Our voice changes as we age. Although the most obvious voice changes occur in childhood and adolesence, there are a number of changes that occur with the voice later in life (e.g., after age 60). After the seventh decade, a number of changes in the voice often become more evident. For example, aging voices can become weaker and less reliable (e.g., hoarse) because of structural and physiological changes to the vocal motor and respiratory systems.
As an ablebodied and classically trained singer and actor, articulation to me is that practical space where lips, teeth, tongue and so on (those organs known in anatomy and physiology etc. as the ‘articulators’) combine to shape the sound emanating from the vocal source into a comprehensible/socially recognizable stream of…well: words…or any other utterance that has some degree of meaning. To “articulate!” in both these art forms is a short-hand expression used to cajole a performer into working their speech organs more consciously to produce and communicate a crisper meaning. This gets a bit tricky however, since every good artist knows that communication doesn’t come down strictly to how clearly or perfectly one pronounces or projects. Meaning comes from the ‘how’ something is articulated, not just from the ‘what’ of semantic meaning that is ostensibly the target of clear articulation. When I start thinking about the multiple, socially impacted dimensions of the ‘how’ of articulation, I find Stuart Hall’s “Race, articulation, and societies structured in dominance” a helpful tool. Hall uses the concept of ‘articulation’ to describe how meaning-laden social structures are assembled, gain force, and present the illusion of totality, and, I might add, the illusion of being ‘natural.’ As a researcher my interest in the ‘how’ of articulation is in the meaning transmitted by the material that carries the ‘what’ of articulation for most ablebodied individuals: the voice. When thinking about the power that the ‘how’ of articulation wields through voice, I borrow from Hall’s thinking to trace out how biology and the social work together to give meaning to not what is said, but the way that saying sounds.
Authenticity refers to ideas of the voice as origin or a faithful correspondence to an ideal original. In this sense, vocal authenticity also refers to a discourse of the voice as signature, as distinctive evidence of an individual. More broadly, a discourse of vocal authenticity is produced at the intersection between the aural and visual, between whom we see and what we therefore expect to hear and/or what we hear and therefore whom we expect to see. This latter point is crucial to the field of [and often pleasures associated with] popular music studies whereby musical genre often sets up these types of expectations [i.e. what bodies and voices we associate with opera versus blues versus soul music, for example]. See also: Daphne Brooks, Jacques Derrida, Nina Eidsheim, Simon Frith.
In the theory of subjectivity of Bulgarian linguist, psychoanalyst, and sometime “French feminist” Julia Kristeva, the “chora” is a space shared by mother and child at the time of their initial and partial separation through processes associated with the semiotic (and later, the abject), before the subsequent and more definitive differentiation through the accession to language proper and symbolic castration, when the child ceases to be the mother’s creature (for psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, her imaginary phallus) and assumes a name and identity in the community to which both belong. In attending to the importance of the maternal, pre-Oedipal object relations, and archaic, pre-phallic drives directed towards the mother, Kristeva, like other feminists, supplements the emphasis in Freud and Lacan on the role in subject formation of the father, language, law, the phallus, and castration. She adopts the term chora from Plato’s Timaeus (better known for the first story of Atlantis), where it is the (non) place of the inscription of the forms or ideas (“eidos,” linked etymologically to vision), a matrix of becoming and change, and thus womb-like (Plato calls it a nurse and mother by contrast with the forms as father and their worldly copies as offspring). Plato contrasts it with the two other realities he theorizes, the sensible (the earthly, material realm of illusions, mere shadows of the forms) and the intelligible (the transcendental realm of the forms themselves as the ultimate reality); it is therefore neither percepts nor concepts but what gives rise to them.
