In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, jazz musician Charles Mingus recounts his hatred of being ignored during his bass solos. When it was finally his turn to enter the foreground, suddenly musicians and audience members alike found drinks, food, conversations, and everything else more important. However, this small, and somewhat ironic, anecdote of Mingus’s relationship with the jazz community has now become a foreshadowing of his current status in sound studies–but no longer! This series–featuring myself (Earl Brooks), Brittnay Proctor, Jessica Teague, and Nichole Rustin-Paschal— re/hears, re/sounds and re/mixes the contributions of Mingus for his ingenious approach to jazz performance and composition as well as his far-reaching theorizations of sound in relation to liberation and social equality, all in honor of the 60th anniversary of Mingus’s sublimely idiosyncratic album Mingus Ah Um this month. In the second installment of this series, Brittnay Proctor challenges us to view Mingus through the discourse of ethical care. She argues that we have often “confused Mingus’s care for the future of jazz music and black jazz artists for an ornery and grouchy disposition.” You can catch up with the full series by clicking here.–Guest Editor Earl Brooks
One thing I’d like to clear up a little more in case I haven’t is the fact that all those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing, all those styles, man, are the same and as important as classical music styles are. —Charles Mingus, “Avant-Garde and Tradition” in Mingus Speaks (2013)
My present working methods use very little written material. I ‘write’ compositions on mental score paper, then I lay out the composition part by part to the musicians. I play them the ‘framework’ on piano so that they are all familiar with my interpretation and feeling and with the scale and chord progressions to be used…I can keep my own compositional flavor in the pieces and yet allow the musicians more individual freedom in the creation of their group lines and solos. –Charles Mingus quoted by Diane Dorr-Dorynek, Original Liner Notes, Mingus Ah Um (1959)
Released in 1959 in the same orbit as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (August 1959) and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come (October 1959), Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um (September 1959) showcased Mingus’s range both as a composer and bassist. Intimate both in its sound and session composition (only seven sessions players worked on the album), the album provides a purview into Mingus’s commitment to the idiomatic (“interconnected”) and collaborative nature of the black jazz tradition and the stakes of/for black art and artists. His investment in jazz’s black idiomatic structure stood at odds with the increasing importance of the singular jazz man to the marketing of jazz music.
Works like Mingus Ah Um prompt listeners to listen attentively to collaboration and collaborative efforts, both in the setting of a jazz ensemble/collective and in the historicity of black (jazz) men caring for one another. While the imposition of white gender prerogatives sometimes foreclosed intimate, homosocial (same-gender, social) relationships between black jazz men that revolved around what Christina Sharpe terms in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being as an “ethics of care,” Mingus Ah Um is not only an ode to black jazz ancestors and elders, but performative of Mingus’s deep care about the black jazz tradition and its futurity. (131)
In histories of jazz, Charles Mingus is often characterized as volatile and dismissive of young black jazz artists. His purported critique of neo-jazz movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s, like the free jazz (“The New Thing”)/avant-garde jazz movement, narratively put him at odds with emerging jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis. But as demonstrated by Mingus Ah Um, Mingus profoundly cared about black jazz men and the future of black jazz music. Given these histories, what would it mean for listeners to not dismiss Mingus altogether, but hold in tension his anxieties, deemed dogmatic and peremptory, with his often careful and honorific sonic confabulation with black jazz men? How does re-listening to Mingus Ah Um make us empathetic to Mingus’s pursuit in preserving a waning black jazz tradition that was ever increasingly ridiculed and mocked (by way of anti-blackness) for its presumed anti-intellectualism and placation to whiteness? The undercurrent of Mingus’s care is not always expressed in histories or interviews, which begs the question: what is rooted in, yet exceeds the autobiographical, when we listen?
When listening to Mingus Ah Um the album’s ethics of care might be heard most explicitly on tracks like “Fables of Faubus,” a protest song in the most righteous sense, aimed at Orval Faubus, the former Arkansas governor who deployed the state’s national guard to barricade Central High School in Little Rock from the threat of integration (which is also to say the threat of miscegenation). A tune steeped in dissent and once with lyrics that made Columbia ask Mingus to re-record the tune: “Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists!/Boo! Ku Klux Klan (With your Jim Crow plan).” (“Original Faubus Fables,” Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, 1960)
Listening to the cluster of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “Open Letter to Duke,” and “Jelly Roll” (it has been written that “Bird Calls” was composed in honor of Charlie Parker, but Mingus composed the song to sound like birds) you realize these tracks are his oeuvre to the “eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing.” (See first epigraph) The tracks are less about mimicry and reproducing the exact sound of Lester Young, Jelly Roll Morton, or Duke Ellington, but are rooted in Mingus’s ethics of care. With these works, he demonstrates how black jazz men enabled him to invent and play his own idiom of jazz. But most importantly, Mingus uses these compositions to argue that Young, Morton, and Ellington should not be treated as disposable or as an obstruction to “harder” or more radical avant-garde jazz sounds and forms. For Mingus, without Duke, Jelly Roll, or Lester, there is no Mingus, or jazz for that matter.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a tribute to tenor saxophonist Lester Young, the oft cited creator of “cool jazz,” is somber in tone, but masterfully weds mournful playing by way of saxophonists Booker Ervin, Shafi Hadi, and John Handy with Young’s confident, melodic, and smooth style of play. A buoyant, bouncy encomium is forgone for a tranquil, cool, serenade. The song does not reference Young in name but is deeply personal; Young was slated to play on Mingus Ah Um but died shortly before recording sessions started. The song narrates the kinship between Mingus and Young, as well as, the devastating loss to Mingus and black jazz communitas. Sensually euphonious, listeners feel spatially close, nearly inside of the track. The physically intimate resonances of the song make it undoubtedly, a Lester Young track on a Mingus album.
“Jelly Roll” pays homage to Jelly Roll Morton, the founder of New Orleans Dixeland jazz. Embodying a slow drag emblematic of Jelly Roll Morton’s play and compositions, the song revolves around the bounce of the trombone and ragtime play of the piano. His version of “boogie-woogie” (“Boogie” = black rent parties of the twentieth century) is characterized by a lower register bassline (a left-hand bass figure) and leisurely tempo (appositional to hard bop). The dedication to Jelly Roll Morton is also honorific of jazz’s history as an “unacceptable” form of popular music; “Jelly Roll” both in name and sound alludes to the black sexual subcultures and vernacular that were once an integral part of jazz music.
