Using Mladen Dolar’s influential A Voice and Nothing More as a reference point, The Voice as Something More reorients Dolar’s psychoanalytic analysis around the material dimensions of voices—their physicality and timbre, the fleshiness of their mechanisms, the veils that hide them, and the devices that enhance and distort them. Throughout, the essays put the body back in voice. Ending with a new essay by Dolar that offers reflections on these vocal aesthetics and paradoxes, this authoritative, multidisciplinary collection, ranging from Europe and the Americas to East Asia, from classics and music to film and literature, will serve as an essential entry point for scholars and students who are thinking toward materiality.
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Speech and/in Song
In our daily world of social interactions, singing is marked, speech unmarked; in the world of song, the reverse holds. Such, at least, is the commonsense view, which might tempt us to assume a difference in kind between speech and song. Yet scholars from fields as diverse as anthropology, linguistics, and cognitive science have long argued that the difference is instead one of degree — speech and singing arrayed on a continuum. Aaron Fox, for example, lends an attentive ear to the musicality of everyday speech in white, rural Texas, and explores its affiliations with country singing. Fox's work intervenes in a long ethnomusicological tradition of probing the porous border between speech and song. An intellectual world away, perceptual psychologist Diana Deutsch has demonstrated the ways in which repeated snippets of speech can quickly begin to sound like singing. She stumbled on the phenomenon heard in website example 1.1 which involves her own voice — by accident, while editing a recording. As one listens, the change is both gradual and immediate, a difference in degree that eventually throws off its cloak to reveal a difference in kind. Deutsch's voice seems to cross a qualitative threshold at some point, taking on a kind of material insistence. Removed from the syntagmatic chain of speech, the musical aspects of her voice — pitch, rhythm, timbre — are somehow vivified, brought to life and dancing before our ears. The words' propositional force, by contrast, falls away, leaving behind a phonemic husk. Sounds behaving strangely, indeed.
Though Deutsch artificially manufactures her example through a looped recording, real-world examples in which repetitive, heightened speech approaches the condition of song are not hard to find: the auctioneer, the keening mother, the charismatic preacher, the Quranic reciter. In such examples, musicality and communicative context are inseparable. But a smalltechnological nudge can disturb the balance. Consider website example 1.2, the opening of Steve Reich's 1965 tape piece It's Gonna Rain. Reich manipulates a recording of Pentecostal preacher Brother Walter delivering an apocalyptic sermon in San Francisco's Union Square in 1964. Walter's speech approaches the condition of song all on its own, an effect that Reich heightens through unnervingly tight loops.
In these examples, we hear song emerging from within speech, so to speak, as a kind of latent presence or potential. And when it emerges, the voice can seem to reclaim its material autonomy, phoné asserting itself over and against logos. Per Aaron Fox, this material assertion is an effect of singing in general: "Singing heightens the aural and visceral presence of the vocalizing body in language, calling attention to the physical medium of the voice, the normally taken-for-granted channel of 'ordinary' speech." But what about those contexts when "ordinary speech" is not the norm, but singing is? That is, what about speech in the world of song? If quotidian speech makes the materiality of the singing voice perspicuous, does song repay the debt? That is, in the world of song, does speech become audible?
