Vocal Extensions: Disembodied Voices in Contemporary Music Theatre and Performance


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This independently published text was published as a special, limited edition of Department of Public Sound #2 (booklet) and includes a vinyl record with recordings of ‘The Weekend of Adventure’ during the sixth edition of the Opera Days Rotterdam
  COM.POST / Public Sound (DE PLAYER) & OperaDagen Rotterdam Vocal Extensions Disembodied Voices in Contemporary Music Theatre andPerformance Pieter Verstraete“If the voice in operatic performance produces a material effect of thebody on the body – and here I mean body in the broadest sense, fromthe body on the stage to the body politic – it remains to be seen towhat extent this effect can be thought of as a constitutive force in theartistic process. Indeed, if the force of vocal resonance does violenceto anything, it is to the absolute sovereignty of language and thus theabsolute intentionality of the speaking subject” (Duncan 2004: 291).Experimental vocal performance has generally defined itself by escapingestablished definitions of music theatre in the broadest sense, includingopera, in order to resist  certain traditions of voice, musical theatre and text-based or spoken theatre (‘drama’). Nonetheless, this resistance also calls fora renewed understanding of the continuity  that music theatre andexperimental opera have established in the radicalisation of vocality.Vocality should then be understood not just as a style, a technique or amechanism for using the voice. It also embodies a broader historicalspectrum of utterance, a vast, still expanding and fluctuating reservoir of knowledge about the voice, including ways of knowing the performative‘force’ with and through the voice in relation to certain genres, norms andvalues in its use and perception.Contemporary vocality in operatic performance does not only comply withsuch deep-rooted norms in knowing the voice, which have been developedover time. It moves through confirmation as much as violation of conventionssince through vocal resonance, the voice in performance seeks to transmitthe material effects of vocality from one body onto another, as MicheleDuncan suggests. This idea questions the very impact that vocalexperimentation has on artistic processes in contemporary opera and musictheatre, as well as on the ways the listener relates to this contemporary 1  vocality. The vocal experiments of the mid-twentieth century have mostcertainly extended and expanded the cultural reservoir that was previouslyprimarily based on European-trained, largely vibrato-based, operaticvocalism and historically accumulated ideas about vocal health inlaryngology. There are now many contemporary vocal performers who nolonger shy away from the inclusion of other techniques in theirperformances, such as throat and overtone singing, playing with harmonicsand multiphonics, or the so-called ‘vocal fry’ (generally, nonverbal, low-pitched throaty vocal sounds). All of these extended vocal techniquesdirectly or indirectly broaden the long-established scale of vocality, whiledeveloping the performer’s personal repertoire. These vocal experiments that go against the grain of historicalconventions and categories have contributed to, what I would like to call, asense of ‘radical vocality’ on stage, which was revitalised by performance artand new audio technologies, a development that paralleled the emergenceof post-dramatic theatre. John Cage’s experiments with reel-to-reel tapes inthe late 1940s, Luciano Berio’s experiments with Cathy Berberian’s voiceusing graphical scores, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s live-electronic ‘Mikrophonie’,Mauricio Kagel’s disc manipulations, György Ligeti’s ‘micropolyphony’ are just a few examples. Vocal performance generally established itself through,and in relation to, this experimental concert scene, new recording techniquesand alternative forms of music theatre by transcending the establisheddefinitions and resisting historical opera and musical drama traditions. Thisresistance is accompanied by many boisterous vocal experiments, a legacyof performance art that aimed at undoing aesthetic conventions andinstitutional hierarchies. Nonetheless, it has also produced a certain continuity  with the past in terms of onstage vocal research.Before I elaborate on extended voice experiments that carry on thislegacy of experimentation, we need to understand the philosophicalunderpinnings of the need for these modes of resistance and continuity withthe past within them. The history of the development of ‘radical vocality’ –and its political implications – has yet to be written, and would certainlyexceed the scope of this essay. Nevertheless, as many of these experimentalworks are informed by philosophical concepts and ideas regarding the voice,I will briefly focus on a few of these considerations, particularly on languageand the material effects of the voice, as presented by Michelle Duncan. I will 2  then develop these ideas further along with some concrete examples of vocal performance artists and operatic experiments from the Who’s Afraid of Modern Opera late night event at De Player, as part of ‘The Weekend of Adventure’ during the sixth edition of the Opera Days Rotterdam (27-29 May2011). But first, I want to address a couple of words regarding the necessityof my project on extended voice and radical vocality within the framework of contemporary Western listening culture. The Tenor of Radical Vocality  The voice has the ability to strain the listener’s eardrums and auralcompetences, whilst it is produced by the straining of the vocal chords,which causes succinct pressure differences. As such, one could say that thisis the most ‘forceful’ communicative instrument in terms of pushing culturalboundaries. When one listens to a voice on the radio or a voice-over in film,one has no choice but to listen. It is what Michel Chion has termed the‘vococentric’ pursuit of the ear that feels it is being addressed by theauthoritative