Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice

Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice

by Nina Sun Eidsheim

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In Sensing Sound Nina Sun Eidsheim offers a vibrational theory of music that radically re-envisions how we think about sound, music, and listening. Eidsheim shows how sound, music, and listening are dynamic and contextually dependent, rather than being fixed, knowable, and constant. She uses twenty-first-century operas by Juliana Snapper, Meredith Monk, Christopher Cerrone, and Alba Triana as case studies to challenge common assumptions about sound—such as air being the default medium through which it travels—and to demonstrate the importance a performance's location and reception play in its contingency. By theorizing the voice as an object of knowledge and rejecting the notion of an a priori definition of sound, Eidsheim releases the voice from a constraining set of fixed concepts and meanings. In Eidsheim's theory, music consists of aural, tactile, spatial, physical, material, and vibrational sensations. This expanded definition of music as manifested through material and personal relations suggests that we are all connected to each other in and through sound. Sensing Sound will appeal to readers interested in sound studies, new musicology, contemporary opera, and performance studies. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822374695
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/19/2015
Series: Sign, Storage, Transmission
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Nina Sun Eidsheim is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

Sensing Sound

Singing & Listening as Vibrational Practice

By Nina Sun Eidsheim

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Nina Sun Eidsheim
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7469-5



What Underwater Opera Can Tell Us about Odysseus's Ears

In space, nobody can hear you scream. — ALIEN (1979)


In 2007, I received an invitation to a recital that would take place in my bathroom. The Los Angeles–based soprano and performance artist Juliana Snapper, a soprano and performance artist who works in experimental music, offered to come to my home and present an underwater concert in my tub. "Crazy," I thought. "Why go to the trouble of singing in an element so far from ideal?" Why choose a setting that would conjure up clichés from the Homeric sirens to Disney's The Little Mermaid ? I declined the invitation, yet Snapper's endeavor lingered in my thoughts.


Fundamental to Western notions of sound and music is the assumption that we can know and recognize musical parameters. Indeed, these notions form the basis of Western music's classical analytical practice and, as I suggest throughout this book, of the culture's quotidian "audile techniques," to evoke Jonathan Sterne's useful term. Even in contemporary works and studies, where traditional scores may not be relevant, dependence on sound waves, timelines, and algorithms maintains the traditional tendencies to quantify music. Consequently, an abstract yet fixed notation, or a notation-derived notion of sound, overshadows the actual, ever-shifting experience of music. In vocal studies, this orientation plays out as a privileging of dramatic, structural, and semiotic content derived from documents (libretto, score, and contemporaneous documents) and analyzed with attention to the sociohistorical context over the distinct quality or timbre of each individual voice in each performance of each work. Historically, Western music studies have favored the idealized and abstract at the expense of the sensible, unrepeatable experience.

The common conception of the voice as a generic vehicle for words, pitches, and durations arises from the same set of values. This notion results in the neglect of key vocal and sonic dimensions that, traditionally, are not notated. By considering the underwater singing practices of Snapper this chapter points the way toward those aspects of music that are inaccessible to standard notation but available to all of our perceiving senses. Snapper's work opens a window on the physical and sensory properties of singers' and listeners' bodies; on the spaces and materials in which sound disperses; and on these aspects' collective indispensability to singing and listening as lived experiences. Because sensory readings of singing and listening reach for dimensions of voice and sound that are difficult if not impossible to account for with conventional analytical methods, multisensory perspectives can enrich the analysis of musical sound in general, and vocal practices in particular.

Pushing the Limits of Voice and Body

Snapper's work experiments with (or perhaps against) the limits of her voice and body, challenging her physical abilities as well as her imagination. The venues for her underwater operas range from bathtubs to Olympic-sized pools (see figure 1.1). The works range from solo pieces and duets to large-scale productions with choruses and dancers. Aquaopera was set for solo and duo performances, all of which invited audience participation;Five Fathoms Deep My Father Lieswas modular in size, and ranged from solo performance with audience participation to performance with large-scale chorus and sound design elements; and You Who Will Emerge from the Flood was composed for soloist, full chorus, sound design, and keyboards.

