**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
Suddenly we heard a Tereng! tereng! teng! teng! We looked round, and now found the reason why the postilion had not been able to sound his horn: his tunes were frozen up in the horn, and came out now by thawing, plain enough, and much to the credit of the driver. —The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1865
At the BBC Archive Centre in Perivale, London, the proverbial “weight of the past” becomes literal for researchers of sound history. Housed in a massive, unattractive hangar-like building in an industrial park to the northwest of London, the archives suit their environment, one which speaks of practical and solid shapes far more than the lyrical, dainty ivory tower. And by weight, I mean by serious, and sometimes dangerous, poundage: the very first machine created to record off of radio, invented around 1930, was a steel pedestal with bus wheel-sized reels on either side. Audio Coordinator of the BBC Archives, John Dell, explained that not only was this machine laborious to load, but it used magnetic steel tape as its recording surface, which could come free from the reels and lacerate incautious operators as it unspooled and bunched.
The weight of these objects, however, is also metaphoric. The earliest recording in my personal audio drama library, sourced off the invaluable Archive.org, is a 1933 episode of Front Page Drama, a dramatized version of an American Weekly Hearst publication. The past stands monumentally huge if this type of machine, the Marconi-Stille Wire Recorder, was the apparatus that allowed those 15 minutes of 1933 to be captured and, eventually, fed into my 2015 headphones as an MP3.
I listen to much of my audio drama, whether old and crackling like Front Page Drama, or new and podcast-y, while commuting, usually on the London Underground. The episode of Front Page Drama in question I heard during a marathon session when I knew very little could or would interrupt me: on an twelve-hour transatlantic plane ride. I quite like the audio-visual play between listening to audio drama that is new to me versus the familiar but never identical sights of the commute; as Primus Luta remarked in 2012, it’s rare for us to engage our full attention on the aural medium.
While listening to Front Page Drama and episodes of Lum and Abner on that flight, I had to wonder how I was prioritizing my listening time. Who had recorded these episodes from the 1930s? Who had later taken the trouble to digitize them and upload them to Archive.org? Why, for example, were these particular recordings freely available yet I couldn’t find an MP3 anywhere of texts I wanted to share more widely, such as Don Haworth’s On a Summer’s Day in a Garden (1975) or Angela Carter’s Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1978)? Both of these recordings are in the BBC back catalogue; I know, because the BBC supplied them to me—but only the basis of a visit to the archive.
Archive.org is bountiful and accessible, the Perivale archives much more exclusive, but both seem to lack curation. The only hope for accessing things like Haworth or Carter outside the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image Archives is that someday a rogue MP3 or BitTorrent will show up online. The archive does seem, in Neil Verma’s words, then, “transformed before dispersing in space, plucked from the air and mineralized like fossils” (Theater of the Mind, 227); like Primus Luta’s weighty but playful experiment, Schrödinger’s Cassette, which suspended music in concrete to be risked, or remain aurally untouched forever. This seems too often to be the impossible choice.
The BBC archive storage is eclectic and generally arranged for access by BBC staff rather than for researchers. The BBC Written Archives at Caversham are restricted to academics, and likewise, the speed of gaining access to sound files from Perivale is predicated on the amount of time BBC staff have to devote to it—naturally, the BBC’s own departments have priority, such as BBC Radio 4 Extra, the archival digital radio station, whose backlog of requests for digitised material from the Perivale archive apparently covers 20 pages. The sound collections consist of commercial recordings on shellac (90 RPM records) and vinyl (78 RPMs) as well as impressively dinner-plate sized compilation transcriptions which require a special turn-table on which to play and digitize them. The BBC Sheet Music archive is in Perivale, as well, with original handwritten scores filling shelves.
The second half of the British and Irish Sound Archives conference 2015 afforded a privileged glimpse of the archive storage and technical facilities housed on site. Most of my fellow attendees were archivists of one sort or another, asking detailed questions about transcription devices, fidelity, and storage. Having recently completed my PhD from Swansea University in English in radio drama, I had made countless requests to this very facility through the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image request service; now I, at long last, hoped to see where my digitised sound files were coming from. However, we weren’t shown any recordings made on tape cassette or CD but instead Betamax audio-only. Unseen, too, were the data banks holding all the digitised content, but what myself and my fellow archivists had mainly come to see were the tangible objects making this content possible.
