Monday 4 September 2023

The Free Voice - English translation of Chapter 8 of my book "In Gedanken: singen"

(please note: This is a very rough translation done by myself with the help of It is very likely that you find peculiarities and mistakes. I am happy to receive proposals for corrections and changes into something closer to proper English! Most of the footnotes that you will find in the original book are left out in this text. If you want to know more in detail about the quoted texts and authors please get in contact with me!)


The Free Voice


"All the libraries in the whole world cannot teach man the wisdom found by the unlearned who love his freedom."


Otto Freundlich



If one wanted to formulate a goal from the approach to voice development that I would like to make strong here, it would be: develop the free voice! But what can be meant by this is not so easy to say and this has to do with the fact that the concept of freedom is so complex and multifaceted. For the self-questioning of modern man/woman, hardly any topic is more central than freedom. It plays a role in all major subject areas, in social and political questions, in philosophy and jurisprudence, in religion and in art.

One can only speak provisionally about freedom. Any attempt to say something con­clusive about it is presumptuous. Therefore, I will give my text a form that makes it clear that I do not want to offer more than a stringing together of thoughts. I do not want to de­liver a result and my reflections on the nature of freedom and its connection to the voice are meant to have the character of provisionality - a character that suits the ephemeral pheno­menon of the voice well.



Freedom and Singing I


Singing and freedom are natural neighbours. Singing in community especially promotes the inner feeling of joy and freedom. Singing helps to free oneself from the burden of everyday life for a while. Anyone who has had experience of singing in a choir knows how liberating a choir rehearsal can be. No matter how tired you may be when you come to the evening re­hearsal, singing reawakens your spirits and with them the desire to let your voice run free. Conversely, a strong feeling of freedom is often linked to an impulse to express oneself vocally. When I feel free, I want to shout or sing this feeling out into the world!

In these first, still tentative attempts to fathom the relationship between voice and freedom phenomenologically, a few important aspects already emerge:

Joy seems to be a kind of bridge between freedom and voice.

Freedom has a relationship to aliveness that singing can also make good use of. A feeling of freedom can come when I follow the inner (and possibly outer) permission to fill a space with my voice alone and to express myself in a well audible way; sometimes one feels free by knowing that one is not heard and no one in the world has to bother with me - and sometimes by being present and unmistakable for others.

Freedom can be experienced in community. Especially in singing, freedom does not mean being free from contact with other people. On the contrary, a very special feeling of freedom arises through sounding together.

Deeply felt freedom often carries the impulse to reveal oneself to the world. For this, the voice seems to be the appropriate vehicle.



The Search for Vocal Freedom


A young professional singer comes to me and tells me that she had a very strong and touching experience in a voice workshop given by two of my colleagues: She had the feeling of great freedom in her voice, in a way she had not known before and unfortunately could not preserve afterwards. Now she asked me if I could help her to find this feeling again. This re­minded me of my own experiences during the training at the Roy Hart Centre, where after the end of a seminar many participants formulated the fear of losing the freedom they had just found again. The fear was not unjustified. The great feeling of freedom with and for one's own voice can unfold so openly in these workshops because the conditions are so fa­vourable. For at least a week, you are with a relatively small group and usually two ex­perienced voice teachers in a place that is not only very beautiful but also protected, to which normal everyday life only penetrates in relatively low doses. This is where courage, trust and dedication to one's own voice can grow. But the freedom does not seem strong enough to hold its own in the world of life waiting out there. True, it will help to repeat the experience as often as possible, because the more often one has a strong experience of freedom, the longer it will have an effect afterwards. But in this phenomenon of the experience of freedom being so difficult to sustain for longer, there is the further-reaching question of how freedom and voice are to be connected in the long run. The singer who came to me had a longing for a very specific state she felt with and in her voice. She wanted to install this state as a per­manent companion in her life, with which a certain way of her voice sounding and moving would also be connected - namely free. Who would not want to share this longing? But the idea of freedom that breaks through in this desire contains the idea that one form of freedom runs through all life situations. In other words, it contains the idea that there is a special space for the voice that needs to be discovered and then preserved. There is nothing wrong with this concept, I like to use it myself. But I would put other concepts of vocal freedom next to it. Instead of postulating a constant free space, one can claim that there are free spaces for the voice in every life situation, which feel and sound very different in degree and quality. Even the unfree part of the voice has its free spaces! It is precisely from restriction that free­doms arise that would not show themselves in open free space. Freedom in general and the freedom of the voice in particular evaporate when they are understood as free-floating ideals. Freedom is bound up in contexts of condition and the discovery of vocal freedom can be approached in any situation where voice shows itself. The search for vocal freedom en detail has an effect on the whole vocal field in the long run. The found freedoms connect and form a network in which a basic feeling of freedom for the voice spreads.



Freedom and Sovereignty I


Part of a text on the free voice is to consider whether and how the big questions about ge­neral human freedom of the will or about the political freedoms enshrined in human rights en­ter into our questioning.

In the case of freedom of the will, the question is whether we must and want to grant the voice itself a certain freedom of choice. Most people have experienced at one time or another that in difficult situations the voice does not do what they themselves want it to do, but rather what it wants to do. Is something like a conflict of wills between a person and his voice imaginable? With this question, we come up against a fundamental distinction in modern philosophy: between freedom and sovereignty. For Hannah Arendt, it was Kant who first "understood that (...) man is free in the realm of action, but not sovereign".  Humans cannot act and do everything they might want; they are not absolutely sovereign in their scope of action, which is shaped and limited by the diverse conditions of their living environment. But he/she always has room for manoeuvre in which he/she can act according to his/her own ideas and wishes.

The free voice is always bound up in a web of social, historical and biographical conditions, which I can only change to a very small extent. Therefore, freedom is not the same as sovereignty. I do not have the sovereign power to do everything with my voice at all times. I am never the sole author of the circumstances of my life from which I act. However, limiting conditions on the cultural and psychological level lose part of their effect just by making me aware of them. If I realise that I am afraid, for example, of provoking rejection with loud vocal sounds, I can begin to examine this fear for its truth content and will in all probability find out that the thesis is a generalisation of an important experience, which, however, need not be applied to many situations at all. The knowledge of such inner limi­tations does not necessarily make them disappear immediately, but through knowledge the inner order of the human being changes in a way that makes it possible to free oneself from them in the long run.

