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I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity

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Sonic Beyoncé5This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny.   Last Thursday, you heard our Beyoncé roundtable podcast featuring our first two writers, Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon)  and Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers)–as well as Courtney Marshall (English, University of New Hampshire) and Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!).  In the remaining weeks of the series, we will hear from Liana  and Madison Moore (Research Associate in the Department of English at King’s College, University of London and author of How to Be Beyoncé).  Today, Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture) introduces us to the sonic ratchetness of Baddie Bey.–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever    

My husband is low key in love with Beyoncé. While he has yet to admit to any type of commitment to Mrs. Knowles-Carter – I’ve interrogated him thoroughly after each “I can appreciate her craft, babe” commentary – he holds her latest album hostage in his car. Beyoncé played in my car only once, but I enjoyed our brief encounter. I listened to the album as a testament of Beyoncé on her grown woman shit: a smorgasbord of vulnerability, independence, and [good] sex.  “***Flawless” is my favorite track, a testament to the complexities of performing (black) womanhood in popular spaces.

tumblr_mjtpo8Kg9m1rqgjz2o1_1280However, I’m more so interested in the sampled track that didn’t make the final cut, “Bow Down.” “Bow Down/I Been On.,” released in March 2013, shows Beyoncé’s responses to idealistic black womanhood (i.e. quiet lady-hood that is not assertive), deeply rooted in her southern upbringing. The sonic tensions between Beyoncé’s ‘normal’ performance voice and the introduction of performance identities such as BaddieBey point to Beyoncé’s increasing unwillingness to cater to a type of sonic respectability that parallels the conservatism of the black middle class. As I write in a previous essay, BaddieBey is a sonic invocation of ratchetness – a performance of black women’s contemporary (dis)respectability politics – in which Beyoncé distances herself via sound from the established ideas of womanhood that she visually satisfies.

Thus, in “Bow Down/I Been On” Beyoncé builds a layered sonic narrative to destabilize the concrete sexual politics she grapples with in her music. While “***Flawless” shows Beyoncé’s evolution of self-consciousness and ultimately women’s empowerment, in “Bow Down” I hear her conduct the grittier and more controversial work of questioning gender norms in popular culture. “Bow Down/I Been On” presents and blurs useful tensions of gender and consciousness in an ever-present conversation of what and who dictates respectable womanhood in popular culture.

“Bow Down/I Been On” features the production work of hip hop producers Hit Boy and Timbaland. The first half of the track, titled “Bow Down” and produced by Hit Boy, sounds like a bass heavy Nintendo video game. The aggressiveness of the track – hard-hitting snare drums and synthesizers in addition to the video game sonic aesthetic – complements a high-pitched, autotuned voice introducing Beyoncé. Beyoncé introduces BaddieBey as her hip hop masculine bravado persona on the second half of the song “I Been On” produced by Timbaland. (Beyoncé’s “BaddieBey” persona stems from a YouTube video by Atlanta, Georgia Girl group The OMGirlz talking about why Beyoncé is bad.) The second half is a stark departure from the first half: a slower tempo that accompanies a deeper voice. Unlike Sasha Fierce, a visual characterization of the hypersexual and hyperindependent aspect of Beyoncé’s performances, BaddieBey is unequivocally southern, sonic, and ratchet.

The auto tune in the first half distorts immediately recognizable touchstones of Beyoncé’s femininity. The voice’s ambiguity points to Beyoncé’s nickname of “King Bey,” an intentional collapse of gender performance as the foundation of her influence and power as an entertainer. The “Bow Down” announcer doubly signifies the arrival of Beyoncé’s verse on the track and the destabilization of available cues of respectability. It is from this perspective that I ground Beyoncé’s emphatic use of bitch in her demand for those around her to “bow down bitches!” Rather than remaining attached to the definition of bitch as directed at women, Beyoncé uses the sonic tropes at play to decentralize gender norms.

