What is a Voice?
Welcome to Voices Carry. . . a forum meditating on the material production of human voices the social, historical, and political material freighting our voices in various contexts. What are voices? Where do they come from and how are their expressions carried? What information can voices carry? Why, how, and to what end? In today’s post, Alexis Deighton MacIntyre explores society’s interpretations of voicing, sounding and listening. Inspired by Christine Sun Kim and Evelyn Glennie, Alexis advocates for understanding voicing as movement and rhythm instead of strictly articulated sound. – SO! Intern Kaitlyn Liu
The following post is a companion to Alexis’ voicings essay published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies 3.2.
What is a voice, and what does it mean to voice?
Definitions of the voice may be pragmatic: working titles that depend in part on their institutional basis within ethnomusicology, literature, or psychoacoustics, for example.
Or, to take another strategy, voice is given by an impartial biological framework, a respiratory-laryngeal-oral assembly line. Its product, an acoustic signal, is transmitted via material vibration to an ear, and then a brain. The mind of a listener is this system’s endpoint. Although this functional description may smack of scientific reductionism, the otolaryngeal voice often stands in for embodiment in humanist discourse.
For Adriana Cavarero, the voice means “sonorous articulation[s] that emit from the mouth” (Caverero 2005, 14), involving “breath” and “[w]et membranes and taste buds” (134). Quoting Italo Calvino, she affirms that “a voice involves the throat, saliva.” According to Brandon Labelle, the mouth is “wrapped up in the voice, and the voice in the mouth, so much so that to theorize the performativity of the spoken is to confront the tongue, the teeth, the lips, and the throat” (Labelle 2014, 1). In Labelle’s view, orality is in fact overlooked, “disappearing under the looming notions of vocality” (8), such that his contribution to voice studies is to “remind the voice of its oral chamber” (4). Conclusions such as these inform our subsequent theoretical, methodological, and political theories of both voicing and listening.
Cavarero and Labelle are right to address the erasure of speaking and listening in Western intellectual history. However, to take for granted that voice is always audible sound, always sounded by a certain system, is to make the case for a fragmented brand of vocal embodiment. Rosi Braidotti terms this “organs without bodies”, and her critique of “instrumental denaturalisation,” whereby biotechnology transforms the body “into a factory of detachable pieces,” could also apply to the implicit processes by which discourse delineates the voice (Braidotti 1994, 59).
Yet, a priori constructs like “voice is sound” or “sound is [audibly] heard” have not gone unchallenged. For instance, scholars, artists, and musicians who engage with disability or Deafness resist or redefine taxonomies that ignore or distance other ways of voicing, sounding, and listening. Sarah Mayberry Scott blogs in SO! about the work of Christine Sun Kim, for example, whose performative practice reimagines Western musical norms through a Deaf lens. Kim’s uses of subsonic frequencies and face markers are two of many interventions by which she “reclaims sound” from an aural-centric worldview—not just for herself and other Deaf people, but for all bodies. Indeed, Kim invites hearing people to see and feel familiar social and environmental sounds, to rediscover inaudible channels for themselves, a praxis Jeannette DiBernardo Jones calls the “multimodality of hearing deafly” (DiBernardo Jones 2016, 65)
To hear deafly is thus to enter an expanded field of sound. The same is true of voicing deafly. Kim negotiates her audible voice by “trying on” interpreters, “guiding people to become [her] voice”, and by “leasing” out her own or “borrowing” another’s. But there are also features common to both spoken and signed voices that risk being lost to the spotlight of audition.
For instance, spontaneous speech occurs with concurrent face, torso, arm, and hand movements. These voicing actions unfold in tight synchrony with words, sighs, and facial expressions. In the case of beat gestures, the “meaningless” strokes made with the hands, they are in fact temporally precedent to stressed syllables; that is, manual prosody is perceptually paired with vocal prosody, but materialises a fraction of a second earlier. When psychologists subtly perturb gestures in the hand, they record analogous effects in oral production. This hand-mouth network is even more evident in some non-Western hearing cultures that also use sign language, where distinguishing between spoken and gestured dialogue is both impractical and nonsensical. Taken together, it seems that the body distributes the voice, neither knowing nor caring for its own discursive fencings.
If gesture is a proprioception, or action-form, of vocality, haptic sensation is another way to hear. In her vibrational theory of music, Nina Sun Eidsheim argues that sound is not a static noun, but a process, such that the so-called musical object—or, indeed, any sonic figure—resists stable definition, but is rather contingent on the myriad ways of experiencing material pulsation. Via air, water, architecture, or people, the oscillatory basis of Eidsheim’s framework disrupts not only the divisions of labour amongst the Cartesian senses, but also those between sound, sound producer, and listener—unity from propagation. Such vibrations can be all-consuming, rendering the body, in Evelyn Glennie’s words, as “one huge ear.” They can also lurk, near the bass-end of traffic, or remain as a trace, as in dubstep, whose shuddering basslines connote tactility. Alluding to the scene’s origins in Jamaican sound system, the “wub” effect is the auditory fetishization of equipment failure, the resounding noise of a speaker pushed to uncontrolled, uncontainable movement.
