Sunday, 25 January 2015

Part 1: The Voice and Thought (1)

...and of greatest importance in philosophy are the cries around which concepts transform into song.

Orpheus could be the eponymous, the mythical hero of theory, as he is the one who turns to that which he loves, even at the risk of destroying it.

                                                                        Roland Barthes

Part 1:

The Voice and Thought

A day in the life of a voice

The alarm goes off, barely half awake he stretches, got to put a stop to that racket fast! The first vocal expression of the day is somewhere between a mumble and a sigh. The woman next to him rolls over and pulls the covers over her head. The man – in his early 40s – whom we are observing waking up belongs to the species of frustrated late riser who has gradually turned into a chronic morning grouch. In the minutes directly after getting up, all that can be expected is a low growl or a few signals expressing the thought “leave me alone!”. In the bathroom in front of the harshly illuminated mirror, the first deep breath is followed by a long drawn-out sigh. Silence on the way to the kitchen that is briefly punctuated by another sigh on seeing the empty bread bin. A trip to the shops needs to come first. And that is where the first sentence of the day makes its appearance: “Five rolls and a newspaper, please”. The gravelly sound of his own voice startles the man, who hastily clears his throat and makes an effort to sound a little more human when he says goodbye. Back at home, his daughter has occupied the bathroom. “For heaven’s sake, would you get a move on. I need to get to the office”. The voice thunders through the door with ease; the daily outburst makes a vocal warm-up superfluous. The voice moves back into low gear to fulfil its limited needs during breakfast – planning the family day needs no special vocal input. But why does his daughter need to squawk so early in the morning? A soft and loving, if already slightly stressed, “Bye, see you this evening!” to his wife, who in the meantime is also up, and then it’s off to work.  In the car, the radio is playing familiar old songs and the man hums along, using his hands to beat the rhythm on the steering wheel. At the office, the attractive new secretary says hello. She always makes him nervous although he would actually like her to find him cool. As there is a strange wobble to his “good morning”, he decides not to get involved in a longer conversation. Team meeting at 10 am to discuss a major new project. A serious attitude is the order of the day. No exaggerated enthusiasm. The voice needs to sit as securely as his belt. During a break, a conversation with a colleague about football and the appalling game played by the local football club on Saturday. The voice sounds relaxed, loud and unrestrained, at times so forceful that it almost breaks. The people at neighbouring tables are looking around to see who is shouting. Back at the office, a few important calls during which the voice functions perfectly.  He’s noticed that on the telephone he sounds a lot more calm and collected than face to face. He simply feels more comfortable if no one is watching him when he’s speaking. Perhaps he ought to do that workshop on body language that the company regularly offers …

Time to go home, the car radio plays the same songs as in the morning, but he’s too tired to sing along now. He has to pick up his daughter from tennis. Her voice suddenly sounds suspiciously friendly and smooth. His, in contrast is almost resigned: “OK, what do you want?” His “No” explodes like a shot – hard and uncompromising. Directly afterwards he is almost sorry. His daughter is close to tears. Just great!

In the evening it’s choir. Once a week, two hours of singing. Not at a professional level but still quite demanding. He’s a tenor along with three other men and has to make himself heard among around 20 female voices. The basses don’t have it much easier. Men are in short supply in choirs. Despite all that, he wouldn’t want to miss a choir evening. Regardless of how tired he is beforehand, after an evening of singing, he feels refreshed and alive. Afterwards it’s off for a quick drink; with the first gulp of cold beer, the throat releases a long sonorous aaaahh! The noise level and poor air quality make communication quite difficult. His voice is gradually getting tired and is sounding strained and tight. He starts off for home soon after. At home, he makes conciliatory sounds in his daughter’s direction. The voice now has a lower timbre, smooth, almost velvety – it helps to smooth ruffled feathers. Later on he lets himself collapse with a grateful sigh into bed, has a short conversation with his wife, who already has her bedtime reading open in her hand. This in turn settles the question of whether the tonal universe of amorous play will find its voice tonight and shortly afterwards the only sound to be heard is that of gentle snoring that follows the rhythm of relaxed breathing.