“Open Letter to Duke” is a salute to Mingus’s greatest musical influence, Duke Ellington. The bounce and accelerated trot of the track reminds listeners that jazz music was once dance music. A piano solo that leads into woodwinds, marks flight and movement, while Mingus’s bass play resembles Ellington’s use of Afro-Latinx rhythm’s later in his career; an “ethnic” turn (“Spanish tinge”) in Ellington’s big band sound and an allusion to the diasporic connection between black music in the U.S. and the Caribbean. Similar to Duke Ellington’s body of work and composition, the sum of the track is greater than its parts.
We have often confused Mingus’s care for the future of jazz music and black jazz artists for an ornery and grouchy disposition. He was quite cognizant of the fraught relationship black jazz artists had with the financialization of black performance, writing in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus that the music industry was a “system those that own us use. They make us famous and give us names—the King of this, the Count of that, the Duke of what! We die broke anyhow—and sometimes I think I dig death more than I dig facing this white world.” (9)
Likewise, Mingus’s “working methods” for the album were deeply embedded in an ethics of care. As a bandleader, his compositions were structural, but tailored to each players style of play. What does it mean for the bandleader to care about the ensemble as much as, if not more, than himself? For example, John Handy “met Mingus in December  at a jam session at the Five Spot…the musicians on the stand thought he looked too square. Mingus asked them to give him a chance to play, and they did. A day later Mingus asked him to join his group.” (Original Liner Notes, Mingus Ah Um) How does care and assistance change how we understand Mingus and his relationship to young, black jazz men?
What Charles Mingus (maybe) understood most or at least more than his contemporaries, is that you cannot “think” or intellectualize away the conditions of black life, as Christina Sharpe reminds us, “all we have [is care]” (131). For each other, in the most intramural (situated or done within community.) Mingus’s compositions, especially on Mingus Ah Um, reflects this ethics. He composed pieces in a way that allowed young, passed over, and unacknowledged black jazz men to shine.
Featured Image: Still from Mingus 1959 by the BBC, colorized by SO!
Brittnay L. Proctor received her PhD in African American Studies from Northwestern University and is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California—Irvine. Her research interests include: Black Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies; black feminist theory, black popular music, sound studies, visual culture(s), and performance. Her work has been published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies, The Journal of Popular Culture, American Literature and is forthcoming in Feminist Formations.
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Voices at Work: Listening to and for Elsewhere at Public Gatherings in Toronto, Canada (at So-called 150)
“Decolonization,” Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang propose in “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” “is not an ‘and.’ It is an elsewhere.”
Elsewhere, not here, not now. Not here. Not now. Enough!
In the context of decolonization, elsewhere is a refusal to accept the conditions of life as is in the here and now.
Elsewhere is that place that already is, that place that used to be, that place that might just be.
Elsewhere, an endeavor to enact otherwise.
Elsewhere, a commitment to perform the work to create, memorialize, and sustain some place else because the here and now are not enough.
This essay listens to and for elsewhere in the voices performing decolonial efforts at some public gatherings—rallies, protests, marches, and memorials—in Toronto between March 2016 and June 2017. These gatherings took place in the lead-up to Canada (at so-called) 150, the federally funded, almost countrywide commemoration of Canadian Confederacy. At these public gatherings, the dissenting sounds of elsewhere reverberate to break the silence tantamount to Canada as a white settler colonial nation-state. It is by disrupting this silence that elsewhere takes form; “a break of something,” writes Sara Ahmed in her latest book, Living a Feminist Life, is also “the start of something” (200). This essay is about listening to the voice as a social prism of sound that disperses and reflects power. Thus by listening to and for elsewhere at public gatherings, we hear voices at work—in formation—producing an elsewhere by refusing to comply with the sonic demands of a Canadianness based on white settler colonialism, dependent on state-sanctioned multiculturalism, and rendered as silence.
Canadian Multiculturalism as Silent Visibility,
or the Visible Silence of White Settler Colonialism as Canada
Silence is often a condition of belonging that nation-states attach to citizenship. Indeed in Canada, visibility begets silence. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968–1979; 1980–1984) adopted Multiculturalism within a Bilingual Framework as official policy in 1971. This would subsequently catalyze the appearance of the figure of the visible minority, a demographic designation for anyone who is non-white and non-Indigenous but used as an umbrella term to denote “person of color.” The visible minority has been central to the discourse of diversity as multiculturalism; and diversity continues to be an enduring tenet of Canadian nationalism.
However, according to Eva Mackey’s The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada, the policy of multiculturalism is “primarily concerned with mobilising diversity for the project of nation-building, as well as limiting that diversity to symbolic rather than political forms” (80). To be understood as Canadian, one must ascribe to its multicultural terms, namely accepting white settler colonialism—and the sonic politics of whiteness—as norm; and typically, whiteness is thought to be unmarked and inaudible, silent.
It is in this way that in Canada silence is understood as harmony. Another way to put this: social harmony is believed to derive from silence. Any person or group or form of sound that breaks this social contract, what Audra Simpson refers to in “The State is a Man: Theresa Spence, Loretta Saunders and the Gender of Settler Sovereignty” as “Canadian silence,” is categorized as noise or noisy. Thus in the context of the US, and yet very much applicable to Canada, Jennifer Lynn Stoever writes in her book The Sonic Color Line, “As dominant listening practices discipline us to process white male ways of sounding as default, natural, normal, and desirable…they deem alternate ways of listening and sounding aberrant” (12).
Social censorship in Canada of what can and cannot be said in public is a distinguishing feature of everyday life. Silence is a sonic means by which white settler colonialism thrives. Stay quiet. Be quiet. Or, else; where the threat becomes a dare to live a life unrestrained by what Lesley Belleau describes as “the false safety of silence” in The Winter We Danced (181).
This else though. What are the possibilities of this else? Where might it lead?
Black Lives Matter Toronto Rally /// #BLMTOblackOUT
#BLMTOtentcity /// Toronto Police Service Headquarters
Saturday, March 26, 2016
It was a blustery, cold, spring day. Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) had organized a rally, #BLMTOblackOUT, to commemorate the then one-week anniversary of #BLMTOtentcity—their occupation of Toronto Police Service Headquarters’ outdoor plaza. On Sunday, March 20, 2016 outside Toronto City Hall in Nathan Phillips Square, BLMTO held a rally against anti-black racism—police brutality (in particular the killing of Andrew Loku and Jermaine Carby by the police), carding, and the defunding of black cultural programs, Afrofest namely. By evening’s end, the rally had moved to Toronto Police Service Headquarters where it became an occupation that lasted two weeks.
BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE,” a BLMTO member shouted into a microphone; a call and declaration of a black elsewhere affirmed by the audience’s response: “BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE.”
#BLMTOblackOUT, Toronto Police Service Headquarters, Toronto, Saturday, March 26, 2016, recording by author
She reiterated, “BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE,” as Rhythms of Resistance Toronto, a band that performs at social justice events across the city, began to accompany her with a samba groove; this was elsewhere as a black diasporic space. “BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE,” confirmed the audience in response who were now clapping along to the beat. A back-and-forth ensued where repetition and the obstinacy of the leader’s voice marked what Daphne Brooks has identified in “All That You Can’t Leave behind”: Black Female Soul Singing and the Politics of Surrogation in the Age of Catastrophe” as “urgency and excess.” This urgency and excess were further compounded by the start of another chant, which interlocked with the one she was leading. Another member of BLMTO then exclaimed into a microphone, “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. NO RACIST POLICE.” Some of the audience members began to heed her call. “BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE / NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. NO RACIST POLICE.” Together, the two chants, loud and overpowering, created a tension that paralleled the social pressures wrought by a Canadian silence that takes the form of anti-black racism.
After a few rounds of the layered chant were exhausted, the second leader stopped to catch her breath. By bringing the chant to a halt, she demonstrated not only the toll that shouting takes on a person but also the labor, power, and duress needed, according to Kelley Tatro, “to express personal and collective rage.” “I can’t breathe,” said Eric Garner eleven times while the police officers holding him down against the pavement disavowed him of his personhood. In the US and Canada, breathing and shouting are presumed antithetical to life within the realms of white settler colonialism.
Shouting, performing anger and defiance via sound in public, is considered noise under the logics of whiteness. Thus, as Jack Halberstam writes in the introduction to Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons, “In order to bring colonialism to an end then, one does not speak truth to power, one has to inhabit the crazy nonsensical, ranting language of the other, the other who has been rendered a nonentity by colonialism” (8). What both BLMTO members leading chants indicated at #BLMTOblackOUT is that shouting, in this case in the form of chanting, is another way of breathing elsewhere into existence.
#NoDAPL Solidarity March with Standing Rock
Queens Park to Nathan Phillips Square
Saturday, November 5, 2016
It began where many politically motivated public gatherings in Toronto do: outside Queen’s Park, which houses the Government of Ontario offices. Participants made speeches, chanted, cheered, jeered, and sang songs. The crowd then headed south on University Avenue sounding their discontent in front of the US Consulate building, which coincidentally is on the way to Nathan Phillips Square.
The march had been organized by and alongside Indigenous groups to show support for protesters at Standing Rock. In solidarity with the Water Protectors holding camp at Sacred Stone Camp, marchers in Toronto were expressing their disapproval of the US government’s efforts to construct an oil pipeline through Indigenous territory, a project that endangers clean water resources and violates treaties.
Once at Nathan Phillips Square, Indigenous people led participants in a pan-tribal round dance. Most strongly since Idle No More, or #IdleNoMore, in the winter of 2012/2013, round dances became emblems of Indigenous self-determination across what is typically referred to as Canada. Taking place in public venues, notably malls, as part of Idle No More actions, round dances served as communal claims not to Canada and Canadianness but rather to Turtle Island and Indigeneity.
Along with drumming, singing makes up the sonic elements of a round dance all the while those participants not playing a drum in the middle of the circle hold hands and move in a clockwise direction to the music. The high-pitched singing voice invites and welcomes those who have passed to join. In this way, the singing voice is an understanding that life and kinship do not cease at death. As such, the high-pitched singing voice is also a reach towards something else, a nameless elsewhere describable, graspable, through vocables. These vocables, these sonic registers of possibility, cannot be contained by the limitations of any official language. As part of round dances, then, vocables announce that while this elsewhere has yet to be legitimized through language, it exists in sound. And elsewhere’s existence is celebrated by what Anna Hoefnagels writes in “Northern Style Powwow Music: Musical Features and Meanings” are the improvised “whoops, shouts, yelps or ululations by singers” (14).
Through round dances, Indigenous people recognize that according to treaties signed by Indigenous groups and European settlers the land and its resources are to be shared. Round dances are a means to assert that Turtle Island is not another name for North America but rather a place that exists alongside North America.
Women’s March on Washington: Toronto
Queen’s Park to Nathan Phillips Square
Saturday, January 21, 2017
The labor, the creativity, of women of color is largely to thank for the organizing and mobilizing efforts that led to the Women’s March on Washington. Toronto’s “sister march” made evident the ways in which the work that women of color, particularly black women, perform in producing elsewhere has and continues to go unrecognized. The use of songs with black female vocals to lead Toronto’s Women’s March is an example of how audibility accompanies invisibility in Canada.
he joyous tenor of the march was introduced partially through disco and disco-inflected songs like Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” (1979) and the Eurythmics’ and Aretha Franklin’s duet “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” (1985). March organizers wanted participants to feel that this march was a celebration of sisterhood, of women, like Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox, coming together harmoniously as kin. Intersectionality need not apply—maybe as a catchword but definitely not in practice.
Women’s March on Washington: Toronto, Queen’s Park, Toronto, Saturday, January 21, 2017, recording by author
The emotional labor that Debbie, Joni, Kim, and Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge and Aretha Franklin perform in these songs was not meant to be heard as women belaboring a black feminist, or womanist or queer, elsewhere; instead, marchers—like much of white feminism historically—enjoyed the benefits, without the risks, of an elsewhere made possible by the emotional labor that black female singers perform in dance music. In the voices of Sister Sledge and Aretha Franklin, some marchers did not recognize the invisible labor required to flourish in white settler heteropatriarchal nation-states; at the march, the power of black female voices was misappropriated to signal thriving because of white settler colonialism, paternalism, and blanket sisterhood.
Women’s March on Washington: Toronto, Queen’s Park, Toronto, Saturday, January 21, 2017, recording by author
Barbara Hall Park
Monday, June 12, 2017
Adjacent to Toronto’s AIDS Memorial in Barbara Hall Park, attendees gathered to remember the forty-nine victims of the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The event commemorated the one-year anniversary of the shooting with a short film screening, a DJ set, musical performances, poems, short speeches, and food. Surrounded and sustained by the light of candles, the names of the forty-nine primarily Latinx victims were read by the event’s three MCs against the flickering screen of the lit wicks.