In her TED Talk, Kim explains that “in Deaf culture, movement is equivalent to sound.” A feature common to most human movement is rhythm, the temporal patterns that emerge in speaking, walking, chewing, typing, weaving, hammering. As the banality of these actions suggests, rhythm permeates throughout everyday life. We join our rhythms in a process known to cognitive sciences as entrainment. Sunflowers entrain their circadian cycles to anticipate the path of the sun, fireflies entrain their flashes at a rate determined by species membership, and grebes, dolphins, and humans (among other animals) entrain their social actions. Neuroscientists theorize that even our neurons entrain to another’s speech, either spoken or signed. Simply put, entrainment is being together in time with someone, or some entity, sharing in a temporal perspective. So quotidian is the state of being entrained that we may not notice when we fall into step with a friend or anticipate our turn in a conversation. But it would not be possible without rhythm, which is both a shared construct through which we time our gestures sympathetically, and a sign of subjectivity, an identifier, a distinctive feature by which we can recognise ourselves or another.
Rhythm could therefore form yet another (in)audible nexus within a relational definition of the voice, whose sites could include the larynx, face, hands, cochlea, and on and under the skin, in addition to various inorganic materials. In conversation with John Cage, the hearing composer Robert Ashley considered “time being uppermost as a definition of music,” music that “wouldn’t necessarily involve anything but the presence of people” (Reynolds, 1961). Although Ashley’s “radical redefinition” is stated in temporal terms, the concepts of time, rhythm, and movement are not easily disentangled. Plato explains rhythm as “an order of movement”, while for Jean Luc Nancy, rhythm is the “time of time, the vibration of time itself” (Nancy 2009, 17). As a cycle that is propagated through the medium of entrained bodies, rhythm may well be just another vibration, one suited to Eidsheim’s multisensory groundwork of tactile sound. As with music, the voice need not be “stable, knowable, and defined a priori” (Eidsheim 2015, 22), but dynamic, chimerical, and emergent. Speaking, slinking, signing, swaying—indeed, all our actions, gestures, and locomotions constitute us. Crucially, it is not what we move, but how we move, that is vocal.
Featured Image: “Vocal” by Flickr user ArrrRRT eDUarD
Alexis Deighton MacIntyre is a musician and PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience at University College London, where she’s currently researching the control of respiration during rhythmic motor activities, like speech or music. Formerly, she studied cognitive science and music at University of Cambridge and Vancouver Island University. You can follow her on Twitter at @alexisdeighton or read her science blog at https://alexisdmacintyre.wordpress.com/
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On “The Dream Life of Voice:” A Rerecording of Bernadette Mayer Reading from The Ethics of Sleep – John Melillo
On “The Dream Life of Voice:” A Rerecording of Bernadette Mayer Reading from The Ethics of Sleep
Welcome to Voices Carry. . . a forum meditating on the material production of human voices the social, historical, and political material freighting our voices in various contexts. What are voices? Where do they come from and how are their expressions carried? What information can voices carry? Why, how, and to what end? Today John Melillo offers us a multi-track rerecording of Bernadette Mayer reading from The Ethics of Sleep. He urges us to “value illegibility over legibility and the abstract over the figured. If we deemphasize voice, we acknowledge the ways in which voices can undo themselves in their production.” –SO! Ed. Jennifer Stoever
What separates voice from noise? At what point does a voice dissipate into the sounds that surround and, at times, threaten to overwhelm it? In “The Dream Life of Voice,” I draw special attention to the ways in which attending to voice—and its precarity—entails a heightened sensation of noise. Through my manipulation of recorded audio in this project, I argue that noise is not merely an unwanted or surprising sound: it is the material sonic trace of an unconscious listening that continues to work beneath, around, and within a conscious listening to voice.
In this audio recording, I have taken a selection from a reading by the poet Bernadette Mayer that I recorded for the Tucson-based poetry and arts organization, POG, on February 6, 2016. I used a standard SM58 microphone, a digital audio recording interface, and the software program Logic. Mayer is known as a poet who has tested the boundaries of poetic statement through poems that engage with the conscious and unconscious uses of language. In this selection, she reads a long poem from her book The Ethics of Sleep (Trembling Pillow Press, 2011) on the power of dreams and dream language. In the performance, the poem and her voice create a sense of continuous movement, with quick and unpredictable turns of phrase sutured together by a syntactic and rhythmic familiarity. In this audio project, I flatten the sonic space in this recording of Mayer in order to abstract the voice and place it within a wider frequency spectrum of noise. Just as Mayer’s words engage her book’s title, my audio project argues for the possibility of an unconscious but engaged listening to noise.
