“Music has always confounded value,” writes interdisciplinary artist and writer Jace Clayton in Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture (FSG Originals, 2016, 22). Recounting his extensive international travels performing as DJ /rupture, Clayton presents a flow of cosmopolitan musical experiences that illustrate complex collisions between music and value around the world. Whether writing about homemade sound-systems in tropical clubs in Brooklyn, or about shellac preservation at the Arab Music Archiving and Research Foundation in Beirut, Clayton considers the technologies by which we make — and place value on — musical sounds in “a world where worth is created in radically different ways from what the market teaches us” (24).
Uproot is a narrative about the ways working musicians experience globalization. “Our music seems to sound the way global capital is — liquid, international, porous, and sped up,” the author writes (16). This homology between sound and economic processes echoes the theories of sociologists like Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman, both of whom argue that modern life is characterized by fluidity and fragmentation: employment is precarious, experience is mediated, and ethical decisions are full of ambiguity. These ideas clearly inspire Clayton’s narrative; that said, Uproot is not an academic publication. As Atossa Araxia Abrahamian writes at the Nation, the book evades genre, “at once travelogue and cultural ethnography, pop philosophy and memoir, a guide to contemporary music and a fanzine.”
The book begins with a discussion of the history of Auto-Tune. While Clayton’s claim that Auto-Tune was the “first truly new sound effect of the internet era” might be overstated, his distinction between “corrective Auto-Tune” and “cosmetic Auto-Tune” is useful, the first of many moments of clarity in parsing the ways we use and mis-use musical media today. “The robot voice signifies differently everywhere you go,” he writes, an observation that becomes central to the book (49). By refusing to take a deterministic stance toward technology, Clayton empowers the musicians he writes about, acknowledging the ways in which artists mold trends to their own regional and local purposes. Of collaboration with a violinist in Morocco, Clayton writes: “We may have thought similarly, yet our ‘default settings’ were so far apart as to be almost incompatible” (185).
Uproot offers intimate insights into a range of tools and techniques of production, such as compression artifacts, “refixes,” and dozens of music-making interfaces, including Clayton’s own “music software-as-art project,” Sufi Plug Ins.
Even language itself is conceived as a form of technological mediation, as when Clayton compares Arabizi — a phonetic spelling of colloquial Arabic — to the hybrid sounds of mahraganat music that the language is used to describe. Of these “wandering genealogies” that emerge from international conversations, Clayton suggests that any hybrid genre we can imagine likely already exists: “Accordions and African techno? It’s called funaná” (102). The book describes at least a dozen other music traditions and microgenres–some very old, some just coalesced–from dabke to zar, each the product of a unique fusion of vocabularies.
Clayton on Mazaher (182): “Umm Sameh, Umm Hassan, and Nour el Sabah: these three women are some of the only people in Egypt keeping zar alive.”
Clayton’s own prose style, replete with metaphor and fluent in informal language, mirrors the ethos of music production he explores in the book: eclectic, energetic, and bursting with detail. What better way to describe Auto-Tune’s effect than as liquification of sound into a “bright neon stream, as if a dial-up modem and a river have fallen in love” (53)? Clayton’s technological travelogue extends beyond aural sensation alone. This is a story of “sidewalk vendors, radios, mosque loudspeakers,” (106) but it is just as much about “jerk chicken, fish tea, goatskin soup” (73). When Clayton describes his surroundings, we can touch the orange blossoms and smell the cigarettes.
The book’s recurrent question is how DJ practices in different locations are both constrained and inspired by financial flows. In any context, Clayton argues, “[m]oney runs to the people with the least imagination” (24). Early on, he establishes this view that musical experience is priceless, more valuable than any profit derived from rhythms of supply and demand, which reward the wrong people. That said, Clayton isn’t naive about musicians’ inevitable need for income, and throughout the text, readers are asked to inhabit ethical dilemmas that artists encounter throughout the world. At one point, Clayton describes his own moral quandary when asked to perform in front of a giant Red Bull logo, a “glowing lump of techno-fascist DJ furniture.” Later, Clayton critiques the hegemony of “Red Bull patronage” and similar systems of support for artists who are desperate for funding (121). He makes clear his disdain for corporate sponsors, companies that “appear generous as they let us know that our music is literally worthless to them” (123).
A tradeoff emerges between pragmatism and idealism. Clayton pokes holes in the empty rhetoric of “authenticity” that marketers encourage and exploit, even as we sense that he hasn’t yet relinquished his belief in something essentially good about the human spirit. Listening is a powerful social practice that, in Clayton’s view, gives true meaning to music in a global economy that otherwise undervalues it. “The heavier the workaday grind to escape from, the more a party transports us” (73), he writes, suggesting that listeners extract their own surplus value.
At times, Clayton’s observations could benefit from an engagement with ethnographic methods that can help mitigate fieldwork biases. For example, although the book does involve open discussions of gendered inequalities, they are limited in scope. At one point Clayton calls attention to “macho wrangling over propriety and womanhood” among managers and producers in Agadir, Morocco (52); he describes his own futile attempt to acquire a frank interview with female singers amid the patriarchal structure there. But despite Clayton’s awareness of gendered power dynamics, he does not critique the male musicians and producers who propagate such imbalances.
When female figures do appear, they are often treated as side characters. Rihanna, for example, is presented as exemplary of the business model of “singer as mouthpiece” (50), a person for whom others do the work. Clayton isn’t wrong to call attention to the large networks of employees that work behind any celebrity brand, but it is risky to do so at the expense of female workers, especially in the midst of a book that elsewhere describes women as decoration for the musical environments in which men perform what are presumably more important tasks. “Naked girls on pedestals [who] got their bodies painted” (19), “photoshopped young women” (49) and “demure girls” (49) all set scenes for tales of male creativity. This is not to critique how some women may choose to participate in music scenes, but rather to point out that women’s concerns and perspectives are not Clayton’s focus in these passages, nor in much of the book.
