodily sound can be a pointed weapon. It can be violent, in that it can frighten, dominate, attack, evoke deep fear, and engage other mechanisms of terror and control and subjugation, and that it can attempt to annihilate our ability to recognize the existence of others. We can drown out others’ sounds. We can drown out their gesture. We can drown their vocalic bodies in our own through amplitude and clashes of timbral spectra. We can shut them up.

Let us consider, here, the desire for amplification and how amplified sound represents an exaggeration of this power, a cybernetic enhancement of the ability to dominate with our emanating waves. We can drown out the social ability for whole groups to hear anyone but ourselves.

However, if, in our cultural environments, everyone is allowed to sound – if, indeed, we facilitate social environments in which everyone’s sound is welcome, then those who are subjected to vocal and sonic violence have an incredible counter-power to this power: they have the power to make sound too.

Although making sound back to violent sound, back to annihilating sound, is not always easy, possible or permitted, it is a power that can’t be easily erased. And we can almost always feel, if not cognitively hear, our own sound vibrate within our own skulls and through our own bones, no matter what is coming from the outside, no matter what waves of vocalic body are streaming toward us. Our sound waves continue to exist, even if transformed.

"Mouthing Off" by Flickr user Demi-Brooke, CC BY 2.0

“Mouthing Off” by Flickr user Demi-Brooke, CC BY 2.0

We can give voice to ourselves. We can change our habits. We can expand away from them.

It isn’t even necessary to fight back. It’s only necessary to vibrate.

And we can take it further.

We can actively encourage each other’s sound. We can actively encourage our children’s sound. We can actively encourage social sound. We can actively encourage a dance with others’ voices. We can facilitate, make space for, enjoy being touched by, the uniqueness of other voices. We can play with how our voices collide and create children with the vocalic bodies of others. After all, our composite vocal bodies are the products of our intensive exchange. We can jublilate in the massages we receive by making our own sound, by vibrating our own skulls, flesh, blood, lymph, interstitial fluid, and the air near us, and we can make it so that we can engage in passionate exchange with the vibrations of others.

This might be something like music. Or other kinds of art. Or it might be simple conversation. Or it might be cooing with a baby. Or it might be making comforting sounds while a toddler cries. Or it might be screaming with rage together.

What it always is, though, is focusing on, opening up to, enjoying the dynamics of the dance of individual, idiosyncratic, messy, fleshly, bodily, sonic emanations reacting with one another.

In the end, the policing of our sound is under our control. We can find ways to unpolice, and enjoy the unbridledness of our sound.

Our bodily sound is a means of engaging passionately with relationship and of glorying in its results.

Featured image: “Faces 529″ by Flickr user Greg Peverill-Conti, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Yvon Bonenfant is Reader in Performing Arts at the University of Winchester. He likes voices that do what voices don’t usually do, and he likes bodies that don’t do what bodies usually do. He makes art starting from these sounds and movements. These unusual, intermedia works have been produced in 10 countries in the last 10 years, and his writing published in journals such as Performance Research, Choreographic Practices, and Studies in Theatre and Performance. He currently holds a Large Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust and funding from Arts Council England to collaborate with speech scientists on the development of a series of participatory, extra-normal voice artworks for children and families; see www.yourvivaciousvoice.com. Despite his air of Lenin, he does frighteningly accurate vocal imitations of both Axl Rose and Jon Bon Jovi. www.yvonbonenfant.com.

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Experiments in Aural Resistance: Nordic Role-Playing, Community, and Sound– Aaron Trammell

This Is Your Body on the Velvet Underground– Jacob Smith

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

SO! Amplifies: Yvon Bonenfant’s Voice Bubbles App

VB app still 1

Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

During a preview of the UK tour of my performance Beacons, I noticed something intriguing. There were a couple of children in the audience, and they were singing along with me. I mean, not just singing – doing all kinds of vocal things along with me.

You have to understand that I’m an extended – or I now prefer the term extra-normal – vocalist. I make artwork from the ‘weird’ qualities of the voice. Now, the term weird, when it comes to the voice, is always culturally relative. But let’s face it – in almost any of the industrialized cultures, we don’t exactly let the voice go wild, and so the category of “weird” is pretty large and full. Our cultures are a Freudian fiesta of vocal repression and sublimation. When’s the last time you heard a heartfelt, loose, easy series of adult sobs at a business meeting, or a wail of deep mourning at a funeral? When it comes to the voice, we’re pretty uptight.