In the physical copies of the Radio Times of the 1940s and ‘50s, also housed at the British Library at St Pancras (and now available, like all of the Radio Times up to 2009, on BBC Genome), there can be found a little asterisk in the listings for drama, which signifies that the drama was broadcast from a recording, rather than live. The later recording machines of the ‘30s through ‘50s, upon which these recordings would have been made, did not decrease appreciably in size, though perhaps in weight. “If I were to drop this,” Dell told us as he carefully handled a dark blue celluloid tube, about the size and circumference of a toilet paper roll, “it would bounce. I’m not going to drop it,” he added. Then the magic began: via a custom-made device, we heard a few bars of a music hall song from circa 1900. The recording was surprisingly clear. It was agonizing when Dell turned it off after only a few seconds.
There is something incredibly seductive about old recordings. In “The Recording that Never Wanted to Be Heard and Other Stories of Sonification,” from The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, Jonathan Sterne and Mitchell Akiyama question the desire for “sonification” of ever-older recordings, especially when such desires manifest in the creation of a digital sound file in 2008 for “the world’s oldest recording,” a phonoautogram from 1860, which was nevertheless never intended to be played back—the phonoautograph was intended as a device to make the aural visual (555). Radio drama writer Mike Walker really summed up the seduction of old recordings for me in his 2013 BBC Radio 4 ghost story The Edison Cylinders, with a character who is seduced as a scholar and as a participant in a time-traveling mystery by old recordings: a sound engineer in need of money, she agrees to digitize what seem like boring diary entries from a British imperialist, only to be intrigued by his Victorian domain beyond her rather empty modern existence. Unfortunately for her, these particular recordings are reaching beyond the grave to try to kill her.
Although they do reach out from the grave, most early sound recordings aren’t out to kill you. They do however, present common and vexing issues of authenticity. By this, I mean specifically the provenance of the recording—is the recording of who or what it says it is? On the first day of the conference, Dell regaled us with tales of two cylinder recordings surfacing in the mid-twentieth century, of William Gladstone giving a speech. The words of the speech were identical, but the voices were completely different. Who was the real Gladstone? How could you authenticate the voice of a dead person? Dell further deepened the mystery by telling us the tale of two boxes of wax cylinder recordings in the Perivale archive, whose provenance is torturously (and tantalizingly) unclear. We glimpsed these mysterious, yellow-cream-colored cylinders, somewhat wider and fatter than the celluloid tubes, in situ, but were they original Edison cylinders from the 1880s? The piercing desire to believe these cylinders might contain the voices of Gladstone, the future Edward VIII, or even Henry Irving, are potentially “perils of over-optimism,” as Dell puts it.
All the archivists at this event referred to the serendipity of discovering surprises on recordings. Simon Elmes, whose official title reads “Radio Documentarist, Creative Consultant, and Former Creative Director, BBC Radio Documentaries,” made this manifest as he discussed a subject treated in his documentary from 2005, Ambridge in the Decade of Love. The Archers—an exceptionally long-running BBC radio soap which conjures up visions of rural Englishness and persists among a very dedicated, though mostly older, fan base—like much radio drama and emblematic of gendered attitude toward radio soaps, was not recorded in its first few decades.
Likewise, anyone researching radio drama before the 1930s is playing a game of roulette; whether any scripts survive will depend entirely on the literary reputation of the author who may have had enough clout to publish them in book form. Even in the case of Lance Sieveking, the acknowledged creative aesthete behind early BBC radio drama, we lack concrete evidence of his most important work, The End of Savoy Hill (1932). And The Truth About Father Christmas (1923), the first original drama written specifically for British radio? Forget about it—it was made for children’s radio.
To return to The Archers, though daily 15-minute scripts were being churned out by Ted Kavanagh from the first years of the 1950s, the broadcasts themselves went missing into the ether (after all, no one suspected the show would still be going after sixty years). Transcription discs, meant for an overseas market, were found in a box in the BBC Archives, giving a reasonably complete overview of The Archers during the 1950s and ‘60s. Elmes was ebullient about this discovery.
While I got the general sense that the other archivists at the conference were amused but indifferent toward this particular trove, to me it was inspiring. I believe the future of audio drama will rely more and more on serials, so the rediscovery of these Archers episodes epitomizes to me the past, present, and future of audio drama in that it speaks of audience involvement and even audience interaction or co-production, which seems key for audio drama going forward, and the aspect of serialization which has vastly overtaken the single drama on television if not on radio.
Nevertheless, even if pursuit of these aural rainbows is a foolish one, such desire also enables scholarship. The hope of finding “originals” inspired me personally to discover the birth of what can conceivably called audio drama. Having researched audio drama from the first known broadcast dramas in English (the adaptations: 2LO London’s Five Birds in a Cage in 1922, WGY Schenectady’s The Wolf in 1922, British Broadcasting Company’s Twelfth Night in 1923; original drama: WLW Cincinnati’s When Love Awakens in 1923, British Broadcasting Company’s Danger in 1924), I was astounded to learn that listeners from World War I might have enjoyed short, dramatized stories on the celluloid tubes (according to Tim Crook, the first audio drama of this nature is a war drama from 1917). While archives such as the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project of the University of California at Santa Barbara care for these recordings in the same way they do for musical and speech recordings, there is a significant lack of scholarship on them.
