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.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
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
Each of the essays in this month’s “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader, “comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70). These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.
The posts in this series begins an ongoing conversation about medieval sound in Sounding Out!. Our opening gambit in April 2016, “Multimodality and Lyric Sound,” reframes how we consider the lyric from England to Spain, from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, pushing ideas of openness, flexibility, and productive creativity. We will post several follow-ups throughout the rest of 2016 focusing on “Remediating Medieval Sound.” And, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
In fall 2013, The Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel was brimming with bodies in motion, in relation, in sound and in silence, attracting ear and eye away from the hall’s sparse collection of medieval sculpture and fresco to a performance unfolding in its midst. For the first time in its seventy-five year history, The Cloisters presented a work of contemporary art: Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet (2001), a site-specific virtual performance of Thomas Tallis’s famous sixteenth-century, forty-part motet Spem in alium, played on a continuous fourteen-minute loop through an array of forty high-fidelity speakers.
It was, by all accounts, a resounding success. Reviews in the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and NPR’s Soundcheck were rhapsodic. The volume of visitors to The Cloisters, which houses most of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection, tripled. On the day I visited, I found myself deeply moved—in part by the music, yes, but also by my weird intimacy with each speaker’s singular human voice, and by the unguarded auditions unfolding all around me. One couple chatted cheerily over the music; a white-haired matron sharply shushed them quiet. Some sat on benches or the apse steps, eyes closed; many travelled from speaker to speaker, lingering. One visitor openly wept. I learned from a museum attendant this was a near daily occurrence.
How could a looped recording of Renaissance polyphony generate such outpourings of enthusiasm and emotion?
By multiplying auditions. By putting bodies in relation. By sculpting space. By dislocating time. By sounding in The Cloisters. By irrupting the Middle Ages. By desiring medieval sound.
Cardiff’s installation arranges forty high-fidelity speakers on stands at roughly head height in a large, inwards-facing oval array. Each speaker emits one of the motet’s forty distinct voice parts, individually recorded by singers from the Salisbury Cathedral Choir. Historical evidence suggests that Tallis composed Spem in alium to be performed this way, in the round, high in one of the royal Nonsuch Palace’s octagonal towers, where the work’s eight vocal quintets could imitatively pass musical material around the tower’s circumference, respond antiphonally across its diameter, and bombard the center with forty-voice polyphonic counterpoint. “It was like the composer was a sculptor,” Cardiff explains, “and I wanted to show how sculptural the piece of music was.”
Spem in alium chimes with the whole of Cardiff’s body of artistic work in its abiding interest in the physicality of sound, “in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.” The language she uses to describe her work here links sound and motion in the sculpting of space: as the sound moves between choirs, variably filling acoustic space with voice, so audiences move among speakers, plotting itineraries according to the physical, visual, and aural push and pull of bodies in relation to other bodies. Moving and being moved are the hammer and chisel Cardiff use to give sounding space its shape.
Cardiff describes the genesis of Forty-Part Motet in an interview: “When you listen on your stereo it’s so frustrating because you know all these people are there, but you can’t hear them. I just wanted to climb inside and hear them individually.”
Syntactically, what does Cardiff want to climb inside of, so that she might hear voices individually?
The radio—but that would merely eliminate a mediating technology, putting her in the concert hall or cathedral, no closer to the individual voice. The performance—but that would render her a singer, her own voice filling her hearing so she’s unable to attend to the voices of others. No—Cardiff seems to wish to climb inside each singer to hear their voice individually, intimately, as if her own. The motivation driving Forty-Part Motet amounts to a fantasy of transpersonality.
Cardiff employs these same transpersonal tropes to describe her audio walks: dream-like, site-specific, binaural soundworks narrated on a Walkman which seek to create
a surrogate relationship with a viewer… People could get this intimate connection with this virtual person in the audio walks, in the same way they can with Motet…. They hear the sound of my breathing; it’s right at the back of their necks, but not in a creepy way. It’s almost in a natural way; it’s almost in their head.
