Domenico Di Virgilio
The Voice as a Mirror*
*The following paper was originally thought to be read in a meeting.
"She possessed a wonderful mirror, and when she stepped before it and said:

Oh mirror, mirror on the wall
who is the fairest of us all?-
it replied -Thou art the fairest, lady Queen. -.
Then she was pleased, for she knew that the mirror spoke truly."(1).

How was the voice of the mirror in the story ?
Voice for all of us has always been the proof of our own existence, the living proof of our own ability and will to exist and to testify it.

Voice is utterance, voice is appearance: with all the possible joyful or pathological connections. Silence confirms it, and modern music (to think about a research field not far from our own) again recalls this to the mind.

The presence or absence of a voice-sound are always full of meanings. The voice can be an entry in a dictionary and many contexts in our life are connected with the voice.

Recently in a book I found the following definitions: the voice of silence, the voice of love, the voice as a metaphor, the wisdom of the voice, the voice of the body and the passions of the soul, the voice which fecundates, an unnatural voice, a parlour voice, the voice from the pulpit, the voice of sickness and the voice which heals, voice as a right of expression, voice of technicality (2).

And voice is also memory and research, the mirror in which we look to identify ourselves, what we are and what we would like to be, or maybe what we were once: "Brahmanical miths of creation tell that the first men were transparent shining and resonant beings who flew over the earth. But when they came on earth and started to eat plants they lost their lightness and brightness. Their bodies became opaque and the only quality of their original musical essence which lasted was the voice."(3).

"Non per nulla in principio era il verbo"(4)

In the beginning of every Tradition there was the Word - Sound - Nad (5), for us in modern times the Big Bang; the Australian natives have named all the continent by means of their songs, and to give name it is to give birth.
But we came into the world already with a knowledge of it, as its sounds have reached us in the womb. And our first scream has, in its physiological importance, the same bodily significance of an adult voice, of the scream-expression of an impossibility: "the tears of the impotence to express or to get rid of our depression by means only of words."(6).

The voice and its disorders are the signals of the sickness, and voice has the power to heal. A recording session is also a psychoanalytical session. The singer looks for and discovers memories in songs, and in the memories finds a part of his own sub-unconsciuos. "Listen to me means touch me"(7) and the man who is there listening wants 'to touch', he wants to take part to this disclosure.

From a mechanical point of view man's sound originates from the breath, from the diaphragm, from the lungs that slowly emptying drive a thin air column to make the vocal chords vibrate. But it is the persona itself (and isn't the persona the same as the old 'theatrical maschera'?) with its body (the resonant cavities and the organs of articulation) and its living experience who creates the voice and, more than this, creates singing. The singing that goes beyond the language meaning, the singing in which the single word disappear and "une langue rencontre une voix"(8).

According to Roland Barthes the 'grain of the voice' is the disclosure of the meaning, the making of an intimate relationship, the modelling of the self on others singing, "le compte rendu impossible d'une jouissance individuelle que j'Èprouve contin°ment en Ècoutant chanter."(9).

"The theory of voice and word is like anthropology for the Dogon (because word is the image of a human being), like metaphisics (because word is strictly connected with our essence and our presence in the universe), it is like linguistics (because word make us understand the creation process of the meaning), and it's like psychology (because of the parallelism between vocal phases and vital energies), but it's also like a social set of rules (because each type of voice conforms with private or public manners."(10).

But what is voice for us? What does it represent in our society? And who looks over it? And how do we use it?

"Canta una sfogliatrice a piena gola"(11)

Maybe it is superfluous to remember that just like language voice has been an object of attention and its use and purposes have been codified. Throughout the history of oral and written traditions, of the western and non-western, or ancient and modern cultures, and in the setting and recognition of roles and sexes there have always been many significant oppositions with mutual corroborations and denials.

Each culture has chosen a style according to its ideology. This choice has been a conscious choice for the construction of a type of voice similar as much as possible to the ideology (for timbre, register, voice production, intensity, use of phonetics). Regarding our written Tradition the results are within reach: starting from Gregoriano up to 20th century, through Recitar Cantando and Belcanto. The same for cross-breeds with other Traditions: pop music or rock, or the expected softness of the 'Voice'; the Sinatra's style which marks the end of the American dream. But traditional oral music and its voices are much more difficult to listen to, almost impossible for big audiences (business is business).

"Those women singing with those funny voices" is the remark of a friend of mine who joined me in a recording session, and it is the discovery of something: of the very moment when both the singer and the listener recall their own life experience through a song. So voices warn us of our life conditions, those conditions theorized by Alan Lomax for the women of Southern Italy as conditions of subjection to the male and to social repressive rules, conditions of dissatisfaction (12).

