“Genres, styles form around places of cohesion, of transport, of passage. Not an instrumental mathematics (though it can be that too), but a speculative one that seeks out locations of collective affect, of resonance between micro and macro spheres.” –Marcus Boon, “One Nation Under a Groove”
Yes. Punk, is a way of living, being, thinking, and relating to the world. Yes, it is bigger than borders. . .greater than the sum of than any number of bands or even the label of “musical genre” altogether. Its dynamic style visually signifies; its DIY mode-of-operations can empower, even as its more capitalist-oriented versions can frustrate and exploit.
YES YES YES.
But also, NO!
Even if punk’s sound intentionally evades classification and clichéd high-fidelity top-ten lists like Keanu Reeves dodges bullets in the Matrix, it nonetheless exists. and means. and incites. and motivates. and creates powerful structures of feeling that resonate through entire lifetimes, reverberations of that one all-ages basement show.
How do we know? Because, at the absolute very least, both of us have heard it with–and through–our bodies. It has moved us, and not just symbolically, intellectually, politically, and metaphorically. It has quite literally vibrationally, kinesthetically, heart-throbbingly, finger bleedingly, head-bangingly, body-smashing-up-against-others-bodily, in the pit of our stomachs-y, angry tear cryingly, skin tinglingly moved us.
Without universalizing our respective experiences in the Jersey and Inland Empire/SoCal punk scenes of the 1990s/early 2000s–and our wide listenings and local involvements since then–we want to say simply that punk sound is not an abstract and negative entity. Punk sounds–and punk’d sounds–form distinct sonic calls to some of us out there in the world that our bodies yearn to answer.
And its listeners’ understanding of and relationship to punk’s sound(s) matters. In her essay “On Not Playing Dead,” Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and (the) Julie Ruin lead singer Kathleen Hanna described one of the key powers of punk’s live sound as creating a threshold of physical exchange, a vibration drawing folks into “one of the only spaces where we give and receive pleasure publicly” to friends and strangers alike, which she argues “seems radical for a myriad of reasons, especially because it challenges the idea that sexuality/pleasure is only for people in straight/monogamous relationships and not something we as a community can have through music.” Punk sound constructs, enables, and sometimes downright demands a variety of participatory responses, both individual and social.
In short, just ask a punk about what punk sounds like! They know! And they will tell you about it! It’s up to us to figure out how to listen. And what better space to try in the audiovisual ‘zine that is Sounding Out!, started by folks whose scenes taught them how to forge and sustain community with and through sound.
This series (and its follow up in Spring 2017) calls bullshit on the related notions that punk sound is either simple presence–ye olde “three chords,” a misnomer that is always already more geographically and historically specific than popular discourse allows–or overdetermined absence, a too-open, too-inclusive sound that, to riff on Green Day, is simultaneously “nothing and everything all at once.” And we very deliberately use “sound” rather than “music” as our guiding framework to think through punk’s sonic pull, not because punk “isn’t music” (a stale but ever present dis on the genre), but because punk itself sounds out the limitations of musical study ( in addition to Alice Bag’s musical manifesto below, see Leandro Donozo’s “MANIFIESTO POR UNA MUSICOLOGÍA PUNK” suggested to us by Alejandro Madrid).
Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands. Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel. While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?
In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on. Today’s essay is by Gretchen Jude. Listen along as she reflects on growing up through listening to Team Dresch’s Personal Best. And keep coming back every Monday in November for more!
–Aaron Sounding Out! + Jenny Sounding Out!
In the spirit of Critical Karaoke, first introduced by Joshua Clover at the Experience Music Project annual Pop Conference, this piece was written to be read with the album playing alongside. In anchoring my text/your reading so directly/literally in the sound, I hope those who have not had first-hand experience of growing up queer can understand on a more visceral level how I have heard/felt/lived through this music. Sounds work on bodies in non-verbal ways, so the sharing of these queer(ing) vibrations may allow fans to sense an underlying queerness in all punk sound.