On Berber Auto-tune star Saadia Tihihit (49-50): “Like Justin Beiber or any child groomed to be a media star, Saadia Tihihit occupies a place at least initially defined more by the commercial strategies of those around her than by any desire for artistic autonomy.”
Comparably, Clayton’s conception of music and global inequality is sometimes uneven. Drawing stark divisions between the “civilized” and otherwise, he resorts to clichéd language when he writes of “backwater Uzbekistan” (31) and “war-torn Africa” (81). When he describes towns and villages near Casablanca where “ancient rhythms of life still hold sway” (33), he reproduces exoticizing tropes of African music. Elsewhere in the book, Clayton addresses musical accusations of fetishism, stating: “I know that Africans and blacks have been fetishized for centuries now, perhaps millennia. Who cares? You simply exist in all your complexity and let them deal with it. Fetishism is so vague” (84). He also critiques what he calls the “spectacle of a so-called ancient culture” (99) that is often at the heart of “world music” scenes, but then describes Appalachian musical performance as “the old-timey way with banjos and fiddles and washtub percussion” (32), opposing these practices against technological advancement, a false dichotomy that ethnomusicologists work to complicate, if not avoid.
Clayton brings these issues to a head during the book’s extensive discussion of “world music” as a marketing category. His commentary on the conundrums of appropriation surrounding figures such as Paul Simon, M.I.A., and Moby feels familiar, but he surpasses the usual analysis of these common case studies with more personal insights into “world music,” beginning with crate-digging excursions at record shops with deep international selections, such as the now-defunct RRRecords in Lowell, Massachusetts. Clayton contrasts his own on-foot exploration of foreign sounds with what he calls “World Music 2.0,” an internet-driven network of musical discovery based around the commodification of information and attention, in which middlemen reign supreme. His ambivalence is exemplified by this claim: “At its worst, World Music 2.0 offers the clubland equivalent of a package vacation. At its best, it propels some of the most exciting music in the world” (104-105).
The book’s ideas occasionally undermine themselves, but there is no question that the author ultimately intends to advocate for people on the margins. As Max Pearl has noted at the LA Times, Clayton consistently defends lo-fi, lo-tech, and lo-res sonic expression — that which is “distorted, homespun, libidinous” (80) — as valuable in its own right. Further, Sukhdev Sandhu has suggested at the Guardian that the book’s attention to homologies between “the movement of sounds and of migrant bodies” serves to recognize the struggles of global refugees and affirm their humanity.
Among Uproot’s many mentions of transport, readers never receive a clear statement about what, precisely, the relationship between music and motion is, or how exactly value emerges from that pairing. Rather than a weakness of the book, however, maybe such equivocation should be taken as an accurate reflection of the nebulous circumstances in which many of us find ourselves — creators and listeners who are regularly uprooted, usually at the mercy of those whom the money follows. Faced with this precarity, let Clayton’s enthusiasm for all sounds ground you.
Uproot is accompanied by an online Listening Guide that includes audio and visual examples of music from the book: http://www.uprootbook.com.
Elizabeth Newton is a doctoral candidate in musicology. She has written for The New Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, Real Life Magazine, the Quietus, and Leonardo Music Journal. Her research interests include musico-poetics, fidelity and reproduction, and affective histories of musical media. Her dissertation, in progress, is about “affective fidelity” in audio and print culture of the 1990s.
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How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinaire, the background noise, the habitual?
I’m meeting with the British sound recordist Des Coulam at the brasserie La Coupole on the Boulevard de Montparnasse in Paris. “Just imagine…this place opened in 1927. If you installed a microphone in the middle of this room in 1927 and if it was still there today, how many interesting things could you have recorded in this place? It just begs belief, doesn’t it? François Mitterrand, Picasso, Ford Maddox Ford, Beauvoir, Man Ray, they were all here. They all echo in these walls.”
The sound inside La Coupole by Des Coulam
Des Coulam has been capturing the urban soundscape of Paris for almost ten years. Paris is a city full of mirrors, replicating itself through various mediums. A great archive of the city and its streets, boulevards, arcades and cafés has been written, painted, filmed and photographed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. However, its aural history is less documented.
“All the archival sounds you find of Paris are adjunct to pictures, so you’ve got television pictures, you’ve got film, you’ve got very few actual recordings of Paris, and I wanted to capture the contemporary soundscape of the city and archive it for future generations to explore, study and enjoy,” explains Coulam. “It’s only on the last few seconds on our historical clock that we’ve been able to capture and archive sounds, so most of our sonic heritage is passed by completely unrecorded. We can get an idea of what nineteenth, eighteenth, and seventeenth century sounds were like from literature and from art in some cases. But the fact is we can’t actually listen to them. All the sounds we hear came from somebody’s imagination.”
Coulam’s methodical approach and commitment to the task of recording the sounds of Paris, almost on a daily basis, is helping to create the first comprehensive sound archive of the city. These sounds constitute the Paris Soundscapes Collection and are being archived in the British Library of London.
“Memorable recordings are not limited by your equipment, only by your imagination”
“And people forget that,” laments Coulam. “I mean, listening is an art and it’s an art that must be learned. You have to practice, practice, practice to listen. But once you master the art it opens up an all-new world. Because for me, if you give sounds the opportunity to breathe and to speak, they all have a story to tell. We walk along the street and hear a sound and you think: what is that? And you can create a story the sound is telling you. You might hear one of these big Parisian doors bang. What’s behind that door? How many interesting people have walked through that door? And you start to see or experience the place differently.”
