The Voice – University of Copenhagen

Sound Research > Seminars > The Voice

5-6 November, 2009: The Voice
The voice is the instrument of our body and is therefore often ascribed a privileged authenticity as the sound of the self or of subjectivity. At the same time, the human voice organ is a highly complex articulation machinery with inexhaustible sonic possibilities, and we are able to distinguish the subtlest details when listening to speech. How can we conceive of the voice as a sound phenomenon? What happens when the voice enters sonic environments, sound art and music? How can we discuss and critique the body and authenticity of the voice in an age of microphones, cell phones, podcast, autotune music production and sampling? What distinguishes the voice as a means of communication?


13.00 - 14.00 Guest: Jonathan Ree (Department of Curating Contemporary Art, Royal College of Art/freelancer): The Vocal Knot
Voices are like faces: they tell us an enormous amount about people. But the perception of voices seems to be marked by a compulsive dualism: we can listen to a voice either as a stream of physical sounds or as a sequence of linguistic symbols, but it is hard if not impossible to do both at the same time. This dualism of outward sound and inward meaning has provided fertile ground for various kinds of metaphysics, or rather ‘folk metaphysics' - for example (a) notions about the differences between the ‘auditory world' and the worlds opened up by the other senses, especially vision; and (b) spiritualistic celebrations of the voice as the ‘breath of life.' But these metaphysical themes, familiar as they are, may well be incoherent in themselves, and they may also collide with the facts of ordinary experience. In particular they may be incompatible with the experience of the Deaf, or of those whose language takes the form of manual signs rather than vocal sounds. Back in the nineteenth century the American philosopher William James and the Danish physician Carl Lange developed the theory that we systematically misunderstand the bodily character of our emotions; is it possible that our vocal experience is liable to a similar systematic misunderstanding?

14.30 - 15.10 Nicoletta Isar: Voice under Erasure: Bill Viola's "Capital" Visions and his Phonophobia
Bill Viola is known for his installations using video and sound to evoke profound emotional realms of experience. He creates a world of poetic elusiveness, in which the flow of images and sound, touching upon issues of life, death, and human pathos, engulfs the viewer, triggering his consciousness. Both visually and acoustically, his installations act as a hammer upon the spectator, even when the sound or the image is crossed out. This paper attempts to put forth one of this master pieces, "The Hall of Whispers," from the cycle Buried Secrets, which addresses the condition of speechless bodies, whose vision is refused as well. The impact upon the visitor by entering the room of this installation is visually and acoustically poignant. One enters a long narrow dark room, passing between ten video projections arranged in a row along the side walls, five on either side of the room. The projections are life-size black and white images of people's heads facing the viewer with theirs eyes closed and their mouths tightly bound and gagged. They strain to speak, but their muffled voices are incomprehensible and mingle in the space in a low indecipherable jumble of voice.
     By combining such theories as Kristeva's chora and the abject, with its vocal concept, this paper aims to assess the value of voice as parole, searching to understand the meaning of its erasure, the pathos of the denied voice, where body becomes the phenomenological ground of a kind of phonophobia. If voice is ontologically related to body, which generates and reflects it, a voiceless body, a body without the grain of the voice should be an empty simulacrum of the body, a mere spectrum. Hovering into the dark room of the installation, floating heads, "capital" visions projected on the screen create an intensified vision. These uncanny doubles without utterance hunt one's consciousness, evaporating as smoke in the air. The piece is conceived as a quest for meaning, framed in psychological and personal terms, technologically engineered as a master piece to explore the imaginary production of voice and its traces dramatically placed under erasure.

15.10 - 15.50 Ansa Lønstrup: Voice and Contemporary Art: Exploring and Crossing Genres
Based on a phenomenological method as developed by Don Ihde in his newly reedited book, Listening and Voice. Phenomenologies of Sound (first ed. 1976, second ed. 2007) and inspired by different examples from the broad scene of contemporary art the paper will explore how the voice as aesthetic agent works in different art expressions and contexts, and how the listening ear (body) may interact with those intermedial and contextualized voices. The chosen examples will range from audio-poetry and electro-acoustic music/sound art to multimedia installations.