For deconstructive philosopher Jacques Derrida, Plato’s chora thus enables difference to be thought at all, such as the metaphysical opposition between the sensible and the intelligible. It is prior to any particular, nameable differences (signs), in effect unnameable and unlocalizable, no-thing, no-where; it cannot be maternal and feminine in the usual sense of those terms (for Kristeva it is only “maternally connoted,” an “archaic disposition of primary narcissism”), since the latter are already caught up in the system of differences the chora precedes, though feminists have sometimes characterized it as such (similarly, the “arche-writing” giving rise to “speech” and “writing” proper is not the same as the latter, according to Derrida). If some feminist object-relations theorists have romanticized the pre-Oedipal as a utopic space of the oneness of mother and child, Kristeva highlights the ambivalence of the kind of suffocating fusion it entails, since the chora at once enables and threatens to prevent the child’s individuation. It is characterized by what Kristeva terms the “semiotic,” rhythmic articulations of light, gesture, and sound, primarily infant laughter, babble, and echolalias, proto-signifiers without signifieds that project preliminary differences into what has been a sensorial continuum and prepare for language and signification, in which difference and identity are stabilized; the semiotic chora “arrests and absorbs” drive energy and primitive demands for nurturance. Signs replace experience with representation and bind polymorphous and anarchic pre-Oedipal drive energy in the secondary processes associated with the Symbolic, consciousness, and the reality principle that restricts pleasure or jouissance. The Symbolic is in fact formed through the repression of the semiotic, although the latter finds an outlet in aesthetic sublimation, particularly in experimental art, where meaningful, propositional representation breaks down and the choric and semiotic and their archaic drive energies reemerge. By destabilizing fixed meanings and identities and putting subjects, objects, and their signs “in process” and “on trial” (Kristeva’s French expression, “en procès,” is a double entendre), the maternal chora and its “revolution in poetic language” of avant-garde texts (to recall the title of the book based on her dissertation about this) revivifies the mortifying, reifying paternal Symbolic, even if it must be contained again for a reordered world of stable differences to emerge.
Community choir can be defined as a choir that draws its membership from a community at large and is inclusive. In the US, choir singing is the most popular arts hobby, and 32.5 million adults regularly sing in approximately 270,000 choirs (Chorus America).
Intervocality is a term that ethnomusicologist Steve Feld has used to signify “the inherently dialogic and embodied qualities of speaking and hearing. Intervocality underscores the link between the felt audition of one’s own voice, and the cumulatively embodied experience of aural resonance and memory” (Feld 1998: 471).
Feld, Steven. 1998. “They Repeatedly Lick Their Own Things.” Critical Inquiry 24 (2). (See also related works by this scholar.)
Jean-Luc Nancy, a former student of French deconstructive philosopher Jacques Derrida, opens his book on listening by wondering if philosophy is capable of it, suggesting that “understanding” tends to displace “listening” in the discipline (he draws on the double sense of the French “entendre,” which means both “to hear” and “to understand,” and contrasts it with “écouter,” “to listen”). Literary critics such as J. Hillis Miller and Catherine Belsey have reflected on reading in a similar vein, since it seems to veer between the poles of readerly projection into a text (fantasmatic “understanding” in Nancy’s sense of the latter term, in which the reader finds only what he anticipated in the words of the text) and ideological subjection to a text (with “interpellation” the inverse of understanding, in which the text “comprehends” the reader, taking hold of him or her, as the etymology of the word indicates, commanding submission to its sense and effects—the root of “obey” is in the Latin for “to listen, to lend an ear to, pay attention to,” as if to hear were always already to obey). If psychoanalysis is “the talking cure,” it presumes a listener as Nancy envisions the latter, one who does not rush to understand and impose an interpretation but who instead listens with an evenly suspended attention to everything, with an open mind, all ears, on the lookout (“être à l’écoute”) without quite knowing for what, rather than a little bit deaf to anything other than what the analyst expected or hoped to hear (as in counter-transference, when he projects his own desires onto the analysand in response to the latter’s transferential projections). Nancy’s argument overall is that the senses, including the auditory, must not only “make sense,” or “logos,” but also “sense” or perceive, dwelling with the anxiety arising from an open receptivity to or “resonance” with the world experienced before experience is named and understood, its power to communicate–to connect and move–in surprising ways defensively defused.
If listening to speech strains toward a sense beyond sound, as if speech were first music, and listening to music strains toward a sound beyond sense, as if music always said something–as when it is used to mobilize identities through marches and national anthems–listening aims at or is aroused by the reverberation of sound and sense in and through each other, which produces a crisis of self as an intelligible identity. This notion of listening resonates with Lacan’s discussion of the voice as “objet (petit) a”—object (little) a—the cause of desire as a lack of satisfaction, which sustains the circulation of the invocatory drive around it. Listening subjects do not always hear what they want to—and do not even want to hear what they think they want to; their ears strain to catch unsettling frequencies. Reason is thus undone by resonance, “on edge,” as Nancy says, because on the edge of meaning, sound sensed, not simply made sense of. The subject of listening is finally an echo chamber, summoned by the sounds of the world which resound in it without definitively naming and identifying it; the call of the Other is not yet or only an interpellation and symbolic mandate.