Sounds inside l’Eglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais (w/creaking wooden door) by Des Coulam
Des Coulam is of the opinion that the ability to tune into sounds with an inquisitive and imaginative mind can provide better recordings than the most expensive equipment. It’s a skill that he has been developing for over 50 years. “I can tell you the exact day. It was the 25th of December, 1958 when I woke up on Christmas morning and found a tape recorder. And if you had asked me to write a list of 100 things I wanted for Christmas, the tape recorder would not have featured in it. But there it was and I fell in love with it instantly and stayed in love with it ever since. It turned something on in my head that stayed with me all my life. I was 10 years old and now I’m almost 70 years old…I don’t know what I would do without it. I would probably just curl up and die or something…Because now it consumes all of my life. I work seven days a week, but it never feels like work. It’s just fun.”
An aural flâneur in a changing city
“Some of my best recordings have come serendipitously when they are not planned.” Most of the time Coulam doesn’t adhere to a strict pathway through the streets of Paris. He follows the background city sounds as someone who follows a river stream. He describes himself as an aural flâneur. The term flâneur (stroller, idler, walker) dates back to the 16th century and was made popular by Walter Benjamin in his 1935 essay “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” in The Arcades Project. “I’m doing exactly what the 19th century flâneurs did. Observing, that’s all I do. But I observe through sound rather than visually,” says Coulam. “The one thing the flâneur had was time. They had the time to stroll around the streets and observe the everyday life. But in my case I observe listening.” According to Aimée Boutin, the author of City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris, it is in the writings of Balzac, Louis Huart and Victor Fournel that the flâneur emerges as an attentive listener, an eavesdropper and collector of stories who views the city as a musical score and as a cacophonous/harmonious concert.
19th century images of the flâneur predominately evoke a white male figure of means and privilege who observes and listens to the city from a position of detachment towards the crowd. He is invested in his own anonymity and imagines himself cultivating a sense of neutrality and “objectivity.” Coulam’s active listening practices depart from this perspective by challenging his perspectives and owning the subjectivity of the recording and archiving process. “The way you hear sound changes depending on the circumstances and also the way you interpret sound is different. You and I could walk down the same street and hear it differently. I can walk down the same street twice and hear it differently. There are lots of sounds that I will hear and there are lots of sounds that I won’t hear.” In a recent blog entry Coulam writes that while being “aware that sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, I am always thinking about the social, cultural and historical context of the sounds I find and that has taught me how to explore and appreciate the rich history, complexity and diversity that is Paris.”
Besides his own recordings of the Parisian soundscapes, Coulam has been adding new aural narratives of the city in the series “Paris – A Personal View” inviting guests who live in Paris to visit a place in the city that has a special meaning for them. In this series, Coulam often features the city of the contemporary flâneuse, a radically different form of flâneurie through the steps of the walking woman. In the audio bellow, Monique Wells, an expert on African Diaspora in Paris and founder of the non-profit association Les Amis de Beauford Delaney, explores her favorite place in the city – the Jardin du Luxembourg.
Monique Wells, Jardin du Luxembourg, “Paris – A Personal View” Series by Des Coulam
This is a particular time to be listening to the city as a new plan to expand the metropolis of Paris is on its way. “Paris is on the cusp of a huge change. If we look at the history of Paris, it is a history of circles. So you get start with the Romans who invaded and camped out on the Île de la Cité. What did they do? They built a wall around it. And over the years as Paris expanded more walls have been built around the city until today. Now, you’ve got this wall of traffic – the périphérique – and everything within that is Paris and everything without is the suburbs. Nicolas Sarkozy decided, when he was president, that he was going to demolish this invisible wall between Paris and the suburbs. So he gave birth to the Greater Paris Project which is now going ahead. So over the next 10, 20 or 30 years the visual landscape of the city will change and also its sound landscape. And this is a perfect time to capture that change. I won’t live long enough to see it all but I’m already seeing some of it. And what you have right now is that some sounds of Paris are actually disappearing, some are about to disappear, some have stayed remarkably the same and new sounds have appeared.”
Sounds around the Pont National (near Boulevard Périphérique) by Des Coulam
The Vanishing Sounds of Paris
The changes in the visual landscape of Paris and the modernization of its infrastructures will cause a significant change in its soundscape. For instance, Coulam dedicates a lot of his time to recording the changes of the subterranean and aerial soundscape of the Parisian metro lines. “The sounds of the Metro are changing dramatically. If you imagine the sounds of the Paris Metro, you immediately get this picture of the sort of 1950s black and white film, you can hear the sounds of the train rattling over the lines. It’s gone, it’s all completely gone. The last of those trains disappeared in 2012. And I knew this was happening so I recorded a lot of metro line 5 where the old trains were. So I’ve got a stack of recordings of those because nobody else was doing it.”
Sounds of Line 5 at Quai de la Rapée by Des Coulam
“That lovely rattle, these clanking rattling sounds. Just what you imagine it to be!” The old trains on line 5 are now being replaced by modern models with a quieter sound. Also, the trams that covered the city in the 1930s were later substituted by motorized buses. “There are no trams in the center of the city but you’ve got them on the periphery now. There are 8 tram lines. On a lot of the routes they actually go through lot of pains to reduce the amount of noise the tram makes by putting grass down between the tram lines to absorb the sound. So that’s a completely different soundscape than you would have had in this case in the 1930s.”