I pose these questions not to suggest that they admit of univocal answers — there are too many traditions of speaking within song for that — but to prime our ears for the gallery of examples that I will explore in this chapter. They are drawn from diverse popular song traditions — early country to recent hip-hop — and each involves a performer who both speaks and sings. This leaves out a lot, most notably art music traditions like Sprechstimme, melodrama, Singspiel, opéra bouffe, and so on, as well as musical theater. Moreover, I will not consider popular music examples in which an individual speaks who is not the singer (think Vincent Price in Michael Jackson's "Thriller"). There will nevertheless be plenty to discuss. I am especially interested in the ways in which speech can emerge as a marked figure against the unmarked ground of more conventionally coded musical sound, a relationship that can focus our ears on the very sonic features that often fade into transparency (or inaudibility) in everyday talk, as Fox notes. Here, though, Fox's relationship is reversed, as it is speech that can seem to regain its granular opacity within song. We will also attend to the ways in which the speech-song dynamic can interact with questions of meaning, sometimes animating lyrics with a kind of heightened hermeneutic legibility, at others suggesting a dialectic of interiority and exteriority, at still others, modeling diverse modes of real-world social or performative interaction. Finally, I will explore the ways in which these performers vocally navigate the transition from song to speech or vice versa. In some examples, vocalists explicitly cordon speech off from song — the commonsense notion of a difference in kind retaining its force — while inothers, performers fluidly traverse a continuum between speech and song. Strikingly, through the 1980s, vocalists of the latter type — whom we might call "continuum singers" — tend to come from largely white, northern, urban scenes lionized by a critical elite (think folk revival, punk, indie). By contrast, the more sharply demarcated examples reside on the margins of elite taste (think early country and R&B). Along the way I will venture some thoughts on this rather Bourdieuian state of affairs, and also note its dissolution in the hip-hop era, which has led to an extraordinary flourishing of vocal practices, speech and song circulating ever more freely.
Hank Williams, "Pictures from Life's Other Side" (1951)
There is an entire genre of country song called the "recitation song," in which the singer either speaks throughout or alternates speaking and singing. The subject matter is often devotional or cautionary, with nods to tent revival and radio preaching traditions. As Hank Williams biographers Colin Escott, George Meritt, and William MacEwen put it, "The recitation was a little homily, usually with a strong moral undertone, narrated to musical accompaniment." Recorded examples date back to the 1930s; by the 1950s, recitation songs were an old-fashioned, niche item. Hank Williams nevertheless maintained a deep fondness for the genre, despite his producer Fred Rose's resistance, and recorded some of its most celebrated examples in the final years of his life, under the name Luke the Drifter. Among the most famous is "Pictures from Life's Other Side," which Williams recorded in 1951, and which became the first track on the posthumous LP Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter. The song consists of three spoken verses and one sung chorus. The verses narrate tragic scenes "from life's other side," while the chorus offers a capsule meditation in song. Website example 1.3 includes the first verse and the beginning of the chorus.
The crisp distinction between vocal modalities is immediately evident. As in all of his Luke the Drifter recitations, Williams shuttles between two discrete registers: he either speaks or he sings, but he does not shade gradually from one to the other. Yet it is worth noting that the spoken portions are not everyday speech — they are heightened. Williams's intonation suggests the fervor and intensity of a radio preacher, while the prosody and rhyme scheme match the sung chorus rather than the rhythms of colloquial speech. Indeed, at times his reciting voice feels almost yoked to the musical structure, pulled ineluctably forward. This is one reason for the sense of urgency and peril that belies the folksy drawl. Another is Williams's tendency to draw out certain syllables with quivering intensity, as on the words "pictures" (pronounced "pitchers") and "love" in the third line of verse one ("There's pictures of love and of passion"). Why, then, do the verses register so unambiguously as speech? Most obvious is Williams's treatment of pitch and contour. He explicitly — and perhaps exaggeratedly — shapes each syllable with the characteristic arch of speech, sliding into and out of emphasized syllables, rather than settling on sustained pitches slotted into the discrete locations of the diatonic scale (in this case, E major).
This avoidance of sung pitch means that Williams's voice can no longer project that central element of popular song: the melody. But the melody is there, nestled into the musical accompaniment behind Williams's recitation. Note the fiddle in website example 1.3 (played by Jerry Rivers). This is a phenomenon common to recitation songs, and indeed to songs in many genres that involve speaking: the melodic line, as though extracted from the voice, is relocated to a different part of the sonic texture. I will refer to this as melodic "ghosting." Williams's speaking voice is ghosted throughout the song: by Rivers's fiddle in verses one and three, by Don Helms's steel guitar in verse two. Tellingly, the ghosted melody disappears in the chorus, when Williams sings. Yet the logic of ghosting is not subtractive in any simple sense: the voice is not made less by the process. Rather, it can seem to gain a kind of palpable materiality, as the complex grain of speech emerges into sonic relief against the conventional code of the melody and its embedding country waltz. By making sonically explicit that parameter of the musical texture that the voice no longer possesses — melody — the ghosted line paradoxically amplifies the speaking voice. Ghosted melody settles unobtrusively into the accompanimental fabric, reinvesting the speaking voice with obdurate, material difference.