If commentary on specific pre-radio audio drama is scarce, it is heartening to read dissections of the performative aspects of “actuality,” such as Brian Hanrahan’s anatomy of Gas Shell Bombardment, 1918. Wonderfully, in discussing the “staging” of this war-time recording, Hanrahan brings in traditions from theatre and silent film in addition to the phonograph. Professor David Hendy has persuasively argued that some of the organizing tenets behind the British Broadcasting Corporation, whose management was by and large made up of ex-soldiers, was predicated on a desire for silence and calm, ordered, managed sound after the cacophony of war. Perhaps “cylinder” drama, then, is not really of its time and properly belongs to earlier, or later, cultural milieux.
The ephemera of the medium presents a recurring problem in radio drama studies, a weighty feeling of doom. With the future of the BBC’s existence currently perilous, one wonders what the consequences will be for archives like those housed at Perivale. If the internal function of the archives (for the BBC to make use during Radio 4 Extra broadcasts, for example) disappears, will the archives be opened to wider use? Or will material without commercial potential simply be discarded? Who would make the decision as to what was commercially viable and how would they make such decisions?
And the problem with the medium seemingly begins with wax cylinders. A beautiful, lyrical story from Baron Munchausen—alias Rudolph Erich Raspe, a German author who created a fictional travel writer and chronic teller of tall tales based on a real nobleman infamous for his boasting—cited by many of those fascinated with sound recordings is worth repeating here: the Baron is traveling in Russia in a snowy landscape and desires the postilion to blow his horn to alert other travellers that their sleigh will be coming around the bend. Unfortunately, the cold makes the horn incapable of any audible sound. Disappointed, they make their way to an inn. Diedre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson cite the “Frozen Horn” from their online Museum of Imaginary Instruments: “After we arrived at the end inn, my postilion and I refreshed ourselves: he hung his horn on a peg near the kitchen fire; I sat on the other side.” Warmed by the fire, the horn now begins to play its reserved tunes.
With a little leap of the imagination, it’s not difficult to see the parallels with the reality of sound recording limitation. The wax cylinders could only be played a few times before the sound degrades completely. Tin cylinders are not much better. This is the reason why the two Gladstone voices could be both “real” and “fake.” Celluloid is more durable, yet witness the reluctance of Dell to play one for longer than a few seconds, for preservation reasons.
Sound recordings are only as good as the medium on which they are recorded, a fact that surprisingly holds true even today. We were told by our BBC hosts that discs of shellac, vinyl, and acetate whose contents have already been digitised will not be discarded—digital recordings are ultimately taken from these physical originals.
In the future, we might invent means of reproduction and playback which could provide more fidelity to the original event lifted from the physical recording, in which case it will be the MP3s that will be redundant. There’s something both very modern and very old-fashioned about this. Once at a dinner party, I launched full-force into my postdoctoral rant about the eventual possible degradation of the MP3 as a recording format, that it was not infallible as we had been led to believe. I was surprised that I was wholly believed; furthermore, the older people participating in the conversation rued the disappearance of their CDs, tape cassettes and, vitally, their LPs, for the oft-cited reasons (which Primus Luta distills as the pricelessness of old recordings to one’s personal history, and the “fuller” sound ans weighty materiality, one resonating with one’s emotional past).
I admit, before I came to the UK and experienced the never-perfect but always interesting presence of BBC Radio, I treated radio as a background medium. I suppose recorded sound had always interested me, and I had had a strong relationship with local, classical music radio (Classical KHFM Albuquerque). However, I could not have predicted ten years ago that I would become a passionate proponent of audio drama and sound studies more generally. I’m almost embarrassed now at my excessive love of audio drama; I make almost no distinctions between “high” art like Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard and fan fiction radio serials like Snape’s Diaries as produced by Misfits Audio: I listen to almost anything.
And, truly, the future of audio drama is only assured if people keep listening. The digitisation and availability of cylinder recordings makes study of them more accessible, so the way is paved for further studies of the earliest audio drama. It is imperative that researchers continue to request sound recordings from the BBC, even if they have to use the relatively inconvenient system currently available.