The free voice derives its freedom from the network of conditions that grants its li­mits and possibilities. In this network, free spaces open up for action and vocal activity. As a rule, these freedoms are much greater than we assume.

The difference between freedom and sovereignty of the voice remains immensely important, however, because only with the image of a free voice can I think that the voice also has the possibility of sounding free of me and my intentions. The idea of sovereignty, on the other hand, remains stuck in the image of me as the master of the voice.




Freedom and Singing II


If there is a motto that formulates the quintessence of Alfred Wolfsohn's approach to vocal liberation, among Wolfsohn's followers it is the famous 'Learn to sing, O my soul'. It is easy to dismiss this sentence, which goes back to Nietzsche, as a calendar slogan or a meaningless, beautiful-sounding metaphor. But that would be hasty. Wolfsohn utters this saying in a con­text that is relevant to the theme of the free voice. The whole quote reads:


"Do you know the words of Nietzsche 'Learn to sing, O my soul'?  What does it mean but the urge for freedom? And for me, freedom is synonymous with singing."


Wolfsohn here asserts a close connection between the soul, singing and freedom. The free soul sings! Learning to sing means becoming free. The urge for freedom runs parallel to the learning process of singing.

One difficulty with this quotation lies in the word soul, for we will find it difficult to specify what is meant by it. We can assume that Wolfsohn refers to ideas of the soul found in Nietzsche and in C.G. Jung, but even with these psychological suggestions we cannot find a definition of the soul that can be agreed to without hesitation today - at the beginning of the 21st century. But perhaps that is not necessary either. Despite the well-founded skep­ticism towards concepts such as the soul, we have an intuitive idea of the direction in which talk of the soul points. For the time being, I will confine myself to an intuitive understanding of the soul and from there devote myself to the question of the relationship in which Wolfsohn considers voice, soul and ego. That the soul should learn to sing can be understood quite literally as learning to transform the soul's impulses into vocal actions as unfiltered as possible. The metaphor of the sentence "Learn to sing, O my soul" is then limited to the soul; singing, on the other hand, is meant quite concretely as a vocal expression that goes hand in hand with the freedom to pave the way to the outside for one's own moods and emotions unhindered in the sound of the voice. The identity of freedom and singing claimed by Wolfsohn then results from a world of feelings largely untroubled by inner inhibitions and blockages, which vocally brings itself into an outer form. Strictly speaking, the soul would then be free if it could even allow these inhibitions to take vocal shape. It is clear that we are not talking about mere beautiful singing here. In the logic of the synchronous liberation of voice and soul, every vocal sound is to be understood as singing. In the work of Roy Hart, this consistency could fully unfold. But singing is always more than a mere involuntary vocal utterance that happens, so to speak, without my intervention as a free play of soul and voice. Singing means that I exert an influence on the vocalisation. I direct my voice in one direction or another and can help determine how much energy is available to my voice. In other words, to allow the soul to sing in freedom requires self-conscious observation and steering of the process. The degree of self-consciousness can vary greatly, but entirely without con­scious­ness the idea of freedom loses its meaning. When Wolfsohn speaks of "my soul" learning to sing, he brings into play the I that possesses a soul - whatever that may mean. In any case, this asserts a relationship between ego and soul that can be transformed and intensified through singing. The freedom of the soul that sings becomes my own freedom. In this game, the voice functions as a kind of bridge between ego and soul.



Soul Singing and Muscle Playing


The phrase "Learn to sing, O my soul" plays a major role in understanding Alfred Wolfsohn and his idea of vocal liberation. For his disciple and successor Roy Hart, another sentence will take on a similarly fundamental meaning:


"The voice is the muscle of the soul." 


Whether Wolfsohn and Hart themselves attributed to the two sentences the significance given to them in retrospect is difficult to say. In Wolfsohn's case, there is some evidence that he did, because he inserts the phrase in various places in his writings. In the case of Roy Hart, of whom little written material has survived, it is difficult to judge whether the phrase became so prominent because it is so catchy, or whether for him it sums up the matter of voice development.

The connection between voice and soul is the decisive commonality of the two sen­tences and the ideas behind them. Vocal freedom does not have so much to do with a technical skill that one could train and practise, but it arises from a much more com­prehensive inner disposition of the human being or, in other words, from a soul order. Just as the voice does not exist independently of a person's life and inner situation, the process of voice liberation is embedded in the life contexts that have a formative effect on the voice.

The metaphor of the soul muscle, however, indicates that even the work with the voice understood in this way cannot do without practice and training. The strengthening of the muscle takes place through muscle training! The question remains how to train a soul muscle. This much can certainly be said about it: not without reference to the mental processes that show themselves through and during vocal activity.

The image of the muscle also points to the importance of the body for the voice, namely the so-called vocal apparatus with its highly complex muscular structure and the body as a whole. This is because the physical condition has a holistic effect on the voice and vice versa.

Up to this point, one can see in the phrase of the soul muscle a kind of commentary and supplement to Wolfsohn's dictum of soul singing. In this respect, Roy Hart remains in the line of his teacher and mentor Wolfsohn. But there is also a difference that is of great relevance to our question about the free voice. When one speaks of the voice as a muscle, one establishes a hierarchical relationship between soul as the acting and higher instance and voice as a mere means to an end. The soul muscle is a variation on the widely used metaphor that the voice is an instrument or tool. A muscle is a tool that I can use to make something move. As a muscle of the soul, the voice has the task of transforming movements of the soul into vocal movements and thereby making them become expressions of the soul. The voice functions as a tool for the soul. Seen in this light, it makes little sense to allow the voice freedom. An instrument can neither refuse to play nor can it vary its influence on the playing. A muscle may sometimes show spontaneous movements, but that is not yet freedom.