The small sortie into a day in the life of a European voice allows us to get a sense of the diversity of sounds produced by this most important human organ of expression. If a recording were made of all the sounds a person makes over the course of a day, the accumulated results would surely amaze.  We normally only hear those sounds that are directly associated with speech and we build up a picture of the voice that allows us to recognize a person. We only become aware of all the other sounds and voices when they force themselves into the foreground because they are very loud or occur in an unexpected context. We also take a subjective approach to how we perceive our own voice, which normally does not fully correspond to what we would hear during a recording made of the day’s sounds. In order to become aware of the world of sound that a voice produces on a daily basis, we have to soften up and adjust the routine settings of our sense of hearing. Unlike a microphone that records all that is acoustically available, our sense of hearing functions according to settings that develop out of general beliefs based on our culture, as well as our personal habits and convictions. We hear only those things that we believe – at a more or less subconscious level – are good for or important to us.

Thinking about the voice

Every sound made by the voice is embedded in a net woven of beliefs, convictions, opinions, decisions and questions. In other words, the results of thinking that mould our lifeworld. We hear the voices of others as well as our own against the background of our lifeworld, of our culture in general and our specific life situation in particular. But it is not only our sense of hearing that is culture-dependent, the voice also adjusts its tonal possibilities to that zone that appears to be socially and personally normal or appropriate. While, on the one hand, many sounds produced daily by the voice are filtered out by culturally biased ears, on the other, we make use of only a fraction of the potential that lies deep in every voice. How our voice sounds also depends on the range of the sound spectrum that is acceptable to us and to our self-image. Although sounds do manage to emerge other sounds in the acoustic world, in the background there awaits an entire universe of volume, pitch and timbre that is also at our disposal! And much of it, when it is finally allowed to make itself heard, sounds too strong, too interesting, too special to miss out on.

We are, to a large degree, unaware of how our vocal world is conditioned and restricted. A characteristic of our lifeworld is that its ‘building blocks’ are taken for granted. We would be unable to function if we continuously had to question and challenge every aspect of daily life. As long as we are not in any difficulties, we do not question the structures that go to make up our life. However, when searching for the whole voice – which is what all that follows is about – we will have to penetrate some cultural layers of our lifeworld that have covered and hidden large parts of the voice in order to seek out possibilities beyond those implicit in our modern existence inherent in our voice … By taking this approach we are drawing on that area of philosophy that is always on the hunt for the thing itself and doggedly challenges everything that is simply assumed to be so. The discipline of philosophy has a number of fascinating and difficult questions up its sleeve for a subject like the human voice that is so intimately involved in our lives, our senses and the world we experience. For example, what do we mean by: the human voice? First of all, it denotes nothing more than a general term defined by philosophy in order to be able to reflect on the subject. The human voice, in the sense of the billions of vocal organs with which humanity (yet another general term) is equipped and that are all unique, does not exist. The general term for the human voice cannot be heard. There is a big gap between the theoretical discussion of our topic and the phenomenon itself. Reflecting on a subject by making use of words does not enable sensory experiences to be communicated. In this way, a discussion or discourse on French cuisine and the composition of a five-course meal is clearly not the same as enjoying the meal itself. A theoretical interpretation of Beethoven’s fifth symphony or a folk song, however brilliant, can in no way replace listening to the symphony or singing the song. The curious quality of the experience that is conveyed by the senses and the associated activities cannot be experienced or brought to life simply by thinking. The idea that thinking can provide an adequate image of the world in all its aspects clearly does not apply to experiences connected to the body (such as those cited above). At least, not if one adheres to the philosophical notion that dominated the western philosophy of thought until the 19th century. Thereafter, thinking was capable of adequately rendering the state of being and the world. It’s simply a matter of thinking correctly, or, put with a little more passion: thinking the truth. Philosophy shows the world as it is! With the oeuvre of Friedrich Nietzsche, the scepticism always felt in regard to this concept became a real threat to the old way of thinking. Philosophy in the 20th century represents, to a large extent, the attempt to redefine the relationship between thought and being and to discover what the original function of thought is, if not to represent being. And that makes philosophy once again useful to us in terms of exploring the human voice and its anthropological significance. If one accepts that thought is not able to adequately represent every aspect of being or, in terms of our investigation, the human voice in a universal sense, one can begin to reflect on the benefits that a philosophical approach to studying the whole voice might bring. One particularly fruitful approach was put forward by the two French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their work: A Thousand Plateaus.