Traditional singing is thus an attempt to reduce the clash between the individual and his life, and at the same time a way reducing social conflicts. And this means trying to enter a life reality other than the daily one that belongs to an archaic peasant society. This is one of the reasons why, probably, today such type of voices can still be heard during pilgrimages, when the uncertainty of human life is replaced by the belief in an ultramundane reality.

This vocal style has been called by Wolf Dietrich "a bunch of dissonances"(13), and Alan Lomax talks of "habit to sing in an antimelodic way". Pitch relations, manners of singing and the overlap of each timbric colour give birth to that habit.

As Dietrich says: "I know that this is a psychological explanation: it is the very nearness of the voices that is a pleasure for the singers, it is like a sound tickling, within the bunch of dissonances the conflict is consciously enjoyed and marks a successful performance. The contrast among the voices is a source of pleasure."(14).

The coming into being of this vocal style, that I have already called a disclosure of the individual, is thus a psychoanalytical process, it's a warning of a neurosis. Ernesto De Martino refers to it as "the passing from crisis to the protected speech ñ through - the rescue of the self and of its relationship to the world."(15). It is a word-sound therapy in which the bodily essence of the voice and the relationship between individual and community come in the foreground. Singing proves itself a body technique: physiology of the voice; but also a lididinal transfer into words: voice as eroticism.

The act of singing is thus fundamentally a drama played by vocal organs but with roots in the subconscious. It is Rouget's quest for identity when he talks of a mirror given to the individual by the community (16). And this mirror is the voice, that is the cultural performance of this attempt to pass from the crisis of the existence into a separate reality.

But how do music and language meet and how do they create the meaning?

All the history of oral and written Traditions can be read as the mutual relationship of music and language: starting from the rite, through every day life and again back to the rite.

The rite belongs fully to the oral world. The vocalization, the undistinguishable, become sacred symbol in an out-of-time dimension.

We are going to listen to:

  1. Rite for the cure of the sick by Modang tribe in Timur. Recording by Univ. of Philippines.
  2. Vedic hymn to Indra. INDIA I, Unesco Collection BM 30L 2006
  3. Canto Gregoriano, antifona for the Holy Virgin. Ares S 1624
  4. Office for the Blessed Virgin Mary, Scanno (Aq) 1991 (Download - QuickTime mp2 - 1Mb)
  5. Hymn to the Patron Saint, Bucchianico (Ch) 1985 (Download - QuickTime mp2 - 960Kb)

What is distinguishable suggests defined patterns that can be easily kept under control, sometimes these patterns convey a precise ideology:

  1. G.Pandey, political song on a traditional tune. Allahabad 1978

But sometimes they can suggest the rite again with well defined behavioural rules: the bourgeois style of singing and the educated/trained voice.

  1. Monteverdi, Lasciatemi morire, madrigale a cinque voci. RCA GL
  2. 32633
  3. G. Bononcini, Per la gloria d'adorarvi, aria. Decca SXLI 6650
  4. G. Verdi, E' strano..., La Traviata. Five Rec. RM 13601
  5. Rag Bhoop. EMI ECSD 2702

In large selling products we have maximum of intelligibility and minimal improvvisation:

  1. They did not believe me, sung by F.Sinatra. Gala Rec. ORL 8519

Transgression is only an intellectual game:

  1. Move, sung by The Manhattan Transfer. Atlantic 78 1266-1

But in a ballad by street-singers the rite is part of the message again:

  1. Orazione for Saint Antony the Abbot. Campli (Te) 1993

At the beginning of this century in western musical written tradition the journey seems to come to an end with the search for a new expression for a new human condition. The sound becomes an outcome of psychic inner life, a representation of life anxiety.

In "Erwartung", Luigi Rognoni, writes:

"the sound as Ur-shrei causes pathos, not the feeling expressed through a sound.. The word is not superimposed to the music but the word itself is a musical impression and seems to be born out of the voice, together with the sound, and the sound out of the timbre - in Pierrot Lunaire - the moon is a sharp blade piercing to the marrow to rescue the images out of the subconscious...the poetical image is frozen into a vocal image for the harsh denounciation of the impotence of the self: the human voice gets rid of bonds with traditional singing and becomes the direct expression of the artist's inner feeling"(17).

This frozen image it is a recall to the rite in its timeless dimension:

  1. Pierrot lunaire, die nacht. Vanguard SXUA 4147

In the meantime technology has forcibly determined the relationship between music and language. The possibility to endless repetitions of the message and the end of space-time limits are compulsory challenges to contemporary music. Which now looks for a new dimension in orality and rite: to make the sound travel across all physical and linguistic parameters. Thus joining "a replanning process of our communication world (sounds, images, feelings)"(18), aiming to look for what may be the sound of our time. That is the sound with the biggest load of information or with none of it: the white noise.