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BaddieBey also forces the (mis)understanding of what it means to think about Beyoncé as “sounding like a good girl.” Her vocalization, reminiscent of Houston’s chopped and screwed production style – the extreme slowing down of a track and the resulting slurring and distortion of voice – dismounts Beyoncé from international recognition and makes room to (re)claim space to experiment with the boundaries of her womanhood and its recognizable aspects. The deepness of her voice does not fit within the more recognizable and established feminine context of Beyoncé as an R&B diva. Criticism of the track denounced her use of the word “bitch” and those unfamiliar with chopped and screwed denounced it and in the most extreme comments called it “demonic.” The (hyper)masculinization of Beyoncé’s voice in this track signifies her attempt to situate herself not only in hip hop’s masculine discourse but southern hip hop and its renderings of the south as a similarly masculine space.

BaddieBey gestures towards what I suggest is a type of sonic drag – using sound to bend markers of gender performance in order to blur characteristics of black masculinity and womanhood. The sonic intonations of chopped and screwed give Beyoncé a pass to dabble in ‘ratchet-speak,’ sonically alluding to images of “gold fangs” and “smacking tricks.” In the track she sonically blends hip hop bravado and misogynistic representations of black womanhood, and in that way stretches what is considered respectable. In other words, BaddieBey signifies Beyoncé’s awareness of hip hop as a space of (exaggerated) gender performance.

This awareness is also rooted in a specific place: her hometown of Houston, Texas. As I previously stated, BaddieBey centralizes Houston as a departure point for Beyoncé’s hip hop sensibility and as a space for excavating the complexity of her gendered identity. Conceptualizing place as an element of southern black women’s respectability helps situate it as a cultural aesthetic. In this instance, respectability as a tangible discourse is situated within [southern] hip hop. Beyoncé’s remembrance of Houston’s “cultural essentials” – i.e. Frenchy’s Restaurant, Boudin sausages, dookie braids, and “candy paint” – signify a simultaneous existence with her usual declaration of finer, higher classed possessions like high priced labels, global jet setting, and jewelry.

From Wildfox Couture, Beyonce in a "Property of Texas" v-neck tee

From Wildfox Couture, Beyonce in a “Property of Texas” v-neck tee

Beyoncé’s declaration of returning to “H-town” and its cultural “essentials” within a sonic space re-situate her within not only Houston but a larger southern hip hop narrative that overlaps with her higher-classed — and therefore more respectable – celebrity status. Thus, “Bow Down/I Been On” becomes a sonic space that enables the listener to become aware of Beyoncé’s complicated performance narrative in ways simple lyricism does not allow. Building upon Guthrie Ramsey’s observation of music as a working space where the ‘invisible function’ of ethnic performance is panned out, “Bow Down/I Been On” challenges the listener to reconsider how Beyoncé’s (sonic) identity politics and performances intersect with racial performance. Hip hop, especially in its commodified form, speaks best to these tensions between gender performance and lived experience.

In the tension between gender performance and lived experience lies BaddieBey. Her alter ego is a kind of sonic female masculinity. With Kai Azania Small’s “genderqueer” reading of Beyoncé in mind, BaddieBey is a possible extension of Small’s hypothetical question of if Beyoncé had a penis. (Small presented a paper entitled “The Specter of Sasha Fierce and the Scopic: Freighting of Beyoncé’s Trans/Genderqueer Body” at the 2012 Queerness of Hip Hop Conference at Harvard University.) Because sound is capable of working as a gray performative space, Beyoncé ruptures conservative gender roles that are frequently treaded in popular spaces like hip hop by establishing her (dis)respectability.

BaddieBey manifests within the interstitial spaces of sexual performance and gender norms seen in hip hop. She is the sonic manifestation of Beyoncé’s hip hop sensibility that allows her to permeate if not penetrate hip hop as a hypermasculine space. BaddieBey is most demonstrative of Beyoncé’s ability to navigate “Bow Down” as her rendition of a hip hop ‘diss track,’ dismissing her haters and those overly criticizing her position as a pop singer. Beyoncé’s performance of hip hop female masculinity allots her room to present herself not as a braggart but as a dominant force.

