2014: Tongue, Throat, Lungs Voices at the Margins of Body and Mind

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series


”..in the woods she hides and has her dwelling in the lonely caves; yet still her love endures and grows on grief, and weeping vigils waste her frame away; her body shrivels, all its moisture dries; only her voice and bones are left; at last only her voice, her bones are turned to stone, so in the woods she hides and hills around, for all to hear, alive, but just a sound.”
– Ovid, Metamorphoses (tr. Melville)

Introduction: Living Echoes

Apart from Echo’s, and perhaps God’s, voices issue forth from bodies. It’s something you can hear: voices are so unique that they have genuine security and forensic applications, like fingerprints. Voices so profoundly mark us that they have become a metaphor for the harnessing of communicative ability (the writer’s voice, the voice of the culture, the voice crying in the wilderness). But what has happened to poor Echo, who first lost her ability to form original speech (by Hera’s curse) and later lost even her body as it withered away in her pining for Narcissus (who, by the way, was the man obsessed with his own identity)? Latin poet Ovid tells us she’s still alive, but only as just a sound, the rest of her being concealed behind a veil of silence.

Vocal music usually tends to emphasize and explore basic associations of the voice: the unique registration and timbre of the vocalist’s organ, the words that in some way express the vocalist’s soul in its particular body in space (or, at least, a single persona the artist has constructed around his or her voice). But 2014 hosts a myriad of examples of vocalists who seem to seek Echo’s fate: voices that flee the confines of the body, voices that project personae that break from the performer’s identity, voices that conceal both the body and the soul to become pure sound. In consciously suspending the aspects of voices that are tethered directly to beings, in sacrificing the identity and concealing the body that produced their sounds, these artists achieve an uncanny fusion with the sonic landscape capable of evoking both terror and ecstasy, awe and bliss.

Iron Lungs: The Voice in the Prison of the Body

Cover art for Pharmakon’s “Bestial Burden”

Whether consciously or not, hearing a voice invokes the existence of a vocalist’s body in the listener. Although all other instruments also require bodies to use, voices have the unique distinction of generating sound from within the body. Of course, microphones are useful to capture that sound for an amplifier and may add a certain character to the voice, but the fact remains that the vocal instrument is contained in the respiratory system — and can never leave it. The voice is so integrated into the body that the system can make use of it for involuntary functions, the most violent of which is undoubtedly screaming. The vocal responses that pain and pleasure can produce form the external sign of an ecstatic break with embodiment. When harnessed for musical uses, these involuntary (or feigned) responses can sympathetically provoke these states in the listener.

The tension between the mind’s imprisonment in the body and the ejection of vocals from inside the body as a vehicle of ecstatic “standing outside” embodiment is apparent from the very beginning of Pharmakon’s Bestial Burden, an album that takes as its subject the rift in the mind-body complex. Gasping for air, Chardiet’s vocals on “Vacuum” take the form of the body’s most common and crucial relationship with the vocal machinery: breath. Tour mates Swans’ “Oxygen” from this year’s To Be Kind lyrically connects the dots between breath, voice, and death, with Gira’s command to “breathe in,” and again on opener “Screen Shot,” where he commands the listener to “breathe now.” But the breath sounds on “Vacuum” are just metaphors for the connection between mortality and the voice, and don’t in themselves force an ecstatic ejection; they merely reveal the extent of the ribcage’s bars, the limits that embodiment places on the voice.

This linkage between the larynx and the lungs becomes more urgent in the latter half of Bestial Burden’s “Primitive Struggle,” which features a recording of an increasingly intense bout of coughing. Bodily limits obviously constrict the lifespan of the voice (we all die), but in the affliction and infirmity of the organism, the body also forces the voice into sound, suspending its capability for the mind to use it for speech (or, more aptly, singing).

Likewise, pain and the threat of bodily death provoke screaming. On I Shall Die Here, The Body’s exploration of the journey toward suicide conditions a kind of maniacal screaming that seems to erupt out of the awareness of both mortal suffering and the coming certainty of death. King’s vocals emerge from between the Scylla and Charybdis of these threats, finding a chink in the walls of the bodily prison to call to the outside. The scream is itself the beginning of ecstasy, in the previous sense of “standing outside;” it propels breath through a semi-intentional network of vocal cord configurations, briefly pushing consciousness outside the body’s walls as it recognizes its own voice. A brief moment of dissociation occurs here, disconnecting the mind from bodily pain. Of course, screaming is only one example of this involuntary mechanism, and on both Pharmakon and The Body’s albums, screaming is fully intentional, mimicking the outward show of this mundane ecstasy in an external form, thereby invoking the terror associated with screaming pain and howling fear.