Pulse Memorial Event, Barbara Hall Park, Toronto, Monday, June 12, 2017, image by author
|Stanley Almodovar III, age 23
Amanda Alvear, 25
Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
Martin Benitez Torres, 33
Antonio D. Brown, 30
Darryl R. Burt II, 29
Jonathan A. Camuy Vega, 24
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28
Simon A. Carrillo Fernandez, 31
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25
Luis D. Conde, 39
Cory J. Connell, 21
Tevin E. Crosby, 25
Franky J. Dejesus Velazquez, 50
|Deonka D. Drayton, 32
Mercedez M. Flores, 26
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
Juan R. Guerrero, 22
Paul T. Henry, 41
Frank Hernandez, 27
Miguel A. Honorato, 30
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
Jason B. Josaphat, 19
Eddie J. Justice, 30
Anthony L. Laureano Disla, 25
Christopher A. Leinonen, 32
Brenda L. Marquez McCool, 49
Jean C. Mendez Perez, 35
Akyra Monet Murray, 18
Kimberly Morris, 37
Jean C. Nieves Rodriguez, 27
|Luis O. Ocasio-Capo, 20
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25
Eric I. Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24
Christopher J. Sanfeliz, 24
Xavier E. Serrano Rosado, 35
Gilberto R. Silva Menendez, 25
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
Shane E. Tomlinson, 33
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
Luis S. Vielma, 22
Luis D. Wilson-Leon, 37
Jerald A. Wright, 31
The reading of their names was an incantation of forty-nine lives lost and an invocation of an elsewhere maintained through remembrance. The vocalization of their names was thus a commitment to an understanding of intimacy that refuses the state’s limited definitions of what and whom constitutes a (grievable) life; and concurrently, their names were sonic acknowledgments of the violence that is basic to life for many under white settler colonialism, what Christina Sharpe calls “being in the wake.” Their names, too, were evocations of the queer of color dancefloor. It us under and around the disco ball, after all, that many queers of color enact an elsewhere, love light in flight. Therefore, the reading of the forty-nine names was an assertion that life and intimacy are sonic demands and collective endeavors.
George Hislop Park to Old City Hall
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Annually, some queer Canadians take it upon themselves to organize a Night March, an unofficial (by choice) Pride event that insists that Pride has been and will continue to remain political. Night March is a refusal to abide by the respectability politics attached to the visibility and corporatism that Pride garners across Toronto. “LET’S GET CRITICAL, OUR PRIDE IS POLITICAL,” one of the chants goes. Participants meet at a predetermined location, announced through posters and social media, somewhere near or in the Church and Wellesley Neighborhood—Toronto’s “gayborhood.” Before setting out to march, participants listen to a small set of speakers who share information on some of the issues that are not being discussed at Toronto’s official Pride events: the defunding of organizations working on HIV/AIDS and the housing discrimination faced by trans women and sex workers, for example.
The gathering at George Hislop Park this year also made evident a particular rift among LGBTQ+ people, groups, and institutions surrounding this year’s Pride festivities: whether to support BLMTO’s actions and demands at last year’s Pride Parade, namely the removal of uniform police from partaking in future parades. On Sunday, June 26, 2016 and in their role as honored guests of the parade, members of BLMTO halted Toronto’s Pride Parade at the intersection of Yonge and College Streets for thirty minutes—to the dismay of some and the approval of others. It was then that BLMTO served Pride Toronto, the organization that runs Pride in the city, with a list of demands. Pride Toronto’s Executive Director at time Mathieu Chantelois hastily signed BLMTO’s list of demands only to retract his approval shortly thereafter. Following months of heated debate and backlash against BLMTO, the Pride Toronto membership formally agreed to adopt all of BLMTO’s demands at its Annual General Meeting (AGM) on January 27, 2017—uniformed police would not march at this year’s Pride parade.
At George Hislop Park, Night March participants were unequivocal in their support of BLMTO. The mostly millennial and predominantly white gathering’s chants, which they shouted as they made their way down Church Street, included “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. NO RACIST POLICE.”
Night March participants even halted traffic on College Street as they briefly occupied the traffic lanes in front of Toronto Police Service Headquarters. Accompanied by Rhythms of Resistance Toronto, a few participants called out “BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE.” The rest of the gathering responded, “BLACK LIVES THEY MATTER HERE.”
Night March, Toronto Police Service Headquarters, Toronto, June 21, 2017, image by author
Police officers who were following the marchers on bicycles sounded out a short siren, a sound of disapproval and a warning to disperse. The marchers continued chanting. They then switched chants and began shouting in unison, “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. NO RACIST POLICE.” After a few rounds of this chant, one participant led the gathering into another chant:
WHEN BLACK LIVES ARE UNDER ATTACK, WE REVOLT, UNITE, FIGHT BACK. x9
WHEN TRANS LIVES ARE UNDER ATTACK, WE REVOLT, UNITE, FIGHT BACK. x3
WHEN INDIGENOUS LIVES ARE UNDER ATTACK, WE REVOLT, UNITE, FIGHT BACK. x3
WHEN WOMEN’S LIVES ARE UNDER ATTACK, WE REVOLT, UNITE, FIGHT BACK. x3
WHEN QUEER LIVES ARE UNDER ATTACK, WE REVOLT, UNITE, FIGHT BACK. x3
The chants at Night March were sonic testaments of an elsewhere impossible to imagine and enact without the collective labor of BLMTO’s membership since its formation in 2014, which has included but has not been limited to #BLMTOtentcity and their protests at Toronto’s 2016 Pride Parade. The chants were also a compilation and validation of noisy political activity—a loud elsewhere—in a city and in a nation-state that prefers, promotes, and is predicated on the silence, the violence, that is white settler colonialism.
“Only together,” argues Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera, “can we be a force” (209).
Together, these voices at public gatherings say NO to Toronto, Canada at so-called 150; NO is a refusal to be complicit, to stay silent, to death. These are voices that do not consent to white settler colonialism. A NO to police brutality, the disappearance and murders of Indigenous women and girls, the conditions that drive Indigenous youth to suicide, lack of clean drinking water, carding, anti-semitic and Islamophobic hate crimes, the different forms of violence LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans women, face, the municipal, provincial, and federal governments defunding and unfunding of public housing and healthcare programs. It is by amplifying and listening to these NOs that we actually hear the workings of a YES, to an affirmation of elsewhere in the here and now that is always already attuned to the past and future, to lives—black, trans, Indigenous, feminine, queer—that matter, to life otherwise.