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In this context then, the use of “bitch” in the chorus and later “trick” is doubly bound by hip hop’s gender specific misogynistic outlook on women of color and the gender-neutral use of bitch as an adjective to describe lack of talent or weakness (i.e. “bitch made”). BaddieBey forcefully treads the line of respectability through those words. For example, she sonically parallels her pimping of “the game” to the pimping of women heard in Texas rap. This occurs in her rendition of lines from Texas rap duo UGK’s track “Something Good.” BaddieBey raps: “Didn’t do your girl but your sister was alright, damn/In ya homeboy’s Caddy last night man, ha ha/Hold up, Texas trill.” The UGK version, much more explicit, is toned down in BaddieBey’s rendition. Still, in quoting UGK BaddieBey establishes herself as an entity separate from Beyoncé and even Sasha Fierce. She is an Othered representation of Beyoncé’s otherwise conservative sexuality. Yet the “tone down” of the lyrics can be read as Beyoncé’s awareness of (hip hop) masculinity as a misogynistic performance of black sexuality. BaddieBey’s laugh at the end of the verse marks the blurring of performance and reality.

Beyonce-I-Been-On“Bow Down/I Been On” provides insight into the clever ways Beyoncé uses instrumentation and sound production to fragment her persona limited by investments in her visual image. It blurs clean-cut negotiations of black women’s identity and respectability as literal discourse by introducing the concept of sound as an agitator of black women’s expression and its analysis. The fluidity of sounding gender makes room to confront the static and heteronormative discourses through which the performances of these aesthetics manifest. Reliance on sonic narratives complements visuality in ways that usefully problematize how we negotiate contemporary race and gender politics in hip hop and ultimately popular culture.

Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:

Thrills, Chills, and Safe Sexuality: The Sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” – Osvaldo Oyola

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

“Fade to Black, Old Sport: How Hip-Hop Amplifies Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby –Regina Bradley

“You’re. . .#noangel. . . either”: Uneasy Politics and Dissonant Sonics in Beyoncé’s “No Angel”

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Sonic Beyoncé5

This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny.   In the coming Mondays, you will hear from Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon), Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!), Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture), and Madison Moore (Research Associate in the Department of English at King’s College, University of London and author of How to Be Beyoncé).  Today, we #wakeuplikethis with Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers), who refuses to let us fast forward past the understated and discomfiting video track “No Angel.”–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever    

Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014, for no apparent reason [see author’s note below].  While the fact that the death of unarmed black men (and women and trans people) at the hands of those in power is, sadly, no unique occurrence, as Melissa Harris-Perry – among countless others – have pointed out, Brown’s death has sparked nation-wide outrage and protests about police brutality, racial injustice, and severely decreased resources for impoverished communities.

In the New York Times’ reportage on Brown’s death, reporter John Eligon found it appropriate to characterize the teenager as “no angel,” as if any amount of alleged wrongdoing or possible character flaws on Brown’s part somehow justified his murder.  Both Eligon and the Times were called out on social media and in traditional publications such as the Atlantic, and, while the press quickly apologized, the phrase’s familiar interpellation of victims – especially when they are people of color – as “no angels” lingered: a journalistic gaze born of sympathy with white authority that invalidates an individual’s life, tarnishes their memory, and even rewrites histories.

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A powerful counter discourse challenges these racist narratives, however; one we can hear in the dissonant sonics of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s “No Angel,” a song that  anticipates–and adamantly refutes–the racist notion that people who live, and quite possibly die as Michael Brown did,  are anything but valuable.

