Thursday, April 8, 2010

Vox Humana

It’s raining. And it’s cold. Valentine’s Day is two days away. I turn the key in our Subaru and the engine starts. I am returning a book, The Cavendish Laboratory, and two DVDs, Iron Man and Fun With Dick And Jane, to the library. Within a second or two, a voice emerges from the speakers of our CD player. The voice is rough, ragged, mournful. It is Bob Dylan singing “When The Deal Goes Down,” a song from his album Modern Times. A slow waltz, the song is wistful and introspective, gathering strength and resignation as it moves gracefully toward deliverance.

The song is about loyalty and devotion in a world of painful disillusion and ephemeral hopes. It is also about loss and endurance. It says that I will be there when you die. I will stick with you through thick and thin. Each word is growled, almost shoveled, with tender determination. Dylan’s voice encompasses a range of grit and delicacy. It is the perfect instrument for this song. A younger voice would not have the richness of timbre and emotive force to deliver the song with the same magnitude of conviction and authenticity.

Or would it? Tom Waits had the voice of a much older man when he released his first album, Closing Time, in 1973. Dylan himself sounded much older than his 20-something years when he released his first barrage of albums in the early 60s. There was distance in it, and the sweat of stevedores and ranch hands. It was uncannily mature. Unseasonably weathered. This was a guy who had been places. You didn’t need to touch or him or shake his hand or buy him a drink. You just knew it. It was in his voice.

The melody of “When The Deal Goes Down” is based on a song popularized by Bing Crosby circa 1931 called “Where The Blue Of The Night (Meets The Gold Of The Day).” Crosby’s version is vastly different; the same wistfulness is there, but the voice is more robust, fuller, more varnished, lustrous and light. Louis Armstrong said that Crosby’s voice was like “gold poured from a cup,” and that Crosby was the only white singer playing on the jukeboxes of Harlem.

A journalist once described Louis Armstrong’s voice as a “wheelbarrow crunching up a gravel driveway.” Armstrong himself referred to it as a “sawmill voice.” What created that singular voice, according to jazz drummer Baby Dodds, was a long-lasting cold aboard a riverboat while playing with the Fate Marable band in the early 1920s.

I can see the lights of that riverboat, and a man’s voice echoing over the languid water of the Mississippi like the machinery of heaven.

Our fingerprints betray our identity if we rob an estate or kill someone. But it is our voice that identifies the essence of our selves. The most obscure recesses of our being find themselves revealed in the timbre of our voice, its quiver, its exclamations and inflections.

The human voice is essentially a membrane, a muscular valve. The first person to get a good look at this little apparatus in our throat was a Spanish singing professor named Manuel Garcia.

One September day in 1854, Garcia recorded for the Transactions of the Seventeenth International Medical Congress, published in London, in 1881, I was strolling in the garden of the Palais Royal, preoccupied with the ever-recurring wish so often repressed as unrealisable, when suddenly I saw the two mirrors of the laryngoscope in their respective positions, as if actually present before my eyes. I went straight to Charriere, the surgical instrument maker, and asking if he happened to possess a small mirror with a long handle, was informed that he had a little dentist's mirror, which had been one of the failures of the London Exhibition of 1851. I bought it for six francs. Having obtained also a hand mirror, I returned home at once, very impatient to begin my experiments. I placed against the uvula the little mirror (which I had heated in warm water and carefully dried) and by flashing upon its surface with the hand mirror a ray of sunlight, I saw at once, to my great joy, the glottis wide open before, me, and so fully exposed that I could perceive a portion of the trachea. When my excitement had somewhat subsided, I began to examine what was passing before my eyes. The manner in which the glottis silently opened and shut, and moved in the act of phonation, filled me with wonder.

Garcia was not the first to see a larynx, or speculate on how it worked. Circa 200 AD, the renowned physician Claudius Galen, probably the most influential medical author of his time, was the first to describe the larynx with its three major cartilages and paired muscles. He compared the larynx to a flute, and correctly identified it as the instrument of voice production. In the sixth century, an unknown Italian artist created a mosaic for the Basilica of St. Apollinaris in Ravenna, Italy, that may well be the first picture of the vocal organ: just below the image of Christ the Redeemer is a depiction of the heart surmounted by the larynx, maintaining the belief that the voice come from the heart. Theologians of that time wondered what the voice of God sounded like, whether angels and/or devils spoke, or who spoke first, Adam, or Eve?

Circa the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci dissected more than 30 cadavers in hospitals at Florence, Milan, and Rome, and included several drawings of the vocal organ in his textbook Quaderni d’Anatomia. He squeezed the lungs of a goose to produce tones, speculating that the human larynx worked in similar fashion.

This goose (and goosed) postulate was further elaborated in the 18th century when Antoine Ferrein, professor of anatomy at the University of Montpelier, presented a series of articles before the Royal Academy of Science, in which he described numerous experiments on human and animal cadaver larynges. He was the first to coin the term “vocal cords,” as he postulated that the ligaments of the larynx were analogous to the cords of the violin, which were at first made of sheep gut, stretched, dried, and twisted.