There are signs that things are improving and that more people than ever before want to access such materials. As Josh Shepperd puts it brilliantly, “Sound trails continue where paper trails end.” As Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force at the Library of Congress, his efforts have underlined the fact that often it is the local and the rural whose radio or audio history vanishes more quickly than the national or the metropolitan. This would historically be the case with the BBC as well, which for a long time privileged London sound above regionalism (and, some would argue, still does). Since 2015, the British Library (and the Heritage Lottery Fund) have invested significantly in the Save Our Sounds campaign, positing that within 15 years, worldwide sound recordings must be digitized before recordings degrade or we no longer have the means to play the material.
Out of curiosity, I downloaded the more than 600-page listing, the Directory of UK Sound Collections, assembled rather hastily through the Save Our Sounds project in 20 weeks, and comprising more than 3,000 collections and more than 1.9 million objects. This document makes for fascinating and eclectic reading, ranging as it does between a Sound Map of the English town of Harrogate to the archives of the Dog Rose Trust, which mainly provides recorded tours of English cathedrals for those who are blind. Undoubtedly, there are wodges of local or forgotten drama in these archives, too. The linking up of these archives and making them more widely accessible suggests how important sustained, collective effort is to unfreezing radio’s archival post-horn, delivering more of its unique tunes.
Featured Image: “The Route to Open Data” at BBC Perivale, Image by Flickr User Hatter! (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Leslie McMurtry has a PhD in English (radio drama) and an MA in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University. Her work on audio drama has been published in The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Studies in Turkey, and Rádio-Leituras. Her radio drama The Mesmerist was produced by Camino Real Productions in 2010, and she writes about audio drama at It’s Great to Be a Radio Maniac.
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“Share your story” – but who will listen?–Fabiola Hanna
I first realized there was a problem with my voice on the first day of tenth grade English class. The teacher, Mrs. C, had a formidable reputation of strictness and high standards. She had us sit in alphabetical order row after row, and then insisted on calling roll aloud while she sat at her desk. Each name emerged as both a command and a threat in her firm voice.
“Here,” I mumbled quietly. I was a Honor Roll student with consistent good grades, all A’s and one B on each report card, yet I was shy and softspoken in classes. This was an excellent way to make teachers amiable but largely go unnoticed. The softness of my voice made me less visible and less recognizable.
Mrs. C repeated my name. Caught off guard, I repeated “here” a little more loudly. She rose to her feet to get a better look at me. I knew what she saw: a petite girl with long ash blonde hair, big brown eyes, and overalls embroidered with white daisies on the bib. When her gaze finally met mine, Mrs. C frowned at me and cleared her throat loudly. I curled into my desk, hoping to disappear.
“Miss Barfield, did you hear me call your name twice? In this class, when I call roll, you respond.” I gave a quick nod, but Mrs. C wasn’t finished: “We use our strong voices in here, not our girly, breathy ones.” My cheeks flushed red while Mrs. C droned on about confidence and classroom expectations.
“Do you understand me?”
I stammered a “yes.” Mrs. C turned her attention back to the roll call. Her harsh words rang in my ears. I sank low in my chair, humiliated and angry. I couldn’t help that I sounded girly: I was, in fact, a girl. This was the way my voice sounded. It was not an attempt to sound like the dumb blonde she appeared to think I was.
That day I decided that I would never speak up in her class. Forget the Honor Roll. If the sound of my voice was such a problem, then my mouth would remain firmly shut in this class and all of my others. I would never speak up again.
My vow to stop speaking lived a short life. I enjoyed Mrs. C’s serious fixation on diagramming sentences and her attempts to show sophomores that literature offered ideas and worlds we didn’t quite know. At first, I spoke up with hesitation and fear of the inevitable dismissal, but I continued to speak. Becoming louder became my method to seem confident, even when I felt anything but.
Throughout high school, my voice emerged again and again as a problem. Despite the increased volume, my voice still sounded tremulous, squeaky, hesitant, and shrill to my own ears. Other girls had these steady, warm voices that encouraged others to listen to them. Some had higher voices that were melodic and lovely. I craved a lower, more resonant voice, but I was stuck with what I had. In drama club, our director scolded me with increasing frustration about my tendency to end my lines in the form of a question. My nerves materialized as upspeak. The more he yelled at me, the more pronounced the habit became. He eventually gave up, disgusted by my inability to control my vocal patterns.It wasn’t just the theater director who commented on my voice; fellow students expressed shock and occasionally dismay that the soft-spoken blonde had smart things to say if you stopped to listen to her. Teenage girls were supposed to sound confident (but not too confident), loud enough to be audible (but not too loud), warm (never cold), and smart (but not smarter than the boys), all while cultural norms suggested that voices of teenage girls were also annoying. Teenage girls were supposed to be seen, but when they spoke they had to master the right combination in order to be heard. I could never master it.