Wolfsohn's call to the soul to learn to sing and thereby become free avoids a fixation on the hierarchy between soul and voice. Singing is not meant here as an organ of expression of the soul, but rather the bringing to life of one's own voice in singing is understood as a way to change the soul or the soul's states and movements. The relationship between voice and soul is therefore a mutual one. The voice then also has a certain potential for freedom. It can re­fuse, make itself available and it can get into contact with me and send me signals about the inner and outer situation I am in at the moment. The more the soul is able to sing, the closer and richer the exchange between me and my voice becomes.



The Voice and Free Will


The French humanist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne, in his characteristic ruthless sharpness towards the human condition, pointed out that the question of human free will must be preceded by the question of how far this free will, if it exists, is actually going in humans.

Indeed, many examples can be cited to show that the human body not only often enough does not obey the will of its mind, but apparently has a will of its own that knows how to actively and ruthlessly assert itself against the will of the rational human being. Montaigne makes this clear in the bodily reactions when confronted with an attractive speci­men of the opposite sex and the reactions of our primary sexual organs. But he also mentions the human voice: "The tongue freezes and the voice dies away whenever they will."

The idea of granting the voice a will of its own is not far away from some of the observations and corollaries that come up in voice work. The voice does not always do what we want. Especially in energetically and emotionally charged situations, it often enough de­cides to do and not do what corresponds to its own will. This often involves the mode of re­fusal: the voice becomes tight, hoarse, high-pitched, it coughs and gets stuck in the throat. These destructive reactions of the voice to a difficult situation indicate that it does not have the space available in which it could act in a constructive way. And that in turn is an indication that I want to suppress some inner aspects of that situation and not let them come out. The voice is actually responding adequately, just not the way I would like it to! The more I give my voice the freedom to move freely in its field, the more it will be able to offer more con­structive solutions to tense situations and, more importantly: I will be able to hear the signals sent by my voice as soon as the situation and the atmosphere in it change.

Freedom for the voice therefore also means that I give my voice the space to follow its own will instead of always functioning as a mere instrument according to my will - which, as we have just established, it does not always in any case.



The Free Field of the Voice


I propose to distinguish four different levels from which the field of the voice with its free spaces and limitations is composed.

At the bottom is the level of the physical disposition of the voice, the so-called vocal apparatus together with the whole body that functions as the resonating body of the voice. This disposition can hardly be changed. The organic constitution of the voice of all people is the same all over the world - apart from slight gender-specific and individual variations, for example in the length of the vocal folds. Therefore, on the organic level, European voices do not differ from Chinese or African voices. From this it becomes clear that in principle every human voice is capable of producing all the vocal sounds that are heard in the different traditions and cultures of the world. The physical disposition of the voice offers a freedom that is greater than that which the imagination usually trusts and grants the (own) voice. There are actually no limits to vocal freedom on the physical level. Rather, it is the body that creates the conditions for the emergence of a vocal field with all its tonal possibilities.

But dispositions demand activation. An extended vocal field needs practice and exer­cise. Only the active and awake voice can react to expansions of the vocal field, which happen on the three upper levels, by opening in the respective direction.


The second level carries the cultural framework into which a person is born and which helps to determine which sound areas of the voice are well developed and which remain in the tonal background. In times of globalisation, this framework is no longer as tightly stretched as it was in the epochs when one could practically only hear voices that had the same cultural imprint as one's own. Today, world music makes it possible to listen to almost all existing mu­sical traditions. Nevertheless, there is still a socio-cultural imprint of voices. The mother tongue determines which vocal ranges are particularly active; the music and singing of child­hood shape hearing and vocal preferences. One never completely steps out of these cultural guidelines, but within a cultural tradition, surprising processes of expansion and liberation can occur. This is what happened in the socalled West in the 20th century. Especially in the arts, vocal free spaces were conquered that were literally unthinkable before. However, the idea that these new free spaces are open to all people will still need some time to become a self-evident fact.

For that, it has to be transferred from the cultural level to the next, which is about the individual concepts and imprints that each voice develops through a person's life. A per­son's life story has a decisive influence on the sound of their voice. The way I lead my life helps to determine which areas of my voice are awake and mobile and which are more dor­mant. The ideas I develop about my own voice and about voice in general and carry within me as more or less explicit convictions determine what it is allowed to do and where I set the limits of its possibilities. There is a great deal of overlap here with the cultural conventions in which I grew up, but a wide range of conceptual varieties is also evident individually. What I think of my voice sets the framework for the range of sound I allow it. This inter­de­pend­ence of thinking and vocal vitality can be set in motion from both sides. Sometimes major changes in life lead to the voice having to conquer new areas and put others to one side. And the experience of one's own vocal sounds, which one has never heard of oneself before, can, if it comes to the integration of these vocal areas into one's own self-understanding, lead to the opening of new spaces for life and action.

The top level of the voice field is formed by the current situation in which a voice ex­presses itself. The sound of the voice reacts to external circumstances such as the mood in the room, to people who are with me or to the acoustic ambience into which I place my voice. The inner situation has the same effect on the sound of my voice. My mood, the degree of my excitement or relaxation, whether I feel good or not, how I am energetically, emotion­ally and physically at the moment, all this has a formative influence on the sound of my voice. If I know the three lower areas of my vocal field well and have trained them, it will usually be easier for me to react flexibly vocally in the current situation, even in difficult moments. The more freedom I give my voice on the different levels, the more willing it is to support me and my intentions in the respective situations.