tone or tenor of the human voice. Language seems to be thestimulus of this vococentrism, which makes the appeal to – and of – thehuman voice almost always immediately ‘logo-centric’.However, contemporary vocality finds much of its radicalisation inpost-modern performance and the poststructuralist theories of scholars like Julia Kristeva and Michel Poizat to the extent that the voice’s autonomy fromlanguage is emphasised. This radical vocality can be understood as apervasive multiplicity of vocal art forms, orality, choral and vocal modalities,that is predominantly a project to recuperate the voice’s distinct soundingand corporeal qualities from its signifying properties. Or, inKristevian/Barthian terms: its ‘genotext’ (genosong) rupturing the‘phenotext’ (phenosong; the verbal or cultural content of the voice). Thisradical rupture is aimed at wresting the voice free of a single, unified subject,an authoritative voice . This urge to release the measures of authority and intentionality withinthe voice is surely part and parcel of the ‘tenor’ of postmodern life andsubjectivity. Steven Connor reminds us of the etymology of the word ‘tenor’,which includes the idea of a stretch: The tenor of an utterance is that which, diffused through it, holds ittogether through time. ... Speech is articulated, broken or segmented 3  into separate objects. Voice is what reaches across and between thesesegments, maintaining their continuity. Voice is the tenor and thetensor of speech, what binds or holds it together. More than this, even,we might say that voice is the tone of being (Connor 2004: n.p.).If voice is the tenor of both speech and being, could the extended voiceperhaps reflect the tenor of our strained times? It is surely a bit of a stretch,but the nervous tension in the extended voice may result in an equallynervous listening experience, constantly testing the boundaries of what welike and dislike in our audiophile experiences, even for the most ‘pan-aural’listeners in the Cagean sense of embracing all sounds. In that sense, radicalvocality does seem to be an indicator of contemporary aurality. A Split between Language and Body I would now like to propose that a significant manifestation of this radicalvocality is the disembodied or virtual voice, which is also referred to as the acousmatic or ventriloquist  voice. However, I do not want to disregard thedifferent theoretical contexts in which these terms have their propermeaning and function. Instead, I would like to discuss the conceptualramifications of these terms in relation to each other, as far as they help usto explain how disembodiment, as one particular expression or trait of radical vocality in performance, has particular implications in the meaningmaking processes of the listener. In my view, the development of thedisembodied voice on stage and as a concept in theory has significantlycontributed to the resistance of music theatre and experimental musicperformance to traditional compositional and performance practices.Admittedly, the disembodied voice was already inherently part of manyhistorical operas prior to the twentieth-century experiments with extendedvoice and audio recording. According to Duncan, it is part of a larger concernregarding the voice as possessed by the ‘master’s voice’, which removes theperformer’s agency in the creative process. It can already be heard in theearliest examples of baroque dramma per musica where, for instance,Orpheus’ decapitated head continues to sing:Underlying vocal resonance in opera is thus a seemingly alwaysprimary violence, a “savage” dismemberment and decapitation by 4  unreason that is then mitigated by reason: classical music or the‘master voice’ of the composer. Musical resonance and especially thesinging voice remain potentially “violent”, but are either domesticatedby music or placed in a theatrical cage to guarantee ‘safe’ exhibitionby the distanced spectator (Duncan 2004: 287).Opera deliberately confuses disembodied voices and invisible music,granting omniscient authority to the latter, the composer’s voice asembedded in and suggested by the musical score. What Duncan’s commentshows is that, as an authoritative strategy in music theatre and vocalperformance art, the disembodied voice shares as much continuity  with itsmusical past as it offers resistance to it. But, according to Duncan, thedisembodied voice as prefigured in opera is part of a mechanism thatannihilates the material body of the singer to give free reign to pure musicallistening and the aesthetic experience of a distant auditor-spectator.Poststructuralist theories of voice, such as Michel Poizat’s (1992), have takenthis idea even further, pleading for a desire and ecstasy in listening to thesinging voice that takes the listener to a point “on the verge of disappearing,of losing himself, of dissolving in this voice, just as the singer on the stageseems on the verge of disappearing as a human subject to become sheervoice, sheer vocal object” (Poizat 1992: 4).Music theatre’s radicalised interest in the voice could then beunderstood as a desire to reinstall the body in the experience of the humanvoice and with it, the ritualistic. Opera had become, according to Duncan, toomuch of “an (‘enlightened’) art form with metaphysical properties thattranscend the body” (Duncan 299). This is especially true in the Wagneriantradition, where the operatic apparatus conceals the modes of labour inmusical performance (with the musicians’ relocation from the front of thestage into the orchestra pit) and by means of highly trained, immaculatesinging, opera broadened the gap between the voice as body  (a surfacephenomenon), and the voice as language (a linguistic category). There is noneed here to overemphasise how this gap reproduces the split between spiritand matter as the srcin of a quite dominant epistemological structure inWestern philosophy; nor how music theatre’s appeal towards a radicalvocality in the post-modern paradigm would call for the antithesis of thatstructure. 5
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