In Forty-Part Motet, though, this intimacy is in reverse. It’s not another’s voice in our head. It’s us visiting voices in the heads of forty others.
Latin for “Hope in another,” the incipit of a medieval Sarum rite responsory from the Vulgate Book of Judith, Spem in alium is widely considered Tallis’s greatest work. The motet is experimentally syncretic in structure and style. It opens with elaborate polyphony frowned upon as too Catholic in the Protestant England of the mid-sixteenth century, when the work was composed and premiered. A point of imitation percolates through four quintets of soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass, until twenty singers voice twenty distinct lines, obscuring any sense of rhythmic pulse and textual intelligibility. This mass of vocal sound passes through the eight total quintets until it completes a full rotation through the choir.
All forty voices enter at once for the first time at the fortieth breve [3:08 in video above]. The quintets then rotate back to where they began, and the mass of forty contrapuntal voices resurges [5:20], made all the more massive by slow harmonic movement between tonic and dominant. We are hit with a sonic welter, nimble and static all at once.
Suddenly, all voices fall silent [5:40]. This is the first of three caesuras in the piece, all of them crucially important: they articulate the motet into distinctly characterized segments, they offer aural contrast to the work’s welters of sound, and they create opportunities for forty-strong choral entries, rare moments where all voices coordinate, where the horizontality of the vocal line temporarily vanishes before vertical harmonic coordination.
Following this first hiatus, Spem in alium adopts a distinctly homophonic and antiphonal style: the text is clear, rhythms readily discerned, as English sacred music responsive to Reformation ideals aspired to be. A transparent voicing on tonic C major precedes the second caesura, whose yawning gap gives onto alien sonority: A major [8:06]. Non-functional, unresolved, otherworldly, the chord hangs across all voices for the span of a breve before shifting mode, C-sharp giving way to C-natural, the motet resuming diatonicity and building momentum towards its final seventeen breves’ worth of full-throated, forty-voice polyphony [9:08].
For a moment, though, Spem in alium cracks open, slowing time, reconfiguring voice. Something utterly other irrupts into audibility, arresting, ephemeral, ravishing—and then is smoothed away.
Carolyn Dinshaw opens her love letter to the amateur medievalist, How Soon is Now?, with an anecdote about a bespectacled young man in a dark blue bathrobe at the fall 2008 Medieval Festival at The Cloisters. “[H]e had glanced around his house and grabbed something that looked like a monk’s robe or that otherwise signified ‘medieval’,” she writes. “The past is present in this intimate, mundane element of undressed everyday life” (2). Dinshaw gives a name to the nonce infolding of past and present that captured her fascination in the figure of this young man: “asynchrony: different time frames or temporal systems colliding in a single moment of now” (5).
It’s no accident that Dinshaw launches her study of medieval and medievalist asynchrony at The Cloisters: the museum building is a patchwork of medieval architectural elements spanning the eleventh- through sixteenth-centuries, lifted wholesale from their European sites and mortared together with modern materials and techniques in a medieval style. In the Fuentidueña Chapel where Forty-Part Motet was installed, for example, a twelfth-century Spanish apse’s mottled limestone abuts neat grids of hewn block and smooth tile that forms the modern nave; the modern structure’s recessed clerestorial apertures emulate the apse’s Romanesque slit windows, permitting only the skinniest vertical bars of light.
Thomas Hoving, former curator of the medieval department and director of the Met, describes two attitudes towards The Cloisters’ amalgamative architecture: critical disdain towards a “hodgepodge of ancient European architectural history, ripped out of context, pasted together to form a dreamlike but haphazard ensemble” (56); and affectionate reverie: “If you dream a little, you can float through time to the eleventh… through [the] twelfth… all the way to the beginning of the sixteenth century” (58).
In many ways, dream is the mental site of asynchrony where memory and vicissitude, anxiety and hope promiscuously mingle. The museum, that consummate heterotopia assembling traces of the past in a single moment of now, likewise manifests asynchrony in physical space. The Cloisters, then, is a dream of the Middle Ages, a locus of temporal heterogeneity we enter after crossing the greenwood of Fort Tryon Park, as if on pilgrimage into the past, still clothed in our everyday life.
