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

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”..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.

Like GFOTY, The Soft Pink Truth’s mask also exerts control, but less by evading the listener’s reading and more as a kind of sadistic disciplining of the black metal standards he queers. On Why Do the Heathen Rage?, Daniel pitches his voice so far down that no human growl could match it, effectively one-upping the tortured screams of his precursors with a deeper, machine-driven violence (just as he subverts their tremolo-picked guitars and blastbeats with sequenced synths and drum machines). Yet, during “Invocation For Strength,” Daniel and Antony Hegarty invoke the celestial androgyne and reveal that the pitch-shifted persona’s service is not to Odin or Lucifer, but to Isis, the great goddess of Egypt. This suggests that the persona, though seemingly performing as a hyper-masculine figure with its contra-contra-bass register, is actually undermining this identification and the notion of a link between the body and the vocal persona. The persona Daniel utilizes seems to have sunken into the depths of an (disco?) inferno in which The Soft Pink Truth has become a presiding demon, excoriating the pitiful souls behind his source material with their very own lyrics. By taking black metal’s warped and absurd masculinity to task in taking it at its word, and by playing on the demonic aspirations of these acts, Daniel executes a kind of eye-for-an-eye justice upon them, besting them at their own games and subduing them with heretical glee.

Of course, external machines are only half of the possible methods for persona-genesis. On Burial Hex’s final statement The Hierophant, he accomplishes the act in part by manipulating his vocal cords out of their typical physical arrangement, producing, among his masks, a growling demon, a screeching hellion, a shouting herald, and a detached narrator. Ruby’s careful arrangement of these personae into The Hierophant’s musical matrix allows him to construct a kind of one-man operetta, fracturing his own identity into an array of characters. These characters all seem to have their own thoughts and their own metaphysical status. By enacting these personae through vocal technique (as opposed to merely in the lyrics), Ruby fashions an audible theater of masks from a single identity, rendering the album a musical complex of metaphysical hypostases, a mystery play of voices.

But the delineation of vocal personae is not always so clear, especially when an artist makes the proliferation of personae an M.O. Although listeners sometimes seem to struggle to read Dean Blunt, what’s clear is that, despite his calm delivery, he’s a genius of theater, delivering soliloquy after soliloquy in the voice of various characters who may or may not share Blunt’s identity. While Simon Chandler’s review of this year’s Black Metal thoroughly explores the lyrical basis for these personae, another key to Blunt’s psychodrama of masks can be found in how these lyrics are delivered.

Over the course of Black Metal, Skin Fade, and even Free Jazz, Blunt skates between a number of styles, from melancholic crooning to icy rhyming to confident toasting, employing a range of accents in the process: Jamaica, London, New York. These differences are subtle, not even remotely approaching the differentiation of Burial Hex’s vocal beings, but this nuanced approach is crucial to Blunt’s project: in using a subtle delineation between vocal masks, Blunt simulates the mental proximity between each of his characters. With an effortlessness that some listeners find difficult to parse, Blunt reveals and suspends his vocal personae, alternately fulfilling and undermining the racialized expectations of his listeners while his own identity and his being within a (black) body stands at the edge of the stage, gesturing toward the masks with an inscrutable smile. This is not to reduce Blunt’s project to a mere political statement; indeed, Black Metal features vistas of sublimated emotion and even guileless honesty. It’s rather to suggest that Blunt has achieved a kind of fortress of solitude from which, in the guise of his alter egos, he can launch his campaign of undermining race and genre politics without ever fully endorsing any of his personae, and thereby “ball to such a degree that the complexion of this place will change.”

Tongues of Fire: The Voice Beyond Language

Jenny Hval & Susanna

Having passed through the flight from embodiment and the dislocation of vocal persona, a third set of 2014’s performances comes into view as explorations of the voice as pure sound. By concealing their lyrical soul-bearing, suppressing identifiable personality, and avoiding typical evocations of embodiment, the very structure of their works acts as a kind of metamorphic cocoon from which their voices emerge transformed, shriven of the earthly bodies that fixed them. This process is at once creative and destructive, providing as it does both novel methods for constructing pieces of fully vocal music and a means to sacrifice the performer’s very being using the tool most associated with its expression.

Although Jenny Hval and Susanna’s Meshes of Voice appeared in the last section as a connecting tissue between embodiment and identity dynamics, their project consists more obviously in constructing vast edifices out of vocal elements. Beyond mere harmony, which shows itself throughout the album, Hval and Susanna also “mesh” in a myriad of hidden, wordless vocal sounds. The album title suggests that neither performer totally owns these passages; they present the term voice as an undifferentiated resource that they are shaping into form. In their extreme abstraction from their own most intimate organs of expression, they style themselves sculptors of a pure sound source, arranging the disembodied voice to form their surreal mosaic. Having “walked [their] bodies to the rim of [their] ends” and having lost their souls at the bottom of a black, abyssal lake, they fuse like Echo with the raw material of nature itself, alive, but just sounds.