Meanwhile, at a big state university in my native Florida, I learned quickly that a Southern accent marks you as a dumb redneck from some rural town that no one had heard of. Students in my classes asked me to say particular words and then giggled at my pronunciations. “You sound like a Southern belle,” one student noted. This was not really a compliment. According to my peers, Southern belles didn’t have a place in the classroom. Southern belles didn’t easily match up with “college student. As a working-class girl from a trailer park, I learned that I surely didn’t sound like a college student should. I worked desperately to rid myself of any hint of twang. I dropped y’all and reckon.
I listened carefully to how other students talked. I mimicked their speech patterns by being more abrupt and deadpan, slowly killing my drawl. When I finally removed all traces of my hometown from my voice, my friends both from home and from college explained that now I sounded like an extra from Clueless. My voice was all Valley girl. I was smarter, they noted with humor, than I sounded and looked. My voice now alternated between high-pitched and fried. Occasionally, it would squeak or crack. I thought I sounded too feminine and too much like an airhead, even when I avidly tried not to. I began to hate the sound of my voice.
My voice betrayed me because it refused to sound like I thought I needed it to. It refused to sound like anyone but me.
When I started teaching and receiving student evaluations, my voice became the target for students to express their displeasure with the course and me. According to students, my voice was too high and grating. Screechy, even: one student said my voice was at a frequency that only bats could hear. In every set of evaluations, a handful of students declared that I sounded annoying. This experience, however, was not something I alone faced. Women professors and lecturers routinely face gender bias in teaching evaluations. According to the interactive chart, Gender Language in Teaching Evaluations, female professors are more likely to be called “annoying” than their male counterparts in all 25 disciplines evaluated. The sound of my voice was only part of the problem, but I couldn’t help but wonder if how I sounded was an obstacle to what I was teaching them.
Once again, I tried to fix my problematic voice. I lowered it. I listened to NPR hosts in my search for a smooth, accentless, and educated sound, and I attempted to create a sound more like them. I practiced pronouncing words like they did. I modulated my volume. I paid careful attention to the length of my vowels. I avoided my natural drawl. None of my attempts seemed to last. Some days, I dreaded lecturing in my courses. I had to speak, but I didn’t want to. I wondered if my students listened, but I wondered more about what they heard.
The sound of your voice is a distinct trait of each human being, created by your lungs, the length of your vocal cords, and your larnyx. Your lungs provide the air pressure to vibrate your vocal cords. The muscles of your larnyx adjust both the length and the tension of the cords to provide pitch and tone. Your voice is how you sound beyond the resonances that you hear when you speak. It is dependent on both the length and thickness of the vocal cords. Biology determines your pitch and tone. Your pitch is a result of the rate at which your vocal cords vibrate. The faster the rate, the higher your voice. Women tend to have shorter cords than men, which makes our voices higher.
Emotion also alters pitch. Fright, excitement, and nervousness all make your voice sound higher. Nerves would make a teenage girl have an even higher voice than she normally would. Her anxious adult self would too. Her voice would seem tinny because her larnyx clenched her vocal cords tight. Perhaps this is the only sound she can make. Perhaps she is trying to communicate with bats because they at least would attempt to listen.
Biology, the body, gives us the voices we have. Biology doesn’t care if we like the ways in which we sound. Biology might not care, but culture is the real asshole. Culture marks a voice as weak, grating, shrill, or hard to listen to.
My attempts to change my voice were always destined to fail. I fought against my body and lost. I couldn’t have won even if I tried harder. My vocal cords are determined that my voice would be high, so it is. The culture around me, however, taught me to hate myself for it. Voice and body seem to cast aspersions on intelligence or credentials. It’s the routineness of it all that wears on me. I expect the reactions now.
I wonder if I’m drawn to the quietness of writing because I don’t have to hear myself speak. I crave the silence while simultaneously bristling at it. Why is my voice a problem that I must resolve to placate others? How can I get others to hear me and not the stereotypes that have chased me for years?
My silence has become fruitful. The words I don’t say appear on the page of an essay, a post, or an article. I type them up. I read aloud what I first refused to say. I wince as I hear my voice reciting my words. I listen carefully to the cadence and tone. This separation of words and voice is why writing appeals to me. I can say what I want to say without the sound of my voice causing things to go awry.
People can read what I write, yet they can’t dismiss my voice by its sound. Instead, they read what I have to say. They imagine my voice; my actual sound can’t bother them. But, they aren’t really hearing me. They just have my words on the page. They don’t know how I wrap the sound around them. They don’t hear me.
Rebecca Solnit, in “Men Explain Things to Me,” writes “Credibility is a basic survival tool.” Solnit continues that to be credible is to be audible. We must be heard to for our credibility to be realized. This right to speak is crucial to Solnit. Too many women have been silenced. Too many men refuse to listen. To speak is essential “to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.”
