"They return transformed into insects, examples of voices with the power to sever the link with their human bodies and appetites". James Wilkes sounds out a history of the complicated relationship between voice and body
On a recent journey to the south of England I started listening to Probes #10, a podcast produced for Ràdio Web MACBA by Chris Cutler. My train was travelling across the heathland between Sway and New Milton as the programme launched into a 15 minute coda dedicated to the pig squeals and death growls practised in “death metal, grindcore, screamo and deathcore”. Maybe the sense of strangeness I experienced then had something to do with the way these sounds overlaid the landscape of pine trees, sand and heather, but partly it was down to how I heard those voices: an everyday tool of communication had dipped suddenly into another mode, not traditionally musical and not fully linguistic.
The sharp gradient of that dip draws attention to the complicated relationship between the voice and the body. We might assume that, historically, the presence of the voice must have generally implied the body that produced it – hence the uncanny and otherworldly associations of ventriloquism as discussed by Sarah Angliss or Steven Connor. Even after the advent of recorded speech, the wax cylinder or pressed record testified to the action of sound waves produced by a vocal tract, while nearly a century of efforts to engineer artificially synthesized speech, from Bell Labs’ Voder to Apple’s Siri, has yet to produce a voice that is able to convincingly emulate a human sound.
But there’s a dissenting stream of thought that goes against this easy association of a singular body welded to its attendant voice. You can find it in ancient texts like Phaedrus, in which Plato has Socrates relate the origin myth of cicadas: they were once men who delighted in the invention of music so much that they “sang and sang, forgetting food and drink, until at last unconsciously they died”. They return transformed into insects, examples of voices with the power to sever the link with their human bodies and appetites, endowed with the ability to resound in the world in a way that escapes their given flesh. We don’t even have to search among the insects to find voices running promiscuously in and out of bodies. In Socrates’s account, the speech that patterns our own thought is itself liquidly flowing from one to another. He speaks of how he has been “filled through the ears, like a pitcher, from the well springs of another”. Our inner voices, so intimate with our selfhood, can be cut together as radically as any tape piece, forming, as the poet and philosopher Denise Riley puts it, “a swarm of quotations, often from anonymous and vanished others”. “The dead,” she continues, “chatter away as the inner speech of the living.”
So the voice equivocates, issuing from one and many bodies simultaneously, more like a stream or a swarm than anything solid. It’s this sense of volatility that a project by the theatre maker Annie Dorsen explores. In Spokaoke, participants can choose from among hundreds of historic political speeches, from the famous to the infamous, re-performing these texts in the context of a karaoke session. Marianne Mulvey, who introduced me to Dorsen’s work, did so with an anecdote that seems to encapsulate the way voices can ground themselves in bodies in unpredictable ways. In the performance she attended, someone tried to reread Margaret Thatcher’s notorious “no such thing as society” interview. In the middle of this speech, the speaker turned away from the audience, saying afterwards that she felt ashamed and had mistakenly thought that she could control, through mocking, the words she was speaking.
In an interview, Dorsen suggests that the karaoke forces participants to “really face what it is to embody certain language and have it come out of your lungs and vocal chords and mouth”. So although these are reperformances in the sense that the speaker, audience and historical context are all different, the abstract power of the rhetoric still has its force. The speaker reproduces vocal gestures which run on the deeply scored tracks of oratory, and act in ways that are beyond the control of the person speaking them: the rhythmic patterning of call and response in a phrase such as “Who is society? There is no such thing!” works even against the grain of the speaker’s own principles and beliefs.
That simple action of turning away is fascinating as a gesture of public disavowal, of voice and body in discord, of the body literally twisted in relation to the voice it is producing. The feeling of shame shortcuts the speaker’s intentions, putting body and voice into a direct relationship. The fact that the voice has a physical consequence evokes – perhaps inevitably – the idea of the “speech act”, JL Austin’s famous term for a statement in which the voice assumes the role of an actor in the world, doing things with words when it says “I sentence you…” or “I swear that…”. What’s required for these statements to have force is not just the right authority and context but, as Shoshana Felman has pointed out, a body to speak them. Commenting on Felman’s reading of Austin (this might seem convoluted but all of these nested readings can be found in one book), Judith Butler calls the body “at once the organic condition of promise making and the sure guarantor of its failure”. To paraphrase Butler’s take on this, something like a promise only works if it ultimately issues from a particular body, a particular self; but the body also contains elements that are unknown to the self (like the unconscious, for example) and the ‘I’ which says “I promise” will always be tripped up by this in time.
To return this line of thought to vocal performance: what if we think about the performing voice as also containing an implicit promise – one that is similarly underwritten and broken by the body? You might set out for a gig with a sense of lightness because you know that so-and-so is appearing and that their work will be meaningful. It’s going to be good. Can we locate the source of that meaning and that appreciation? Sometimes it might be in the semantic content that they’ve mined and shaped, so the pleasure comes as your close linguistic attention gives way to surprise and an experience of the genuinely new (here the voice is an accessory, a vehicle). Sometimes the pleasure comes from the social context, knowing and enjoying the presence of the performer or the people you’re with (and here, as you recognise their voice, it guarantees their identity). But often the source of meaning is the voice in and of itself.
Holly Pester’s News Piece works in this third way. In her ongoing series, she transcribes every in-breath made by the newsreader delivering a bulletin and reperforms them, only allowing herself to exhale on key words from the day’s news. It reminds me of something Felman says about language and the body as having a relation simultaneously “of incongruity and of inseparability”. The incongruity can be located, in this instance, in the weakness of the voice in relation to the language it tries to carry in performance. The body simply can’t keep the promise made in its name: the voice breaks and something convulsive escapes, a laugh or a sob. In Pester’s News Piece, as she reaches the precipice of the lungs’s limits, the voice ceases to be the marker of the rational, broadcasting animal, collapsing under the weight of its own materiality. This is the sense in which I use the word weakness; but given the gendered history of such a term, it’s worth pointing out that a similar weakness is also at play in the work of many other vocal performers. You sense it in some of Dylan Nyoukis’s live performances, for example, when his voice sidles up to semantic meaning, almost makes it, and then pratfalls into the non-linguistic again, as language is overwhelmed by its vast hinterland. This idea of weakness is also taken up in a slightly different way by Brandon LaBelle, who proposes that we learn “a form of weak speech tuned to the delicate and interrupted movements of the spoken”. Disfluency, in his reading, opens up the possibility of the weak voice and body as porous, and therefore intrinsically relational or connected to others.
This kind of weak technology (or you could say bare technology if you prefer, or poor as in arte povera) allows a vocalist to insert noise into performance without even needing a recording or playback device. At a time when most phones seem like supercomputers this might sound like a Luddite boast, but I think there’s more to it than that. Have you tried taking a call recently? The voices of those most familiar to us are compressed and transcoded and re-emerge in our everyday soundscape as displaced from their bodies as Socrates’s cicadas were. If this soundscape is taken as material by people using their bare voices in front of other people, it shows that we can tune ourselves towards contemporary conditions; and the strain and dissonance that this bending or tuning produces is one form of critique, one that works by making audible the contingency and the absurdity of how we organise sound, and therefore how we organise bodies and by extension the social world.