Shortly before Forty-Part Motet was installed at The Cloisters, Janet Cardiff Googled one of her favorite singers from the recording, to see how he was getting on. She found a funeral announcement. “He’s still singing in the choir,” she remarks.
Asynchrony takes “the form of restless ghosts haunting the present” (34).
The press opening for Forty-Part Motet was visited with an apparition:
The Brother entered, listened to the nine-minute motet, and his face glowed… When it was finished, he glided out. Perhaps (Videte miraculum!) he has lived in the Funtedueña Chapel for its thousand-odd years, and appears only for special celebrations.
A photo taken at the event shows a man in a monk’s habit, glasses perched on his nose, his robes a faded shade of blue.
Cardiff relates the moment she discovered sound as her medium:
I was recording with the tape recorder out in the cemetery. I had a headset on and I was walking around doing research, just recording the names of the people on the headstones… Then I pressed stop and… I hit rewind by mistake, so I had to press play to find out where I was. All of a sudden I heard my voice describing what was in front of me and my footsteps walking… I was electrified. It was really, really incredible.
1557. Spem in alium was probably commissioned by Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel. Alexander Blachly argues for a 1556 premiere, but “that premiere seems not to have occurred—most likely because of the death of Fitzalan’s son and daughter in 1556, and of his wife in 1557.” The motet was probably premiered under Queen Elizabeth in 1559, one year after the death of Queen Mary, its likely original dedicatee, for “a select seated audience of perhaps thirty or forty people”, in an octagonal tower chamber “roughly 25 feet in diameter (almost identical to the 27-foot width of the Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters).”
“[T]he speakers are a little like the tomb effigies of knights and ladies held in another chapel space of The Cloisters, containing something of the person who lived… [while] an object that also has nothing to do with that person except in memory.” That something is, of course, their voice.
The performance of Spem in alium runs to about ten minutes. Cardiff’s looped recording runs to fourteen. In those four extra minutes, the singers clear their throat, mutter to themselves, chat idly, moan about last night’s bender, excuse themselves to the loo. In a hall full of murmuring visitors, it’s difficult to tell which voices come from which bodies, or whether voices still come from bodies to begin with. This is the acousmatic situation, as Brian Kane describes it, a phantasmagoria that “[posits a] sphere outside the bounds of the mundane world… manifested in this world only at special or singular moments” (108).
Cardiff explains to WNYC’s Studio 360 that “each individual speaker is an individual singer… You realize that, yeah, these are real people” [1:30 in the audio clip below]. Reporter Jamie York goes on to remark that “in some ways, the speakers are more like people than people are” [4:06]: unguarded, approachable, vulnerable, obverses of the brusque, hardened urbanites attending the installation. One visitor draws the obvious conclusion: “What the work does, the position that it puts you in, is really one of a ghost” [6:31].
Studio 360 – Show 1443 Janet Cardiff
Dinshaw aligns asynchrony with the loving labors of the amateur, reminding us of the word’s etymology, and with amateur forms of knowledge “derived not only from positions of detachment but also… from positions of affect and attachment, from desires to build another kind of world” (6). Cardiff’s work is similarly about affect and attachment, about “space impregnated with memory and desire, expectation” (32), about the active construction of worlds between persons, in that word’s etymological sense. Her soundwork blurs boundaries between presence and absence, inside and outside, the living and the dead, the aesthetic and the everyday; it performs the world’s “slippage between the recording and the recorded, the past and the present, and the confusion of what is memory and what is our present” (35).
What memory does Forty-Part Motet slip us into?
Surely, a fraught one: we take a seat in the towers of Nonsuch Chapel, we exchange pleasantries with that select audience, we hobnob with the Queen. This is the false memory of cultural fantasy, and we do well to interrogate it for what, and who, it includes and excludes.
