The last time I visited my family in Atlanta, I stumbled across an answering machine in the closet while hunting around for a beach towel. It took me a moment to place the clunky black object, but as soon as I pieced together what it was, I hurriedly plugged it in. The voice of my mother crackled through the air: “Hi, you’ve reached 237-9837. We can’t take your call right now, but please leave us a message, and we’ll call you back as soon as we can. Wait for the beep!”

I had not heard my mother’s voice since 2008, before her death at age 47. Since then I’ve worn her clothes (not an easy feat considering that she was five inches taller than I am), her jewelry, her makeup. I’ve berated myself for losing things that were hers: a hat I dropped in the subway, a lipstick that fell out of my bag and rolled under my movie theater seat during a showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” There remains only a finite number of objects associated with my mother: she will never pass along another lipstick to replace the one that I lost. These objects, like Proust’s madeleines, conjure memories of her, if not her essence itself. Every time one of these material things breaks or disappears, one of the remaining strands of connection to my mother is severed forever.

But her voice is here, even if frozen in time, emitting thinly from that cumbersome black answering machine. This recording is a different sort of object than a hat or a necklace; in fact it’s not really an object at all. My mother’s cheerful vocalizations are waves on the air, sounds waves extending through time, sounds falling together into words and sentences, from sensation to sense. It is an action of speaking: a speech act recorded and here memorialized through a second action, the act of listening. My mother’s clothes and mementos touched her body; they were visual signifiers I can now connect to her being or essence. I can hold them in my hands, smell their faint lavender scent, wear a piece of my mother out in the world she no longer inhabits. Her voice, while not a tangible thing, is somehow even more personal, imbued with an element of life in a way my mother’s belongings are not.

In his 1972 essay “The Grain of the Voice,” Roland Barthes theorizes the “grain” inherent in spoken or sung vocalizations: “the ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.” The “grain” is more than timbre: it is the language of sound supplementing the language of sense; the summoning not only of a body but of some sort of ineffable essence bound to the effability of language. The grain would explain why hearing this answering machine recording, in itself a string of mundane sentiments, seems to carry so much more: in addition to the semantic content, the grain of my mother’s voice accompanies the words she spoke over a decade ago.

Barthes theorizes the grain in terms of classical music vocalists, but claims that the concept of ineffable language can be carried over to instrumental music as well. Yet I’m not so sure: It seems to me that the voice has a particular way of communicating—whether through song, speech, answering machine, or the dreaded mass-produced LP that Barthes rails against in his essay. There is something undeniably human about my mother’s recorded voice, shaped by her vocal cords and jaw and nasal cavity—the atoms of her being—something that does not linger in the folds of her clothes. There is something about pulling vocal sound out of thin air, twisting the internal into the external, that I don’t hear in the sounds created by wood, strings, or ivory.

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Consider vocalist Meredith Monk’s philosophy of the voice as a “manifestation of the self.” For decades, Monk and her Vocal Ensemble have been creating non-narrative vocal collaborations in which the voice itself is used as a means for communication. They construct scaffolds of sound and meaning within the architecture of Monk’s musical language, which she passes on to her disciples via oral tradition rather than written notation. Monk has stated time and again that she considers the voice to be “a language in itself—one that crosses cultural and linguistic barriers and speaks directly to people on an intuitive level.” If the absence of notation allows for more direct communication between composer and performer, the absence of words allows for more direct communication between vocalist and listener. Monk focuses on the process of collaboration, pedagogy, and sound-making rather than an end “product” that can be hypostatized in the form of a score.

In “Hocket,” a duet from Monk’s 1992 “Facing North,” the vocalist and her partner face each other rather than the audience, volleying sounds back and forth as if participating in a vocal version of ping-pong. The performers begin by humming a phrase that repeats several times, and then recurs at moments throughout the piece. From the outset, it is difficult to tell who is humming, from whose mouth the wordless “oh”s and “ah”s and “ee”s are tumbling. The visual architecture of the piece, with the two performers in profile, gives the impression of each vocalist’s open mouth “catching” the sound, one from the other, rather than producing that sound. A performance of nonlinguistic vocal action and communication, “Hocket” toys with the trope of the voice-as-object.

YouTube video

A life performance of “Hocket” with Meredith Monk and Robert Een from 1990.