Released in January 1995, Personal Best, the first album from Pacific Northwest quartet Team Dresch, rode the crest of the Queercore wave, itself propelled by decades of feminist, gay rights, and AIDS activism. The lesbian-identified band—Donna Dresch (guitar and bass), Jody Bleyle (guitar, bass, and vocals), Kaia Wilson (guitar and vocals) and Marci Martinez (drums)—was also fueled by the punk energy and DIY ethos that flared back to life with the Seattle grunge scene and Riot Grrrl movement.
The quartet’s technical skill showed their commitment to music; Dresch (who also produced the album) and Bleyle co-released the band’s debut on their respective labels, Chainsaw and Candy Ass Records. At the same time, the group’s cohesiveness and cooperation was evidenced in the complexity of their compositional strategies: self-produced albums, multiple time changes, shifts between guitar effects. Personal Best managed to rage without outward aggression. The band seemed to feel, like me, an anger that was full of anguish, a pointed fury at the causes of their anguish—yet leavened with humor (‘I spent the last ten days of my life ripping off the Smiths’).
The following is a critical listening of Personal Best.
Something still remains in my body from the very first time I heard this album. The audaciously-titled “Fagetarian and Dyke” goes off like an alarm, with insistent guitar string strikes that ring in my ears and run down my spine with a shock. Once the drums come in, I am already swaying in time as the vocalist demands a breathless ‘how’ before rapidly morphing into a long-held growl—‘searching for you’. It was the music I had long needed without knowing.
The second song starts spare to the point of hesitance, a thin bassline with ominous guitar jangles and a backbeat promising a break in the intensity—until the band coalesces around Wilson’s rhythmic chant bristling with articulate screams. But contrary to the title—“Hate the Christian Right—I hear less hate than angry frustration. Bleyle’s vocals take the fore with melancholic power, making explicit the fundamental feeling, ‘the fear, fear I’m sick with it.’. The sound is dense and close, mixed with no reverb so I feel like I’m deep inside the music, sweating with the band. My hand moves with a will of its own toward the volume control, I crank it to feel the kick beating inside my chest like another heart, I can’t stop moving my feet, my legs, I am impelled to motion.
Looking back twenty-one years at this musical moment, it’s hard to fathom how much society has changed—in terms of both the structures of musical production/distribution and our understandings of gender/sexual identity. Yet when I encounter these songs once again, my listening remains fully present. How is it that this album still works to electrify me even today? Pressing play now, I hear this album through the patina of nostalgia. Even calling it an ‘album’ evokes another time, conjuring the act of flipping through stiff pages of family photos. There are tactile similarities—I slide the vinyl disc from its paper sleeve, grasp the edges of the cardboard dust jacket, leisurely run my eyes over the hand-scrawled track listing. I regard the cover image and recall my pleasurable smirk at the in-joke. But even back in 1995, when I listened on cassette and CD Walkman, I wanted to take this album with me everywhere.
Jangly guitar riffs, popping tom hits and Wilson’s clear soprano in multi-tracked harmony give “She’s Crushing My Mind” a jaunty opening. But the tension amps up with feedback on ‘she was born this way,’ and Wilson punches the verse: ‘she wants to (forget it)’. The song ends abruptly, no resolution, reflecting the unrequited queer love the lyrics express.
Even the words I use to describe the world have changed since 1995. I came out in 1986, before the word ‘queer’ was wrested from the verbal fists of homophobes. In retrospect, it was a brief moment, after feminism came out as lesbian, but before the ‘lesbian body’ was deprived of its ‘radical’ prefix—a time when it made sense to call lesbians ‘avengers’ or even ‘amazons’ (always in the plural). By 2016, having come out so many times in so many ways, I am no longer sure what others hear when they regard me pronouncing myself ‘queer’. And yet then as now, the energy I feel in this music goes beyond representation. The sound moves me with what Julian Henriques terms an “energetic patterning of vibrations” (76), setting in motion a sort of sympathetic resonance that shakes off labels and identity categories.