For many folks who work with voice day in and day out, the persistent use of voice as a figure or metaphor is tiring and cliché. Voice is something we do, our voice practice is complex, and frequently has little to do with how voice, as a metaphor, is batted around in common understanding. What is ‘the voice of the people’ besides a democratic truism? How does ‘giving voice’ to minoritized communities actually counter real, structural inequalities? The general objection to the use of voice as metaphor is that such figures of speech don’t account for the real, on the ground cultural work voice does. For example, metaphor alone can’t explain how Oum Kalthoum’s voice came to galvanize a particular brand of Egyptian Nationalism. In reaction to a strain of scholarship that has, particularly since the literary turn, thought little of the voice beyond its discursive life, a number of scholars of late have begun to concentrate on the material voice, or voice (and the many persons and things that voice) as a lived and performed entity. What are the material dimensions of voice? How were these dimensions assembled? How to they function and what do they produce? While these questions are of paramount importance in refocusing humanistic discussions around voice, I think metaphor also deserves a second glance. How is metaphor made? Surely all metaphors have material beginnings, or vice versa. How does voice, as an entity with a representational or metaphoric life, intervene in/engage with/negotiate the material realities of figures that speak? Restated, I think the current challenge in Voice Studies is to think how the discursive (generally thought in the Humanities) and the material (generally thought in the Sciences) co-form voice.
Popularly understood, “noise” indicates both unpleasant incursion and resistant cultural practice (noisy protest, noise music). Laura Marks suggests that noise indexes the infinite, constituting not merely that which renders images, sounds, and other signals less recognizable, but rather, embodying the “stuff whose patterns we can’t recognize” (2013). Along a similar and different line of thinking, Saidiya Hartman argues for the presence and continued emergence of what she terms “black noise”: a post-slavery sound rife with “wildly utopian,” anti-capitalist longings in the face of a silencing political rationality (2008). Noise remains resistant to a singular definition, and thus pregnant with possibility.
From the late 1950s, poststructuralist psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used the phrase “objet (petit) a”—object (little) a–or the algebraic letter “a,” for the “object of desire” we seek in others. In his seminars from the mid- 1960s on, he increasingly associated it with what he called the “Real” and the trauma of constitutive lack and alienation due to the fact that human subjects are creatures of language, which derails any “natural” relation to objects that might meet instinctual needs. Objet a is the “cause” of desire, a fragment of the phallus the subject believes it lost with the symbolic castration that ended its pretensions to satisfying the desires of the (M)Other but has found again in the love object. Objet a inaugurates and sustains desire as lack, rather than satisfaction, and it is signaled by the anxiety associated with the enigmatic desire of the Other with which the subject has identified, conveyed by Lacan in Italian to signal its foreign origin, “Che vuoi?” (“What do you want?”).
Lacan theorizes the gaze and the voice as exemplary objets a, sources of an excessive pleasure and anxiety caught up in the erotic drives of seeing and hearing that derive but diverge from instinctual functions through their libidinization, circling repeatedly around an object they never attain. He preferred that the term for that object remain untranslated to underline its foreign, disquieting, and uncanny dimension as something that belongs to the “Other,” rather than the self. If desire is “desire of the Other,” as Lacan insisted from the outset, so that what is most intimate is strange and estranging, so too are the gaze and the voice. They exceed symbolization as a way of containing threats to identity and object relations, just as desire exceeds the demands to which it gives rise and responds. The gaze is even best represented by something heard, rather than seen, such as the noise of an eavesdropper, while the voice can be figured by a look that seems to speak volumes. The gaze is the blind spot in the reassuring picture we would make of the world as we look at and relate to it through how we name it, the point from which we are seen as something out of place, a stain, while the voice is the incomprehensible silence or noise in speech or music, in which we are heard as a dissonance. Gaze and voice thus make for a lack of satisfaction with the objects we see and hear, disturbing our fantasy of a harmonious relationship with them and unsettling our sense of self or identity.