Musicologist Nina Sun Eidsheim outright rejects the notion of voice-as-object, which stabilizes the voice as a knowable and definable entity, that has persisted within various trains of thought. Eidsheim offers a reconceptualization of vocalized sound that is less focused on signification and more focused on action or gesture. Eidsheim’s necessary seen component of the experience of vocalization turns typically ocularphobic musicological musing on its head. It is the perfect lens through which to consider Monk’s compositional practice, which incorporates bodily gesture and movement along with spatial architecture and acoustics. By uniting the seen with the heard, this conception of the voice allows for a spoken or sung action to result in both signification and sonority.

Yoko Ono goes a step still further by using her voice to bring attention not only to the trope of voice-as-object but to the trope of woman-as-object. In her music and performance art, which over the years has served as inspiration for figures ranging from La Monte Young to Kathleen Hanna, Ono gives voice to the raw feminist rage that bubbles up in many of us from time to time. Her guttural screams embrace the stereotype of female emotional volatility, while defying the stereotype of feminine politesse and restraint. Her scream has become her sonic trademark, with viral YouTube videos popping up periodically, featuring the scream in concert, at art galleries, in museums, and even disembodied, as a sound file posted to Ono’s Twitter account as a response to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States this past November.

Ono’s voice refuses conventional notions of “beauty” and stretches conventional notions of femininity far beyond the comfort zone of your typical misogynist troll. As Adriana Cavarero points out, “when there is song, melody, and a voice, then there is generally a feminine experience, whether or not the composer or performer is a man (and all the more if she is a woman; the prima donna is the fulcrum of 19th-century opera). When, on the other hand, the words and their meaning come to the fore, then it is a masculine experience in which the intellect reigns sovereign.” The female voice is heard to express emotion through song, while the male voice is heard to express the realm of the intellect. Ono and Monk fit within this construction, discarding semantic sense and focusing only on sonorized sensation. (We might say that their vocal “grain” is all wheat, no chaff.)

If Ono and Monk use vocal utterance as a means for expressivity and communication, Pamela Z can be heard to complicate the idea of the voice as language. As Charissa Noble points out, Z’s work is “of language, rather than about language.” Monk’s hocketing chirps and groans attempt to access some sort of wordless universal human essence, risking the erasure of minority experiences; she sings from a place of privilege. By contrast, Z’s operatic vocalizations frequently shape themselves within a code of linguistic meaning. Works like “Voci” and “Carbon Song Cycle” demonstrate the activity inherent in vocalization and in listening; using bodysynth and vocal processing, Z’s voice can be heard both as a physical action and its sounding result.

YouTube video

Pamela Z performs “MetalVoice” in 2004. 

In “MetalVoice,” a movement from her multimedia performance work “Voci,” Z constructs an aria not only from words but from vocal and metallic sounds blurring together even as they indicate the cause and effect of her body’s motions. She makes a sound, and the sheets of metal she sings against make another sound. Words are only one element within this “mono-opera.” Z allows listeners to immerse themselves in the acrobatics of the voice while conveying politically- and socially-charged messages that are not willing to be misconstrued. As Z writes on her website, “Voci” “approaches voice as anatomy, as character, as identifier, and communicator.” Her voice breathes sounds into words which speak to us with more precision and urgency than do vaguer vocal utterances. Contrary to the philosopher Mladen Dolar’s claim that “singing is bad communication; it prevents a clear understanding of the text,” Z is able to provide material for both aesthetic and intellectual contemplation. The video of “MetalVoice” offers us not only the sense of Z’s message but an imprint of the vocal action bringing us this message.

Bringing a message, leaving a message. “Leave us a message, and we’ll call you back as soon as we can.” My mother’s answering machine recording is a trace not only of a past voice but of a past action. Like the vocal recordings of author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, it can be heard not only as a memory of my mother but as a sort of aural archive of her existence. Literary and cultural critic Daphne Brooks writes that Hurston’s vocal recordings function not only as “embodied cultural documentation” but as possibilities, or “rehearsals,” for archival or ethnographic endeavors. Through Hurston, Brooks pushes us to reconsider the voice as a tool for scholarship. Like the grain Barthes is so fascinated by, and the action or gesture leading to a sounding result that Eidsheim reminds us of, Hurston’s voice recordings center the voice as a vehicle for knowledge, rather than an object within it.

We might consider a video recording of Monk’s non-notated vocal compositions to be just as valid as a score might be for another composer. Certainly the visual, physical, gestural process of vocalization is just as significant for Monk (and for Ono and Z) as the end result. The same way that we might resist comparing sound to an object (like a womb), we might resist conceptualizing the voice as an object. The works of Monk, Ono, and Z demonstrate the activity inherent in vocalization and in listening itself. The voice reveals some essence of the person, even if, like my mother, their physical body no longer walks among us. ¶

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... is a writer, editor, and feminist activist based in New York City.