But Bestial Burden ends in hideous, seemingly (but we know better) uncontrollable laughter, which provides another view of ecstatic bodily exit. Similarly, Gira’s howls, moans, and yawps throughout To Be Kind constitute an ecstatic response to pleasure, rather than pain. But pleasure and pain and desire and terror are mortal sensations that only make sense in an embodied context. This suggests that our sympathetic responses may only rarely reach true sympathy, in that the listener may only achieve the ecstasy of the performer in rare moments when the terror or pleasure becomes too great — due to the extremity of the performer’s (performed) response.

In other words, we most fully escape ourselves when listening to the most fully realized performance of terror, pleasure, pain, or glory. In pushing their voices beyond the limits of the body, in stepping outside of themselves even just as performance, Chardiet, King, and Gira define their bodily frames and show us the doors out of our own.

Deeper Throats: The Voice at the Edge of Identity

The Soft Pink Truth

It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,
but as I came closer
I saw it was a human body

trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones.
And there was no pain.
The wind

was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.

– Anne Carson, The Glass Essay

Embodiment has another consequence for the voices that emerge out of it: each of us is utterly unique, especially as concerns the sonic properties of our voices. Voices communicate not just a body, but the identity of the being within that body. It’s a common phenomenon that a vocalist’s persona largely coincides with his or her identity; take Sun Kil Moon’s album Benji for an extreme example of this brand of “sincerity,” complete with probably honest recollections of buying food at a Panera Bread. Kozelek hasn’t really sought to push his persona past himself (beyond some probable confabulation) — it’s just not intrinsic to his project — but many of this year’s best vocal performers have successfully obscured their voice’s link to their particular physiology or their personal identity and, in doing so, have accomplished a plethora of effects1.

For some, the body’s hardware is so unique that the identity it manifests when the performer pushes her voice to the limits of its technical prowess seems nigh superhuman. This effect appears most clearly in Susanna’s vocal heroics on this year’s Meshes of Voice; her unique training and physiology allows her to reach a register so far above the average human’s that her voice manifests an alien, angelic quality within the abyssal noise (actually pitched-down vocals) of “Thirst That Resembles Me.” Her and Hval’s lyrics concern a surreal landscape of mythic proportions, their bodies mere “houses of bones” for their voices, until a black lake dissolves them and all that remains is a melody. It’s as if their project begins at the glacial skeleton left at the end of Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay, after all flesh has left its bones. Theirs is the voice that continues when the pure, nameless skeleton steps off into the darkness. Strangely, it is not merely through the elemental structures of their lyrics but also through both the uniqueness of their voices and the simplicity of their wordless melodies that they finally achieve this state of dissolution, wherein their personae blur into the boundaries of the mythic, the supernatural, even the divine. It’s only because of the necessary link between voices and identity that they eventually seem to transcend it.

But for those whose physical gifts aren’t so vertically prodigious as to produce demigod vocals, other methods exist for suspending or outright abolishing the link between the voice and the performer’s identity (which, of course, is not a static force, except in its link to a body)2; in other words, there are other methods for decoupling the persona(e) from the embodied identity that sings through the voice. By manipulating the physical characteristics of the voice, whether through external effects or internal modulation and technique, many of 2014’s artists have accomplished feats of vocal persona-warping that simply-embodied voices can’t possibly manage.

Pitch-correction has been en vogue since before this decade began, but (close-to-)true pitch-shifting in real time has not been possible until very recently. Several of this year’s most peculiar albums use it across the board, completely destabilizing the listener’s ability to read the voice’s physical qualities as such. Both of the examples that appear here, GFOTY’s Secret Mix and The Soft Pink Truth’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?, also employ lyrical content from other sources, their constructed personae infusing it with a new significance. On Secret Mix, GFOTY retunes her voice continually, often multiple times throughout the track (and usually upwards). She also subjects her voice to resampling and looping, so that as listeners we are often unaware whether we are hearing her voice directly or a copy of it. Using these external techniques to undermine the listener’s certainty about the transmission of her voice, GFOTY also displaces the listener’s certainty of her identity, in the process generating a constantly-morphing persona. This capricious persona is at once seductive and coy, demanding kisses on “KISS,” then shifting to a new face, a modified persona, while the listener perceives the command. Like Echo, an Oread, GFOTY is always in flight, but always in control.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series


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