Inside a tram on Line T2 from the station Henri Farman to Porte de Versailles by Des Coulam
Coulam has been recording the sounds of the Gare du Nord, one of the six main railway stations in Paris, that is going through some transformations right now. A sign outside the station in the construction zone promises “a brighter and more practically designed hall for enlightened travelling”. The distinctive soundscape of the Gare will certainly change. A new type of pavement is enough to alter the echoing sounds made by footsteps and rolling suitcases.
Inside the Gare du Nord; October 2016
“But on a more human level,” says Coulam, “the street criers, the vagabond man, the knife grinders, people like that who used to come around shouting in the street are completing gone. The only thing you find now are the market traders in the market stores, but you don’t find any of these tradesmen in the streets of Paris.”
“An attempt to exhaust a place in Paris” in sound
“The only time you really notice the urban soundscape is when isn’t there,” remarks Coulam. On the day we meet, Montparnasse is eerily quiet. There is little traffic and only a few pedestrians are strolling along the Boulevard. “The soundscape you hear is not the normal Montparnasse because this is August and everybody is away on holiday, so you are immediately struck by the relative quiet around here.” It might be difficult to find places of quiet in a city like Paris during the other eleven months of the year.
But even the noise, the chatter and the rumble are important parts of the urban soundscape. “The biggest challenge I face recording the soundscape of Paris is the sound of traffic, and I long ago decided that you couldn’t ignore it. And in a sense, why should you? Because it’s an integral part of the soundscape, so to ignore it is a sort of cheating, really. So, I decided to embrace it and I started to deliberately record traffic and it was absolutely fascinating!”
The author and filmmaker George Perec once sat down for three days in Saint-Sulpice Square to write down all the non-events around him. “What happens, when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds?” asked Perec. In the same vein, Coulam continues recording the sounds that constitute the backdrop to everyday life and through attentive listening, he weaves the sound tapestry of the city of Paris. “You sit on a Parisian green bench in a busy narrow pavé street and just let the street walk past you. You will hear fabulous sounds.”
“An attempt to exhaust a place in Paris” in sound (Café de la Mairie, Place Saint-Sulpice) by Des Coulam
Featured Image: Line 5 at Quai de la Rapacca, Image by Des Coulam
Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio artist and producer of the show Zepelim. His radio work began as a member of the Portuguese freeform station Radio Universidade de Coimbra (RUC). In his pieces, he aims to explore the diverse possibilities of radiophonic space through the medium of sound collage. He has participated in projects like Basic.fm, Radio Boredcast, and his work has been featured in several international sound festivals and has also been commissioned by Radio Arts (UK). He is currently working on a radio show for the Portuguese national public radio station RTP. In addition to his work in radio, he has a master’s in clinical psychology
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**This post was co-authored by Marit J. MacArthur and Lee M. Miller
Like it or not, we are now accustomed to contemporary pop vocalists manipulating their voices using Autotune and other tools or effects for pitch correction. We may exult in it, and congratulate ourselves on our sophisticated appreciation of the options available to the contemporary vocalist. In another mood, we may scream for low-fi and acoustic music, feel cynical about the possibility that we might ever hear an unmediated voice, live or recorded (if we ever did), and/or laugh off the notion of authenticity in performance entirely. Of course, rather than tricking the audience or trying to sound somehow “better” than they are, many performers manipulate their voices to pose questions about the nature of performance—Reggie Watts and Anna Deavere Smith come readily to mind—and to test essentialist assumptions about and perceptions of voice and sound.
Watts, in an exemplary 2012 TED Talk, plays with the different sorts of authority and affect conveyed by, among other voices: upper-class-British-absurd-explanatory, affectively-meaningful-nonsense-foreign-language, and caz-hip-hop-introducing-a-song-chat. Inhabiting and playing with different voices, he amuses listeners into recognizing how much intonation—the rise and fall of pitch—and other acoustic features affect our perception of a speaker’s voice, and how much we expect people to speak in ways that match our assumptions about their identities.
We cannot all be so talented at vocal imitation, however. And in sound, voice and performance studies concerned with speech, machine-assisted manipulation of vocal recordings—which we term “vocal deformance”—is much less common than in the creative industries. A playful approach to vocal deformance, as a critical and creative practice, has much to teach us about our perceptions of speech in general, and performative speech in particular. Too often, when we use archival poetry recordings in our teaching, they may reify an idea that students are often loathe to relinquish: a poem is a finished art object, weighted with authorial intention and biographical significance, with one possible interpretation (the instructor’s). When we play a single canonical recording of T.S. Eliot reading The Waste Land in 1946, for instance, his particular intonation, together with assumptions that he was a stuffy, overeducated, repressed snob, can foreclose the possibility of a fresh encounter with the many voices of the poem and a multitude of interpretations.
Using vocal deformance in the classroom and in our own research and scholarship, we can unsettle overdetermined readings of poems, essentialist assumptions about the poets who speak them and questions of poetic authority, and recover the crucial oral components of poetry. Below we offer some examples of vocal deformance of poetry readings, and consider the potential and limits of this technique for teaching and research with recordings of performative speech. As John Hyland wrote in Sounding Out! in 2014, “The act of listening to recorded poetry … poses particular analytic challenges, which become more complex when the politics of identity are brought to bear on … questions of voice and poetry.” Among these challenges are essentialist assumptions, both about identity and recording medium, which are difficult to avoid when we listen. Hyland concludes that, when we listen to recordings, “the poet’s voice falsely takes on an authoritative ‘aura,’ as Walter Benjamin used that word”; one way to counter to this is to listen to the same poem read by the poet at different points in their career, in different contexts, as Hyland does with three recordings of Amiri Baraka’s “Black Dada Nihilismus.” Another approach is to play with recordings.