Featured Image: Round Dance, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Saturday, November 5, 2016, photo by author
Gabriela Jimenez defended her PhD dissertation in ethnomusicology at the University of Toronto this spring. Her dissertation is on the ways in which nonnormatively gendered and sexually oriented persons in Mexico City use musical performances to alter their surroundings. Her writing has been featured in Black Music Research Journal and The Fader.
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**This post was co-authored by Marit J. MacArthur and Lee M. Miller
Like it or not, we are now accustomed to contemporary pop vocalists manipulating their voices using Autotune and other tools or effects for pitch correction. We may exult in it, and congratulate ourselves on our sophisticated appreciation of the options available to the contemporary vocalist. In another mood, we may scream for low-fi and acoustic music, feel cynical about the possibility that we might ever hear an unmediated voice, live or recorded (if we ever did), and/or laugh off the notion of authenticity in performance entirely. Of course, rather than tricking the audience or trying to sound somehow “better” than they are, many performers manipulate their voices to pose questions about the nature of performance—Reggie Watts and Anna Deavere Smith come readily to mind—and to test essentialist assumptions about and perceptions of voice and sound.
Watts, in an exemplary 2012 TED Talk, plays with the different sorts of authority and affect conveyed by, among other voices: upper-class-British-absurd-explanatory, affectively-meaningful-nonsense-foreign-language, and caz-hip-hop-introducing-a-song-chat. Inhabiting and playing with different voices, he amuses listeners into recognizing how much intonation—the rise and fall of pitch—and other acoustic features affect our perception of a speaker’s voice, and how much we expect people to speak in ways that match our assumptions about their identities.
We cannot all be so talented at vocal imitation, however. And in sound, voice and performance studies concerned with speech, machine-assisted manipulation of vocal recordings—which we term “vocal deformance”—is much less common than in the creative industries. A playful approach to vocal deformance, as a critical and creative practice, has much to teach us about our perceptions of speech in general, and performative speech in particular. Too often, when we use archival poetry recordings in our teaching, they may reify an idea that students are often loathe to relinquish: a poem is a finished art object, weighted with authorial intention and biographical significance, with one possible interpretation (the instructor’s). When we play a single canonical recording of T.S. Eliot reading The Waste Land in 1946, for instance, his particular intonation, together with assumptions that he was a stuffy, overeducated, repressed snob, can foreclose the possibility of a fresh encounter with the many voices of the poem and a multitude of interpretations.
Using vocal deformance in the classroom and in our own research and scholarship, we can unsettle overdetermined readings of poems, essentialist assumptions about the poets who speak them and questions of poetic authority, and recover the crucial oral components of poetry. Below we offer some examples of vocal deformance of poetry readings, and consider the potential and limits of this technique for teaching and research with recordings of performative speech. As John Hyland wrote in Sounding Out! in 2014, “The act of listening to recorded poetry … poses particular analytic challenges, which become more complex when the politics of identity are brought to bear on … questions of voice and poetry.” Among these challenges are essentialist assumptions, both about identity and recording medium, which are difficult to avoid when we listen. Hyland concludes that, when we listen to recordings, “the poet’s voice falsely takes on an authoritative ‘aura,’ as Walter Benjamin used that word”; one way to counter to this is to listen to the same poem read by the poet at different points in their career, in different contexts, as Hyland does with three recordings of Amiri Baraka’s “Black Dada Nihilismus.” Another approach is to play with recordings.
The concept of deformance dates to a 1999 essay by Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels. They take inspiration from Emily Dickinson, who sometimes liked to read poems backward, for the potential insights of reading against the form, scrambling the original sequence, and so on. According to McGann and Samuels, Dickinson’s
critical model is performative, not intellectual [. . . ]. it is anti-theoretical: not because it is opposed to theory (i.e., speculative thought), but because it places theory in a subordinated relation to practice. Deformative moves reinvestigate the terms … [of] critical commentary [, with] dramatic exposure of subjectivity as a live and highly informative option of interpretive commentary, if not indeed one of its essential features. [our italics]
Too often in the literature class room, the subjectivity of interpretation is something of a problem. While we might initially encourage a somewhat fluffy reader-response discussion of a poem, eventually we might also worry that students are simply wandering too far from it, following their own random associations with a phrase or metaphor, without learning to parse the rich intricacy of the whole poem. One effect of vocal deformance is that it makes space for the playful response, and also keeps bringing students back to the telling phrase, to the words of the poem, imagining what difference it makes if they are said in different ways, trying on different interpretations, as it were.
While vocal deformance can be applied to any performative speech, it particularly lends itself to poetry recordings. Poetry is, of course, an oral form with a fraught relationship between text and performance, and poetry reading styles are often perceived to be highly conventional, so that we feel we are listening to a Poem rather than a particular poem. From a literary and performance studies perspective, what could be more tiredly familiar than a canonical recording of a canonical poem by a canonical poet in a conventional style of poetry reading that deadens the audience to the charms and nuances of that poem? And how can we do something productive and interesting with the (sometimes extremely) idiosyncratic subjectivity of student responses to canonical texts?
As an interpretive practice, vocal deformance opens up new possibilities for testing assumptions about performance, poetic authority and gender, and, potentially, about race, class, education, region, and canonicity. Is The Waste Land (1922) the deadly serious poem that many readers often take it to be, partly because it is presented to them as an immensely influential Modernist monolith? How does T.S. Eliot’s seemingly grim reading of it, and our perception of his style, contribute to such an interpretation of the poem? After all, the working title of the poem was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and it includes many different voices or speakers, from the clairvoyant Madame Sosistris to Tiresias. What better way to defamiliarize and exploit the authority of the poem than to deform Eliot’s authoritative reading voice?
How do we respond to the now-canonical voice of Eliot reading the opening lines of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land”?
Okay. Now what if we raise his pitch? Is he suddenly his own great-aunt? What does the same lament mean, spoken by a voice that sounds like an elderly woman?
And if we leave his pitch alone, but speed up his speaking rate, does he suddenly sound like an old-school radio announcer, the poem a deranged weather forecast?
In terms of digital humanities research, a refreshing aspect of vocal deformance is that it avoids some of the easy and misleading reassurances of the empirical move. It’s not that it only clarifies what we thought we were hearing (as visualizing intonation through pitch contours can), but that it encourages multiplicity in listening.