Roland Barthes famously defined listening as “a psychological act” and hearing as a mere “physiological phenomenon” (Barthes 246). In a kind of doubling of listening’s action, the work of formulating or understanding a voice involves a selecting for sounds as a significant figure—the mark of a person or persona. Yopie Prins calls the recorded, mediated voice of 19th century poetry a “voice inverse,” a prosthetic figure composed out of its imprint by mechanical means, whether those means be metrical, print-based, or phonographic (48). Of such mechanical means—in particular, audio recording—Charles Bernstein argues, “the mechanical semblance of voice has become the signal in a medium whose material base is sonic, not vocal. In such a phonic economy, noise is sound that can’t be recuperated as voice” (110). In taking up this binary phonic economy, however, I want to hear how voice and noise interweave and interpenetrate, with the sonic figuration of voice as a threshold that opens out to other sounds not ostensibly included in its composition.
Press Play to hear “The Dream Life of Voice” by John Melillo, a rerecording of Bernadette Mayer reading from The Ethics of Sleep.
In this 12’43” audio recording, I have devised an analytic and synthetic method that allows listeners to reframe and refocus their hearing toward the trace of noise in voice, as well as the voice’s trace in noise. The final recording is composed of three simultaneous tracks, each of which represents a different “noise regime” in relation to the poet’s voice.
The first, original, track contains the “straight” recording of Mayer’s voice and speech: one hears her performance of the poem loud and clear. This is the imprint of voice on the recording mechanism in a phonic economy of voice and noise, in which voice seems to counteract and silence its opposite.
The second track contains a manipulated version of the original track, in which I have removed all the audio of Mayer’s voice and constructed a “background noise” track from what remains. In this method, I simply cut out Mayer’s voice from the audio file, keeping only the “silent” moments of the reading. I then combined and looped these fragments to create an amplified track of the background sounds—sounds of the people in the room, cars outside, a train passing, and the recording medium itself (hiss). In this way, I flip the binary toward that which is explicitly unheard in the recording.
For the third track, I manipulated the original recording by applying a Fast Fourier Transform with the software program Spear. This method breaks down the sounds into a collection of sine wave frequencies that can be graphically manipulated in the software program. I then removed the loudest frequencies (present mostly as Mayer’s voice) in order to emphasize the upper partials and continuous non-vocal frequencies masked by the force of the voice. This track marks a synthesis in which voice blends with and disappears into the frequency spectrum.
I combined these three tracks and slowly adjusted the volume for each one. The track with Mayer’s voice starts off as the loudest of the three. Her comments on the noise from a train that has just passed begin the montage. This track then undergoes a long, slow diminuendo, and by the end of the piece, it is silenced. At the same time, the background noise track becomes louder and peaks in the middle, interfering with and working alongside the voice. The track of synthesized frequencies slowly crescendos so that it is loudest at the end of the piece.
By distributing the volumes in this chiasmatic way, I want to call attention to the layered listenings happening within the situation of Mayer’s reading. Just as the figure of voice arises out of the ground of noise, it also contains frequencies that are not so easily differentiated from their background. A voice is an acoustic entity figured by a body and a performance. However habitual and repetitive the action is, it takes effort to suture vocal sounds to the body, place, and apparatus that they emanate from. In this track I want to find a way to hear a drifting, unconscious meandering within that focused effort. I want to materialize listening’s paratactic wavering of attention to one thing after another.
In the production of this movement toward noise, I value illegibility over legibility and the abstract over the figured. If we deemphasize voice, we acknowledge the ways in which voices can undo themselves in their production—which is the ethics of dream life that Mayer argues for and illuminates within her poem. The outside within the voice is a frequency scatter that connects the dissipation of an emitted sound in space with all the other sounds that interfere or resonate with that sound. The strange whisper music that ends my audio project “flattens” the sonic space idealized by the division of figure and ground. By abstracting Bernadette Mayer’s performance, I seek a synthesis that brings the noisy dream life of voice into relief.
Featured Image: “Scream” by Flickr user Josh Otis CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
John Melillo is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Arizona. His book project, Outside In: The Poetics of Noise from Dada to Punk, examines the ways in which poetry and performance make noise during the twentieth century. He has written and presented work on empathy in sound poetry, folk-song utopianism, the post-punk band DNA, and tape noise in Charles Olson. John performs music and sound art as Algae & Tentacles.
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