The concept of deformance dates to a 1999 essay by Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels. They take inspiration from Emily Dickinson, who sometimes liked to read poems backward, for the potential insights of reading against the form, scrambling the original sequence, and so on. According to McGann and Samuels, Dickinson’s
critical model is performative, not intellectual [. . . ]. it is anti-theoretical: not because it is opposed to theory (i.e., speculative thought), but because it places theory in a subordinated relation to practice. Deformative moves reinvestigate the terms … [of] critical commentary [, with] dramatic exposure of subjectivity as a live and highly informative option of interpretive commentary, if not indeed one of its essential features. [our italics]
Too often in the literature class room, the subjectivity of interpretation is something of a problem. While we might initially encourage a somewhat fluffy reader-response discussion of a poem, eventually we might also worry that students are simply wandering too far from it, following their own random associations with a phrase or metaphor, without learning to parse the rich intricacy of the whole poem. One effect of vocal deformance is that it makes space for the playful response, and also keeps bringing students back to the telling phrase, to the words of the poem, imagining what difference it makes if they are said in different ways, trying on different interpretations, as it were.
While vocal deformance can be applied to any performative speech, it particularly lends itself to poetry recordings. Poetry is, of course, an oral form with a fraught relationship between text and performance, and poetry reading styles are often perceived to be highly conventional, so that we feel we are listening to a Poem rather than a particular poem. From a literary and performance studies perspective, what could be more tiredly familiar than a canonical recording of a canonical poem by a canonical poet in a conventional style of poetry reading that deadens the audience to the charms and nuances of that poem? And how can we do something productive and interesting with the (sometimes extremely) idiosyncratic subjectivity of student responses to canonical texts?
As an interpretive practice, vocal deformance opens up new possibilities for testing assumptions about performance, poetic authority and gender, and, potentially, about race, class, education, region, and canonicity. Is The Waste Land (1922) the deadly serious poem that many readers often take it to be, partly because it is presented to them as an immensely influential Modernist monolith? How does T.S. Eliot’s seemingly grim reading of it, and our perception of his style, contribute to such an interpretation of the poem? After all, the working title of the poem was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and it includes many different voices or speakers, from the clairvoyant Madame Sosistris to Tiresias. What better way to defamiliarize and exploit the authority of the poem than to deform Eliot’s authoritative reading voice?
How do we respond to the now-canonical voice of Eliot reading the opening lines of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land”?
Okay. Now what if we raise his pitch? Is he suddenly his own great-aunt? What does the same lament mean, spoken by a voice that sounds like an elderly woman?
And if we leave his pitch alone, but speed up his speaking rate, does he suddenly sound like an old-school radio announcer, the poem a deranged weather forecast?
In terms of digital humanities research, a refreshing aspect of vocal deformance is that it avoids some of the easy and misleading reassurances of the empirical move. It’s not that it only clarifies what we thought we were hearing (as visualizing intonation through pitch contours can), but that it encourages multiplicity in listening.
Vocal deformance is essentially a playful strategy for defamiliarization that reminds us, in many ways, of the subjective, creative, even arbitrary nature of interpretation. In this, it has clear affinities with the OULIPO movement (which Dickinson’s practice of reading backwards presages). It may help us imagine, create and respond to alternative sequences and versions of recorded canonical texts—and to any apparently stable, singular performance of a text. The art of the glitch is one deformative practice, with the goal countering screen essentialism, the unreflective assumption that a digital artefact is immutable, stable and coherent. For an example of glitching photographs, see Trevor Owens’s “Glitching Files for Understanding: Avoiding Screen Essentialism in Three Easy Steps,” and Michael Kramer’s blog post about using audio deformance in a digital folk music history seminar at Northwestern University, “Distorting History to Make It More Accurate,” which demonstrates some potential insights gained by glitching newspaper images, photographs and music (Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”). John Melillo and Johanna Skibsrud’s “Two Sides for Wallace Stevens,” on Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room site, also offers a beguiling example of audio deformance.
Most deformative practices work with text and image, however, and the few that manipulate recordings introduce noise, skipped phrases, repetition, etc., usually without changing the acoustic features of the voice. It is well worth applying deformance more often to speech, not only in linguistics and the neurobiology of speech perception, but in humanistic study of performative speech because our perception of speech is nothing if not subjective, not to say mysterious, for two reasons.
First, our expectations of what we will hear influence what we do hear, from simple sounds to complex language comprehension. Often these expectations, which can be visual, auditory, cultural, etc., have been naturalized by the listener over time as unconscious reactions. Though many have anecdotal experience of this phenomenon (see an example about a black student, a white teacher, and a black student-teacher disagreeing on what the student said in a 2012 Sounding Out! piece by Christina Sharpe), it is has been demonstrated in many experiments as well. For instance, our perception of foreign-accented speech changes rapidly as we hear a few sentences and calibrate our internal expectations, as shown by Clarke and Garret’s 2004 study “Rapid Adaptation to Foreign-accented English.” And, according to Richard Warren’s “Perceptural Restoration of Missing Speech Sounds” (1970), “when natural speech is interrupted by noisy gaps like a cough or a slammed door, we unknowingly “fill in” the noise, vividly hearing speech sounds that do not exist acoustically. This phenomenon arises both from linguistic expectations as well as our deep familiarity with basic speech acoustics, as shown in Shahin, Bishop, and Miller’s “Neural mechanisms for illusory filling-in of degraded speech.” Similarly, in an illusion called the McGurk effect—noted by Harry McGurk and John MacDonald in 1976—just seeing a talker’s lip movements changes the perception of speech sounds categorically, say from “buck” to “duck.”