Vocal deformance is essentially a playful strategy for defamiliarization that reminds us, in many ways, of the subjective, creative, even arbitrary nature of interpretation. In this, it has clear affinities with the OULIPO movement (which Dickinson’s practice of reading backwards presages). It may help us imagine, create and respond to alternative sequences and versions of recorded canonical texts—and to any apparently stable, singular performance of a text. The art of the glitch is one deformative practice, with the goal countering screen essentialism, the unreflective assumption that a digital artefact is immutable, stable and coherent. For an example of glitching photographs, see Trevor Owens’s “Glitching Files for Understanding: Avoiding Screen Essentialism in Three Easy Steps,” and Michael Kramer’s blog post about using audio deformance in a digital folk music history seminar at Northwestern University, “Distorting History to Make It More Accurate,” which demonstrates some potential insights gained by glitching newspaper images, photographs and music (Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”). John Melillo and Johanna Skibsrud’s “Two Sides for Wallace Stevens,” on Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room site, also offers a beguiling example of audio deformance.
Most deformative practices work with text and image, however, and the few that manipulate recordings introduce noise, skipped phrases, repetition, etc., usually without changing the acoustic features of the voice. It is well worth applying deformance more often to speech, not only in linguistics and the neurobiology of speech perception, but in humanistic study of performative speech because our perception of speech is nothing if not subjective, not to say mysterious, for two reasons.
First, our expectations of what we will hear influence what we do hear, from simple sounds to complex language comprehension. Often these expectations, which can be visual, auditory, cultural, etc., have been naturalized by the listener over time as unconscious reactions. Though many have anecdotal experience of this phenomenon (see an example about a black student, a white teacher, and a black student-teacher disagreeing on what the student said in a 2012 Sounding Out! piece by Christina Sharpe), it is has been demonstrated in many experiments as well. For instance, our perception of foreign-accented speech changes rapidly as we hear a few sentences and calibrate our internal expectations, as shown by Clarke and Garret’s 2004 study “Rapid Adaptation to Foreign-accented English.” And, according to Richard Warren’s “Perceptural Restoration of Missing Speech Sounds” (1970), “when natural speech is interrupted by noisy gaps like a cough or a slammed door, we unknowingly “fill in” the noise, vividly hearing speech sounds that do not exist acoustically. This phenomenon arises both from linguistic expectations as well as our deep familiarity with basic speech acoustics, as shown in Shahin, Bishop, and Miller’s “Neural mechanisms for illusory filling-in of degraded speech.” Similarly, in an illusion called the McGurk effect—noted by Harry McGurk and John MacDonald in 1976—just seeing a talker’s lip movements changes the perception of speech sounds categorically, say from “buck” to “duck.”
Though much of this reshaping of our acoustic perception happens unconsciously, we can also profoundly alter what we hear through selective attention. Particularly in everyday acoustic environments, we hear speech better when we expect it, and when it matches our specific expectations: from a given location, from a certain talker or type of talker, at a certain pitch, and so on (See “Speech Recognition in Adverse Conditions: A Review” by Mattys, Davis, et al. 2012). Perceptual filters fundamentally constrain our experience: if we attend to a talker in one ear, we may not even realize when a second talker in the other ear switches from English to German, as Cherry concluded in “Some Experiments on the Recognition of Speech” in 1953. Social and cultural knowledge also changes what we hear. Listening to someone whom a listener visually perceives as a “non-native speaker” can make speech sound not only more “accented” (see Donald Rubin’s “Nonlanguage Factors Affecting S Judgments of Nonnative English-Speaking Teaching Assistants” from 1992)—what we might call a subjective quality—but, as Molly Babel and Jamie Russell found in 2015’s “Expectations and Speech Intelligibility,” it can also trigger speech processing reactions that make the speech less intelligible to the listener making visual judgments regarding accented speech.
Given what we know about the brain, the fact that expectations affect perception—of recorded voices reading poems, in this case—should not come as a surprise. A growing consensus holds that the brain’s job is not merely to represent the world; rather it strives to predict the world, make inferences about it, and correct those expectations whenever a mismatch is detected (see Knill and Pouget’s “The Bayesian brain: the role of uncertainty in neural coding and computation”  and Karl Friston’s 2010 “The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory?”) In somewhat familiar environments and situations (pretty much everything after infancy), predictive inference is far more efficient than continually rendering the perceptual world de novo. This means that vocal deformance—particularly when it manipulates a known voice, as with canonical poets, or a familiar way of speaking, as with conventional poetry reading styles—waves a red flag at the brain. Change wakes up the quiescent, habitual brain to something new and potentially informative, because the voice does not fit our expectations for what the person would or should sound like. Listen to Reggie Watts!
This effect can also operate inversely; that is, if we do not expect someone to have a particular voice, we may adjust the stories we tell ourselves about our perceptions, to better match our expectations. In musicology, we might think of Nina Eidsheim’s article on the racialized reception of opera singer Marian Anderson, the first African American to sing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera:
the timbre of her voice has routinely (if often admiringly) been characterized as ‘black,’ … [despite] classical music’s minimal indulgence of individual style … this distinction [has] to be based on an assumption that the black body is intrinsically different from the white body and that even when emitting a timbre recognized as classical, the resonance of a singer’s black body is evident (3, 4).
Certainly, as Jennifer Stoever writes, “listening [is] an interpretive site where racial difference is coded, produced, and policed” (62). The same is true of gender difference and many other identity markers and cultural factors related to authority and authenticity. As Shai Burstyn notes in the article “In Quest of the Period Ear,” about attempts to imagine how contemporary audiences experienced medieval music, “culture plays a highly significant—though not exclusive—role in shaping the cognitive skills of its members” (695). If it is remarkably difficult to escape our stereotypical expectations and perceptions of what a person’s voice “should” sound like, that is partly because our brain uses such expectations to make predictions about our sonic experience. We cannot overcome our expectations through good will alone, and engaging with these issues in the classroom, which can be challenging, also provides an opportunity to help students think critically about essentialism and voice, for those moments when a student in the back of the room mutters in surprise that Langston Hughes “doesn’t sound black,” or exclaims that Walt Whitman “doesn’t sound gay.” Though it is not designed to assess stereotyping in speech perception, the Harvard implicit bias test is a good way to engage students in questions of cultural bias and perception [also, see “So You Flunked a Racism Test. Now What?”].