Released almost 9 months before Brown was killed, Beyoncé’s “No Angel” cannot explicitly be called a response, but the ghosts of black men–living and dead, unfairly judged and mistreated–haunt the entire song. “No Angel” begins with a slow-burning 4-count beat; a low, synthesized, slightly off-kilter kick drum sets the tone for the song while an eerily-lilting high-pitched synthetic warbling noise simultaneously pours out of the speakers. The sound, reminiscent of feedback, drifts between pitches for four painstakingly slow measures before Beyoncé’s vocals kick in. When they do, what we hear is unusual.  Her voice reverberates in a breathy, almost too-high falsetto that sounds nothing like the soaring powerhouse vocals of “Halo” or “I Was Here;” nothing like the precise, punctuated staccato of “Single Ladies” or “Run The World (Girls);” and certainly nothing like any of the other songs on BEYONCÉ.  Sonic and musical contradictions abound.  Neither the kind of impressive falsetto showing a wide range, nor necessarily immediately pleasing to the ear, Beyoncé’s voice is forced. . .and it haunts. Further, the vocals seem to cut the time signature of the song in half, effectively doubling its pace. Its tempo, cadence and vocal dynamics signal “No Angel” as a very different kind of Beyoncé song, one forwarding a sonic and political statement over radio-readiness.

Admittedly, “No Angel” was not initially one of my favorite songs on Beyoncé’s new album. In fact, when teaching this song, most of my students – even the hardcore Beyoncé fans – admit sheepishly to skipping through it because of a feeling of discomfort mainly related to Beyoncé’s vocal delivery. But after a few listens, something clicks: “No Angel” is not supposed to be pleasant, easy listening, but rather it jars and unsettles, just like the impact of news of another unarmed black person killed by white police.  We are neither supposed to immediately identify with the audio of “No Angel,” nor possibly even like it.

All about dissonance, the song’s innovation fuels itself with inconsistency and contradiction. Vocally speaking, there are incongruities between the highs and the lows (the bass and the treble or the bass and the soprano), and the abrupt shifts in pacing—the slow pace both in opposition to and contained within the faster pace of the song. Even the stretched and breathy falsetto Beyoncé puts on for most of the song strikes a dissonant chord.   Simply put, dissonance is tension, and neither the sonic nor the political tension ends here.

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Here’s the thing: we know Beyoncé’s voice doesn’t usually sound like it does on “No Angel.” It is a conscious manipulation. And when coupled with the refrain:

You’re no angel either baby

her voice even becomes a kind of accusation. If Michael Brown is “no angel;” if Beyoncé herself, as the singer and also as a black woman in a racist U.S. society, is also initially “no angel” then, Eligon in the NYT as Brown’s accuser and, by extension, we as the listeners, become “no angel either.” What’s more, Beyoncé ‘s delivery is so deliberately overdone that she can be heard taking deep breaths in between each word of the chorus – something most singers would attempt to hide.  Beyoncé chooses instead to push it to the forefront of the recording, audibly projecting each word toward the listener; in effect, slapping us in the face with each syllable, driving that message/accusation straight home.

However, while this forum may be dedicated to the sonic qualities of Beyoncé’s work, I don’t believe we can completely divorce the sonic from the visual for “No Angel,” or anything on BEYONCÉ, as it was specifically marketed and publicized as audio and visual album.  BEYONCÉ  visual music experience is nothing knew to Beyoncé herself. As far back as Dangerously In Love, Beyoncé forwarded her belief “that harmonies are colors” on an interlude toward the end of the album. For her latest album, she went so far as to strike an exclusive deal with iTunes in which the album was only available as a complete package for the first week of its release – singles could not be purchased separately nor without videos (and vice versa). It would be a disservice to ignore the visual depiction of “No Angel,” directed by @LilInternet and its synaesthetic fusion of sound and sight.