Just as I wonder when the darkness will end, “Freewheel” gallops in, cavalier, and drags me into the afternoon grass for some silliness. Wilson and Bleyle’s sweetly ironic harmony on ‘you can go back to your boyfriend’ sidelines ‘that girl,’ instead placing camaraderie front and center.
Nowadays, like most, I listen digitally, soft noise-reduction earbuds squished into my ears. Through my headphones, the violence of the 21st century bleeding light-speed across my mediated vision makes the sheer vulnerability underlying Team Dresch’s mad sounds even more striking. As a teen, I avoided mosh pits. Bony boy-elbows shot out at exactly the height of my eye sockets, and even combat boots weren’t enough protection from the public risk of my female body. At home or with friends, I sometimes reveled in the nihilism voiced by male punk bands. But the performance of an all-inclusive anger blindly striking out at society-at-large (which often seemed to involve getting drunk and fighting) mostly felt intimidating to me. Team Dresch retuned the timbre of punk rage—from frustration with authority-as-abstraction to lamentation over first-hand experience of oppression—then directed that incisive anger toward fundamentally feminist self-protection and catharsis.
The sincerity and solemnity of the riff that opens “She’s Amazing” bloom into a punk ballad that resonates with my best experiences of friendship. Wilson and Bleyle alternate and harmonize in tribute to female wisdom and strength. Even as the vocalists acknowledge their deep self-doubt and insecurity, the decisive instrumentals bolster them up.
It’s not that I didn’t feel angry. It’s that angry men sounded scary.
In a moment of stillness, I hear echoes of Patti Smith’s amazing(ly bent) cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” (1976). Smith’s fearless androgyny, her working-class snarl, her performance of desire for a woman exhilarate even today. Another old favorite rings in my ears: The Slits, playing as outlaws-on-the-lam. Underclass anthem “Shoplifting” (1979) double-dared me to flaunt needless authority, as Ari Up’s breathy vocals accelerate to an almost feline scream—‘run!’—and jangling guitars veer chromatic. I adored The Slits for their fearless extroversion—audacious yet always girly. I am ready, hungry for more.
(RECORD FLIP INTERLUDE)
“Fake Fight” opens punchy, with space in the bass and insistent hi-hat. Bleyle’s reedy tomboy alto alternately croons low and close into the mic (as if directly into my ear), then shouts along with synched noise pedal interludes: ‘I can see a brave tomorrow, don’t let this spaceship bring me down’.
Yvon Bonenfant describes the practice of queer listening—of listening as deeply feeling—as an attempt to recuperate queerness as community: “Queer listening listens out for, reaches toward, the disoriented or differently oriented other. So far, there are no majority queer cultures. Queer is always listening out through the static produced by not-queer emanations of vocalic bodies. Queer can like, love and enjoy those bodies in every way, but still needs to twist around and negotiate through them to find other queer” (78). For years I did this by instinct, paying attention to any hint of coded lesbian tendencies. In the pre-Ellen world, this was a survival technique.
Quirky “#1 Chance Pirate TV” shifts into high gear with 4/4 drumsticks and a vigorous punch on the toms. The song (a tribute to Sinead O’Connor) then suddenly slows into restful repetitions; ‘Sometimes it feels all right,’ Bleyle intones again and again—in a kind of mantra for getting through all the times when it doesn’t.
By the time I heard Personal Best, I had all but given up listening for my own bodily experiences—in the specifics of its love, anger, desire, suffering—offered back to me in music. Sure there were decades of lesbian folk music (yawn). But with Team Dresch, I didn’t need to engage in recuperative queer listening—this was unapologetically queer sounding. I was bowled over with this feeling—when you can give yourself over to the music because the people making the sounds know exactly what you’ve gone through, what you are living through. The reality you know by heart but have never heard affirmed in the voices around you.