Furthermore, our affective responses to acoustic, non-verbal qualities of speech matter tremendously to our interpretation of verbal semantics, of the meaning of the words spoken. According to voice perception research in Foundations of Voice Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Voice Production and Perception by Jody Kreiman and Diana Sidtis, when we listen to speech, “[s]ome authors … have claimed that normal adults usually believe the tone of voice rather than the words…. For example, the contrast in ‘I feel just fine’ spoken in a tense, tentative tone might be politely ignored, while, ‘I’m not angry’ spoken in hot anger would not” (304). The teacher’s boring tone of voice on the Peanuts cartoon makes the point.
In other words, we pick up on the affective meaning of a speaker’s tone of voice, and weigh it against the semantic meaning of the words spoken. While Kreiman and Sidtis argue that tone cannot be reduced to intonation patterns, “the fundamental frequency of the human voice [pitch] … heads the list of important cues for emotional meanings” (311). Pitch manipulation, then, changes the affective meaning of speech. Tone of voice is also influenced by other acoustic features, including speaking rate or tempo, and rhythm. In poetry recordings, the poet’s tone of voice influences the listener’s interpretation of a poem.
Two fundamental intonation patterns are rising or falling pitch. In American English, relatively high or relatively low pitch at the end of an utterance, compared to the beginning and middle, seems to carry distinct meanings, as demonstrated by Janet Pierrehumbert and Julia Hirschberg. They developed the ToBI (Tones and Break Indices) system for marking the prosody or intonation of speech. Rising intonation can make any utterance sound like a question, whether it is one or not. A relatively high pitch at the end of an utterance—called a high boundary tone—can make the speaker sound less confident or assertive, and more open to other’s opinions. Rising intonation implies that more is to come, that the utterance is not conclusive or concluded, that it should be understood in connection to the next utterance, and sometimes, that the speaker seeks the listener’s agreement before proceeding.
Uptalk, notably practiced among Generation Xers and now millennials, sounds conciliatory, agreeable and open, on the one hand, and lacking in confidence and authority, on the other—depending on the listener and the context. Marybeth Seitz-Brown argues that criticizing uptalk “implies that if women just spoke like men, our ideas would be valuable … [and] sexist listeners would magically understand us, and we would be taken seriously. But the problem is not with feminized qualities, of speech or otherwise, the problem is that our culture pathologizes feminine traits as something to be ashamed of or apologize for.”
Conversely, women can be criticized when they sound too much like men; see “Why Do So Many People Hate the Sound of Hillary Clinton’s Voice?” Falling intonation—and ending an utterance on a relatively low pitch, or a low boundary tone, implies conclusion, closure and confidence. The utterance, such intonation implies, finishes the argument (if there is one), does not seek the listener’s agreement or opinion, and suggests that this utterance can be understood on its own, without connection to subsequent utterances. Donald Trump, for example, is fond of falling intonation and low boundary tones (for a parody of masculine confident declarative intonation, have a listen at Troy McClure from The Simpsons.)
Of course, not all women use uptalk, and not all men use falling intonation with low boundary tones. In American culture, for better or worse, low boundary tones do seem to carry a tone of authority. And in poetry reading as well. Eliot’s original, and now canonical, reading of the opening line of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month,” uses falling intonation, so that it sounds like a confident assertion, with a low boundary tone on “month.”
“[B]reeding / lilacs out of the dead land” sounds like a steady, inevitable process, ending on a slightly higher relative pitch, implying that there is more to come, and that the phrase should be understood in connection to the next line, “mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”
What is so compelling and seemingly authoritative about Eliot’s reading style? In some basic sense, the falling intonation of the first phrase does it. Why does it strike many contemporary listeners as pompous? How might we undercut the seeming authority of the Eliotic voice? Make him do uptalk. Here we have simply inverted his intonation.
Suddenly he sounds doubtful. The opening line becomes a question—“April is the cruellest month[?]”—instead of a confident statement. Suddenly, Eliot himself expresses the skepticism or confusion many an undergraduate has felt—before we encountered this poem, did we not assume that spring, the return of life and fertility, is a cheerful escape from winter? And his deformed recital of “breeding / Lilacs out the dead land” suddenly sounds more like an agonized complaint, expressing the painful, reluctant awakening of desire in one who had found the dull sleep of winter comforting. Inverting the typical poetic authority of falling intonation into uptalk may embolden readers to entertain very different readings of the poem’s opening.
The editors of Poetry Archive had hopes of stimulating listeners of The Waste Land when they made available a 1935 recording of the poem, claiming: “Whilst the sound quality is understandably not so good, the recording is fascinating for Eliot’s faster, more energetic rendition. Listening to this urgent interpretation blows the dust of this iconic poem and helps us encounter it afresh.” However, if the fundamental falling intonation pattern of Eliot’s reading style doesn’t change—and overall, it doesn’t, between the 1935 and 1946 recordings—his voice may remain, for listeners, an aloof poetic authority.
Falling intonation with low boundary tones, then, is a fundental tone of poetic authority. Listen to Adrienne Rich reading from her poem, “What Kind of Times Are These” (1995), which leads the reader to a place “between two stands of trees … near … [where] the persecuted / … disappeared into the shadows.” She insists, “this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,” and concludes, “to have you listen at all it’s necessary / to talk about trees.”
She sounds like she means it. Rich has to write poems about nature, her tone implies, to wake people up to the political horrors of the American past and present. Poetry as a form, in pastoral guise, allows her to sneak in political content, potentially grabbing the attention of people who might only listen to poetry if they think it is safely, simply about nature. (Click here to hear the entire poem, starting at 4:01.)
When we invert her intonation, turning it into uptalk, she sounds as if she is questioning the wisdom of this approach, and/or chiding her listeners for making her take it. In this case, uptalk exerts a different kind of authority, the challenging question.
Is it ethical to manipulate the intonation and other vocal qualities on poetry recordings, for the purposes of teaching and research? Obviously it would not be, if we were to present the manipulated recordings as the authentic voice of a poet. And all peoples have the right to protect culturally sensitive recordings, such as sacred songs, music, dances and prayers; see “Native American Intellectual Property Issues.” Otherwise, potential conflicts are similar to those with sampling in the music industry (See Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola’s Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling ). Vocal deformance, however, can help remind us that no single reading of a poem, by the poet or someone else, is the ultimately authoritative one.