16.20 - 17.20 Guest: Pieter Verstraete (Leerstoelgroep Theaterwetenschap, Universiteit van Amsterdam): Radical Vocality in Performance: On Voices that Lay Bare their Bodies
In this presentation, I will argue that the radical vocality that has marked post-modern stage and performance art gives rise to a re-‘enchantment' of the disembodied voice, particularly according to the principle of the acousmatic, which is most inherently part of our aural cultures and technologies. Taking various examples of radical voices in contemporary performance and music theatre, I will attempt to debunk the myths surrounding the disembodied voice. I wish to place it under scrutiny to uncover the processes of how we perceive bodies in voices. My concerns are twofold. The first part of my talk will focus on the theory of the disembodied voice. I will focus on how an excess of auditory intensities, which is constituted by what I term ‘vocal distress', invokes the desire to reinstate immediacy with or locate identity into the voice by attributing a metaphorical body, a ‘voice-body'. I argue that this desire propels a necessity to position one's self in relation to the vocal excess. The second part will look more closely on the ramifications of such a voice-body on our modes of auditory perception as virtual positions in relation to what we see in the vocal performance. This inquiry includes such contrastive pairs as oral/literate modes of listening and concert/representational modes of vocal expression.


09.00 - 10.00 Guest: Jacob Smith (School of American & Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham): From Sonovox to Autotune: Towards a History of the Prosthetic Voice
Several mid-century "talking machines" serve as a point of departure in a consideration of "prosthetic" voices: "prosthetic" in the sense of "an artificial body part or feature worn as theatrical make-up or for special effects." Inspired by scholarly work on the cultural history of sound technologies, I am interested in postwar devices like the Sonovox, Voder, and Vocoder as "short-lived" voice technologies and media practices that nonetheless illuminate broader trends in postwar media culture and can inform our understanding of the interaction of the human voice with media technology. Scholars have tended to end the story of talking machines with Edison's phonograph or the cinematic soundtrack, as though they were the goals towards which all of these devices led. Talking machines of the 1940s reveal that research, innovation and public interest continued in this area, albeit with novel variations on existing models of bodily simulation. The uses to which the Sonovox was put in the 1940s were symptomatic of the particular historical context of postwar America, but the device was part of a technological tradition that dates back at least to the eighteenth century, and that can inform our understanding of some recent trends in digital voice technology.

10.30 - 11.10 Birgitte Stougård Pedersen: The Voice as Transmedial Phenomenon in Literature and Music
The paper will discuss the voice as a phenomenon that both philosophically and methodologically has an interesting history. The research field concerning the voice deals on a historical basis with subjectivity, the relation between body and soul and concepts of authenticity (Jacques Derrida, Jonathan Ree). I will discuss the ambiguity of the voice in between the physical singing (or speaking) voice and the voice as a concept related to literature. The relation will be discussed as transmedial phenomena. What characterizes the sounding physical voice related to the silent, literary voice? How can the singing and the written voice be compared and to what extent are they fundamentally different? Should voice in literature be interpreted metaphorically and how is the connection between the voice of the text, the narrator and the author as discussed in theories on narrativity? The physical singing voice in music will be discussed through a phenomenological approach (Merleau-Ponty), where the experience of the voice will be analyzed in relation to the idea of authenticity and to the presence of the body. Common to both, the paper will argue, is the aim for presence in relation to the listener that follows both the experience of voice when reading literature and when listening to a vocal track. Whether the voice is sounding or silent, it grasps for a listener in an intentional process (Husserl).

11.10 - 11.50 Erik Steinskog: Of Mice and Men - and Moses: Voices in Kafka and Schoenberg In this paper I will compare two voices: the voice of Josephine from Franz Kafka's "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" (from 1924) and the voice of Moses in Arnold Schoenberg's opera Moses und Aron (written 1930-32, but unfinished when Schoenberg died in 1951). Josephine is the only musical member of the mouse folk, and her fellow mice don't necessarily appreciate her voice, whereas Moses is, in many ways, a stranger among the Hebrews on their way from the Egyptian bondage towards the Promised Land. He is also a stranger on the operatic stage, having a quite un-operatic voice. Thus both Josephine's and Moses's strangeness is also found in their respective voices, voices marked with difference.
Taking the notion of Mauscheln as a point of departure, a term meaning "mouse-like," but being used to describe Jewish speech, I will discuss how these two works mark out their voices, and how they thus negotiate between different forms of vocal communication where the sound of difference becomes important.