However, here were some children absolutely letting loose and going along for the ride. This has happened before. During my piece Soie Soyeuse, during which I wrap the audience in habotai silk, some children got right into it. I was five feet away making really incredibly ‘ugly’ chewing noises and groans of gnashing teeth and they delightedly voiced along.

Right now, everything’s becoming user-driven. The audience loves to co-make art. And why not? So I thought: let’s go for broke, here. Let’s try to create some environments and experiences in which kids (and the kid in all of us) can really explore what their voices can do. Let’s give them freedom to experiment. Let’s reward them for wildness. Let’s try to make it child and family friendly, but beautiful and rich and somehow sensual, despite the limitations of the tablet format. I worked like a dog to get financing. I collaborated with scientists. And so, Voice Bubbles for iPad was born.

It’s free, thanks to our funders. It’s got no silly pop up ads and in-app purchases. Kids love it and will use it for hours, happily. It lets them record, improvise, structure and add effects to their voices. They can play back little sequences or structured phrases. They can fool with what else their voices can do and be.

VB app still 2

It makes them feel, and makes we adults question, just why we need to keep the voice so under wraps when it’s a source of so much playful joy and intense engagement. Give it to a child to enjoy. Enjoy it yourself.

www.voicebubblesapp.com or from the app store.

*You can explore other related artworks at www.yourvivaciousvoice.com

Yvon Bonenfant is Reader in Performing Arts at the University of Winchester. He likes voices that do what voices don’t usually do, and he likes bodies that don’t do what bodies usually do. He makes art starting from these sounds and movements. These unusual, intermedia works have been produced in 10 countries in the last 10 years, and his writing published in journals such as Performance Research, Choreographic Practices, and Studies in Theatre and Performance. He currently holds a Large Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust and funding from Arts Council England to collaborate with speech scientists on the development of a series of participatory, extra-normal voice artworks for children and families; see www.yourvivaciousvoice.com. Despite his air of Lenin, he does frighteningly accurate vocal imitations of both Axl Rose and Jon Bon Jovi. www.yvonbonenfant.com.


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SO! Amplifies: Regina Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations Regina Bradley

This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith

Digital Analogies: Techniques of Sonic Play–Roger Moseley

This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground

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Start a band3 (1)

“Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Brian Eno’s remark about the Velvet Underground’s brilliant but commercially lackluster 1967 debut album was re-circulated widely last October, when fans and critics mourned the passing of Lou Reed, lead songwriter for the band, and a key cultural figure of the last fifty years, by any metric.

The remark has become trite through overuse, but not the sentiment it captures. A band that has, since even before before Andy Warhol’s Factory, been linked to an aesthetic of menace, hysteria and psychosis didn’t just “inspire” or “provoke” much of the music, art and sensibilities of the post-1960’s. It extruded that era.

At Sounding Out!, we decided that in order to come to grips with Reed’s work in general (and the Velvet Underground in particular) from a Sound Studies perspective we’d have to adopt that spirit of provocation. I asked two prominent writers in the field for articles about how this band changed — and continues to change — the experience and history of sound, in a short series Start A Band: Lou Reed and Sound Studies. I’m thrilled to present the first of our articles from returning author Jacob Smith from Northwestern University, a musician and accomplished author of several distinguished books on sound and media history. Stay tuned next week for a second installment from Tim Anderson from Old Dominion University, an award winning writer and co-chair of the Sound Studies SIG at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

–NV

Lou Reed’s recent death has inspired many critics to return to his groundbreaking work with the Velvet Underground (VU). Albums such as “The Velvet Underground and Nico” (1967), “White Light/White Heat” (1968) and “The Velvet Underground” (1969) have the reputation of influencing everyone from David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Roxy Music to the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, REM and Nirvana. Many recent obituaries describe VU in literary terms, citing Reed’s “lyrical honesty,” “rock and roll poetry,” and touting his songs as “serious writing” and even a kind of “Great American Novel.” There is much to be missed by taking such a decidedly literary approach to sound recordings, and there is an alternative approach, thanks to the emergence of Sound Studies as a vibrant academic field. Can what Jonathan Sterne has called the “interdisciplinary ferment” of Sound Studies help us to re-think the work of this seminal rock band (The Sound Studies Reader, 2)? I think it can.