The Transcultural Voice


To introduce the idea of the transcultural voice, I can start with the four constitutional levels of the voice listed above. I am interested in capturing an aspect of voice liberation that is located on the (second) constitutional level of culture - with spillovers to the level of personal biography. Wolfsohn and Hart's approach to voice work has led to voices and vocal possi­bilities that were virtually unheard of in the European tradition until then, but have long been at home in other singing traditions. Moreover, there have been similar aspirations from with­in some of these singing traditions. There have been and still are vocal artists who have ex­panded the field of their vocal and artistic possibilities out of their respective traditions. A particularly impressive example is Sainkho Namtchylak, who, coming from the Siberian Tuva tradition, has expanded her voice's tonal potential to such an extent that her singing points far beyond traditional singing. The result especially of her early solo work is strikingly remi­nis­cent of the recordings of Roy Hart, some 30 years earlier. Both seem to have found a com­mon field on very different paths: the field of the transcultural voice, where the re­spec­tive cultural ideas and imprints of singing are transcended. Sainkho Namtchylak had to leave the place and context of her native culture in order to find new vocal fields for herself through jazz studies in Moscow and contact with a European music scene. With Alfred Wolfsohn and Roy Hart, on the other hand, it was a cultural development. It should not be forgotten, however, that Wolfsohn's initial experience, which led him after some detours to the study of the human voice, was the collapse of this culture and the associated image of man in the trenches of the First World War. The death cries of dying soldiers, freed from every civilisational restriction, brought to his ears for the first time a voice that was extended beyond what he had previously been able to imagine. He only succeeded in overcoming the resulting war psychosis after he began to turn to these voices within himself, no longer to be their victim but to enter into a self-determined relationship with them. Like many artists of his time, Wolfsohn recognised that there could be no way back to the classical-humanist ideal of art. European civilisation had shown its immense self-destructive power in the World War, and all those who did not take refuge in a nostalgic look back had no choice but to turn to the darker sides in themselves and in society. This gave rise to an unheard artistic power and freedom which, in Wolfsohn's case, led to the path of the transcultural voice.



The Tragic Side of Freedom


From a cultural-historical point of view, the liberation of the voice towards the liveliness of all the tonal possibilities it possesses is an aspect with which the development of individual free­dom (in Europe/the West) was and is supported. When Alfred Wolfsohn understands the classical division of the singing voice into the six main voice ranges from soprano to bass as a cultural limitation of the voice, which is actually capable of letting all these voices sound out of itself, then such an idea could only be formulated in Europe and only at a time when the inner and outer freedom movement had reached a relatively advanced stage. In principle, every human being has a large, vast field of open possibilities, both in his or her life and in his or her voice. I have the right to determine my way of life, just as I can decide for myself to a certain extent how and in which tonal areas I let my voice sound. If I want to sing, I no longer have to limit myself to the songs of my homeland, as was the case in most eras; I can just as easily learn to yodel, sing jazz or try Mongolian overtone singing.

There is a tragic note to this story. With the liberation from the shackles of a pre-determined life context, the orientation that this framework offered is lost. There is also a danger in the relationship to one's own voice.

When I allow my voice to move in a very wide range of pitches and timbres, the ques­tion arises of where I can find myself in all these voices. The answer that the entire vocal range available to me represents my voice and thus expresses parts of myself is correct, but at the same time it can overwhelm me tremendously. Because in order to let the feeling of identity arise, it helps to perceive a manageable framework in which one is embedded. In our voice work, we try to meet this need by searching for and determining the homeground of our own voice. This is the area of the voice where it feels most at home. This area can shift and expand as the voice develops, but it is important to know and cultivate the feeling of home. From there, it is then possible to make excursions into the diverse regions of one's voice. But there is a place to return to at the end of the journey.

In addition, we encourage vocal expression of the tragic side of freedom. Our voice work is therefore not primarily about putting voices into a musical-harmonic context - although that is important too! - but we allow the voice to sound disoriented, unsettled or confused. Through contact with these voice sounds I find access to myself! Voice liberation is therefore not a return to supposedly more harmonious times, but a practice of self-knowledge set at the pulse of late modernity.



The Free Voice under Pressure


In the epoch of capitalism-dominated late modernity that we are currently living through, there is another shadow side besides the tragic side of freedom. The spaces of freedom pro­vided by modernity are transformed by capitalist pressure to perform into spaces of high expectation. Feelings of constant excessive demands are triggered in people. Due to the many possibilities open to us in our professional and private lives, inner and outer expectations develop to use and experience as much as possible of what is on offer.

An approach to voice development that seeks to guide and liberate the voice to all its possibilities runs the risk of supporting these tendencies. If one knows about the manifold pos­sibilities of the voice, this can lead to pressure to find and activate all of them within oneself. Freedom turns into compulsion. All the aspects and facets that have not yet been lived out and integrated are constantly breathing down my neck. This easily gives rise to the lifelong feeling that I am not yet so far advanced. Then I feel the compulsion to work harder on myself, to practise more, to attend more workshops in order to do justice to the great opportunities that are offered to me after all. For people seriously interested in liberating their own voice, it is very difficult not to fall for this efficiency logic and to act steadfastly out of the liberation logic. A few strategies can be helpful. Above all, it is important to realise that the intensity with which I dedicate myself to my voice depends on what seems reason­able and possible in my life situation, and how much work is appropriate for me and my inner situation at the moment. Both aspects play into each other and are constantly changing due to the mobility of life's circumstances. There is no abstract goal for the whole voice that is binding for everyone and every time. But there is always the chance of self-determination here, which secures my freedom. Moreover, I can practise a self-understanding in which my voice is always already available to me. The voice is there and opens willingly when I listen to it. This includes an inner attitude with which I interpret the supposed problems that my voice seems to have as sound possibilities that transport its and my own stories and therefore always already provide valuable material for an artistic work. In this way, it can be possible to develop an inner attitude with which the liberation of the voice, also and especially through practice and exercise, becomes possible!



What can the Voice be Liberated from?


From cultural concepts of the voice; from personal ideas about the possibilities and limitations of my voice; from the tendency to want to control my voice; from the urge to judge and (usually negatively) evaluate my voice; from old patterns of evaluation; from external vocal ideals; from physical blockages that make it difficult to move the voice freely; from the idea that physical blockages hinder the voice instead of making special vocal sounds possible; from mental blockages that leave parts of the voice mute; from the compulsion to sound freely.