I agree with her. I underline her words. I say them aloud. The more I engage with her argument, the more I worry. What about our right to be heard? When women speak, do people listen? Women can speak and speak and speak and never be heard. Our words dismissed because of gender and sound. Being able to speak is not enough, we need to be heard.
We get caught up in the power of speaking, but we forget that there’s power in listening too. Listening is political. It is act of compassion and empathy. When we listen, we make space for other people, their stories, their voices. We grant them room to be. We let them inhabit our world, and for a moment, we inhabit theirs. Yes, we need to be able to speak, but the world also needs to be ready to listen us.
We need to be listened to. Will you hear me? Will you hear us? Will you grant us room to be?
When I think of times I’ve been silenced and of the times I haven’t been heard, I feel the sharp pain of exclusion, of realizing that my personhood didn’t matter because of how I sounded. I remember the burning anger because no one would listen. I think of the way that silence and the policing of how I sound made me feel small, unimportant, or disposable. As a teenager, a college student, and a grown woman, I wanted to be heard, but couldn’t figure out exactly how to make that happen. I blamed my voice for a problem that wasn’t its fault. My voice wasn’t the problem at all; the problem was the failure of others to listen.
While writing this essay on my voice, I almost lost mine, not once but twice. I caught a cold and then the flu. My throat ached, and I found it difficult to swallow. A stuffy nose gave my voice a muted quality, but then, it sounded lower and huskier. I could hear the congestion disrupting the timber of my words. My voice blipped in and out as I were radio finding and losing signal. It hurt to speak, so I was quiet.
“You sound awful,” my husband said in passing. He was right. My voice sounded unfamiliar and monstrous. I tested out this version of my voice. It was rougher and almost masculine. I can’t decide if this is the stronger, more authoritative voice I wanted all along or some crude mockery of what I can never really have. I couldn’t sing along with my favorite songs because my voice breaks at the higher register. I wheezed out words. I croaked my way through conversations. “Are you sick?” my daughter asked, “You don’t sound like you.”
Her passing comment stuck with me. You don’t sound like you. Suddenly, I missed the sound of my voice. I disliked this alien version of it. I craved that problematic voice that I’ve tried to change over the years. I wanted my voice to return.
After twenty years, I decided to acknowledge the sound of me, even if others don’t. I want to be heard, and I’m done trying to make anyone listen.
Featured image: “Speak” by Flickr user Ash Zing, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Kelly Baker is a freelance writer with a religious studies PhD who covers religion, higher education, gender, labor, motherhood, and popular culture. She’s also an essayist, historian, and reporter. You can find her writing at the Chronicle for Higher Education‘s Vitae project, Women in Higher Education, Killing the Buddha, and Sacred Matters. She’s also written for The Atlantic, Bearings, The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, Religion Dispatches, Christian Century’s Then & Now, Washington Post, and Brain, Child. She’s on Twitter at @kelly_j_baker and at her website.
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On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonefant
This beat ‘bout to get murdered
Thought this was Future when I heard it
Desiigner sounds kinda like Future. Probably you’ve noticed? Everyone else has. While some reactions are a register of genuine surprise that “Panda” isn’t a Future song (cf Uncle Murda epigraph), many are a combination of reflexive skepticism about Desiigner’s authenticity (He’s never even been to Atlanta!!)–or even the authenticity of New York as a hip hop city–alongside a sort of schadenfreude over his ability to notch a higher rated song than Future has ever managed (“Panda” hit #1 for two weeks in May 2016). This latter observation is certainly true: Southern trap god Future has cracked the Billboard Hot 100 top 10 just once, as a featured artist on Lil Wayne’s “Love Me,” and his other appearances in the top 30 are similarly collaboration. (My discussion of trap focuses here on the hip hop wing of trap. The related but not identical EDM genre also called “trap” lies outside the scope of this particular analysis.) But pointing to the chart “failure” of Future’s singles is also entirely disingenuous, as all four of his official album releases have landed in the Billboard 200 top 10, including a #1 for 2015’s DS2 and 2016’s EVOL. In other words, Future isn’t exactly struggling to be relevant, which is why the nearly reflexive journalistic pairing of “Desiigner sounds like Future” and “Desiigner’s song is more successful than any Future song” gets my critical side-eye popping. The reception of Desiigner as a fake-but-more-successful Future strikes me as a dig at trap music as an easily replicable and therefore unserious genre. Here, I’m listening closely to the ways Desiigner’s vocals sound like Future as an entry point to trap’s political work: a sonic aesthetics of dis-organized polity, of sonic blackness in a post-racial society that I call trap irony.