Yet, we don’t remember, exactly. We did not, cannot perceive the soundwaves that filled the upper room in 1559. We do not sit with that aristocratic audience, stationary at the center of a compass of eight quintets. Rather, we circulate in space and in time, seen and unseen. We are ghosts who enter into relation, body to body, with persons not there, whom we cannot know, and with persons there, whom we come to know in a bed of sound. We oscillate between self and other, a hopeful vibration; we traverse and, in traversing, sculpt the space between singular voice and multiple chorus with our desire-moved bodies. We temporarily become the owners of voices not ours; we are undone and made intimate, in a visible and invisible community of intimates.
Another way of saying this is that Forty-Part Motet slips us into the structure of memory, a structure that resonates in and with the physical structure of The Cloisters, multiplying asynchronies and blurring our quotidian orientations more powerfully than either could manage alone. “We need a non-modern temporal orientation to perceive [temporal] heterogeneity,” to resist modernity’s “subject-object split,” “to explore subjective attachment rather than objective detachment” (183n129). More attachment, Dinshaw implores, and indeed, how else could a looped recording move so many? How else to open the narrow aperture through which a medieval past momentarily irrupts into the present—non-functional, unresolved, otherworldly, in the space of sound?
Featured Image: “Janet Cardiff’s installation ‘The Forty Part Motet’ in the Fuentidueña Chapel” by Flickr User Joe Schultz
Andrew Albin is assistant professor of English at Fordham University at Lincoln Center. He facilitates the Fordham Medieval Dramatists in their biennial performance of early English drama for public audiences at Fordham and in NYC. Publications include articles on the Chester shepherd’s play in Early Theatre and on Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale in The Chaucer Review, and a chapter in the edited collection Voice and Voicelessness in Medieval Europe on Richard Rolle’s Melos amoris; Prof. Albin is also currently preparing a multimedia, alliterative English translation of the Melos amoris for publication under the PIMS Mediaeval Sources in Translation series. He has also collaborated in the creation of musical works that have been performed across the United States and in Europe.
Sounding Out! Podcast #13: Sounding Shakespeare in S(e)oul— Brooke Carlson
Maile Colbert, Rui Costa, and Jeff Cain’s “Radio Terramoto” — Maile Colbert
SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top —Wild at Heart
Por tu amor. . . — Buyepongo
Radio Coyote is a San Francisco-based web radio program & podcast I co-host with my friend Jesus Varela, aka Sweet Jesus. Radio Coyote is our effort at amplifying expression which is #DIASPORADICAL – acknowledging movement and humanity in a world alive with ART; most especially of those on the margins who in the current structure, have become the invisible inspiration for the priviliged, hardly benefiting from the soul they emit.
Recently, Jesus and I recorded with Los Angeles’s own future-rooted band of immigrant brothers – Buyepongo – live from the scrappy but charming Radio Valencia studios in the Mission District. Some topics we talked about included connections between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, the hip-hop influence of Wu-tang Clan & Madlib on the group, and, importantly, the burgeoning yet connected #DIASPORADICAL network building alternatives and manifesting the visceral spirit of our ancestors through drumming.
This particular episode’s conversation is emblematic of how we use sound and voice on Radio Coyote to bring energies together to counter the hegemonic corporate $tandard currently funding the arts and culture industries—live music and entertainment but also tech and media, not to mention the spaces where they intersect—all reflective of a standard which is essentially: THE STRIVE FOR MONETARY SUCCESS MARKED AS WHITE ACHIEVEMENT A/K/A the land of the “Free” where the inspired benefit from those on the margins.
Nahhhhh, FUCK THAT. – emcee Nani Castle in To The People
The type of capitalist cultural extraction we challenge on Radio Coyote can be heard and seen everywhere. Justin Bieber, for example, has a #1 record right now (produced by Skrillex) that is clearly influenced by Caribbean dembow. I’m still waking up from that dream where Macklemore wins a Grammy award over the 2014 jazz griot giant that is Kendrick Lamar. The FADER, like so many media outlets, assigns white writers to cover emerging Latin culture in the US: Exhibit A on contemporary cuban music & Exhibit B on J. Balvin and reggaton. And, I could go on. But because it is so pervasive, we need to keep asking, “Who benefits?”