Freeing the Voice from Speech and Music


At the latest when we have learned to speak and sing to some extent as children, we con­sciously listen to our voice only during its activities in these two areas. Our vocal self-image is fed by the spoken and possibly sung sound material that we have in our ears.

But the voice also expresses itself in completely different ways, for example when we laugh or cry, cry out in pain, sigh, groan, giggle, grunt, pant, yawn, etc. The vocal expressions that come across as less articulate allow the voice greater freedom and liveliness than the socially coded vocal behaviour in communication. Learning to listen to one's own voice in all its expressions means allowing it the freedom it has long since preserved and conquered for itself. Opening the ears to all vocal events coming from me is a contribution to voice liberation.

In practical work with the voice, temporarily freeing the voice from speech and music is an important tool for getting closer to it as it sounds right now. We listen to simple tones that only carry remnants of articulation and determination, such as a vowel on which the tone is uttered, or a given pitch, in order to offer an orientation for the common path through the vocal field. In such a way, freed from the social-communicative dress in which the voice normally presents itself, it is easier for the person giving the voice and the listening teacher to hear the inner situation of the person connected to the voice with its current and bio­graphi­cal imprints and to interpret it together.



Liberating the Voice to Itself


Classically, in liberation processes, one distinguishes between the things from which one wants to liberate oneself and where the liberation should lead. To what or where is the voice to be liberated? My answer is in the title. We understand voice liberation as a never-quite-end­ing exercise in bringing the voice to itself. The aim of liberating the voice from the various obstacles and blockages that hinder a free vocal sound is to open up a free space for the voice that is large enough for it to be able to move freely within it in principle with all its tonal possibilities, and in a certain way on its own initiative and by its own decision! Then it comes to me of its own initiative, so to speak, and offers its cooperation. Only the voice that has come into its own is free to act in partnership with me.



The Natural and the Free Voice I


In European history of the concept of freedom, there has been a strand of narrative accord­ing to which personal freedom is best gained by freeing oneself as much as possible from the constraints of social interaction. Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed in his writings the ideal of a life free from external obligations and therefore free from internal constraints. This ideal echoes in our idea of voice liberation. The liberation of the voice to itself that we strive for is at the same time an attempt to free the voice from restrictions, blockages and constraints, so that it can resound carefree. It seems reasonable to assume that, as Rousseau did for the human being, we also assume a state of nature for the voice in which it was originally free. Then there would be something like the natural voice of a human being, which represents the ideal of vocal freedom. This idea is quite widely spread, and in our community of voice development it is often added that the natural voice is also the whole voice, which can move without inhibition over the whole field of vocal possibilities. Wolfsohn's criticism of the European division of the voice into the classical six voice registers, which is not based on the natural conditions of the voice, but is merely the result of cultural considerations, has its place here. And with his students, he has impressively demonstrated that every human voice is in principle capable of extending from bass to soprano. But were the voices of Roy Hart or Jenny Johnson natural voices freed from all constraints? I rather believe that Wolfsohn discovered the transcultural voice in his work - and that is something different from the natural voice. Because, my perhaps exaggerated claim would be: the natural voice does not exist. Humans are, so to speak, by nature social and cultural beings, and once they have taken the step towards self-awareness, the path to the natural state is forever blocked. Every voice has always been culturally shaped. What we understand today as a free and open voice is only conceivable under certain cultural conditions that have developed historically in this way. The mental connection between freedom and voice needs a context like our modernity, in which freedom has this great significance. Pre-modern cultures in Europe or Asia would have found it difficult to fill this combination with meaning. The natural voice is also a modern invention that owes much to a romantic concept of nature as it developed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Apart from the fact that it will be frustrating in the long run to chase after the never-to-be-achieved ideal of the natural voice, this voice would also no longer have much to do with the person who displays it. For my voice is always shaped by the life story I have gone through, which took place in a complex social and cultural web. Liberation must not mean decoupling my voice from life. We want to free the voice to sound the way it sounds because of the life it has lived through and suffered.

The cultural conditionality of everything we think of the voice and of freedom, and thus also of what we can do with our voices, does not mean that we cannot overcome the cul­turally set boundaries. The story of Alfred Wolfsohn is the best example of this. But these attempts to overcome become themselves part of the cultural context that shapes our self-understanding as well as our understanding of voice. We cannot get out of culture in this sense. Nature as the Other remains inaccessible to us.



The Natural and the Free Voice II


There is another way of understanding nature and social-cultural context in relation to each other and of assigning a place to the voice in the mesh. If one places the conflict between na­ture and culture in the inner life of the person, his or her appearance changes. The inner nature and the social ego, which is the name given by cultural scientist Juliane Rebentisch to the two antagonistic poles, move closer together.

(Rebentisch develops her thoughts in the discussion between Hegel and the Romantics on inner nature and its relationship to human freedom. The voice does not appear in her work. Cf. J. Rebentisch: Hegels Missverständnis der ästhetischen Freiheit, in: Menke/Rebentisch (Ed.): Kreation und Depression, pp. 172-190. The basic conflict between inner nature and socio-cultural embeddedness runs through the entire history of philosophy and, in various variations, becomes the focus of consideration in man's modern search for himself. I will only remind you of Sartre and his distinction between existence and essence, in which freedom also plays a central role. Heidegger's Listening to Being goes in a similar direction and raises the question of whether the inner voice must necessarily be a personal voice. C.G. Jung, who was important for the development of voice work, dealt with the topic in his Archetyple Theory.)


What Rebentisch calls inner nature is not about the natural aspect of the human being, which can be researched with the natural sciences. We are not talking about nature as the object of biology. Inner nature emerges as a phenomenon only in the process of never-finished self-knowledge. And primarily in moments of crisis, namely when the social ego with its ways of life, expectations and habits moves too far away from the inner nature of the self. But the inner nature is not an object of self-knowledge that I can place in front of me and describe or analyse in detail. It is unavailable to me and shows itself when it wants to. It appears in my consciousness as an event. I have no direct influence on the moment in which it occurs. I cannot control it. I can try to ignore the pronouncements, but only at the price of letting the inner nature resort to stronger means of expression, which become noticeable on the physical level. Even to the point of illness.

