(Keynote) Radical Vocality in Performance: On Voices that Lay Bare their Bodies


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"In this keynote lecture, I argue that the radical vocality that has marked the post-modern stage and performance art gives rise to a re-‘enchantment’ of the disembodied voice. This is particularly induced by the principle of the acousmatic,
  1 Radical Vocality in Performance: On Voices that Lay Bare their Bodies Dr. Pieter Verstraete (University of Amsterdam)I would like to take the opportunity of presenting my research on the listener incontemporary music theatre, and highlight some of my considerations of voice, moreparticularly of the disembodied voice – also referred to as the acousmatic or ventriloquistvoice – both as concept and experiential reality in performance. I take up the questions of this research seminar as a challenge to reread the theories on the disembodied voice andrelate them to the conceptual framework that I have established so far.My concerns are twofold. The first part of my talk will focus on the theory of thedisembodied voice in relation to my investigation of ‘auditory distress’ in music theatre. Iwill focus on how an excess of auditory intensities, invokes the desire to locate the voiceby attributing a metaphorical or imaginary body, a ‘voice-body’. I argue that this desirepropels a necessity to position one’s self in relation to the auditory distress that thedisembodied voice gives rise to. The second part will look more closely on theramifications of auditory distress on our modes of perception, including oral andliterature modes of listening. I will substantiate the theoretical considerations by means of two small case studies.In my previous PhD research, entitled “The Frequency of Imagination: AuditoryDistress and Aurality in Contemporary Music Theatre”, I have developed a conceptualframework to discuss contemporary forms of what has been previously defined as ‘small-scale’, ‘experimental’, and ‘new music theatre’. Before I outline my conceptualframework and its importance for understanding the ramifications of the disembodiedvoice in performance, a brief contextualisation of the type of music theatre and musicalperformance I am discussing here will help me to rudimentary sketch out the culturalsignificance of the disembodied voice as both matter and concept. Radical Vocality as Resistance Music theatre has generally defined itself by escaping established definitions of musictheatre in the broadest sense in order to resist  against certain traditions of opera, musicaltheatre and text-based theatre. Nonetheless, this resistance also calls today for a renewedunderstanding of the continuity that music theatre has established in the radicalisation of vocality.One way of going against the grain of historical conventions and categories was,what I would call, a ‘radical vocality’ on the stage, which was recharged by performanceart and the espousal with new audio technologies, a development that ran parallel to thenewly becoming forms of post-dramatic theatre. Vocality is understood then to indicate a  2broader spectrum of utterance, including the purely sonorous, bodily aspects of the vocalutterance. The latter finds radicalisation in post-modern performance and suchpoststructuralist theories by Julia Kristeva and Michel Poizat to the extent that the voice’sautonomy from language is emphasized. This radical vocality is then to be understood asa pervasive multiplicity of vocal art forms, orality, chorus and voice modalities,predominantly as a project to regain the voice’s distinct sounding and corporeal qualitiesover its signifying properties. Or in Kristevian/Barthian terms: its ‘genotext’ (genosong)ruptering the ‘phenotext’ (phenosong; the verbal or cultural content of the voice). Suchradical rupture aimed at undoing the voice of a single, unified subject, an authoritativevoice .I would like to claim that a significant manifestation of this rupture is thedisembodied voice. In my view, the development of the disembodied voice on stage andas a concept in theory has significantly contributed to the resistance of music theatre andexperimental music performance against traditional compositional and performancepractices. However, as Carolyn Abbate has argued through her reading of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in her influential book   In Search of Opera , the disembodied voice is alreadyinherently part of many historical opera works. Opera, Abbate argues, confusesdisembodied voices and invisible music, granting omniscient authority to the latter,which reminds us of Michel Chion’s concept of the acousmêtre : both the maître (master)and être (being) in sound by negation of its source body, even when the singer is in view.That’s why, as an authoritative strategy in a music theatre, the disembodied voiceshares as much continuity with its musical past as it performs resistance to it. This radicalvocality marked with as much vocal disembodiment as a re-enchantment of the body inthe voice is in line with the post-dramatic shift in theatre, as discussed by Hans ThiessLehmann: a shift from a logocentric hierarchy in favour of the delivery of text andlinguistic content as ultimate target, to new spaces beyond telos , auditory landscapes thatcall upon the spectator-auditor to synthesize the elements presented (Lehmann 1997:57). 