A map and not a tracing

In the introduction to ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, Deleuze and Guattari discuss the philosophical question of how the relationship between thought – together with its verbally expressed results – and that notorious ‘being’ – the sum of everything that is – used to be understood in occidental philosophy and how it could be understood today, long after the much publicised death of metaphysics. To describe the traditional and the new approaches that they contrast against each other, Deleuze/Guattari introduce the concept of the tracing and the map. The tracing stands for the idea of the representation, whereby the thinking-speaking expression of an object is supposed to be as accurate a reproduction of the original as possible. Creating a tracing means making a true copy of an existing original. Here once again we are talking about a notion with which we are familiar that thinking and being correlate with one another. A traditional philosopher would say: true thinking is thinking that which is. With their metaphor of the tracing, Deleuze and Guattari are relocating the old philosophy at a more mundane level; they are, so to speak, dispersing the clouds of incense in order to see the intellectual approach more clearly. Copying being via thinking follows a similar process to making a Xerox copy in which the original is made according to a different process than its copy. The sheet of paper that we lay in the photocopying machine may contain handwriting or have come out of a computer printer, the copy, on the other hand, results from a different process entirely. There are, however, copies that are created in the same way as the original. Copies of oil paintings are painted using oils; handwritten documents – Kujau’s Hitler Diaries spring to mind – on original paper, or as close as possible, and written using identical ink. But thought does not make use of the same “material” in order to make a faithful reproduction.

A copy quasi duplicates the original object. A copy produced in this way should show the original as it is. By producing this copy, the copier proves that he knows the object and knows how to make a facsimile of it using his tools. If he makes a good copy, then he has understood the original object and classifies it within his sphere of competence. This turns understanding into a form of epistemological power politics.

Deleuze and Guattari put forward the map as an alternative to the model for the copy that is now obsolete, not only in the eyes of the authors. Maps do not duplicate the object in a true to original way. They act more like an aid on the journey through the territory under investigation or the universe of discourse being represented and provide guidance on how to behave in that world. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari, the map is not primarily proof of expertise (“I have understood my subject”), but of performance (“I indicate pathways through a subject area”). Unlike with the copyist, the object is not available to the cartographer or map reader and the universe on the map is not reduced to a simple scientific object. Theory and practice are no longer sealed off from one another but permeate each other mutually. The map metaphor takes leave of the traditional subject-object separation in favour of an integrated structure in which each contribution to the subject affects its form and the reactions to this change will in turn shape later activities. In this way, maps prescribe how one gets to a region and which paths one can take. While the travelling map reader is exploring, new things will come to light that will be integrated into the next map. This is a process that continues for as long as there is interest in the quest. The map will never become a tracing as this cognitive process is not the search to find an eternal truth but rather a scene that is set in a particular time and history. The conditions change with each new contribution, each new map and each further journey.  Seen from this perspective, there is no true essence of the human voice. The result of the expedition into the landscape of the voice depends on who is carrying out the expedition and which map is being used.