Snapper is a classically trained soprano, highly sought after by contemporary composers of complex music. Despite her mastery of vocal nuance and her success in the traditional music world, when it comes to her own vocal work, Snapper's main concern is the body and its mechanism and state; the sound is secondary. Snapper represents the third generation of vocal experimentation stemming from American classical music, part of a lineage of singer-composers that includes Laurie Anderson, Cathy Berberian, Meredith Monk, and Joan La Barbara (first generation); Shelly Hirsch, Diamanda Galás, Kristin Norderval, and Pamela Z (second generation); and Amy X, Gelsey Bell, and Kate Soper (third generation). Yet Snapper cites diverse influences such as comics like Carol Burnett, the punk vocalist Nina Hagen, the seventeenth-century opera singer and composer Barbara Strozzi, the composer and improviser George Lewis, and the artist Kathy Acker. Additionally, in her nonsolo work — most recently, her involvement in the Human Microphone Project, part of the "Occupy Wall Street" protest movement — Snapper is intimately connected with the American composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros, who, while not a singer, has composed a large body of work for group vocal experience. Oliveros's work, which seeks to erase the distinctions between performer and audience and between professional and amateur and to use "technology" (from the human body to instrument building and modifications and musical software and hardware systems) to break down those boundaries, opened a number of paths for Snapper.

A classical singer who had trained for most of her life to gain complete control of her voice, Snapper began a journey toward unsettling, questioning, and challenging that foundation. By challenging sonorous traditions of opera, a highly formalized vocal genre that rests on assumptions of decades-long practice leading to high levels of control, Snapper also questions the utility of other areas of constraint. As I will discuss below, she questions the performance of gender and sexuality and the limitations of language in the face of nonnormative behavior. Her investigation aims to complicate her performing relationship with her instrument, her voice, by pulling the rug out from underneath herself, so to speak, and implementing techniques that would undo her hard-earned control.

Vocal Context and Influences

While these experimental practices seem to situate Snapper alongside composers who work with extended vocal techniques, Snapper understands her endeavor as a breakdown of technique rather than as its extension. She likens the process of breaking down her instrument to the instrumental preparation investigated by experimental composers of the late twentieth century, including John Cage, Oliveros, Annea Lockwood, and Cecil Taylor. To prepare a piano or guitar in this sense is to distort the instrument's capabilities by attaching alien objects to it, causing the instrument to create new and distinctive sounds. Similarly, Snapper distorts the sound of the operatic voice by penetrating, mutilating, or inhibiting the human body. For example, in The Judas Cradle performances, Snapper's vocal body is temporarily deformed by being tied upside down, while the anus of her collaborator, Ron Athey is penetrated by the Judas cradle as his soul is entered by the Holy Spirit (see figure 1.2); in Five Fathoms Deep My Father Lies, being underwater prevents Snapper from drawing breath. As a practice, preparation evidences both a curiosity and adventurousness about sound and a desire to interrupt and disturb human relationships with instruments and their histories. We might also imagine Snapper's vocal preparation as a way to remark on, negotiate, and play with the boundaries between nature and culture: between the female voice historically understood as uncontrollable or natural, and the operatic voice as refined and controlled.

To offer a snapshot of Snapper's forerunners: La Barbara explores voice as an instrument; the celebrated Berberian, classically trained but often inspired by popular culture, investigates the voice's sonic range; Monk attempts to access the sonic space of the prelinguistic voice; and Galás scrutinizes the sounds of psychic space. Anderson is a composer with roots in a storytelling tradition. Her vocal work relies on techniques and effects enabled by microphones. In contrast to Galás, for example, who uses microphones to compositional ends, Anderson's vocal sonority is made possible by a close-miking technique. Galás also makes good use of the microphone and its ability to capture her voice, using a variety of microphones at once and processing each of their signals differently, but her basic vocal techniques do not seem to have resulted from microphone usage. In the same way, while Snapper makes use of microphones, her voice does not change when she sings with one (this is a fairly typical trait of classical singers).