It don’t make you right cause you majority.- Bree Newsome, South Carolina-based activist & artist who removed the Confederate Flag earlier this past Summer from SC’s capital
Mamacita, pass me a beer-a – Will Smith on Bomba Estereo’s “Fiesta” (Remix) for SONY
Because all around the world – or the worldwild, I like to say, people are waking up and acknowledging themselves, their neighbors, and the stories of their movement, exploring what those moves truly meant and what they will mean for a humanity needing to be increasingly inter-reliant in our crumbling late-Capitalist era. Radio Coyote is a product, a revelation, and a confluence of these worldwild movements, amplifying the true vibration and rhythms of a very specific history and examining how they will mutate in the future.
Our voices and spirits have always been dangerous. During the conquest in what is now Mexico, for example, the Spansh conquistadors killed the ceremonial drummers first. In Chile, when Augosto Pinochet seized power in 1973, he ordered revolutionary singer Victor Jara executed, and his soldiers kidnapped Jara, smashed his hands and wrists and shot him 44 times. But what was once dangerous has been disempowered and I predict, increasingly exploited. Now Canadian DJ A-Trak calls himself “Plantain Papi,” Roots drummer Questlove goes by “Questlove Gomez,” and Kendrick raps in Spanish. Bieber just dropped that dembow-influenced pop record while dembow legacy artists, Los Rakas (via Panama & Oakland) switched to Latin pop.
Cause I just need one more shot at second chances – Justin Bieber in “Sorry”
I get a lot of success because I’m white. – Diplo in YourEDM.com
Radio Coyote is our chance to explore these ideas and who benefits from the global flows of culture . To empower me. To empower us. To get back to the place where this expression was dangerous . We are smuggling these sounds to you over what was once pirate radio – now, online – because the boundaries between u$ are quite pronounced. Radio Coyote is my moment of love in a land$cape of domination and hate. We are powerful. It’s clarity through the confusion. Radio Coyote simply must be. It’s an effort at radically witnessing the expressions all over the world of people who’ve had access to Internet these last 10 – 15 years, but who also seek to honor, understand & feel a past which we are indisputably products of!
Though I am fiercely frightened to get on the mic every Friday from 2 – 4 PM PST, I like to think I’m reversing the common programming Latinas go through, constantly told to shush in this world. I also feel a true duty. We simply need to step up and be ourselves! We need to acknowledge and be proud of our own particular story of being human in a world with the same level of equality as the other, together, with immense respect for the planet we live on and all the resources she provides (another topic I like to think about, but more on #PACHAMAMAISM at another time…).
There is nothing else we should be doing but seeing ourselves in each other and being very adamant about that. So this is my love force to you and I hope you continue to enjoy/share it. Lift your voice in love, too, in any way you feel is important out in the worldwild! And, then, tell me about it so we can have you call in and talk to us on Radio Coyote: email@example.com!😀
Tune-in to #RadioCoyote: Smuggling #DIASPORADICAL Sounds Across Borders Every Friday From 2 – 4 Pm PST With DJ Nipslip aka Naticonrazon and Jesucio aka Sweet Jesus: www.radiovalencia.fm. Archives:www.soundcloud.com/radiocoyote
all images courtesy of the author
Nati Linares aka Nati Conrazon is an artist advocate and cultural lobbyist rebalancing the world who was raised in New York City, but is currently living a #Bicoastalidad lifestyle which is rooted in Oakland, California. Her womanagement clients include Brazil-via-Brooklyn’s Vocalista Making Interracial Music Babies, Zuzuka Poderosa & Powerfully Raw Chilean/Irish Emcee, Nani Castle. Check out all her current projects: www.conrazon.me/projects/current-projects and follow her on Twitter: @conrazon, Instagram: naticonrazon and beyond! Embrace the hybrid!
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