Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Unimagining Song: Making Kin in the Vocal Scene

Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Unimagining Song: Making Kin in the Vocal Scene

Article excerpt

The task set out for us in this curated section of the Yearbook is, from the perspective I present here, problematic. We are invited to consider utterances on the boundaries between speech and song, and I cannot help thinking that this is like being asked to consider bodies at the border between the air and Canada. Though the terms "speech" and "song" both have numerous meanings, speech generally refers to something relatively concrete: the use of the human voice to convey linguistic meaning. The term speech is like the term air; it refers to something intangible but still concrete. Song, on the other hand, is like Canada. It is a reification. How do we address the space between something concrete and something imagined? Song's borders lie at a variety of distinct perceived locations. Unlike with speech, we cannot objectively determine the line between song and non-song.1 Even if no one shares your sense of where the borders of song lie, no one has the authority to claim you are wrong. Others may be correct to deem your judgment as culturally inappropriate in a given context, but not objectively untrue. If I hear all speech as song, you cannot prove me wrong. If you see all running as dance, I have no solid ground to assert that it's not. We can quibble over intention and the importance of shared cultural conceptions, but ultimately there is no objectively verifiable way to confirm an utterance as song.

In most considerations of song and speech it is irrelevant that song is a reification; what matters is people's perception of the borders of song and speech, and the thoughts and feelings that arise as a result. However, I begin by pointing to this reification to make space for musicians with whom I have been working for sixteen years as a researcher and performer. These musicians participate in a tradition that I refer to as "soundsinging." I have adopted the term, which was invented by the singer and poet Paul Dutton (Dutton quoted in Sutherland 2014), to refer to voiced and unvoiced oral music-making traditions that (1) emerged in the 1950s and beyond out of the practices of sound poetry, free jazz, scat, Fluxus, and experimental performance; and (2) incorporate to a substantial degree abstract sounds that are non-pitch based.2 My intention in this essay is not to provide a sustained analysis of the practice of soundsinging or its reception.3 Rather, I seek to briefly introduce soundsinging as a case study that can help us to understand some of the negative consequences of our reification of "song." I hope to foster increased awareness of the possibility that all of our musical choices resonate in ways that affect how we feel connectedness across perceived borders of difference. In fact, it would be accurate to say that you have begun reading a manifesto of sorts-a manifesto that challenges us to see every choice we make as music-makers and music-describers as one that will either strengthen walls of division or reinforce a radical politics of trans-species solidarity.

Soundsingers must frequently contend with others who mark their singing as non-singing. Many singers, as a result, shy away from terms that locate their practices outside of the powerful social institutions of singing and song, even rejecting terms like soundsinging for their distancing effect. Other soundsingers, like myself, have adopted the term, finding it necessary to have a way of referring to differences between this style of singing and the much more broadly accessed traditions of pitch-focused song. My comfort in using the term here, despite others' refusal, arises from the fact that "singing" is a part of "soundsinging." Like those who refuse the term, I too insist that soundsinging is singing. And while soundsinging does not fit some culturally situated definitions of singing or songmaking, I insist that the wider institution of song, created by the many diverse and contradictory uses of the term, holds too much power for soundsingers to simply accept that their work is non-singing or non-song. …

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