Sounds Like Future
Though I’ve found several instances of writers comparing Desiigner to Future, that comparison usually includes little detailed support about the Future-istic elements of Desiigner’s sound. There are a number of sonic cues in “Panda” that could lead listeners to mistake the singer for Future, but I’m going to focus on the most obvious similarity: Desiigner’s recorded vocals share timbral and affective similarities to some of Future’s recorded vocals. When critics say Desiigner sounds like Future, the vocals are likely their main point of reference, so I’ve identified five points of sonic similarity between Desiigner and Future.
- Desiigner’s voice on “Panda” is detuned, resonating slightly off pitch with the instrumental, a technique so common in Future songs that I could link to any number of examples. Here are four, all released in the last two years, as a representative sample: “Stick Talk,” “Where Ya At (feat. Drake),” “March Madness,” and “Codeine Crazy.”
- Second, Desiigner delivers his vocals with a flat affect, conveying little emotion through inflection. Listen to the sections in the video above where he repeats the word “panda” [0:33-39, 1:38-46, 2:44-52, 3:51-58]. These repetitions precede each verse and then punctuate the end of the song. Rhythmically they signal what should be a turn-up— a run of at least a measure’s worth of eighth notes just before the full beat drops. But Desiigner’s recitation is emotionless, each instance of the word sounding just like the last. Throughout the rest of the song, if a listener didn’t understand the words, it would be hard to guess what Desiigner is rapping about based on any emotive signals. Love? Aggression? Loss? The vocal performance is reportorial, dispassionate. Future adopts a similar technique in up-tempo songs. His repetition of the words “jumpman” (1:08-10) and “noble” (1:28-30) in “Jumpman” and the word “wicked” (0:13-24) in “Wicked” provide parallels to Desiigner’s recitation of “panda.” And in “Ain’t No Time,” Future delivers lines about his clothes and money as casually as he predicts his enemies ending up outlined in chalk (0:13-26); just as in “Panda,” a listener who didn’t catch the lyrics to “Ain’t No Time” wouldn’t be able to attach any particular emotional content to the song.
- Speaking of not catching lyrics, Desiigner and Future are both notoriously mushmouths: enunciation is optional. A number of online videos and fluff posts revolve around the fact that it’s hard to make out what Desiigner or Future is saying.
- Both Desiigner’s and Future’s performed voices seem to sit low in their registers, produced by opening the backs of their throats and elongating their vocal chords. For context, both artists seem to speak in the same register their recorded vocals fall in, and each is also likely to perform their vocals a little higher in a live setting.
- The bulk of “Panda”’s verses are in “Migos flow.” Named for the ATL trap trio who popularized it in their song, “Versace,” Migos flow is a triplet figure that rises from low to high, 3-1-2 (where 1 is the downbeat). The first twenty seconds of the “Versace” link above is a constant string of Migos flow. It’s pervasive throughout “Panda,” but 0:49-52 stacks two Migos flow lines back-to-back. Future’s verse on Drake’s “Digital Dash” (0:18-2:00) is a good example of an extended Migos flow.
In other words, Desiigner does sound like Future in some significant ways. But that’s not all he sounds like. Detuned vocals isn’t just a Future thing. Adam Krims theorizes this as part of the “hip hop sublime,” and it’s especially common among Southern rappers (for example, Young Jeezy sounded like Future before Future even did) (73-74). Many trap artists rap in a way that confounds efforts to understand what they’re saying; Young Thug, for instance, employs a vocal style distinct from Future and Desiigner but is equally difficult to understand. And the Migos flow, as partially demonstrated in this video, is not Future’s (or Migos’s) proprietary style. It’s been adopted by several (especially Southern) rappers, most recently in conjunction with trap. The elements I describe in the previous paragraph point to some specific ways Desiigner sounds like Future, which in turn points to ways that Desiigner sounds, more broadly, like trap.
The “Panda” beat, which comes from UK producer Menace, bears this out. Southern trap, as can be heard by surveying the songs linked above, features instrumentals with deep, tuned kick drums, usually dry 808 snares, high and bright synth lines, and punctuation from low brass and strings (0:40-1:33 in “Panda,” for the latter). This low/high frequency spread, with the mid-range mostly open, characterizes a good deal of trap music; the freed mid-range leaves more room for the bass to be amplified to soul-rattling levels without crowding out the rest of the instrumental. Also, one of the most iconic sonic elements of trap is the rattling hihat, cruising through subdivisions of the beat at inhuman rates (for instance, Metro Boomin’s hats at 0:16 in the aforementioned “Digital Dash” rattle but good when the full beat drops). Here’s the thing about “Panda,” though: those hats don’t rattle. Instead, they enter oh-so-quietly at 1:06 and bang out a steady eighth note pattern punctuated with a crash cymbal on every fourth beat until the end of the verse.