For a start, Sound Studies emboldens us to base our analysis on VU’s records, which have often been oddly upstaged by other aspects of their career: Reed’s street-level lyrics to be sure; but also the group’s role as background music to Andy Warhol’s Factory; or their use of drones and feedback, which makes them a footnote in the history of avant-garde music; or their influence on the glam and punk explosions of the 1970s. Sound Studies encourages us to start with VU’s records, but the next step is not necessarily a formal musicological analysis.

white lightFor some of its proponents, including Steven Connor, Sound Studies is best understood as part of a broader investigation of the “fertility of the relations” between the senses, and VU’s albums turn out to be an excellent place to begin an exploration of the multisensory experience of recorded sound (“Edison’s Teeth: Touching Hearing,” in Hearing Cultures, ed. Viet Erlmann, 54). This essay explores the tactile experience of VU’s records, inspired by work on the tactile dimension of the cinema. I borrow the organizational structure of Jennifer M. Barker’s book The Tactile Eye, which moves from a discussion of sensations at the surface of the body, to muscular responses, and lastly, to the “the murky recesses of the body, where heart, lungs, pulsing fluids, and firing synapses receive, respond to, and reenact the rhythms of cinema” (2-3). Think of this essay as a body-scan of the VU listening experience (“this is your body on VU”) that follows a similar path from the skin, to the musculature, and finally, to the viscera.

Downy Sins

Writing about the tactile experience of movies is concerned with modes of looking that resemble touching, a “haptic visuality” that attends to textures and surfaces, and moves over the image like a caress (See Laura U. Marks The Skin of the Film, 183 and Touch, 117). A form of “haptic listening” has also been commonplace in the culture of popular sound recordings. Much of the recorded popular music of the past century has invested meaning in what Theodore Gracyk calls “very specific sound qualities and their textural combination” (Rhythm and Noise, 61). From Bo Diddley to Aphex Twin, pop recordings have tended to stress evocative timbres, idiosyncratic voices, and signature sounds over structural or lyrical complexity.

VU’s records exemplify that tendency because their complexity can be found more on the level of timbre than in musical structure or instrumentation. Moreover, Reed’s lyrics often encourage a blurring of listening and touching. On “Venus in Furs,” listeners are prompted to hear John Cale’s viola stabs as the licks and bites of a mistress’s whip. “Sister Ray” cues haptic listening by chugging resolutely on a single chord for seventeen minutes, while a plasmatic organ performance mutates from elegant bass arpeggios to shimmering waves of icy noise. As with “Venus in Furs,” Reed’s lyrics tie the textural complexity of “Sister Ray” to the surface of the body, through his descriptions of searching the skin of his arm for a “mainline” vein, and a first-person account of receiving oral sex. These examples demonstrate that the poetry of Reed’s lyrics is intimately bound up with the sonic texture of VU’s recordings, and moreover, that he was adept at liberating the erotic potential of haptic listening.

Run Run Run

Films can produce an empathetic muscular response in the viewer’s body, as when we flinch in response to a horror film, or clench our fists while watching a thrilling action movie (Barker, The Tactile Eye 94, 83, 72). Listeners can have similarly empathetic relationships with recorded sound when they move along with the rhythms of a dance record, synchronize their workout or commute to a carefully designed playlist, or embody a recorded performance by miming an air guitar or air drums.

The members of VU had distinctive styles of instrumental performance that made their records evoke powerful muscular responses in listeners. Consider the piano track on “Waiting For the Man,” which loses any semblance of melodic content to become the sheer act of pounding on the keyboard by the end of the song. Reed is usually regarded as a lyricist, but he is just as influential as a muscular rhythm guitar player. “What Goes On” has a minimalist arrangement that eschews structural development to become a showcase for Reed’s vigorous strumming. The second half of the track lacks vocals or a conventional solo instrument, and so feels like a diagram of the human body that reveals the pulsating musculature beneath the skin.

Reed’s jangly rhythm guitar could dominate the mix of VU tracks like “What Goes On” because it occupies a sonic niche that, in a more typical rock arrangement, would be filled by the hi-hat or ride cymbal. In fact, it is Maureen Tucker’s distinctive drumming that is the main source of muscle power on VU’s records. Standing behind a spare kit consisting of little more than a snare and a bass drum turned on its side, Tucker attacked her instrument with relentless intensity, raising her mallet over her head with each bone-cracking snare hit. A review of a live appearance in 1968 observed that Tucker “beats the shit” out of her drums so that the sound “slams into your bowels and crawls out your asshole” (See Clinton Heylin, All Yesterdays’ Parties, 64). Hear (and feel) for yourself, on the VU track “Foggy Notion,” a seven-minute drum and guitar workout.