Though much of this reshaping of our acoustic perception happens unconsciously, we can also profoundly alter what we hear through selective attention. Particularly in everyday acoustic environments, we hear speech better when we expect it, and when it matches our specific expectations: from a given location, from a certain talker or type of talker, at a certain pitch, and so on (See “Speech Recognition in Adverse Conditions: A Review” by Mattys, Davis, et al. 2012). Perceptual filters fundamentally constrain our experience: if we attend to a talker in one ear, we may not even realize when a second talker in the other ear switches from English to German, as Cherry concluded in “Some Experiments on the Recognition of Speech” in 1953. Social and cultural knowledge also changes what we hear. Listening to someone whom a listener visually perceives as a “non-native speaker” can make speech sound not only more “accented” (see Donald Rubin’s “Nonlanguage Factors Affecting S Judgments of Nonnative English-Speaking Teaching Assistants” from 1992)—what we might call a subjective quality—but, as Molly Babel and Jamie Russell found in 2015’s “Expectations and Speech Intelligibility,” it can also trigger speech processing reactions that make the speech less intelligible to the listener making visual judgments regarding accented speech.
Given what we know about the brain, the fact that expectations affect perception—of recorded voices reading poems, in this case—should not come as a surprise. A growing consensus holds that the brain’s job is not merely to represent the world; rather it strives to predict the world, make inferences about it, and correct those expectations whenever a mismatch is detected (see Knill and Pouget’s “The Bayesian brain: the role of uncertainty in neural coding and computation”  and Karl Friston’s 2010 “The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory?”) In somewhat familiar environments and situations (pretty much everything after infancy), predictive inference is far more efficient than continually rendering the perceptual world de novo. This means that vocal deformance—particularly when it manipulates a known voice, as with canonical poets, or a familiar way of speaking, as with conventional poetry reading styles—waves a red flag at the brain. Change wakes up the quiescent, habitual brain to something new and potentially informative, because the voice does not fit our expectations for what the person would or should sound like. Listen to Reggie Watts!
This effect can also operate inversely; that is, if we do not expect someone to have a particular voice, we may adjust the stories we tell ourselves about our perceptions, to better match our expectations. In musicology, we might think of Nina Eidsheim’s article on the racialized reception of opera singer Marian Anderson, the first African American to sing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera:
the timbre of her voice has routinely (if often admiringly) been characterized as ‘black,’ … [despite] classical music’s minimal indulgence of individual style … this distinction [has] to be based on an assumption that the black body is intrinsically different from the white body and that even when emitting a timbre recognized as classical, the resonance of a singer’s black body is evident (3, 4).
Certainly, as Jennifer Stoever writes, “listening [is] an interpretive site where racial difference is coded, produced, and policed” (62). The same is true of gender difference and many other identity markers and cultural factors related to authority and authenticity. As Shai Burstyn notes in the article “In Quest of the Period Ear,” about attempts to imagine how contemporary audiences experienced medieval music, “culture plays a highly significant—though not exclusive—role in shaping the cognitive skills of its members” (695). If it is remarkably difficult to escape our stereotypical expectations and perceptions of what a person’s voice “should” sound like, that is partly because our brain uses such expectations to make predictions about our sonic experience. We cannot overcome our expectations through good will alone, and engaging with these issues in the classroom, which can be challenging, also provides an opportunity to help students think critically about essentialism and voice, for those moments when a student in the back of the room mutters in surprise that Langston Hughes “doesn’t sound black,” or exclaims that Walt Whitman “doesn’t sound gay.” Though it is not designed to assess stereotyping in speech perception, the Harvard implicit bias test is a good way to engage students in questions of cultural bias and perception [also, see “So You Flunked a Racism Test. Now What?”].
Furthermore, our affective responses to acoustic, non-verbal qualities of speech matter tremendously to our interpretation of verbal semantics, of the meaning of the words spoken. According to voice perception research in Foundations of Voice Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Voice Production and Perception by Jody Kreiman and Diana Sidtis, when we listen to speech, “[s]ome authors … have claimed that normal adults usually believe the tone of voice rather than the words…. For example, the contrast in ‘I feel just fine’ spoken in a tense, tentative tone might be politely ignored, while, ‘I’m not angry’ spoken in hot anger would not” (304). The teacher’s boring tone of voice on the Peanuts cartoon makes the point.
In other words, we pick up on the affective meaning of a speaker’s tone of voice, and weigh it against the semantic meaning of the words spoken. While Kreiman and Sidtis argue that tone cannot be reduced to intonation patterns, “the fundamental frequency of the human voice [pitch] … heads the list of important cues for emotional meanings” (311). Pitch manipulation, then, changes the affective meaning of speech. Tone of voice is also influenced by other acoustic features, including speaking rate or tempo, and rhythm. In poetry recordings, the poet’s tone of voice influences the listener’s interpretation of a poem.
Two fundamental intonation patterns are rising or falling pitch. In American English, relatively high or relatively low pitch at the end of an utterance, compared to the beginning and middle, seems to carry distinct meanings, as demonstrated by Janet Pierrehumbert and Julia Hirschberg. They developed the ToBI (Tones and Break Indices) system for marking the prosody or intonation of speech. Rising intonation can make any utterance sound like a question, whether it is one or not. A relatively high pitch at the end of an utterance—called a high boundary tone—can make the speaker sound less confident or assertive, and more open to other’s opinions. Rising intonation implies that more is to come, that the utterance is not conclusive or concluded, that it should be understood in connection to the next utterance, and sometimes, that the speaker seeks the listener’s agreement before proceeding.