While Meshes of Voice still preserves some of its performers’ language throughout the album, giving Hval and Susanna’s mythic personae ample space to breathe lyrically within the meshes of vocal sound, the lyrical presence on Ian William Craig’s A Turn of Breath always seems poised at the edge of disintegration by the physical destruction and deletion inherent in magnetic tape. (Similarly, Wold’s final(?) album Postsocial submits Fortress Crookedjaw’s voice to intense and irreversible destruction-by-fidelity.) But Craig too constructs vast sonic edifices from the raw material of his voice. Here, the more that the language of his lyrics fades into wordlessness, the more dense the structure of voice becomes. It’s as if the tape sets a precipice before the lyrical voice, and as the vocals crest its edge, the weight of the words drops from the voice’s out-flowing of breath, the tongue becoming a mere modulator. Layer upon layer of Craig’s voice pours into the recording, subjecting its gorgeous richness to the brutal crumbling of the physical media. Therefore, even the structure Craig forges with his sonic material constantly verges on collapse, his self-sacrifice compounding on itself, rendering any emergence of his lyrics a powerful moment of self-revelation. In using disintegration of both the lyrical content and the voice itself, Craig ratchets up the intensity of the emergent moments of clarity on A Turn of Breath, peeling back the layers of personae to reveal a stark, crystalline soul.

Although disintegration is a result of Craig’s method, Grouper’s bare Ruins has fully subsumed disintegration as an already-present movement within the artist herself. Harris seems to have already disintegrated, approximating most closely Echo’s fate, the gossamer strands of her voice draped almost inaudibly over her piano’s calm purity. Although her voice does contrast with the round notes of piano and never fully fades into the sound of any song on Ruins, by its very delicacy it always seems to have disappeared before it arrived. Harris makes no attempt at creating a network of personae to conceal her identity or project a narrative, nor does she hide the physical reality of her voice; but by its nature, because of Harris’s unique vocal profile, fragile delivery, and self-effacing lyrics, she herself becomes a living emblem of the disintegrated voice. Her vocals here match the seeming evanescence of her own personality, the ruination and absence she confronts in the lyrics. Her project is already tuned to her voice’s embodied identity, but it’s the constant dissolution inherent in her voice that renders Ruins an ideal example of this vocal process.

Mic Check: The Audience at the Margins

Dean Blunt at Artists Space, NYC

The omnipresence of voices in the history of music has often led to an impoverished interpretation of them, insofar as the majority of critics tacitly accept the vocal persona as a mirror of the performer’s identity and the use of vocal effects (whether internal or external) as a choice conditioned solely by the sonic results. Of course, the direct ties between bodies, identities, and the vocal system tends to suggest a simple interpretation. But this year’s musical examples of the undermining of these ties do so quite consciously, it seems, complicating any analysis of the meaning inherent in the lyrical content or musical structure of any particular piece. In fact, these elemental properties are so critical to the inherent structure of the voice that it’s strange that examples of these processes should be so rare. If 2014 is any evidence, though, the use of the voice in avant-garde and experimental genre-musics will gain prominence, further unsettling these commonly-held assumptions.

While 2013’s projects like Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven, Lambkin & Lescalleet’s Photographs, and Nmesh’s Nu.wav Hallucinations (and plenty of examples from this year; see for instance D/P/I’s output) played with the constitution of the voice as a recorded stasis, a primary focus for some of our favorite artists this year has been to carve out space within the real-time, embodied voice to undermine the body and the identity’s hold on the voice’s sound. It’s the operation within the individual that makes the results of this process so captivating. But, importantly, it’s the audience’s sympathy with these processes that makes them effective; in the artist’s pressure on the boundaries of identity and embodiment, the audience can move into the freed space, reaching previously inaccessible states of consciousness, uncovering novel methods of reading the voice.

Trapped as we are in the bodies that fortune dealt us, it feels crucial in 2014 that the voice is not so limited. And though we most often use these voices to express ourselves, the sympathetic response to listening to a voice struggling to externalize can teach us much. Indeed, though the visibility of bodies in space is an important aspect of protest, what those in Ferguson (and across the world) have shown is that the most valuable aspect is the ability for our voices to meld into a unity. In echoing the words of an unarmed black man in unison with many other human beings, a singular but multifaceted voice can be heard, emerging not from any single body, consisting not in any single identity, but meeting in an external persona. This action, though seemingly unrelated to experimental aesthetics, may achieve the same powerful effects on consciousness but in a different mode. It may be that the voice, in its ability to mesh with others, in its echoing across space to countless audiences, is the primary tool we have left for transcending the circumstances of the body, and it is becoming harder and harder to take it away.

1. The concept of identity to which I refer is not meant to invoke the notion of gender identification (or lack thereof), nor to categorize identities in terms of differences of sex. All I mean to suggest with the link between identity and embodiment is that minds are in bodies, and so are voices, and in being in bodies, we can only make use of the characteristics of the voice we have (typically). As a tweet from The Soft Pink Truth’s Drew Daniel recommends, there does seem to be a fertile space for exploring pitch-shifting and other vocal signal processing as “a means of gender-recusancy and audio-genderqueering,” but my construction here is not meant to invoke these discussions, if only because they deserve a greater portion of space and time than this form allots.
2. To be clear, this is not to suggest that bodies or even voices are static (nor identities either), but only that the link between them is, insofar as an individual’s voice will never emerge from any other person’s body.

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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