In country recitation songs, this crisp division between recitation and coded song indexes a shift in implied participatory musicking. In the verses, Williams addresses the listener in narration; in the chorus, he solicits participation. Singing, after all, affords "singing along." Indeed, the musical code underwrites the social efficacy of group singing, allowing participants to anticipate pitch and rhythm, affording entrainment with the overall flow of the music (however inexact that entrainment might be in practice). Everyday speech affords no such opportunities for entrainment or pitch matching. Though one perhaps could "speak along" to Williams's recitation in "Pictures from Life's Other Side," given its regular prosody, to do so would seem odd. The narrative explicitly suggests a direct address. Indeed, Williams enacts this address even more explicitly on other Luke the Drifter songs, beginning with locutions that evoke radio preaching, such as "You know, friends ..." ("Help Me Understand") or "Now, friends ..." ("I've Been down That Road Before"). When the sung chorus or refrain arrives, one can then easily imagine an audience that had been listening attentively to the verse joining in for the chorus, much as a congregation sings a hymn after a sermon.
The interaction of speech and song in country recitations often invites hermeneutic attention. Consider website example 1.4, the final verse from "Pictures from Life's Other Side." Williams recites the opening of the verse as before, the quivering intensity of his voice even more in evidence, but then shifts surprisingly into song for the final two lines: "God help her, she leaps, oh there's no one to weep / It's just a picture from life's other side." The transgression is arresting. Singing now finds its way into a portion of the song that we had assumed was the domain of speech, as the narrator reacts to the suicide of the unwed mother, child in her arms. No listener or imaginary "congregant" would be prepared to sing along at this point: this is the narrator's voice, seemingly moved to spontaneous song. The undertone of moral fervor and peril now surfaces, as Williams's balanced delivery from the chorus gives way to a singing voice infused with the quiver and break of the recitation. Distanced, rueful musings on "life's other side" give way to affective shock in the present tense, as though Luke the Drifter is now in the picture itself, a helpless observer to its tragic events.
Such hermeneutic legibility in country recitations can seem to generate a kind of affective intensity in primary colors. Another vivid example is "The Green, Green Grass of Home," as recorded in 1965 by Porter Wagoner. The song begins with Wagoner singing sonorously of arriving in his "old home town," with its "green, green grass." His family and his girlfriend Mary — with "hair of gold and lips like cherries" — joyfully greet him at the train station. In the third verse, however, the Technicolor images give way to the gray of a death-row jail cell, and Wagoner switches from singing to weary recitation:
Then I awake and look around me, At the four gray walls that surround me, And I realize, yes, I was only dreaming. For there's a guard and there's a sad old padre — Arm in arm we'll walk at daybreak....
As with "Pictures from Life's Other Side," the result will strike some as pure kitsch. For others — especially cultural insiders and country connoisseurs — the effect is one of concentrated emotional intensity. Williams's Luke the Drifter songs have an especially fervent following, devoted listeners who hear in his speaking and singing genuine emotional extremity and peril, the voice as exposed nerve.