Ferrein was correct in observing that the tones of the voice vary with the speed of the vibrations, but misconceived the structures of the larynx, which aren’t really cords, but folds, or lips. Seen from above, the vocal folds resemble a vagina, which gives renewed perspective to the idea of delivering a speech. When we speak, we labor to give life to an idea in a ball of wriggling words. We fill words with our breath, our pneuma, our consciousness and being. We give them ligament and motion. Circulation and shape.

In the 19th century, in 1839, the physiologist Johannes Müller conducted a series of experiments in which he demonstrated the myoelastic theory of phonation (myoelastic meaning closely associated smooth muscle fibers and elastic connective tissue) and confirmed that the voice is produced by the airstream that originates in the lungs and sets the vocal folds in vibration.

The anatomy of the larynx was well understood by the end of the 19th century, but no one had as yet seen how the folds move and ripple, contract and expand, when it is in actual use. It was Manuel Garcia who was able to achieve and demonstrate these things. He described in exquisite detail the movement of the larynx during the production of sound, noting variations of pitch and tonal register, how nuances of sound undulated through the folds of the larynx. He could see how they were shaped by muscle and ligament, how air pressure affected the supple malleability of this critical membrane.

Writing for the Royal Society of London in an essay titled “Observations On The Human Voice” in 1855, Garcia wrote: We soon discover that the brilliant and powerful sounds of the chest-register contract the cavity of the larynx, and close still more its orifice; and, on the contrary, that veiled notes of moderate power, open both so as to render any observation easy. The falsetto register especially possesses this prerogative, as well as the first notes of the head-voice. So as to render these facts more precise, we will study in the voice of the tenor the ascending progression of the chest-register, and in the soprano that of the falsetto and head-registers.

The larynx is not the only organ involved in the shaping and generation of the voice. The entire body is involved. At the outbreak of World War I, a young man of 18 years named Alfred Wolfsohn was called to serve as a medic in the front-line trenches. He witnessed unspeakable horrors, men ripped apart, bleeding, howling in agony. Broken, shattered, driven to madness by the horrors he had seen, he was hospitalized for shell-shock.

Wolfsohn felt immense guilt because of a man he had heard writhing in pain on the battlefield that he had not been able to go to for fear of being killed, and was certain that that was the reason he continued to be wracked by aural hallucinations. He could not get the voices of men howling and moaning in the agonies of their wounds out of his head. Prolonged psychiatric treatment did not help. He determined to find a cure himself. He hit on the idea of singing. He intuited that by expressing his anguish through the medium of his voice he might be able to purge himself of the pain and hallucinations.

It worked. Wolfshohn discovered a form of vocal catharsis. He not only expressed in singing the sounds of suffering he had heard on the battlefield, and the torments of his own mental anguish, but feelings of joy and exaltation as well. Strength, sweat, thirst, hunger, lust, elation and anger, everything that makes us feel alive are part of our vocal spectrum. Talking is purgation. Singing is transcendence. When we open our mouths, and shape the sound of our inner universe in words, we instantly grow lighter. Those leaden burdens trapped in our being are exploded into swifts of poetry and invocation.

A Jew, Wolfsohn fled Germany in 1939 and established himself as a singing teacher in London. Because of his discoveries, he was able to broaden the range of singers whose voices were constricted by neuroses and malignant worries. Those who took lessons with him committed themselves not only to explore the many aspects of the human psyche and look for its rapport with the body, but to have the courage to expose their inner demons in the flesh of a song, the precipitate of a sublimated pain.

I think of James Brown. I recall those electrifying performances I used to see on television in the mid-60s on shows such as Shindig and Hullabaloo.

Brown made an appearance on Shindig on September 1st, 1965, that was shattering. He sings with such power and naked energy that it seems more like a force of nature than a song. He sings “Please Please Please” with an anguish so intense it teeters on exaltation. He sings as if he is lifting the world from a mire of torment. His voice tears the air, rips it to shreds. He falls to his knees. A man appears from backstage, gently lays a cape over his shoulders and lifts him from the stage, as if Brown were too shattered and spent to stand. They begin to leave the stage, Brown’s benefactor with his arm around him, leading him away. Brown tosses the cape off and rushes back to the mike. He’s not done yet. He pleads again and again. Don’t go. Please don’t go.

Another figure I associate with that ability to pull heavy, unresolved conflicts and yearnings and desolations out of your being and use them to make something powerful and riveting is Janis Joplin. She had a voice of such total conviction and power it passed through you like a freight train.

Joplin grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. During high school, she developed a severe case of acne which elicited jeers and name-calling from her fellow students. That alone was isolating and painful but there were also notable differences in her personality, her candor and energy that were unsettling to people, particularly people who were more adapted to a culture of materialism and the need to “fit in.”