Among Snapper's interlocutors are Z and Norderval. Z's work is completely dependent on microphones. Her trademark sonority comes from live sampling and playback supported by her interface system, the VocalSynth. With what appears to be a flick of her hand in the air, she layers voice and other sound samples. Z's work is also heavily based in storytelling. Her sound combines close-miked spoken voice with a sonority that resembles the classical vocal aesthetic (she employs a lifted soft palate, but not to the same extent as exclusively classical singers like Snapper). Norderval is a classically trained singer and composer who, like Z, uses custom-made technological systems to deploy vocal samples. Both Z and Norderval make innovative use of technology to expand classical compositional and vocal techniques.

There are many more experimental singers of note, but those I have mentioned collectively form the orbit within which Snapper finds herself. Her work clearly emerges from this particular tradition of American vocal exploration — she even shared a teacher (the soprano Carol Plantamura) with Galás — yet her contribution to the contemporary vocal repertoire is distinct. While many of today's most innovative musical ventures, some of which are cited above, rely on digital technologies, Snapper has collaborated with the pioneering computer musician Miller Puckette, and her explorations engage corporeal, organic, and architectural technologies. Her work is concerned with the dynamic relationship between control and its loss — sonically, corporeally, and socially — and she investigates her material of choice through that preoccupation. Considered through the lens of performance art, in which Athey and many of Snapper's other collaborators participate (artists such as Paula Cronan, Elena Mann, Sean Griffin, Andrew Infanti, and Jeanine Oleson), Snapper's work may be heard in conversation with body art, specifically with art that modifies the body. Her work engages the body as both an instrument and a disruptive appropriation of culture. In the latter regard, the work resembles that of Marina Abramovic, Vaginal Creme Davis, Karen Finley, and Annie Sprinkle.

Furthermore, beyond the obvious parallel of the marine environment, Snapper's work has much in common with that of other late twentieth-century composers who have explored the sonic possibilities of aquatics.The composers whose work I believe Snapper's most resembles are not those who foreground the sounds of water, but rather those who work with sound in water. Major composers who deal with the acoustic environment offered by water include Cage with Lou Harrison (Double Music, 1941), Max Neuhaus (Whistle Music, 1971), and Michel Redolfi (various works, 1981–present).With Cage and Harrison, Snapper shares the notion of changing the sounds of a familiar source by immersing the sound source in water. With Neuhaus, she shares the desire to eject music from concert spaces and institutions and to showcase the sonorous possibilities of traditionally nonmusical environments. And with Redolfi, Snapper shares a fascination with adapting instruments, performers, and listeners to an aquatic medium. Nevertheless, to my knowledge, Snapper is the first to concentrate on singing underwater. Of Redolfi's approximately two hundred underwater pieces, for which he has tried to perfect various custom-built instruments (mostly based on percussive principles), only one piece was created for a soprano. But whereas Redolfi is disturbed by the bubbles that escape from air-based instruments underwater, and therefore avoids such instruments altogether, for Snapper causing bubbles is part of the performative experience. For her the idiosyncratic sounds of bursting bubbles, and the acoustic information those sounds offer about the bubbles' physical properties, form aspects of the music. Performing in an unfamiliar element forces the vocalist to confront the processes involved in singing on the most fundamental level: How do I get air? Do I emit the sound from my mouth or vibrate it through my bones into the water? How can I share the sound with my audience? Snapper addressed these questions through trial and error.