11.50 - 12.30 Mads Walther-Hansen: Remote Intimacy: Voices in Phonographic Space
This paper examines vocals in phonographic space in relation to contemporary popular music recordings. Elaborating on Serge Lacasse's notion of vocal staging (2000), I will discuss different staging techniques to demonstrate how audio effects shape the perception of the vocal performer and the spatio-temporal relation between the performer and the listener.
We often rely on visual representation to gain a notion of the place of the voice in the mix (e.g. Moylan 1992). Such formalistic representations, however, cannot account for the ambiguity of recorded voices that often appear to be both distant and up front in the mix. Recorded voices do not have a clear real world reference. Instead recorded voices ‘belong' to recorded space, which shapes the voice and gives it meaning. How are voices conceived in this recorded ‘field' and what kind of meaning is generated?

13.30 - 14.30 Anders-Petter Andersson: Searching Voices: Exploring voice for communication and co-creation in design of three interactive media
When singing, talking and interacting with recorded and synthesized voices in interactive installations the audience is motivated to act, create and collaborate with other people. In the paper I want to show how I explored the musical and communicative possibilities of voice in 3 interactive installations using computers and sensors. How we composed music that motivated the individual as well as the collective, over short and long time. A music that contributed to decrease hierarchies between people with different needs, communicative abilities, and interests. A music that contributed to an environment where experts as well as non-experts could interact in creating music through play, communication with others, or by just being in an ambient soundscape, functioning as a background to other activities.
This exploration of voices contributes to musicological questions concerning the audience that in our installations becomes co-creators, creating the music in negotiation with the composer. And to the composer who becomes facilitator of actions. This questions the traditional musical work and composition techniques as predefined and suggests interactive music that is co-created by users and the composer, where the music and the physical objects go from being instruments controlled by a musician to actors in Bruno Latour's and Tia DeNora's sense with freedom to act and regulate themselves. This also contributes to questions of how music can function as a medium for communication between many people in everyday situations.

14.45 - 15.25 Jens Hjortkær: The Evolution of Music as Tension
By comparative neuroethology in birds and primates relating to vocal learning we can observe differences and similarities that give cues about the evolution of vocal abilities in humans. Humans are unique among the higher primates in their abilities in vocal learning.
Vocalizations in nonhuman primates are controlled by a primitive visceral-motor system in the brain stem and limbic structures. Consequently, these animals are not able to imitate or learn novel sound sequences. Song birds, on the other hand, are also vocal learners, in that they are able to learn sequences of discrete sounds that are recombined to form new sound patterns. The neural architecture of this system in birds is computationally equivalent to the system subserving vocalizations in humans, relying on specialized forebrain structures. However, the evolution of this system takes a different path in humans.
In non-human primates vocalizations are closely linked with patterns of breathing, and may be thought to have evolved when breath sounds become a useful index for inferences about the arousal state of the animal. Higher primates can control the expression of these tension states to some degree; even though the acoustic form of the vocalization remains unaltered. The neural system of vocalizations in humans is in many ways comparable to higher primates, suggesting that vocal abilities evolve as they learn to control states of tension in sound. This could indicate that music, at the same an abstract system of discrete sound units and tension contours, has a role to play in the evolution of vocal abilities in humans.

15.25 - 16.05 Morten Michelsen: Michael Jackson's Angry Voices
In the 1960s the emerging rock culture made the angry voice a possibility within the commercial centre of popular music, the charts. Dylan, Jagger and Lennon, among others, contributed to this, and the angry, young, and guitar-slinging man has become one of the archetypes of rock. If we in this context accept a division between pop and rock, this archetype seems not to have been widely used among or available to male pop singers (contrary to female pop singers). In fact, Michael Jackson appears to be one of the few to express anger in his songs - taking the lyrics as a cue one may even argue that in the newly recorded part of History (1995) that about half of the songs are concerned with anger.
In this paper I will try to instigate a discussion of the Jackson voice as angry. First, at series of questions of a more descriptive kind will be raised: What are the technical means (e.g., screams, shouts, rasp, volume, articulation), the linguistic means (e.g., curse words, irony, objects of anger), does the accompaniment remain neutral or does it support the voice (e.g., distorted guitars, heavy percussion, marked attacks on notes). Second, it will be discussed if applying the issue of angriness has consequences for Jackson's public persona, that is, the racially and sexually never fixable.

16.20 - 17.00 Round up and discussion