There is a first parallel here with the voice. My voice is also not available to me in every respect. I cannot always control it and it prefers when I give it the freedom to move and show itself in its own way. The voice is also not an object, but only shows itself when it happens in sound. However, I have greater access to this than to the sounding of the inner voice.

According to Hegel, freedom can be defined as the coherence between inner nature and social ego. This would always be the case when I live my life according to my inner na­ture and at the same time do not encounter major resistance in my life world, but act with it in a mutual mode of support. In addition, a successful free coherence requires that my self-image, with which I present myself in the world, has integrated the inner nature with its de­mands and colours. Because often enough, the decisive conflict is not between the world and the self, but between the image I want to show the world of myself and the needs of inner nature, which usually point in other directions.

The voice can come into play here on different levels. On the one hand, both aspects, inner nature and social ego or self-image, are always audible in the voice! The sound of the voice reveals more than any other human emotion the core of the human being towards which his longing is directed and the integration of the same human being into his life history and social situation. On the other hand, the voice allows us to hear the coherence that was just mentioned, just as much as the lack of coherence. The free voice is the voice that has freed itself from limiting self-images and from concepts of how a voice should sound and has come to itself through this process of liberation.

Our approach to voice liberation starts from these points. We practise listening to one's own voice without judging it on the basis of one's own value patterns and concepts. Instead, the aim is to interpret the sounds of the voice and to understand the demands of the inner nature that are echoed in it. At the same time, we want to preserve the imprints that the voice has experienced through our life history in the sound of the voice. In this kind of open attention to our own voice, we open the space in which it can find the freedom to come to itself.

Above I mentioned that for Rebentisch the inner nature is considered unavailable. I cannot control it or dictate to it whether it should show itself or remain silent. But there are ways to strengthen the conditions under which the inner nature comes forward. Meditation, Yoga, TaiJii and many religious and spiritual practice paths could be described as being about liberating and enlivening the inner nature. The liberation of the voice to itself works, without a metaphysical superstructure, on the same work site.



Freedom and Sovereignty II


Sometimes the predominance of the sovereignty of a voice at the expense of freedom is shown by the fact that the vocal ability lies over the person like a kind of film and one has the impression that the virtuosity in handling the voice prevents contact with the artist behind it. Despite a great performance, such a voice often comes across as sterile and sometimes even pretentious. This is a problem that cannot be avoided in serious artistic engagement with the voice, and probably the vast majority of vocal artists and singers have been con­fronted with it. The reason for this strange detachment, especially of the trained voice from the human being, is probably that vocal development in these moments is more advanced than the opening of the soul, which should always happen in a synchronous vocal release. If I can confidently move my voice into areas whose psychic equivalents remain inanimate, then I quickly run the risk of using my abilities to hide something of myself. Everyone will agree that the voice sounds great, but there remains an irritation because the listeners find it so difficult to identify with this voice in any way and to see themselves reflected in it.

In contrast, the voice that I release from the grip of my own strivings for sovereignty willingly and of its own accord makes contact with the inner situation of the person and opens up the sound of the voice to tell of this inner situation. Great voice artists are char­ac­terised by being able to balance sovereignty and freedom in their voice at the highest level and thus prevent the sovereign handling of the voice from blocking the way for their free­dom. Such voices sound free because of their virtuosity and sound virtuosic because of their great freedom.



Social Freedom and Voice


The concept of freedom in the modern imagination is closely linked to that of individuality. The desire for liberation usually relates to the personal sphere. I want to be free from hurdles and obstacles that prevent me from self-development and I want to be able to do what I want - without having to pay too much attention to the social contexts in which I move. Individual freedom always requires a certain distancing from others. Article 2 of the German Constitution guarantees the right to the free development of one's personality, as long as one does not violate the rights of others. This formulation contains the idea that the free development of personality is restricted by the rights of others. This is often the case. But it is precisely in the development of one's own personality through and with the help of the voice that one can have a completely different experience. There are vocal qualities and feelings of freedom that only arise in connection with other voices (and people). Choral singers know the experience of a sublime freedom through singing together with others. Al­though in communal singing I usually do not have the freedom to do whatever I want with my voice, it is precisely this restriction that leads me to experience a communal sense of free­dom. In this context, the philosopher Axel Honneth speaks (with Hegel) of social freedom, which is only discovered and experienced in togetherness. Only in close social con­tact do certain spaces of possibility for free experience and action open up.

The joint improvisation of singers and instrumentalists is a particularly revealing example of this. The improvisational movement of the individual artists could never come about in exactly the same way without the other musicians and the living sound space they have created together. My free improvising reaches areas I would not discover without the others, through the support of the musical-social framework.

The human voice is a phenomenon in which individual and social freedoms collide directly and trigger conflicts that, in the best case, lead to interesting solutions. The voice is always with me and in the world at the same time. It is heard by me and everyone else in the room at the same time. In addition to my own voice, I always hear the other voices (or sounds and noises) that are happening at the same time. If I insist only on my freedom in the context of a common sonic action vis-à-vis other voices, the common sound space will in all probability collapse. If I hold back my voice completely, I fall out of the context. Individual and social free spaces only emerge when I can listen well to recognise what the sonic situation needs at the moment and where the free spaces for my voice open up.

Perhaps art is the field where the cooperation - and the associated conflicts - of individual and social freedoms leads to particularly great and unusual results. This is especially true of the performing arts and performance art, which on the one hand challenge the great individuality of the artists and whose pieces and actions are at the same time only feasible as collaborative ventures. The confrontation of artistic personalities creates a space of art and freedom all its own.

Here, the human voice feels free and at home at the same time.

What is a Voice Performance? - English translation of Chapter 7 of my book "In Gedanken: singen"

 (please note: This is a very rough translation done by myself with the help of It is very likely that you find peculiarities and mistakes. I am happy to receive proposals for corrections and changes into something closer to proper English! Most of the footnotes that you will find in the original book are left out in this text. If you want to know more in detail about the quoted texts and authors please get in contact with me!)