1 As such, the logocentric tradition is outweighted by a vococentric pursuit, amongothers, in order to fulfill a promise of meaning that is induced by a new way of readingby an ideally emancipated reader. 1 Especially with the general acceptance of audio technology in the theatre, the possibilities to createsoundscapes have become almost unlimited: “In electronic music it has become possible to manipulate theparameters of sound as desired and thus open up whole new areas for the musicalisation of voices andsounds in theatre” (Lehmann 2006: 92). Lehmann thereby stresses the instrumentalisation and control of sound to create desired auditory landscapes. However, I want to pose against this that musicalisationbrings along a great deal of uncontrollability by means of the interventions of sound and the auditorydistress it creates. This uncontrollability would mean that the fragmentation and the ‘space beyond telos’as a result of musicalisation is less intentional than Lehmann would assume.  3Through its call on expressions of radical vocality, music theatre takes positionagainst both theatre and operatic practices on equal terms of resistance and continuity. Itdoes not only participate in the post-dramatic stage and its ongoing musicalization inorder to break free from certain confinements of the text, as an authoritative voice in thetheatrical construct. Music theatre’s renewed interest in the voice is also informed by adesire to reinstall the body and with it, the ritualistic, since opera had become, accordingto Michelle Duncan, “an (‘enlightened’) art form with metaphysical properties thattranscend the body” (299). Especially in the Wagnerian tradition, by concealing themodes of labour in musical performance and by means of highly trained, immaculatesinging, opera had widened the gap between the voice as body (a surface phenomenon),and the voice as language (a linguistic category). No need to overemphasize here howthis gap reproduces the split between spirit and matter as the srcin of a quite dominantepistemological structure in Western philosophy; nor how music theatre’s appeal towardsa radical vocality in the post-dramatic paradigm would call for the antithesis of thatstructure.By no means, I would want to suggest a preference of either side on the binary,but decompose the so-called ‘enigma’ of voice, as Michelle Duncan suggested: “it isalways potentially and profoundly multiplicitious” (Duncan 296). My main concern isthen how the enigmatic experience of the disembodied voice challenges the regimes of perception to the extent that they shift the attention between the signifying and corporealaspects of the voice. The radicalisation of ‘voice as body’, however, does call for aradicalisation of metaphor that is informed by the ostensible opposite in ‘vocaldisembodiment’ or, to borrow the terms from Chion, a process of  acousmatization thatalways almost immediately implies de-acousmatization . As such, I will propose aframework for discussing how voices lay bare their bodies in a flux of veiling andrevealing, of absence and presence, according to how the disembodied voice plays uponthe spectator’s modes of perception. But first, I need to take a step back to my previousresearch and clarify the conceptual framework that encloses this discussion. The Enigma of the Disembodied Voice The radical vocality in contemporary performance calls for quite austere metaphors,conceptual extremes for describing its ramifications on the listener. In my research, Ihave answered to such radicalism of metaphor with my concept of ‘auditory distress’ as adeparture point of my conceptual framework. Auditory distress materialises foremost asan excess of intensities in the listener, which, according to my hypothesis, is inherent toevery auditory perception. This rather rigorous thesis helps me to explain the necessity inthe listener to act in response to sound.  4I find confirmation of this thesis in, among others, R. Murray Schafer'sSoundscape analysis, as formulated one year later when Roland Barthes put forward hisnotion of   psychoanalytical listening as a ‘panic listening’ in 1976. Schafer demonstratedthrough his notion of the soundscape that sound is always spatially transgressing a certainacoustic horizon as well as some personal perceptual thresholds in the listener, in order tobe heard. Similarly, Barthes had said earlier that “listening is that preliminary attentionwhich permits intercepting whatever might disturb the territorial system; it is a mode of defence against surprise; its object (what it is oriented toward) is menace” (Barthes 1991:247). Based on the rather evident observation that our ears have no earlids that could beclosed at will and that are therefore susceptible to any sound vibrations at all times, it issuggested that sound always necessarily intervenes before it becomes audible and callsfor our listening