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VOICE: vocal aesthetics in digital arts and media VOICE: vocal aesthetics in digital arts and media
IS IT SACRILEGIOUS TO ADMIT THAT I’M UNDERWHELMED BY ROLAND BARTHES’ CLASSIC ESSAY “THE GRAIN OF THE VOICE”? BEYOND THE TITULAR CONCEPT THAT THE VOICE CONTAINS THE ESSENCE OF ITS PRODUCING BODY, “THE GRAIN,” THE ESSAY REVEALS LITTLE ABOUT THE RAW VOICE ITSELF, CONCENTRATING MORE ON BARTHES’ OPINIONS ABOUT CLASSICAL MUSIC.

While Barthes’ “grain” is well-referenced in VOICE: vocal aesthetics in digital arts and media, edited by Norie Neumark, Ross Gibson and Theo van Leeuwen, the 19 essays gathered here prove much more satisfying. The book offers multiple analyses of the voice in concert with and beyond language, with a focus on the mediated voice and its relationship with technologies and modes of contemporary art production.

The book is divided into four areas that essentially lead us from the gadgets of the past to propositions for the future. The first section, “Capturing Voice,” explores technologies by which the voice has been synthesised, recorded, stored and transmitted. Theo van Leeuwen looks at instrumental emulations of the voice, starting with pipe organs and ending with the synthesised samples found on his Roland RD300-SX, discussed within the framework of authenticity and modality theory. Thomas Y Levin conducts a whirlwind tour of the history of voicemail revealing a range of fascinating early inventions and proposing that the recorded/transmitted voice is a form of writing.

Virginia Madsen and John Potts look at the extension of temporally dependent radio into the realm of on-demand voice casting, exploring amateurism and audio blogging along with Brecht’s idea of radio as a two-sided exchange. Martin Thomas’ chapter on archiving Aboriginal languages is particularly fascinating with its analysis of the use of language in Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes and the possibilities that digital technology offers for communities to archive themselves.

Part two, “Performing Voice,” groups together essays that explore the voice in action across a range of artworks that can loosely be defined as ‘performed.’ A particular highlight is Brandon LaBelle’s complex analysis of sound poetry perhaps because it most directly addresses the paradoxes inherent in vocalisation. LaBelle states that in “attempting to free orality from the constraints of linguistic meaning, sound poetry edges against tensions inherent in subjectivity…sound poetry yearns for language by rupturing the very coherence of it.” He also identifies the tension in sound poetry between the desire to embrace technology and the pursuit of a raw, primal voicing with examples from artists such as Henri Chopin, William Burroughs and François Dufrêne. He concludes with the proposition that as we now live in the realm of the digital, the modernist project involving the fragmentation of the subject has been replaced by a networked and “distributed sense of subjectivity.”

Amanda Stewart’s artist statement follows on aptly from LaBelle as she describes her explorations into “the materiality of language itself.” Tracing her trajectory from poet-on-the-page to performing vocal artist via radio production, Stewart offers an astute analysis of the role of technology in her practice, both analogue and digital. Meredith Morse’s exploration of the voice in the works of choreographers Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti is also a fascinating read, exploring how their voices ruptured the perceived sacredness of the silent dancing body. While she suggests these artists’ explorations anticipated digital approaches, the overall analogue preoccupation of the chapter makes this essay feel slightly tangential to the overall framework of the book.

The third section, “Reanimating Voice,” offers the most practice-oriented chapters, focussing on many illuminating examples of the voice and its manipulation in screen media. The highlight here is the chapter on filmic voices by academic Helen Macallan and sound designer Andrew Plain. Plain’s real world perspective mixed with Macallan’s informed analysis offers many insights into the effect digital processes are having on voice in film, particularly regarding the hierarchy of voice to sounds within a score and the importance of spatialisation given the renewed excitement about 3D cinema.

Mark Ward and Axel Stockburger’s chapters on the voice in video and computer games cross over considerably. Stockburger offers a more academic overview with an emphasis on the role of the user’s voice in the game, while Ward presents an in-depth analysis of sound design in the game BioShock. As with Macallan and Plain’s chapter, it is particularly insightful due to its inclusion of detailed statements by the game’s Audio Lead (head sound designer) Emily Ridgway.

The concluding section, “At the Human Limits of Voice,” starts with a poetic exploration by anthropologist Michael Taussig addressing the spiritual nature of humming, using examples ranging from Winnie the Pooh to the Iroquois people and ending with an excerpt from the Chicago 7 trial involving Allen Ginsberg. The thrust of his argument is that “humming is central to language, as a base state of the voice, humming being neither conscious nor unconscious, neither singing nor saying, but rather sound where the moving mind meets the moving body.”

Nermin Saybasili continues the spiritual exploration in her analysis of a range of media artworks addressing migrant experience in Europe, arguing that the displaced and disembodied migrant voice is essentially a haunting, occupying a liminal space which is in fact inseparable “from the social body.”

The book concludes with a chapter by Philip Brophy exploring how “the human voice readily becomes its other through vocalisation,” using examples of songs by popular artists including Michael Jackson, Cornelius, Yoko Ono and Scott Walker, as well as Luciano Berio. Interestingly this and another chapter by Ross Gibson on the pre-digital nature of King Tubby’s dub, including a quick summary of modern vocal production techniques, are the only chapters that deal with music as such. This ensures that the book is not swamped by multifarious discourses on popular music, allowing alternative voices about voice to be heard.

It is this range of approaches and the presence of multiple stylistic voices that makes this book so enjoyable. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of more personal writing from the likes of Amanda Stewart and Theresa M Senft. The latter’s autobiographical account of her adventures—with telephone sex chat lines, self-help cancer tapes, computer voice recognition and Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room—is both informative and moving. The whirlwind smash-and-grab poetics of Mark Amerika also makes for a provocative read.

Norie Neumark frames VOICE: vocal aesthetics in digital arts and media with an introduction offering a range of theoretical approaches to the paradox of vocality which many of the individual chapters expand upon, providing the book with a strong academic underpinning. However for me it is inclusion of real life applications and statements from practising artists interwoven with theoretical analysis and provocation that make this book a pleasurable, accessible and edifying read.


VOICE: vocal aesthetics in digital arts and media, editors Norie Neumark, Ross Gibson and Theo van Leeuwen, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, London, 2010

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 39

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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