The cartographer draws the areas in which he has spent time, tries to show how one gets there and what awaits one on arrival. However, everyone must make the journey into the world and foreign countries for him- or herself. Only practical experience can bring to life the insights gleaned from the map. This particularly applies to the human voice. One cannot get to know the human voice by reading a book. A study such as the one presented here is no more, but also no less, than a source of inspiration for one’s own journey of discovery. Whether the reflections that I present here are consistent with the experiences of readers can only be decided once these experiences have been had. According to Heidegger, one could say that the landscape of the voice appears as a result of experience; the expedition into the unknown creates that which will be recorded on the map. The map of the voice that I am presenting in this book takes its reference to me as its cartographer. In this way it resembles every map that was drawn from ancient times up to the early middle ages. The result of painstaking efforts, the style and workmanship of these hand-drawn maps revealed the identity of their author.

Up until the middle ages, maps were drawn in the expectation of making new discoveries. Fantasy and imagination accompanied the process of creation. These maps can be said to have a degree of personality. In regard to details, the cartographer from the past took the liberty of disregarding the constraints of drawing to scale. The things he found important are therefore drawn so large that they cannot be ignored. Alfred Wolfsohn, one of the great explorers of the territory of the whole voice, wrote texts that are like maps, and which include many features that one would not expect to find on a map of the voice – because one is not familiar with the territory, has not been to the places where Wolfsohn spent much time and made his home. The quality of the map can only be appreciated once one has started one’s own journey and can then see whether it shows the way or leads one astray. Maps of the voice cannot and do not want to be objective. Showing readers one path and in this way encouraging them to follow their own path is, to my understanding, the task of a “reference work” that deals with the human voice – a subject that holds myriad surprises for everyone who undertakes this journey.

But why draw comparisons between the voice and unknown territory that needs to be charted? Every human being uses his or her voice on a daily basis; it is a trusty companion in virtually every situation. Normally speaking, we require no special resources in order to use and make use of our voice. Just as we need no map to find our way around the neighbourhood in which we live except when occasionally searching for an unfamiliar side street, our voice moves confidently within its environment. Why draw a map of an area with which everyone is apparently familiar. The question points directly to the heart of the matter. To what extent can it be claimed that everyone is familiar with the human voice or at the very least one’s own voice? Our knowledge is rarely the result of research that we have personally undertaken. As part of education and socialisation, we are faced with the prevailing understanding of the voice that we accept, more often than not, without question or objection.  This understanding is the result of a cultural process where the notion of which areas of the voice are socially acceptable or what is appropriate or beautiful for a voice is governed by an unspoken agreement that is binding for that particular time. Our understanding of the voice is part of the network of attitudes towards the world and life that are only partly individual and which we absorb from the society in which we were born and raised. And if we want to take a fresh approach to the voice, we are confronted with a horizon of the mind that carries with it a long history. The voice as such, as a quasi-natural phenomenon does not exist. The task faced by a cartographer of the voice has a (cultural) historical aspect.  He must study all the old maps that have served to date and then compare his own findings with that which is already known. This is the only way in which to gain an overview of the general context of understanding in which the current approach to how the voice is used and perceived is anchored. In terms of the voice, this context comprises preconceptions that are not questioned in daily life and work as they are the means that allow us to operate with a degree of success in the world. Remarkably, even professional researchers into preconceptions – philosophers – have relegated the voice into the corner of unquestioned assumptions. This is a blot on the study of philosophy that becomes increasingly untenable the more one grapples with the phenomenon that is the voice and begins to comprehend the meaning the voice carries for man at both the individual and anthropological level. After sexuality, the voice represents the second largest blind spot in the eye of occidental philosophy. The refusal to address the voice as the voice rather than as the carrier or servant of language or music has had enormous repercussions on the way we understand it. Expressed in the metaphor of cartography, the task today is also to bring to light that which, to date, maps have tended to conceal. This process of concealment found its beginning in antiquity, which is why we will now be taking a look at how the voice was regarded (rather than heard?) by Plato.

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