They All Came Out and Sang: After Liz Mills' When the Voice Itself is Image

Studio Notes on the Voices beyond the Voice

The vocal exploration began, first and foremost, with physical exploration. The usual bodily warm-ups were carried out: the rotation of joints, hips, and neck, the massaging of facial muscles, the stretching of arms and legs, and even the abdominal crunches to wake up the idle core muscles. These exercises occupied some good 15 minutes before I finally laid my back on the floor, propped my knees up, closed my eyes, and listened to the sound, rhythm, and motion of my breathing.

During the series of inhales and exhales, I found myself wandering through the thicket of my thoughts: how funny and sad that we oftentimes forget and neglect to listen to the sound of our own breathing? The contemporary era— along with its emerging global political tensions, along with its newfound attempts to revise history, along with its technological and informational advancements that have rendered us complacent to act upon the issues at large—all of these have more or less swayed us to commit betrayal against our very own bodies. The violence that we tend to inflict in ourselves is not so much through the literal sense of lurid, masochistic pain and cruelty but more so through the systematic process of segregating ourselves from Our Selves. More than anything, this is the ultimate form of violence of that one can do to the self: dislocating the body from the breath, the breath from the voice, the voice from the body, the ephemeral from the corporeal. Segregating and isolating the parts from the whole.

After around ten sets of breathing in and out, a hum ensued, mildly vibrated through my cheeks, gums, nasal cavity, and lips. I dropped my jaw and my hmmm morphed into a strong aaaah which reverberated and occupied the space of the studio. I admit that the sound was not entirely whole and solid. It had been a long time since I exercised and exorcised my performing voice, and so there were moments when I had to struggle the voice out from the stubborn phlegm—like trying to clean out the cobwebs from a rusty wind instrument.

I suddenly remembered Mills’ anecdote of a performance wherein the performer used the sound of one’s throat clearing as an acoustic event, a sonic imagery. I then further explored the throat clearing sound myself, and surveyed at how I can manipulate and play around with such sound through adjustments in volume, pitch, and tone.

I opened my eyes and decided to take this sonic experiment to the next level by imposing another question to the exercise: how would changes in the bodily position affect changes in one’s vocal quality? From my laid down position, I slowly rolled to the side to form a squatting posture—with my head bended over and tucked between my knees. The throat clearing voice morphed into a deep, guttural voice, further amplified by the acoustics made by my thighs. It became interesting to hear the shift in vocal imagery from the regular/mundane to the strange/otherworldly. It was a voice that did not simply come from the larynx, but from deep within the gut of guts, the crevice of crevices.

I proceeded to twisting my body limb per limb. And with every physical contortion, a pressure is added onto a certain muscle. And with every muscle pressure, a vocal distortion was released and bellowed out—each becoming more and more alien than the previous one. Thus the pattern developed as so: a particular bodily imagery influenced changes and colours in the vocal imagery, and the vocal imagery further complemented and sustained the language of the bodily imagery.

As I further resumed with this dialogue between body and voice, I noticed that the studio was suddenly inhabited by a range of various (sonic) creatures, therefore creating an acoustic atmosphere that delved in a dimension outside the sound of organised language, outside the sound of harmonious, decipherable music, and outside the sound of the literal, human voice. However, despite of the otherworldliness of the acoustic event, there was still marvellous sense of theatrical rhythm and language to it. In this particular event where the literal voice dissolved, the literary voices awoke from different parts of the body. They emerged, rose, and occupied.

 

They all came out and sang.

 

The Habit of Dismantling the Voices from the Voice:

Of Pre-Recorded Sound, Classical Training and other Acts of Segregation

For the past five or six years, I have somehow developed a contention against pre-recorded sound and its place in the theatre. It isn’t so much my scepticism towards the technology per se as it is my scepticism towards many productions that—time and time again—misuse, overuse, and abuse this technology onstage, oftentimes to the point of overriding the actors’ performances. It seems to me that the involvement (and ultimately intrusion) of pre-recorded sound in live theatre commit two things: first, it tends to distract and disrupt the whole sensory experience for the spectator; and second, it tends to dissipate the actor’s relationship with her own voice, her own sound, and the potential virtuosity that might arise if this relationship were to be cultivated further. The chronic dependency on technologies like the pre-recorded sound consequently limits the actor’s ability to access—what Mills would refer to as—the “multiple languages of [her] voice”.  According to Mills, “language” here does not necessarily denote to the structural system of words, phrases and sentences, but to the “kinds of vocalizing or layers of sounding”. She further wrote:

The idea of ‘languages’ of sound points to structures of meaning for the voice that allow for a complexity layering in the production of acoustic image. […] I am referring to the sounds produced by an actor independently of language; in other words, the sounds an actor can generate and sculpt in the imaginative space of theatre. In this kind of exploration, the focus is cumulatively on the relationship of the actor to sound: on the kinds of sound the actor can generate, the architecture or shaping of sound, the relationship on one kind of sound to another, the relationship of silence to sound, composition with and through sound and the development of a methodology of working with sound in its perceived materiality. The exploration begins with listening and the actor’s relationship to the world through the medium of the ear.  (2009:392)

 

After I had finished my studio exercise on the voices beyond the voice, I suddenly remembered all those years I took up western classical voice training at a music conservatory. My voice tutors (who were trained opera singers and who were very, very loyal to the old methodologies in vocal training) emphasised so much on stringent vocal techniques and interpretation of musical notes and text (modes of training that mainly used the chest and face as resonators), but hardly did they ever encourage one to explore on other creative possibilities of sound using the full integration of the actor’s body. This segregated approach to the performer’s body and voice would later translate to a wider culture of snobbery amongst their very own students as they started to form particular cliques from and against each other—cliques that would separate the naturally gifted singers from the naturally gifted actors, cliques that would isolate disciplines rather than integrate them. Jerzy Grotowski immediately comes to mind in moments like this. He reminds us that our whole body is a system of resonators, and that the purpose of performance training is to widen the possibilities of the voice from within all of those resonators. (2001: 228)

However, the habit of segregation is not only a problem experienced in theatre alone. In fact, it has become a widespread social disease, affecting the performance of our everyday lives. Our growing dependency on online social media to serve as the primary platform for articulation has eventually rendered our ears to become forgetful of the sound of our very own voice, and our mouths to become insecure in its facility to articulate this same voice. The prevalent use of earphones have allowed us to create and secure a virtually unburstable bubble for ourselves—so much so that when we go to public spaces, we don’t necessarily engage with the public community anymore. We’ve privatised a portion of that public space by setting ourselves to disconnect from the sounds of our environment and community, and wallow into the sounds embedded in our gadgets, the same gadget sounds that were sold to us by commercial companies, the same commercial sounds that have convinced us into thinking that these are realer than the sounds of the world itself.  Which indeed begs the question to Mills’ last statement: how can the actor begin its relationship to the world through the medium of the ear, when the ear itself has been gradually conditioned to segregate from the rest of the world?

 

The academia isn’t any better either. The institution of knowledge production is one that not only establishes a segregation of disciplines, but also upholds a hierarchy of them. Specifically in the context of performing arts schools, Dwight Conquergood noted how the (art) academic culture often divides the notion of (art) intellectual labour from the notion of (art) manual labour, thus creating unnecessary barriers between scholars and practitioners. He wrote:

The segregation of faculty and students who make art and perform from those who think about and study art and performance is based on a false dichotomy that represses the critical-intellectual component of any artistic work, and the imaginative-creative dimension of scholarship that makes a difference. A spurious, counterproductive, and mutually denigrating opposition is put into play that pits so-called ‘mere technique, studio skills, know-how’ against so-called ‘arid-knowledge, abstract theory, sterile scholarship’. This unfortunate schism is based on gross reductionism and ignorance of ‘how the other half lives’. Students are cheated and disciplines diminished by this academic apartheid. (2013:43)

To circle back to Mills’ notion and pursuit of the vocal imagery—particularly the actor’s voice and its ability to produce possible theatrical soundscapes that are autonomous from language—I am reminded of how crucial integration is as an ingredient to achieve such vocal exploration. That in order to reach other languages and dimensions of the voice, one must be aware of the body in its entirety and not in its deconstruction. One must activate the body towards full collaboration, and to move beyond the usual chest and face resonators, and instead allow every muscle, every inch of skin, every bone and hair follicle to contribute to the shaping of the sound. And ultimately, transposing this conversation to the macro scale of things, we must also learn to move towards the integration of disciplines, not segregation. Because integration is an act of democracy, while segregation is an act of fascism.

References:

Barba, E. (ed.) (2001) Towards a Poor Theatre. New York: Routledge.

Johnson, E.P. (ed.) (2013) Cultural Struggles: Performance, Ethnography, Praxis. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Mills, L. (2009). When the Voice Itself is Image. Modern Drama, Volume 52 no. 4, pp. 389-404.Available at: http://muse.jhu.edu/article/376433/pdf [Accessed through Roehampton University 09/16/10]