In teaching writing, we (the authors) sometimes ask our students to explore alternative methods of presenting the same material. This can be as simple as writing the same sentence, the thesis for instance, in three different ways, or it can involve a different format. Write a poem, record oneself reading it, then try to represent it with a collage of images. Turn a 2,000-word essay into a 250-word presentation with verbal and sonic components. An instructive trick with the opening line of W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940): “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.” They were never wrong, the Old Masters, about suffering. The Old Masters were never wrong about suffering. Each version of the opening creates a subtly different emphasis, on suffering versus the wisdom of the Old Masters.
Too often, we lock ourselves into one approach, and cannot imagine an alternative. Locked into one approach, too often we cannot imagine an alternative. Alternatives we cannot imagine, if we lock into one approach too quickly. Writing three different opening paragraphs to the same essay, or rearranging the lines of the poem, stimulates our imagination and our critical faculties because it dramatizes different possibilities, possibilities that offer a different emphasis. And when we play with the pitch, intonation and speaking rate of a poem, this can change the tone as dramatically, from a challenge to confession, or an assertion into doubt.
In the classroom, poet Harryette Mullen is often popular with students, both for her poems on the page and for her expressive reading style, while students can sometimes resist recordings by Adrienne Rich (saying that she sounds lecture-y) and Louise Glück (saying that she sounds bored by her own poems), even as they are engaged by the poems on the page.
When Mullen reads “Present Tense” (2002)—a beguiling comical poem, loosely about the grammatical present and the speaker’s and the world’s present circumstances —what is it about her contrastive intonation that sounds expressive? She ends her opening phrases, “Now that my ears are connected to a random answer machine” with rising intonation and high boundary tones. This draws the reader on: keep listening, the statement’s not finished.
When we flip the intonation pattern, so that each utterance ends on a relatively low pitch, she sounds more conventional, a poetic authority declaring observations, confident and closed off.
Another tone of poetic authority approaches pure monotony. It was practiced by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Irish modernist poet W.B. Yeats and, perhaps through Yeats’s influence, by American poets such as Yvor Winters. Note how similar they sound here. Winters reads the opening of his poem “The Journey” (1931), moving into a Yeatsian monotone after the title and location of Snake River Country, “I now remembered slowly how I came[.]”
Here is Yeats reading the opening of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree[.]”
All we have to do to turn Winters into Yeats is raise his pitch a bit:
Monotone performance is—at least acoustically—quite uninformative for the brain. Early parts of the auditory brain rapidly adapt or habituate to a wide array of regularities such as pitch and temporal pattern, and they only signal when the pattern changes, as noted in “Early selective-attention effect on evoked potential reinterpreted” (Näätänen, Gaillard et al., 1978). But expectations can work differently across speech’s descriptive dimensions. When speech is usually vivid, as in a direct quotation (“He said ‘I’m leaving now”), higher-level voice-processing areas in the right temporal lobe actually work harder to process (unexpectedly) monotone quotes, according to Yao, Belin, et al.’s “Brain ‘talks over’ boring quotes: top-down activation of voice-selective areas while listening to monotonous direct speech quotations” (2012). In other words, sameness of pitch often means the brain must work harder to grasp meaning.
Interestingly, David Hadbawnik relates in Sounding Out! his disappointment with the productions of three audio recordings of three poetic specimens from Middle English created with SPARSAR, because “they produced monotone outputs that fail to account for prosody.” Vocal deformance might allow him to try to approximate Middle English prosody with the specimens.
MacArthur has written elsewhere about “poet voice,” which she also calls “monotonous incantation.” But how close are contemporary canonical poets to actual monotone, compared to Tennyson and Yeats? Here is Glück, whose reading style is often mentioned as an example of Poet Voice, reading the third stanza of “The Wild Iris” (1992): “It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried in the dark earth”:
Not much manipulation is required to make it purely monotone, which may account for some students saying she sounds bored by her own poems—though they do not say that about Yeats. They say Yeats’s voice makes them feel like they are in church.
Ideally, Glück’s manner of reading her poem should not prevent students from appreciating it. While in other contexts we may defend women’s use of uptalk, it also seems fair to raise the point that academic poetry reading can seem to discourage the expression of affect. (See Donald Hall’s well-known polemic, “The Poetry Reading: Public Performance / Private Art” (1985) and David Groff’s “The Peril of the Poetry Reading: Page Versus Performance” .) Vocal deformance, among other strategies, might help students perceive as much drama in Glück’s poems as they do in Mullen’s—and find as much as poetic authority in both poets’ voices as they do in Yeats’s churchy one. Here, we’ve manipulated Glück’s voice to sound more like Mullen’s style of reading, with a wider pitch range and rising intonation and high boundary tones.
If we want to explore alternatives to conventional modes of reading poetry, as many do, directly deforming the acoustic qualities of canonical recordings is an excellent way to defamiliarize performance conventions. Ideally, it can help us listen to alternate versions of the history of poetic performance and to different, unimagined possibilities in the present. Given the extraordinary vitality of spoken word and slam poetry outside the academy, it would be a missed opportunity to suppress varied reading styles in the classroom. At the same time, it would be a great shame to leave behind canonical American poetry when the poets’ reading styles fail to appeal to students.
Finally, if we want to liberate students from the anti-performative tendencies of academic culture, resist essentialist readings of poems according to our assumptions about the identities of the poets who wrote them, and dramatize the idea that there are many ways to read a poem, vocal deformance can help, alongside other strategies. As Yvon Bonenfant wrote in a 2014 Sounding Out! piece, “we are mostly neurotic, or otherwise hung up on, what kinds of sounds we make, where and when.”
Instead, let’s play in different voices.
NOTE: To illustrate vocal deformance, we used Straight, a state-of-the-art open-source voice synthesis program developed by Hideki Kawahara at Wakayama University in Japan, with the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute and the Auditory Brain Project. We also used Drift, an open-source pitch-tracking tool that uses an algorithm developed by Byung Suk Lee and Dan Ellis, implemented by Robert Ochshorn and Max Hawkins with support from MacArthur’s ACLS Digital Innovations Fellowship in 2015-16, to visualize intonation with pitch contours.
Marit J. MacArthur is associate professor of English at California State University, Bakersfield, and a research associate in Cinema and Digital Media at the University of California, Davis.
Lee M. Miller is associate professor of Neurobiology, Physiology, & Behavior at the University of California, Davis, and technical director of the Center for Mind and Brain.
Featured Image: Cropped and Enlarged version of Bill Smith’s “Voice Glitch,” Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments–Jentery Sayers