Joplin identified with the beats. She loved the immediacy, spontaneity, and rawness of their poetry, their heroic lunacy, their openness to experience, their hunger to expand perception, their fascination with the currents and fluctuations of consciousness, and especially their struggles to transcend a materialistic culture that imposed a Procustean obsession with wealth and commerce on everyone. It is wonderfully apt that the poet Michael McClure would one day pen the lyrics to the song “Mercedes Benz” for Joplin.

All this was in her voice. The richness of its timbre, the huskiness of its vigor, its élan vital.

Joplin is one of those people who, before seeing what they actually look like, you can imagine their appearance simply by hearing them. You know instinctively what they’re all about, how they carry themselves, how they smile, how they shine around other people or come to life on a stage. You could feel jubilance and defiance in Joplin’s voice, the hugeness of a life lived intensely and unreservedly. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the voice is its furnace. Everything pitched in its timbre warms the house of our language.

I could go on all day about voices. Nina Simone has a voice of soft sophistication mingled with unabashed intensity. Listening to her makes you feel wise, and strong. Ella Fitzgerald had a voice as mercurial and bright as Christmas tinsel, yet steady as time.

Amy Winehouse has a voice of nectar. She is the Circe of singers. She makes you feel shipwrecked and open to seductions of forbidden pleasure.

There is a crepuscular region between song and everyday speech called poetry. Here the voice is neither the familiar sound of ourselves breaking the silence at a breakfast table, nor the fullness of our spirit raised in singing. It is in the zone of poetry that our voice becomes the entranced expression of what is ineffable and strange in us.

On the evening of March 13th my wife and I went to hear Michael McClure read his poetry at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center here in Seattle. McClure read in the center’s theatre, a convivial room with comfortable seats, blue velvet curtains and the tangle of stage lights silhouetted on the architrave above the stage. Nearby streetlights tinted a row of windows on the north wall whose textured glass sparkled with a warm golden hue. McClure, now in his late seventies, still has a veneer of youth, the lively affability of a much younger man. His shock of white wavy hair contrasted sharply with his dark clothes, and his presence on the stage was gracious and poised. He held the microphone at a careful angle as it had a tendency to crackle if it weren’t held in a specific position.

McClure has an exceptionally pleasing voice, smooth, mellow, rich. He reads in a very measured manner, precise and focused, relaxed, but vigilant, according a high level of attention to each syllable, each shade and nuance.

There is an intimacy in the voice of a poet that is more sublimated and distant in the voice of a singer, or the grave tones of a politician or lawyer. The effort made toward minting coins of elemental sound imbue the voice with a luxury of nuance. Coins have images. The mind turns intaglio in its words, silver in its vowels, copper in the jingle of its consonants. The voice is allowed an extravagance that is more restrained in conversation, splurges itself in fire and amber. Its tones are raised. Its folds unfold. It becomes more spirit than flesh. More flesh than spirit. It is, essentially, the stem of the throat burgeoning in sound. One’s inner being rises and drops in arcs of ghostly vibration, pumping space with a crisis of jaw and paradise.

4 comments:

Steven Fama said...


Holy aryepiglottic fold, John, this post is a breath of . . . well, I'll admit it, I'm (er, um) speechless. Or would that be tongue-tied? Larynx-locked? Glottis-glued?

What a marvelous meditation/essay on the voice. A celebration really, a party-in-prose with more than a little explication and history of our understanding of the voice also, and wonderfully, provided. And some embedded poetic reverie too.

The VoIcE ! (That's a bit of a shout with whispering too.)

I'm so happy the Tillalala Chronicles are here!

David Grove said...

The synchronicity is almost uncanny, John: Wolfsohn's traumatic experience as a medic parallels that of Trakl at Grodek, and I just happen to be reading your post next to a collection of Trakl poems. And a few feet away from a milk crate of old LPs, the first of which is Cheap Thrills. Bought it at Rarebirds Records in Flint, MI, when I was twenty-two. Still love the Crumb-stained jacket.

When I was twenty-two I spoke little and wrote a lot. (Not poetry--it was more exited than "entranced.") My vocal folds atrophied like a menopausal vagina, and I could deliver ideas only by c-section: writing them down. And some of the ideas were "inner demons." A sequel to Rosemary's Baby: Mia Farrow becomes a serial Satanic surrogate.

This essay is a sumptuous feast of words and ideas. My mind is replete.

John Olson said...

"My vocal folds atrophied like a menopausal vagina, and I could deliver ideas only by c-section: writing them down." That's great! I love that.

Given that context, I'd say my vocal folds at age 22 and on have been busy as Mistress Quickly. I go into labor at the drop of a hat. The five fingers of my right hand are like five tongues curled around a placenta of ink. I began writing poetry because I love music but cannot sing. I began writing prose because I'm far too impatient to paint. Or take up gynecology.

martin marriott said...

It's lovely to read a praise of something that can only be praised, should only be praised. like flowers and good bread, and the as-it-happens variations. i do miss the old many-poetry-open-mikes-seattle, all the throats and bodies, and I think there is something in that gym that one's own house can't provide.
Thank you for a lovely essay...