Prior to Snapper's underwater opera work, scholars (many of whom have influenced her) described a sensory complex that would accommodate additional registers of sound, voice, and the experience of listening. As we will see, this idea is often described as a difficult experience to capture in words or is expressed in terms of how it breaks with the normative way of understanding these musical moments. Roland Barthes insists that the voice has the capacity to operate outside the dependency of the semiotic sphere. With his landmark text, "The Grain of the Voice," he hints at sound's occupation of the tactile domain.This entails a shift of emphasis from adjectives to verbs in the discussion of sound, as Christopher Small demonstrates. Similarly, but arising from a different impetus, Suzanne Cusick mobilizes the notion of performativity in her suggestion that culture works its way "deep in the throat," and that certain vocal styles arise from the body's relationship to culture. Thus, as Carolyn Abbate suggests, knowledge gained from hermeneutic analysis, while not completely divorced from the experience, can be completely contradicted by a given performance, or rendered irrelevant when a performer "offers up his body." Steven Connor reminds us that the voice and ears are part of a multisensorial bodily landscape in which the transfer of experience from one sense to another (say, from hearing to touch) is natural and unavoidable — for example, one can even experience sound by biting on a vibrating rod. That is, while Snapper's work is unusual in its clarity and heuristic, we see that scholars and artists never cease to grapple with the intersensorial aspects of sound.

Flood and Rapture

Snapper began her Five Fathoms Opera Project, "a series of modular, site-specific operatic performances," in response to an environmental disaster, which had been met with reactions ranging from apoplectic to indifferent. Watching Hurricane Katrina on television from the West Coast of the United States, Snapper bore horrified witness to an emerging awareness of our changing climate, as fear of flooding and drought turned to a full-fledged politics of disaster. She watched Evangelical Christians absorb climate change into their idea of the rapture: the biblical end of time in the form of melting glaciers and rising sea levels. The Judeo-Christian perspective is predisposed toward a linear sense of time and the progressive inevitability of events. The end of the world is thus inexorable and often depicted as an uncontrollable flood — not as a gateway to cleansing and renewal, as with the flood of Noah's Ark, but as an eternal doom, an irreversible watery state. The element from which we ascended billions of years ago and that we depend on for survival, enjoy in recreation, and use as a means of transportation is also the unstoppable punishment that will obliterate humanity from the earth. Therefore, even as scientists search for clues about the beginnings of civilization, others predict the end of time, wondering: What are the signs? What deeds might trigger events of such magnitude? And how should we act when we are faced with the rapture? Snapper's practice questions the relationship between a progressive trajectory and the events that can be read as propelling it forward. For example, when a linear narrative is set in motion, she asks whether it is not a centrifugal force surrounding this narrative's trajectory that pulls events into it, to be read as its confirmation, rather than the events themselves causing the end time to draw nearer. Specifically, when homosexual practice is understood as causing a flood, the two are erroneously linked through a narrative, rather than causal factuality.


Excerpted from Sensing Sound by Nina Sun Eidsheim. Copyright © 2015 Nina Sun Eidsheim. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations  viii

Acknowledgments  xi

Introduction  1

1. Music's Material Dependency: What Underwater Opera Can Tell Us about Odysseus's Ears  27

2. The Acoustic Mediation of Voice, Self, and Others  58

3. Music as Action: Singing Happens before Sound  95

4. All Voice, All Ears: From the Figure of Sound to the Practice of Music  132

5. Music as a Vibrational Practice: Singing and Listening as Everything and Nothing  154

Notes  187

Bibliography  241

Index  261

What People are Saying About This

Suzanne G. Cusick

"Imaginative, bold, theoretically wide-ranging and rooted in readings of contemporary culture, Sensing Sound proposes a radical, genuinely original rethinking of human beings' acoustical behavior and experience."

MP3: The Meaning of a Format - Jonathan Sterne

"Sensing Sound offers a singular and original perspective on the status of the voice and the theory of music. Nina Sun Eidsheim teaches readers to think about voice as a multisensory phenomenon and, in so doing, turns the tools of sound studies and critical musicology against themselves, demonstrating conclusively that an understanding of sound is not enough for understanding voice, singing, or music."

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