attention.As a consequence, any auditory perception is marked by a constant threat of disturbance and a desire to control the so-called ‘menace’, which does not have to includehigh decibels for it to be intervening at all. Sound is always intervention when it isperceived. It burgeons on an excess of intensities that needs to be controlled.As Soundscape analysis suggests, we have developed psychological (read:cognitive) mechanisms over time to position ourselves in relation to this excess of intensities in our ears: a wide range of listening modalities that function as silentresponses to the auditory distress. With these responses the listener relates to sound inorder to make that relation meaningful. I therefore propose a model to discuss thespectator’s responses in terms of  modes of relation . What is important is that these modesinclude certain virtual positions of the listener-spectator towards the performance withwhich she or he attempts to regain control over the auditory distress.In the idea of a radical vocality there is a similar implied radicalism in thereceptivity of the ear that both Schafer and Barthes have suggested: listening to a voiceimplies a necessity to ear-witness – an endlessly tempting eavesdropping – in the appealand excess that the voice brings about. Chion speaks in this context of the ‘vococentric’pursuit of the ear that feels addressed in the authoritative call of a human voice. In moreradical terms, this address constitutes a distress , a vocal distress that lies at the basis of itsutterance and authority. Of course, in perceptual terms, it is not a given that a conceivablelevel of vocal distress produces manifest levels of auditory distress. However, MladenDolar (2006) does hint at a connection between both kinds of distress as a surplus inexposure and experience: So both hearing and emitting a voice present an excess, a surplus of authority on the onehand and a surplus of exposure on the other. There is a too-much of the voice in theexterior because of the direct transition into the interior, without defenses; and there is a  5 too-much of the voice stemming from the inside – it brings out more, and other things,than one would intend. One is too exposed to the voice and the voice exposes too much ,one incorporates and one expels too much (81). This too-much of the voice, in the interiority of both its production and reception, ispaired with a discursive lack in meaning: the voice produces a material residue in itsoverexposure that cannot be filtered on discursive terms. In performance art, suchdeficiency is often highlighted by sensory – most often visual – deprivation. And it is thisdeprivation that the disembodied voice takes on as its conceptual basis. As a rule of thumb, the absence of visual stimuli – hence a discursive frame – heightens the excess.This principle is also inherent to acousmatization , which gives access to most of our experiences of the disembodied voice. In Michel Chion’s film theory,acousmatization is defined as an effect of the mediation that marks the absence inostension of an immediate connection between sound and its source. Althoughacousmatisation affects principally our auditory perception, it is defined in terms of itsreliance on visuality in the first place, or rather in its absence of an immediately visiblesource or cause. De-acousmatisation brings the source body of a sound (back) into sight.The word ‘acousmatique’ (as coined by Jérôme Peignot in 1955) has an ancient Greek reference to the Pythagorean venues (6 th century BC) where the Master taught his pupilsorally from behind a curtain – like an oracle – as to not let his physical appearance andpresence distract their focus from the spoken word, and thus the content of his message(Restivo 1999: 137). As such, acousmatization is foremost a theatrical device closelyconnected to masking the actor’s presence, and even in his bodily attendance, toventriloquism.In fact, the latter has inspired Mladen Dolar (2006) to claim that the acousmatic ispart of every sound perception – which he terms the ‘ventriloquist’ nature of sound – andnot only an effect of electroacoustic mediation as Chion would make us believe. Herefers to an ontological atopicality of the human voice: “The fact that we see the aperturedoes not demystify the voice; on the contrary, it enhances the enigma” (Dolar 2006: 70).This makes him somewhat paradoxically conclude that “ there is no such thing asdisacousmatization ” ( ibid  .). 2 When I connect this idea to my line of argument, the enigmaof voice as atopical (i.e. without a body of its own) can be understood in terms of theauditory distress it produces. Acousmatization reminds us of the activity in listening withwhich we position ourselves against the auditory distress. Central to this positioning is acompulsory placement of sound, since, as Steven Connor formulated: “[…] sounds, 2 Dolar uses the term ‘disacousmatisation’, though ‘de-acousmatisation’ is referred to in Chion’s work. Forthe remainder of this chapter, I will use both terms depending on the author I refer to.
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