Marvin Gaye, "Save the Children" (1971)
One encounters a similar bifurcation between speech and song in a vast range of R&B, soul, and funk. Spoken parts are common in seduction songs (think Barry White, Bobby Womack, Lionel Richie) as well as in more narrative songs in which the speaker interacts with a chorus of encouraging background singers (examples are legion in the girl-group repertory — for example, the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" — and in later male groups like the Chi-Lites, the O'Jays, and the Manhattans). Marvin Gaye occasionally performed within the seductive speak-singing tradition, though he also employed the technique in other contexts. On his 1971 concept album What's Going On — a thematically unified plea for social justice and environmental stewardship — speech and song intermix on two tracks to evoke different contexts of African American sociality: a party on the title track and the call-and-response patterns from black worship on "Save the Children." We will focus on the latter. As the excerpt in website example 1.5 begins, note the melodic ghosting behind Gaye's spoken phrases, performed here by strings and a wordless vocal melisma from the background singers. The gulf between the speech and song in the passage is immediately obvious: Gaye's exquisite singing voice inhabits an altogether different space from his disarmingly direct speaking voice, with its expressions of helplessness and dismay, and its earnest appeals for social action. The most obvious manifestation of that gulf is register: Gaye's singing voice floats high above his speaking one, as though transposing it to a higher, aspirational frequency, and infusing it with the ethical suasion of song.
Whether we hear this as an echo, a response, or an affective amplification turns in part on whether we recognize that there are actually two voices singing on the track. Both voices are Gaye's, but he recorded them separately. This multitracking contributes subtly to the sense of antiphonal alternation between two voices. Such alternation loosely indexes a practice in African American worship, as well as a variety of white traditions, known as "lining out" or "hymn lining": the preacher speaks or sings a line of the hymn right before the audience is to sing it. The multitrack setting arguably underwrites the illusion of lining out, but we also explicitly recognize Gaye in both voices, and at first it seems as though the alternation might be in real time, on one track. And, of course, congregations do not sing this way. This is a virtuosic solo voice, in a soul idiom. We are thus initially unsure whether this is one voice divided between speech and song, or two different voices, each with its own native mode of expression, their interaction offering a tenuous connection to a real-world sacred practice.
This sense of multiplied vocality increases later in the track, as the illusion of lining out breaks down further. Gaye's speaking and singing voices begin to overlap more and more, until they are largely simultaneous, the singing voice duplicating the speaking one rhythmically, but remaining distinct from it timbrally and registrally, oil and water. Consider website example 1.6, in which Gaye's two vocal parts align, and are then joined by female background singers who enter for one brief interjection. The backing singers' interjection is peculiarly stylized: one might imagine a backing choir, exhorting congregants to "live your life!" But the line is delivered in heightened speech, not gospel song, and in an odd unison. Voices seem to multiply without legible reference to a real-world social context.(Continues…)
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Table of ContentsPreface
List of Illustrations
List of Musical Examples (Print)
List of Website Examples (Audiovisual)
The Clamor of Voices
Martha Feldman and Judith T. Zeitlin
Part I: Sound-Producing Voice
1 Speech and/in Song
2 From the Natural to the Instrumental: Chinese Theories of the Sounding Voice before the Modern Era
Judith T. Zeitlin
Part II: Limit Cases
3 Voice, Music, Modernism: The Case of Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen
4 Screamlines: On the Anatomy and Geology of Radio
Part III: Vocal Owners and Borrowed Voices
5 It’s All by Someone Else
6 The Artist’s Impression: Ethel Waters as Mimic
7 “I Am an Essentialist”: Against the Voice Itself
James Q. Davies
Part IV: Myth, Wound, and Gap
8 Is the Voice a Myth? A Rereading of Ovid
9 Voice Gap Crack Break
10 The Gesamtkunstwerk and Its Discontents: The Wounded Voice in (and around) Alexander von Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf
David J. Levin
11 There Is No Such Thing as the Composer’s Voice
Part V: Interlude: The Gendered Voice
12 Vowels/Consonants: The Legend of a “Gendered” (Sexual) Difference Told by Cinema
Michel Chion, translated by Zakir Paul
Part VI: Technology, Difference, and the Uncanny
13 The Prosthetic Voice in Ancient Greece
14 The Duppy in the Machine: Voice and Technology in Jamaican Popular Music
Andrew F. Jones
15 The Actor’s Absent Voice: Silent Cinema and the Archives of Kabuki in Prewar Japan
16 A Voice That Is Not Mine: Terror and the Mythology of the Technological Voice
Voices That Matter
List of Contributors