Academic journal article Current Musicology

Voice as Action: Towards a Model for Analyzing the Dynamic Construction of Racialized Voice

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Voice as Action: Towards a Model for Analyzing the Dynamic Construction of Racialized Voice

Article excerpt

Shirley Verrett once asked an interviewer: "When you hear my sound, would you think it's a black voice?" The interviewer replied without hesitation: "No." Verrett responds, "That's it. And people told me this a long time ago. So, it mixes me up a little bit." (Schmidt--Garre 2000)

Vocal timbre is commonly believed to be an unmanipulable attribute, akin to a sonic fingerprint. (1) Because the voice arises from inside the body, quotidian discourse tends to refer to someone's vocal sounds as inborn, natural, and true expressions of the person. What, then, are we to make of the common notion that a person's race is audible in her voice? While it has been conclusively demonstrated that many of the physiognomic aspects historically employed as evidence of a person's race--including skin color, hair texture, and dialect or accent (2)--actually evidence nothing more than the construction of race according to the ideological values of beholders, vocal timbre continues to elude such deconstruction. (3)

Recent critical thought on the intermingling of the physical senses, including the so-called sensory turn in anthropology, "new materialist" philosophies, and recent advances in science, technology, sound studies, and media studies, underscores the need for scholarship that recognizes the voice and vocal categories as culturally conditioned material entities. (4) Trends such as the metaphorical notion of "having voice" (5) have to some degree obscured the material and multisensory aspects of voice. Conceived within the specific context of musicology and the general context of the humanities, this article seeks to demonstrate how the re-framing of voice implied by sensory and material inquiries redraws the topology of voice. I believe that this exercise may offer a deepened understanding of racial dynamics as they play out in our interactions with voice.

Firstly, I oppose the common metaphor that equates voice with unified subjectivity--an association that "assum[es] myths of constancy, coherence, and universality" (6Ira Sadoff, quoted in Wheeler, 2008:37)--and instead examine the voice in its concrete specificity, as an unfolding event articulated through a particular sensing and sensed body. Secondly, I take issue with musical research that has traditionally construed voice as sound (or even conflated it with notations in a score), and instead suggest that because voice is always already materially grounded across all points of contact, we might understand it as corporeally enacted throughout all acts of voicing, transduction, and reception. (7) In short, I wish to offer vocal research that centers on the material, sonorous, and sensory voice as it is produced and imagined.

Encouraged by the critical discourse enabled by the aforementioned sensory turn in anthropology, history, and philosophy, I submit four contentions about the ways in which vocal timbre is racially framed, and offer two interventions in the form of analytical models. The first two contentions address distinct, but nonetheless intermingling and reinforcing, perceptions of vocal timbre as an indicator of race, bearing in mind the fact that vocal sounds are never experienced in a purely sonorous realm, divorced from contextual information. Rather, non-sonic aspects, including preconceptions of race, tend to influence how sound is perceived. My third and fourth contentions deal with the definition and subsequent analysis of voice. Both claims account for the fact that each vocal sound uttered is materially produced and through that process imprinted onto the vocalizer's body and therefore, in time, becomes part of the vocalizer's vocal sound; and both recognize the complexity that this adds to any attempt at thinking through voice and race. I hence propose, drawing on concepts from dance and choreography, a theoretical and analytical framework that can address voice as the product of both societal shaping and individual articulation and materiality. …

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