What is a Voice Performance?


When Alfred Wolfsohn returned to teaching voice after the Second World War (this time in London) in his circle of students a number of voices quickly developed to an extraordinary vocal range. With this development the question has arisen as to how and in what context these extended voices can be used artistically. Wolfsohn hoped for composers who would write parts for the extended voices, which encompassed all the classical vocal ranges. Roy Hart, his early student and predecessor, collaborated with a number of contemporary com­posers and invited authors to write pieces for him and the Roy Hart Theatre. In the 1960s and 1970s theatre was particularly suitable as a platform for radical artistic experimentation.

The question of which artistic possibilities the liberated voice offers is still relevant today and must be asked anew again and again. Besides my work in the field of music and theatre, my preoccupation with this question has led me into the direction of performance art. This is not necessarily an obvious consequence and I would like to present here a few experiences and reflections that I have encountered along the way.

An important reason why I turned to performance art is that I realised how much and exclusively the voice has a serving function in theatrical contexts, in recitations and in music - however unconventional the forms may be. The voice serves the purpose of intro­ducing a text, a piece, a character, a melody or an improvisational phrase, a composition or whatever. I was instead interested in the idea of giving the voice the leading role in an artistic setting. In other words, I want to find out what meaning and effect the sound of the voice itself can develop, independently of text and music.

What remains of the voice when it is freed from all its serving functions? What is the voice in itself?

Performance art offers me a framework in which I can pursue this question in a way that I can't find anywhere else.



Performance Art Today


Through my involvement with Performance Art, a tendency has developed in my artistic work to search for the possible role of the human voice in the visual arts in general. Does the human voice, which no longer moves within the framework of predefined aesthetic para­meters but examines all its vocal possibilities for artistic use, have a place in the space of vi­sual art? What could this be, a vocal sculpture or installation? Or indeed: What is a vocal performance? In this last question, I start from an understanding of performance art that does not assign this art form to the performing arts, but sees the roots of performance art in painting and sculpture. Today, the concept of performance has become much more extended than it was originally intended to be, and perhaps it is time to find a more appropriate and, above all, less exhausted term for one's own work. But for the time being I will stick to the term and try to position my work as a voice artist within the framework of performance art.

Hardly any other term has become so widespread in the scene of the last twenty years, en­com­passing all disciplines of art, as performance. Strangely enough, something very similar has happened in parallel in the business world. This cannot be pure coincidence. The cultural theorist Christoph Bartmann makes the appropriate claim that performance is the art form of advanced capitalism. The manager and the performance artist (of both sexes) are the broth­erly/sisterly prototypes for the "entrepreneurial self". For both, working with processes plays a major role. For both, what used to be called self-realisation is an important com­ponent. Become who you are! Said Nietzsche, and today this is one of the great calls to all those who want to act halfway successfully in this system. According to Bartmann, the per­formance artist shows what this could mean. "Only in performance do we prove that we have a self at all and that we are reliably different from others. That we are ourselves when we work, and not merely recipients of instructions. (...) Artistic performances, no matter how radically unconventional they may be, contribute significantly to the modelling of our new, entrepreneurial subjectivity."

The criticism that performance art is a model for the agents of neoliberal capitalism cannot simply be ignored by art. On the other hand, it must not let itself be fooled by this. For there remains (at least) one crucial difference: while neoliberalism believes it has found in the entrepreneurial self an image of humanity that serves the purposes and needs of the late capitalist system most effectively, performance art is an art form that uses its means to radically question what it can mean to be human at all today. Incidentally, this is a task that vocal art in the tradition of Alfred Wolfsohn and Roy Hart has also undertaken since its be­ginnings.



Voice in the Arts


The extended voice can be used and found in all performing arts. There are voice artists who expand the framework of what is commonly understood by singing in the various disciplines: in Jazz and Improvised Music, in New Music, into which it has found its way partly through Roy Hart, but also in modern and especially in the so-called post-dramatic theatre - where the Roy Hart Theatre has also done pioneering work. In addition, the extended voice can be found in literature and poetry, in connection with dance and in performance art.

But what is the difference between the use of the extended voice in the classical vocal arts and in performance, leaving aside the question of the servant function of the voice?


Before I can start to define this difference more precisely, I have to talk about what a performance is for me in general. As I said, this is an overused term; nevertheless, it is possible to give a few conditions that at least capture my understanding of performance art more precisely. My suggestion is:

Performance is an artistic process with a more or less open result,

- in which the performer is part of the process as a physically (vocally) existing human being,

- which has a relationship of some kind to the public, i.e. can be followed more or less directly by people

(I avoid the term audience and I also don't want to exclude the possibility that there are performances where no one but the performers are present and which are not documented in order to show them later as a video.),


- which takes place within a well-defined framework of self-imposed rules and found or installed conditions, within which the unpredictable may and should happen,

- into which external factors can intervene, such as real time or location-dependent features,

- in which coincidences can intervene,

- in which decisions can be made during the process that influence the course in a previously indeterminable way.



Performance as Experiment


Performance art has the character of an experiment. The situation created in a performance is an experimental set-up, but one that has a few crucial differences from a scientific experi­ment. The scientist will make every effort not to have any direct influence on the course of the experiment. In a scientific experiment, the researcher sets up the experiment, but after­wards remains entirely in the position of an observer, in order, as is said, not to falsify the result. This is quite different in performance art. Performance artists make themselves part of the experiment. They enter the experimental set-up and let the events of the process initiated by the situation have an effect on them. In performance, I am both a researcher and a research object.

An artistic experiment also differs from a scientific one in that the execution of the experiment in the performance already represents the result. In science, the result consists of the data provided by the experiment and the conclusions to be drawn from it. That is not what art is about. The action is already the result. Artistic research in performance art does not collect data; it explores the world not as an object but as the world into which I am born as a human being and to which I belong in every way. Both scientists and artists are research­ers. They both want to understand something about the world, but the understanding they seek, the way they want to understand, is entirely different.