  1. K.Stockhausen, Gesange der jünglinge. DG 138811 SLPM
  2. L.Berio, Thema (homage to Joyce). Philips

The return of oral tradition in music making is manifest in Luigi Nono's last working years: "From this point of view, the most effective example is Omaggio a Kurtag: the premiere was based on experiences leading toward a sort of guided improvisation. Consequently, some of his work experiences in the studio environment led to a completely open structuring of the work-not written down. Only many years later, after the premiere, did Nono set down what had been elaborated on an experimental level in score-form."(19). "On editorial basis the most useful thing would be the sound and video recording of the work done by the interprets who worked in touch with Nono, so to give a documentary evidence of the way he thought and composed."(20).

The last song we are going to listen to is again oral tradition, so we may end with the "sound flowing out of psychic inner life"(21).

If in a trained choir the voices, being similar to each other, are the outcome of the author, the musical style, conductor; in this oral tradition the polyvocality is a klangfarbenmelodie, melody of individual voices that meet each other.

  1. Reap song, Torrevecchia teatina (Ch) 1993 (Download - QuickTime mp2 - 310 Kb)

But why do we like these voices? If we like them at all.

Maybe we can use Lacan's words when he says "what speaks to man goes beyond the single word meaning and deep into his dream, his own being and his body."(22). Or we can remember Barthes' definition of the grain, that is "le corps dans la voix qui chante, dans la main qui écrit, dans le membre qui exécute"(23) due to which we may attach a new value to a work itself because it makes us enter a new relationship with the singer, and this relationship is an erotic one.

  1) The BROTHERS GRIMM, Little Snow-white, in Grimm's Fairy Tales, pagg. 218-226, New York.
2) cfr. C.BOLOGNA, Flatus vocis, Il Mulino, Bologna 1992.
3) M.SCHNEIDER, Pietre che cantano, Adelphi, Milano 1980, pag. 22.
4) E.MONTALE, Si risolve ben poco (Ö), in L'Opera in Versi, Einaudi,Torino 1980, pag. 608.
5) "La musica ha le sue origini nel suono supremo chiamato 'Sphota' o 'Shabda Brahman'(parola del Brahman) da cui discende cio`che è chiamato 'nad'. 'Anahata nad' è il suono primigenio, non causato; 'ahata nad' è il suono manifesto, l'uno è causa l'altro l'effetto." (D.Di Virgilio, Espressione colta ed espressione popolare in India oggi: alcune riflesioni, in Musica/Realta`, dicembre 1989, pp. 71-95, pag. 88).
6) P.VALERY, Oeuvres, Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, 1960 2voll. II pag. 183, cit. in C.BOLOGNA, cit. pag. 37.
7) R.BARTHES, Ascolto, in L'ovvio e l'ottuso, Einaudi 1985, pag. 243, cit. in G.GIULIANI, La voce, l'ascolto, ricerca per una psicologia della voce, Bulzoni, Roma,1990, pag. 64.
8) R.BARTHES, Le grain de la voix, in Musique en Jeu, 9 1972, pagg. 57-63.
9) R.BARTHES, cit. pag. 58.
10) C.BOLOGNA, cit. pag. 82.
11) G.PASCOLI, Ultimo canto, in Myricae, Roma 1991.
12) A. LOMAX, Nuova ipotesi sul canto folklorico italiano nel quadro della musica popolare mondiale, pagg. 109-135 in Nuovi Argomenti 17/18 1955/56.
13) W. DIETRICH, La conformazione della seconda voce nella musica popolare dell'Epiro settentrionale, pagg. 268-279 in Culture Musicali 5/6 1984.
14) W. DIETRICH, cit.
15) E. DE MARTINO, Morte e pianto rituale, Boringhieri, Torino 1975, pagg. 101-1O2.
16) G.ROUGET, Musica e trance, Einaudi, Torino 1986, 485pp., pag.436.
17) L.ROGNONI, La scuola musicale di Vienna, Einaudi, Torino 1966, 561pp., pagg.55, 64-65.
18) G.R.CARDONA, La voce e il segnale, pagg.10-15 in Technology Review 1988.
19) Remarks on 'Decouvrir la subversion: hommage a Edmond Jabes and Post-Prae-Ludium n.3 Baab-arr, by Luigi Nono, Editorial Committee for the Works of Luigi Nono, Milano 1993.
20) Intervista a G.Schiaffini, cit. in "Sperimentazione ed esecuzione", di M.Messinis in Il Gazzettino 27/5/1994.
21) A.SCHÖENBERG, Manuale di armonia, Il Saggiatore, Milano 198O pagg.528-29.
22) J.LACAN, Il seminario libro I, Einaudi 1978 pag.321, cit. in G.GIULIANI, cit. pag.88.
23) R.BARTHES, Le grain de la voix, cit. pag.62.

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