Uptalk, notably practiced among Generation Xers and now millennials, sounds conciliatory, agreeable and open, on the one hand, and lacking in confidence and authority, on the other—depending on the listener and the context. Marybeth Seitz-Brown argues that criticizing uptalk “implies that if women just spoke like men, our ideas would be valuable … [and] sexist listeners would magically understand us, and we would be taken seriously. But the problem is not with feminized qualities, of speech or otherwise, the problem is that our culture pathologizes feminine traits as something to be ashamed of or apologize for.”
Conversely, women can be criticized when they sound too much like men; see “Why Do So Many People Hate the Sound of Hillary Clinton’s Voice?” Falling intonation—and ending an utterance on a relatively low pitch, or a low boundary tone, implies conclusion, closure and confidence. The utterance, such intonation implies, finishes the argument (if there is one), does not seek the listener’s agreement or opinion, and suggests that this utterance can be understood on its own, without connection to subsequent utterances. Donald Trump, for example, is fond of falling intonation and low boundary tones (for a parody of masculine confident declarative intonation, have a listen at Troy McClure from The Simpsons.)
Of course, not all women use uptalk, and not all men use falling intonation with low boundary tones. In American culture, for better or worse, low boundary tones do seem to carry a tone of authority. And in poetry reading as well. Eliot’s original, and now canonical, reading of the opening line of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month,” uses falling intonation, so that it sounds like a confident assertion, with a low boundary tone on “month.”
“[B]reeding / lilacs out of the dead land” sounds like a steady, inevitable process, ending on a slightly higher relative pitch, implying that there is more to come, and that the phrase should be understood in connection to the next line, “mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”
What is so compelling and seemingly authoritative about Eliot’s reading style? In some basic sense, the falling intonation of the first phrase does it. Why does it strike many contemporary listeners as pompous? How might we undercut the seeming authority of the Eliotic voice? Make him do uptalk. Here we have simply inverted his intonation.
Suddenly he sounds doubtful. The opening line becomes a question—“April is the cruellest month[?]”—instead of a confident statement. Suddenly, Eliot himself expresses the skepticism or confusion many an undergraduate has felt—before we encountered this poem, did we not assume that spring, the return of life and fertility, is a cheerful escape from winter? And his deformed recital of “breeding / Lilacs out the dead land” suddenly sounds more like an agonized complaint, expressing the painful, reluctant awakening of desire in one who had found the dull sleep of winter comforting. Inverting the typical poetic authority of falling intonation into uptalk may embolden readers to entertain very different readings of the poem’s opening.
The editors of Poetry Archive had hopes of stimulating listeners of The Waste Land when they made available a 1935 recording of the poem, claiming: “Whilst the sound quality is understandably not so good, the recording is fascinating for Eliot’s faster, more energetic rendition. Listening to this urgent interpretation blows the dust of this iconic poem and helps us encounter it afresh.” However, if the fundamental falling intonation pattern of Eliot’s reading style doesn’t change—and overall, it doesn’t, between the 1935 and 1946 recordings—his voice may remain, for listeners, an aloof poetic authority.
Falling intonation with low boundary tones, then, is a fundental tone of poetic authority. Listen to Adrienne Rich reading from her poem, “What Kind of Times Are These” (1995), which leads the reader to a place “between two stands of trees … near … [where] the persecuted / … disappeared into the shadows.” She insists, “this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,” and concludes, “to have you listen at all it’s necessary / to talk about trees.”
She sounds like she means it. Rich has to write poems about nature, her tone implies, to wake people up to the political horrors of the American past and present. Poetry as a form, in pastoral guise, allows her to sneak in political content, potentially grabbing the attention of people who might only listen to poetry if they think it is safely, simply about nature. (Click here to hear the entire poem, starting at 4:01.)
When we invert her intonation, turning it into uptalk, she sounds as if she is questioning the wisdom of this approach, and/or chiding her listeners for making her take it. In this case, uptalk exerts a different kind of authority, the challenging question.
Is it ethical to manipulate the intonation and other vocal qualities on poetry recordings, for the purposes of teaching and research? Obviously it would not be, if we were to present the manipulated recordings as the authentic voice of a poet. And all peoples have the right to protect culturally sensitive recordings, such as sacred songs, music, dances and prayers; see “Native American Intellectual Property Issues.” Otherwise, potential conflicts are similar to those with sampling in the music industry (See Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola’s Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling ). Vocal deformance, however, can help remind us that no single reading of a poem, by the poet or someone else, is the ultimately authoritative one.
In teaching writing, we (the authors) sometimes ask our students to explore alternative methods of presenting the same material. This can be as simple as writing the same sentence, the thesis for instance, in three different ways, or it can involve a different format. Write a poem, record oneself reading it, then try to represent it with a collage of images. Turn a 2,000-word essay into a 250-word presentation with verbal and sonic components. An instructive trick with the opening line of W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940): “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.” They were never wrong, the Old Masters, about suffering. The Old Masters were never wrong about suffering. Each version of the opening creates a subtly different emphasis, on suffering versus the wisdom of the Old Masters.
Too often, we lock ourselves into one approach, and cannot imagine an alternative. Locked into one approach, too often we cannot imagine an alternative. Alternatives we cannot imagine, if we lock into one approach too quickly. Writing three different opening paragraphs to the same essay, or rearranging the lines of the poem, stimulates our imagination and our critical faculties because it dramatizes different possibilities, possibilities that offer a different emphasis. And when we play with the pitch, intonation and speaking rate of a poem, this can change the tone as dramatically, from a challenge to confession, or an assertion into doubt.