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Image by Flickr User Princess Mousy Cards

Just as the sonic qualities of the song provoke discomfort, unexpected imagery confronts the eye. First, the video is quite simply not about Beyoncé. She is rarely shown. Instead, Houston street culture and its struggles and poverty, represented largely through the faces of people of color, takes center stage. The video features mainly black men, although there are some images of black women throughout; a stark moment showing black women– raced and sexualized as “no angels”–working as strippers reveals an industry driven not by the agency/desire of the strippers themselves, but rather by the failures of capitalism that often offer few profitable choices to poor women other than sex work (as evidenced in the highlighting money shots/literal shots of money). But the video celebrates the lives of all theses alleged non-angels by showing small moments of happiness – a father smiling with his son; young boys flashing the peace sign with their fingers; sweet glances between lovers, community members proud to show off their jewelry and cars for the camera–redirecting the viewer’s attention to the structural inequality framing many of the images, provoking more voyeuristic viewers to reflect on their own responsibility and complicity in the systems that create poverty and segregation in the first place. Simultaneously, members of the Houston community–as well as diasporic Houstonians–can see themselves represented, even celebrated in the video, as opposed to the usual cinematic vilification and denigration of these very same bodies as “no angels.” Many Houston hop-hop legends appear in the video as well: Bun B, Scarface, Willie D,  Z-Ro, and of course Beyoncé herself.

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Still from “No Angel” video

When the camera does linger on Beyoncé, it juxtaposes her iconic image–associated with the wealth and power of her celebrity status–with everyday people of her Houston hometown, including its most impoverished.  Beyoncé, the residents, and the city itself stare the viewer down – actively challenging us to see both life and death, both living people and memorials to those, such as Michael Brown, who have died too young. The dissonant tension between life and death, encapsulated in Beyoncé’s voice and the video’s mirroring visuals: the high and the low; the rich and the poor; and the fraught gap in between.

Beyoncé tries to bridge this gap, both visually, through her self-representation in Houston, and sonically, particularly the moment when the refrain “you’re no angel, either. . .baby” finishes and she swings her voice down out of falsetto, into her more powerful full-out throat voice. It is assuredly no coincidence that during those moments she repeats the word “no,” over and over again. With that “no,” she objects to mainstream news vilification, anticipating and objecting to Michael Brown’s characterization as “no angel.” Her voice shifts from the high-falsetto – a sound serving the dual purpose of exposing the above dissonance AND acting as a caress to black communities in Houston, and Ferguson, and on and on – and moves into the heavy throat-voiced complaint and objection. “No, you will not treat my people this way. No, you will not treat ANY people this way,” her sound testifies. And, for viewers not represented in the video, that “you” is them–and she means that realization to feel uncomfortable.  Beyoncé’s vocal dissonance and visual images force a confrontation with this accusation: it is not Michael Brown and those represented and celebrated in the video who are “no angels,” but the rest of us who fall short.

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So, if we are “no angels, either” what do we do about it? Do we skip the track? Do we sit in front of our computer with the visual evidence of the failure of the American Dream staring us down as we groove to Beyoncé’s vocals? Do we turn off the news coverage in Ferguson, MO and pretend it’s not happening? Beyoncé’s voice provokes these uncomfortable questions and more: What does inequality sound like? What does hope and/or resolution/reparation sound like? Are they the same sound? This is a Beyoncé more in line with artists such as Nina Simone, who famously used  her voice to express political critique, and not always in the most “pleasant” ways. “No Angel” is Beyoncé’s audio-visual “Strange Fruit,” positioning her alongside some of the most political and innovative protest singers of our time.

Author’s Note:  At the time of Brown’s death, I had already been submitted this article. Due to the eerie coincidence between Beyoncé’s song “No Angel” and Eligon’s  characterization of Michael Brown in the New York Times noted during the review process, I reworked the article to bring the two into conversation – which, in fact, they always were, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

Kevin Allred is a musician, activist, and teacher, currently at Rutgers University, where he teaches a signature course he created: “Politicizing Beyoncé.” He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his boyfriend and two elderly dachshunds. Join the Politicizing Beyoncé community at www.facebook.com/politicizingbeyonce. You can also find Kevin at www.kevinallredmusic.com and www.politicizingbeyonce.com.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:

The (Magic) Upper Room: Sonic Pleasure Politics in Southern Hip Hop–Regina Bradley

Freedom Back: Sounding Black Feminist History, Courtesy the Artists–Tavia Nyong’o

“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry– John Hyland

 

 

 

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

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

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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