Sounds Like Trap
The missing hihats are an important piece of “Panda”’s sonic puzzle, and point to some broader observations about trap aesthetics as politics, what I’m calling trap irony. Trap music moves through society in ways it shouldn’t. The image of the trap is a house with only one way in and out, yet trap aesthetics produce a music that seems to constantly find a secret exit, a path not offered, a way around established norms. Materially, the bulk of trap music circulates through and out of Atlanta on mixtapes, beyond the purview of major record labels and, in part because it isn’t controlled by labels, at an astonishing rate—for instance, from January 2015-February 2016, Future released four mixtapes and two official albums. Moreover, trap reverberates as sonic blackness in a society whose mainstream has been explicitly peddling a post-racial ideology for nearly a decade. Trap aesthetics become trap politics.
Sonic blackness, as Nina Sun Eidsheim defines it and as Regina Bradley has expanded it, is the interplay of vocal timbre and current norms about what constitutes blackness; it’s a moving target that nonetheless shapes and is shaped by a society’s notions of race and racialization (Eidsheim, 663-64). In the case of trap, I argue that its sonic blackness is apparent in the context of post-racial ideology. Post-race politics depends on the notion that racism has ended and that race doesn’t matter anymore. In this framework, as Jared Sexton argues in Amalgamation Schemes, multiracialism, the blending of many races together until distinct racial backgrounds are purportedly indecipherable, becomes the ideal. The problem Sexton finds with multiracialism as a discourse is that it doesn’t account for the historical racial hierarchies that institutionalize whiteness as ideal; rather, multiracialism “is a tendency to neutralize the political antagonism set loose by the critical affirmation of blackness” (65).
Trap irony describes the way trap picks up recognizable markers of hip hop blackness (urban spaces, violence, drugs, sexual voracity, conspicuous consumption) so that its existence becomes an affirmation of blackness in a post-racial milieu. In fact, ironies abound in trap. Kemi Adeyemi has written about the use of lean, the codeine-based concoction of choice for many Dirty Southern rappers, as “generat[ing] productively intoxicated states that counter the violent realities of a particularly black everyday life” (first emphasis mine). LH Stallings has argued for the hip hop strip club — trap’s home away from home — to be understood as an always already queer space despite its surface heteronormativity. I’ve elsewhere used Stallings’s “black ratchet imagination” to think about party politics in the south, the way a group like Rae Sremmurd use party music as a refusal to produce and re-produce for the benefit of whiteness. The flat affect of rappers like Desiigner and Future is a similar shirking of emotional labor; where an artist like Kendrick Lamar brings fire and brimstone, Future shows up with dispassionate Autotune warble. Intoxicated but productive, heteronormative but queer, partying but political, affected but flat: in each case, we can hear trap irony navigating the complex assemblages of blackness in a purportedly post-racial society.
The last piece of the “Panda” puzzle is another trap irony, the sonification of a dis-organized polity, a bloc that doesn’t voice its interests as one. Listening to “Panda,” it’s hard to notice that the rattling hihat, integral to so much ATL trap, is missing. That’s because Desiigner vocalizes it himself. Throughout the track, he adds a handful of background vocals that trigger at seemingly random points. Unlike the flat affect of his flow, Desiigner’s vocal ad-libs are full of energy, as if he’s egging himself on. One of these vocals is “brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrah,” a tongue roll of varying lengths that replaces the missing hihat rattle. Listen back to the other trap songs I’ve linked in this essay, or check out nearly any track from trap artists like Young Thug, Rae Sremmurd, or Kevin Gates, and you’ll hear the pervasiveness of the hyped trap background vocals.
Trap background vocals, like the aesthetics, politics, and economy of trap itself, is a messy business. Desiigner’s background vocals on “Panda” move in meter and sometimes lock into a sequence, but he triggers enough different ones at unexpected moments that a listener can’t know exactly what sound to expect next nor when it will occur. Desiigner sounds like Future, which is to say he sounds like trap, which is to say he sounds like blackness, and his background vocals, which he turns up loud, are emblematic of the aesthetics and politics of trap. Trap irony means that a genre that renders blackness audible in 2016 does so not through a multiracial neutralization of the critical affirmation of blackness, but by setting loose a disparate set of recognizably black voices sounding from all directions, rattling across the soundscape, routing themselves through any path that doesn’t lead to the designated entry/exit point of the trap.
Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.
“The (Magic) Upper Room: Sonic Pleasure Politics in Southern Hip Hop“–Regina Bradley
“Tomahawk Chopped and Screwed: The Indeterminacy of Listening“–Justin Burton