The Voice(s) – Part 2

Simon Frith (Chapter 9, “The Voice,” in Performing Rites [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996], 183-202) identifies four ways in which the voice can be discussed and understood: as a musical instrument, as a body, as a person, and as a character. For the most part, Frith, too, is concerned with one voice; he does address multiple voices briefly—I will return to this later. My purpose here is to examine Frith’s points from the perspective of two voices presented as one, whether in unison or not—it’s more important here that they are understood to be equal in the context of the duo. In other words, I am not considering backup voices or anonymous harmonies or double-tracking of a single voice. And I am assuming that any duo that presents itself as a duo allows audiences and listeners to conclude that the members of the duo have equal standing within the duo, whether that is the case or not in reality.

In the first category of understanding, the voice is a musical instrument. Voices can never simply be sound or wordless instruments. Whether we can understand the words being sung (because they are in a foreign language or are nonsense syllables like scat singing), we always read something from the sound made by the voice; we hear meaning and intention. I don’t think multiple voices really changes Frith’s argument here.

The voice as body, on the other hand, reads somewhat differently with two voices. Following Roland Barthes logic, Frith notes that the voice is the “sound of the body.” The voice gives us “access to [the body] without mediation” (191). From the perspective of the listener, this raises questions such as which body is being “accessed”? The connections can be to one or the other of the singers. Listeners may adopt different listening positions over time, connecting with one and then another and then back to the first one. A listener could also connect with both simultaneously, merging them into one entity. The grain of the voice gains an additional dimension in the case of the vocal duo.

When we sing along (moving our position from listener to participant or imitator), we believe we experience the same sorts of physical events that the singer is experiencing. While we may have been able to feel a simultaneous connection to the physical worlds of both singers when simply listening, once we begin to engage our own bodies in the experience, we must choose. Unlike the singers themselves, though, we can shift from one singer to the other, from one physical experience to another, at will.

We can “hear” characteristics such as gender, sexuality, and race. Further we believe we can hear something about the person in the voice. With two voices, the same still holds, but we must also determine what the relationship is between the two voices. What we believe we hear in the voices may be augmented or confirmed by external sources (or maybe it’s the other way around—we read or learn about the relationship then “hear” it in the interaction of the voices). Two voices suggests an intimacy, whether it is sexual, familial, or simply as friends. Three or more voices shifts into the territory of the corporate voice with a pragmatic division of labor—the intimacy is lost or suppressed.

Finally, the voice becomes a character. It can be the voice of the protagonist or narrator, the person the song is about, the singer as a public persona, but the voice can also, through its own characteristics and suggestions of personality, be its own character. With more than one voice involved, is there only character, the result of combining the two voices, or are there two characters? A third possibility is that all three exist and it may depend on the listener. It may also depend on how the music is structured (homophonic versus contrapuntal, one sound versus differentiated sounds).

 

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