(Here another fundamental difference between the manager who sees himself as a performer and a performance artist becomes apparent. The manager's activities are aimed at good performance, which - similar to and yet different from science - will be reflected in figures. It is about success in entrepreneurial action, which always points beyond the concrete activity to the economic consequences of the actions. The performance artist would reject this means-purpose logic for his/her art actions. The performance is the result. Both in the sense of the success of the planned action and in relation to the reaction of the audience, success or failure are secondary aspects, albeit possibly ones that are longed-for.)



Voice Performance?


Which special conditions are added to the idea of performance art as outlined here when it is a voice performance?

Of course, the voice can in principle be present in any performance, without there­fore already being a voice performance. I distinguish for this reason between perfor­mances in which the voice appears as one aspect alongside other equally important elements, themes or ideas and, on the other hand, the actual voice performance, which is designed from the voice and its possibilities and in which the voice is at the centre. All other aspects of the per­formance, such as the space, the temporal structure, the rules and conditions of the situa­tion, subordinate themselves to the voice or arrange themselves around the voice as the cen­tral moment.

In voice performance, the performer is not only and not primarily present with the body, but with the voice. This changes the whole concept of space in which the performance takes place. With the eyes - which usually perceive the performer's body - I can focus on one area of the space and block out the other actions that may be going on at the same time. This is not so easy with voices and sounds. Every vocal sound is equally present in the room, only differentiated by its tonal qualities. In principle, I always hear everything that happens son­ically in a room at the same time. Especially for group performances, this results in the ne­cessity to consider in vocal actions that the simultaneity of events is reflected in the auditory perception of the audience and the performers. In body-oriented performances, I as an artist can move relatively independently of other performers acting in the same space. My voice, on the other hand, is always experienced immediately by myself and by everyone else in the space in connection with the sound events taking place at the same time.

In performance, as I understand it, the extended voice has a different function or characteristic than in other art forms. In music or theatre, the voice is in the extended sense a tool that I as a voice artist can use/play as skillfully as possible. In a performance things are different for me. Here I do not simply have my (whole) voice at my disposal, but I provide my voice with a framework or a field in which it can act as freely as possible. Free here also means free of my ideas, thoughts, concepts. The "entrepreneurial self" has to hold back here in favour of the openness of the voice, which can thus act in ways that are unforeseen, even for me. These are all aspects that can also appear with the voice in other artistic contexts, but here they are at the very centre. Through the auditory access to the performatively designed world that shows itself to me, my perception of the world as a whole becomes different. Nietzsche says: "The ear hears the sound! A completely different wonderful conception of the same world". The subject that dominates the world is constituted in the eye. In hearing, I am integrated into the space of sound. The things seen are within my reach. Hearing, I am within the reach of sound and thus of the world. Seeing I construct my world, hearing I am exposed (in) it and become part of it.



Voice Performance and Improvisation


How does the idea of vocal performance relate to improvisation as an artistic form? In our work with vocal group performances (with the ensemble KörperSchafftKlang), we try to look at and use both forms separately, although there is of course overlap. But improvisation is first and foremost a musical form, and the way in which improvisation sounds together follows musical principles of listening and responding to each other. In vocal performance, as I understand it, something else happens. On the one hand, we try to be as open as possible with our ears to the vocal events that occur in the space. But the voices remain largely active within the framework of what I have chosen to do with my voice. As a result, unforeseen and unheard sounds happen, whose musical character arises at the earliest during listening and not already through the way I react (just improvising) to another sound. This does not prevent voices from sounding together and the performers from exploring these moments with each other. The free play of the voices with each other also has its space here. But what is more interesting here is that the often very strict guidelines given to the voices in the performance lead to sonic events that would be very unlikely in a musical or improvisational approach.

(Together with my partner Agnes Pollner, I experimented with these ideas on the CD Wellen Laenge/wave length. On the one hand, there are very strict rules of breathing and the way we let a vocal sound begin or end; at the same time, we listened in a very concentrated way to our two voices, but then gave the voices the freedom to act and react within this framework independently of our musical ideas, so to speak. A sound example can be found here:



Aspects of my Vocal Performances


In my solo vocal performances, a few preferences and patterns have developed over time. I work relatively rarely with sound amplification and microphone, because this changes the space and the feeling of the space very much. The microphone and speakers create their own sound space that is added to the original space where people are present together. This is often confusing and detracts from the effect of the original space that is chosen in a per­formance for a reason. Listening to a voice, in a performative context, means sharing a com­mon space with the person who is showing his or her voice. Electronic amplification of voices represents an artificial alteration of this space. This can of course be very appealing, but in my work it has turned out that it is often better to let the space itself resonate. Only then can a vocal performance interact with place and space.

In my vocal performances, the audience is usually invited to come and leave the place whenever they want. The relationship with the audience is one of the central and often difficult aspects in the installation of a performative situation. For me, it is important to invite the audience to listen to what kind of sound event emerges in the space with my voice, without thinking too much about music. That also means pushing the idea of a concert as far into the background as possible. Instead, I have in mind the idea of a vocal sculpture that you listen to for a while and then decide how long you want to spend with it. You might just walk past it for a moment, or you might get curious, sit down and try to establish contact with the vocal sculpture. Because of the freedom of choice I give the audience, they become part of the situation and the atmosphere in a very strong way. This in turn also has an effect on my voice and its movements.

In a voice performance I try to be in deep contact with the different dimensions of my being: with my body, the inner situation, my reactions to the outer situation and the changes that happen in it. At the same time, I let my voice act as freely as possible from myself. Although I try to follow the rules I give my voice in advance, I don't want to express my feelings, thoughts or pain directly vocally during the performative process. Rather, I try to give my voice the space to move freely as I enter into close contact with everything that is happening internally and externally. Strong connection and great freedom.

What is a voice performance? Every artist can only find an answer to this question for him or herself. But by trying to circumscribe the idea of voice performance for me, it is intended to make clear that voice performance is an artistic form that differs from other forms of performing art and possibly offers completely new approaches to acting with the voice within the artistic sphere.