“D.A. Don’t Care” rocks like a regal lullaby, but on a theme so heavy it presses my heart to diamond. Wilson’s caustic deployment of the cliché ‘and how was he supposed to know’ subverts the always-overdone ‘her word against his.’ From here the band rushes the album to its apotheosis, as Bleyle proclaims her own physical autonomy in the wake of abuse: ‘I know what to do with this body.’ The following verse leaves behind the dry vocal mix of the rest of the album, as the haunting image of a ‘polyester basketball uniform’ is buried deep in heavy bass, chilling with reverb.
In the hard-earned, bittersweet privilege of reaching my middle-age, I still shiver at Beyle’s chorus—not for myself now, but on behalf of those now young: the trans and genderqueer kids, an upcoming generation of dykes and fags—the ones mistreated, raised to have their own bodies and hearts turned against themselves. I want them to find music that catalyzes the scream: ‘I KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH THIS BODY.’
Barely time to breathe and then the grinding lead-in to “Growing Up in Springfield,” a confessional of rejection and isolation in small-town America. Unlike Wilson’s, my mother didn’t ‘cry when I shaved my head.’ Nevertheless, the biting affirmation, ‘Those were the worst years of my life,’ rings satisfyingly through a burst of white noise.
With Personal Best, Team Dresch generates a synergy of sound and affect that engages me beyond nostalgia. The band weaves together multiple elements—voices with instruments, tempo and pedal shifts, the trajectory of song order, and lyrics that express the fallout of a queer girlhood in the rural Northwest isolation—to transform fear and self-hatred into courageous resistance. This synergy reflects (to paraphrase Adrienne Rich) a visionary, cleansing anger that dares me to feel new possibilities, both personal and political. Guitars chorus, drums pop sharp and clear, and vocals lie low but clear in the mix, embedded in a basement mix of mourning and menace. The keening rage in this album lances like a healing needle.
The lo-fi opening lines of “Screwing Yer Courage” break into Bleyle’s full-on howl. The heavy cacophony of the band feels like body-surfing like a 10-foot wave of sound. Even as she voices the desire to ‘move to the woods,’ the band’s sound performs a sense of community. The album ends with a tornado of noise, a storm that spins at exactly the right speed for me to join in. Softly, then more insistently Bleyle murmurs then cries: ‘I love you, baby, I love you.’ With one final delicious guitar arpeggio, slowly drawn out, the album is…
The music itself, the specificity of its vibrations, is of the essence. Attending to the experiential conditions of our listening is equally fundamental, and through articulating both sounds and contexts we may move past merely gesturing towards taste and invoking genre as shorthand for what we already value. As Nina Eidsheim describes, “in encounters through and with music, we are physically touched and we tangibly touch others” (183). In the case of punk and its queer progeny, we vibrate together in and with a visceral noise that harmonizes through its very dissonance.
Cover image is of crowd surfing at a 2006 Team Dresch reunion show by Flickr User Frances, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Gretchen Jude is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at the University of California Davis and a performing artist/composer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her doctoral research explores the intersections of voice and electronics in transcultural performance contexts, delving into such topics as presence and embodiment in computer music, language and cultural difference in vocal genres, and collaborative electroacoustic improvisation. Interaction with her immediate environment forms the core of Gretchen’s musical practice. Gretchen has been studying Japanese music since 2001 and holds multiple certifications in kotoperformance from the Sawai Koto Institute in Tokyo, as well as an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College in Oakland, California. In the spring of 2015, a generous grant from the Pacific Rim Research Program supported Gretchen’s intensive study of hauta and jiuta singing styles in Tokyo. This podcast (as well as a chapter of her dissertation) are direct results of that support. Infinite thanks also to the gracious and generous assistance of Shibahime-sensei, Mako-chan and my many other friends and teachers in Japan.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Amplifies: Indie Preserves – Norie Guthrie and Scott Carlson
Sounding Out! Podcast #55: New Brunswick Music Scene Symposium – Frank Bridges
This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith
Garageland! Authenticity and Musical Taste–Aaron Trammell
**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