In the classroom, poet Harryette Mullen is often popular with students, both for her poems on the page and for her expressive reading style, while students can sometimes resist recordings by Adrienne Rich (saying that she sounds lecture-y) and Louise Glück (saying that she sounds bored by her own poems), even as they are engaged by the poems on the page.
When Mullen reads “Present Tense” (2002)—a beguiling comical poem, loosely about the grammatical present and the speaker’s and the world’s present circumstances —what is it about her contrastive intonation that sounds expressive? She ends her opening phrases, “Now that my ears are connected to a random answer machine” with rising intonation and high boundary tones. This draws the reader on: keep listening, the statement’s not finished.
When we flip the intonation pattern, so that each utterance ends on a relatively low pitch, she sounds more conventional, a poetic authority declaring observations, confident and closed off.
Another tone of poetic authority approaches pure monotony. It was practiced by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Irish modernist poet W.B. Yeats and, perhaps through Yeats’s influence, by American poets such as Yvor Winters. Note how similar they sound here. Winters reads the opening of his poem “The Journey” (1931), moving into a Yeatsian monotone after the title and location of Snake River Country, “I now remembered slowly how I came[.]”
Here is Yeats reading the opening of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree[.]”
All we have to do to turn Winters into Yeats is raise his pitch a bit:
Monotone performance is—at least acoustically—quite uninformative for the brain. Early parts of the auditory brain rapidly adapt or habituate to a wide array of regularities such as pitch and temporal pattern, and they only signal when the pattern changes, as noted in “Early selective-attention effect on evoked potential reinterpreted” (Näätänen, Gaillard et al., 1978). But expectations can work differently across speech’s descriptive dimensions. When speech is usually vivid, as in a direct quotation (“He said ‘I’m leaving now”), higher-level voice-processing areas in the right temporal lobe actually work harder to process (unexpectedly) monotone quotes, according to Yao, Belin, et al.’s “Brain ‘talks over’ boring quotes: top-down activation of voice-selective areas while listening to monotonous direct speech quotations” (2012). In other words, sameness of pitch often means the brain must work harder to grasp meaning.
Interestingly, David Hadbawnik relates in Sounding Out! his disappointment with the productions of three audio recordings of three poetic specimens from Middle English created with SPARSAR, because “they produced monotone outputs that fail to account for prosody.” Vocal deformance might allow him to try to approximate Middle English prosody with the specimens.
MacArthur has written elsewhere about “poet voice,” which she also calls “monotonous incantation.” But how close are contemporary canonical poets to actual monotone, compared to Tennyson and Yeats? Here is Glück, whose reading style is often mentioned as an example of Poet Voice, reading the third stanza of “The Wild Iris” (1992): “It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried in the dark earth”:
Not much manipulation is required to make it purely monotone, which may account for some students saying she sounds bored by her own poems—though they do not say that about Yeats. They say Yeats’s voice makes them feel like they are in church.
Ideally, Glück’s manner of reading her poem should not prevent students from appreciating it. While in other contexts we may defend women’s use of uptalk, it also seems fair to raise the point that academic poetry reading can seem to discourage the expression of affect. (See Donald Hall’s well-known polemic, “The Poetry Reading: Public Performance / Private Art” (1985) and David Groff’s “The Peril of the Poetry Reading: Page Versus Performance” .) Vocal deformance, among other strategies, might help students perceive as much drama in Glück’s poems as they do in Mullen’s—and find as much as poetic authority in both poets’ voices as they do in Yeats’s churchy one. Here, we’ve manipulated Glück’s voice to sound more like Mullen’s style of reading, with a wider pitch range and rising intonation and high boundary tones.
If we want to explore alternatives to conventional modes of reading poetry, as many do, directly deforming the acoustic qualities of canonical recordings is an excellent way to defamiliarize performance conventions. Ideally, it can help us listen to alternate versions of the history of poetic performance and to different, unimagined possibilities in the present. Given the extraordinary vitality of spoken word and slam poetry outside the academy, it would be a missed opportunity to suppress varied reading styles in the classroom. At the same time, it would be a great shame to leave behind canonical American poetry when the poets’ reading styles fail to appeal to students.
Finally, if we want to liberate students from the anti-performative tendencies of academic culture, resist essentialist readings of poems according to our assumptions about the identities of the poets who wrote them, and dramatize the idea that there are many ways to read a poem, vocal deformance can help, alongside other strategies. As Yvon Bonenfant wrote in a 2014 Sounding Out! piece, “we are mostly neurotic, or otherwise hung up on, what kinds of sounds we make, where and when.”
Instead, let’s play in different voices.
NOTE: To illustrate vocal deformance, we used Straight, a state-of-the-art open-source voice synthesis program developed by Hideki Kawahara at Wakayama University in Japan, with the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute and the Auditory Brain Project. We also used Drift, an open-source pitch-tracking tool that uses an algorithm developed by Byung Suk Lee and Dan Ellis, implemented by Robert Ochshorn and Max Hawkins with support from MacArthur’s ACLS Digital Innovations Fellowship in 2015-16, to visualize intonation with pitch contours.
Marit J. MacArthur is associate professor of English at California State University, Bakersfield, and a research associate in Cinema and Digital Media at the University of California, Davis.
Lee M. Miller is associate professor of Neurobiology, Physiology, & Behavior at the University of California, Davis, and technical director of the Center for Mind and Brain.
Featured Image: Cropped and Enlarged version of Bill Smith’s “Voice Glitch,” Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments–Jentery Sayers