Tucker was a pioneer female instrumentalist in the male-dominated world of rock. “I didn’t want to be the one to blow it,” she said in an interview. “I wasn’t gonna say, ‘Well, they’ll say she’s a girl, she can’t do it.’ So I was determined, I wasn’t gonna stop” (Albin Zak III, The Velvet Underground Companion, 1965). Ironically, her uncompromising and supremely physical performances were so minimal and precise that she was sometimes compared to a machine. A Verve Records press release from 1968 referred to the fact that Tucker had briefly held a job at IBM, and wrote that “her symphonic simplicity is like that of a human computer.” One trajectory of VU’s influence leads to the electronic austerity of bands like Kraftwerk, but an attention to the tactile dimension of the band’s records prevents Tucker, one of rock’s most muscular drummers, from disappearing into the circuitry.

The Body Lies Bare

A tactile analysis of VU records can go deeper still, to document their relation to the body’s viscera. The experience of the inner body is usually hidden from us, and gains our attention only when organ systems produce an overall effect like nausea (Barker, The Tactile Eye, 125). We lack direct conscious control over most of our visceral responses, but we can stimulate them through the ingestion of drugs, which of course, is the topic of many of VU’s most famous tracks. But where other rock bands of the 1960s associated the drug experience with whimsical flights of the imagination, VU’s drug references are bluntly visceral.

A still from a 1966 film of the Velvet Underground rehearsing by Rosalind Stevenson

A still from a 1966 film of the Velvet Underground rehearsing by Rosalind Stevenson

“Heroin” is a sonic re-enactment of the physical effects of the eponymous drug, conveyed not only via Reed’s lyrics, but in the backing track’s fluctuations between dreamy bliss and frantic rush. “White Light/White Heat” fuses two sensory metaphors, one visual and one tactile, in order to point to an embodied experience beyond them both. Listen to how the track ends, with surging cymbals and a distorted bass figure whose spasmodic rhythm suggests the dilation of blood vessels, the firing of synapses, and the tightening and release of internal organs that have been kicked into amphetamine overdrive.

The mysterious visceral body can also emerge into our consciousness in moments when the internal rhythms of the heart or lungs are destabilized, as in a sudden heart palpitation or violent case of the hiccups (Barker, The Tactile Eye, 128-29). “Lady Godiva’s Operation” provides a vivid demonstration. The first half of the track is run-of-the-mill hippy exotica, with John Cale’s lead vocal given the conventional placement in the center of the stereo picture. This calm sonic surface is unsettled when Cale’s voice is decentered, shifting first to the left and then the right speaker. The lead vocal fractures even further when Reed begins to finish each of Cale’s lines:

Cale: ‘Doctor is coming,’ the nurse thinks…

Reed: … sweetly.

Cale: Turning on the machines that…

Reed: … neatly pump air.

Cale: The body lies bare.

By integrating these fragmented lines, we learn that a body is lying on an operating table. Listeners are encouraged to inhabit this body through the placement of voices around and above us, as well as the sounds of heartbeats and breathing that enter the mix but are jarringly out of rhythm with the existing backing track. Reed sings that the doctor is making his first incision into the body, and the backing track vanishes, leaving only the heartbeat, breathing, and an eerie whirring vocalization that sonifies some nameless physical process. The scene ends with a dark twist, suitable as a shock tactic from an exploitation film: the anesthetic has malfunctioned, and the patient has regained consciousness in the midst of the procedure.

The track’s arrhythmic sound effects overwhelm the coherent flow of the standard musical mix, working in tandem with the lyric’s account of the body made manifest in a moment of dysfunction. The fact that VU’s “White Light/White Heat” LP contains “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” as well as the title track and “Sister Ray,” makes it a tour de force of tactile phonography. Reed may have been a rock poet, but he and his collaborators were also acoustic engineers who were adept at sonifying tactile experience, producing music worth feeling with our whole bodies.

Featured Image- “A Drop of Warhol” by Flicker User Celeste RC

Jacob Smith is Associate Professor in the Radio-Television-Film Department at Northwestern University. He has written several books on sound (Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media [2008], and Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures [2011], both from the University of California Press), and published articles on media history, sound, and performance.

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