Book Review: ‘Voice: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media’ by Norie Neumark, Ross Gibson and Theo van Leeuwen (Editors)
I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. I am trying to find my voice. (Maybe I should just steal it).
“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.” (Polonius’ advice Laertes in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3)
Our voice is important. Implicit in this quote is the knowledge that our voice communicates more than simply what we are saying. Shakespeare knew this and so do the contributors to this book.
‘V01CE’ is a compilation of essays on the human voice and its role in digital art and new media. The premise of the anthology is that although the voice is essentially a paradox; caught in the ‘simultaneity of presence and absence’, it not only exists but flourishes in this new digital world.
While the sleeve asserts that “voice has returned to theoretical and artistic agendas” the contributors to the book counter with evidence that it has, in fact, never been away. I see this book as positioning itself as a kind of ‘call to arms’; a request to renew academic interest and the serious study of the human voice and, specifically, how it relates to digital culture.
You may ask why is it worth studying the voice in the context of new media, art and culture? Norie Neumark succinctly answers this question as she states:
Culture colors [sic] the voice, contours its performative capacities and leaves deep imprints on its character – it mediates the voice, in terms of its accent, intonations, timbre, cadence and rhythm. (2010, p.xviii)
So with what academic tools does the book use in the pursuit of understanding? Well, the book adopts an interdisciplinary approach and draws on many different areas including philosophical, anthropological, historical, social and artistic paradigms. With so many spheres of knowledge, there was a danger that the book would lack a coherent and focused argument. However, it copes admirably in its task, largely due to the solid theoretical groundwork consisting of works by theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard.
The book is well structured, with essays logically divided into four sections: ‘Capturing Voice’, ‘Performing Voice’, ‘Reanimating Voice’ and ‘At the Human Limits of Voice’.
The first section, ‘Capturing Voice’, deals with the historical precedent of human interest in the voice, and examines such topics as voice mail (Thomas Levin), podcasting (Virginia Madsen and John Potts) and the emulation of voice through musical instruments (Theo van Leeuwen).
Thomas Levin’s essay entitled ‘Before the Beep’ traces the history of the answer machine and voice mail. The chapter gains particular salience when we consider the recent phone hacking scandal that has erupted in the UK surrounding the News of the World reporters hacking into phone messages of murdered school children and grieving families of military personnel. Levin’s piece gives the whole scandal a more disturbing characteristic when he states “speaking potentially evokes greater emotion, conveys greater sincerity, and promotes a higher level of trust than writing” (Ibid, p.18). Could it be that the human voices on the messages made the ‘stories’ more significant, more compelling, and gave them more ‘value’ than, say, emails or written communication.
Theresa Senft’s chapter, ‘Four Rooms’ is a particular highlight of the book. In her personal, humorous, refreshingly honest and heart-achingly emotional writing she discusses phone sex, her mother’s self-help tapes during her battle with cancer, the programming of computer voice recognition technology, and the profound impact of Alvin Lucier’s famous experimental composition on her. The chapter gives real-life context to the theories considered elsewhere in the book.
[Alvin Lucier’s famous composition, “I am sitting in a room”. A text is played and recorded and re recorded over and over until eventually the resonance frequencies of the room are manifest as a wall of sound which washes over the listener. Part 2. Part 3.]
‘Performing Voice‘, the second section, examines voice in performance art, be it drama, dance, or poetry. For example, ‘Voice, Dance, Process, and the “Predigital”’ by Meredith Morse explores the use of voice in dance and concludes that it is a fantastic ‘tool’, used to “explosively undermine dance’s established terms of narrative” (Ibid, p.138).
Mark Amerika’s composition ‘Professor VJ’s Big Blog Mashup’ has an unconventional format yet it is creative and experimental, and provides some welcome relief from, what can be at times, dense theory. It seems to be written to be read aloud.
The third section, ‘Reanimating Voice’, collects several fascinating essays on the manipulation of voice in music, film and gaming. For example, Isabelle Arvers’ interesting chapter entitled ‘Cheats or Glitch?: Voice as a Game Modification in Machinima’ discusses the art of dubbing over video games with new voices to create a totally new and subversive form of expression. In ‘Voice, Videogames and Technologies of Immersion’ and ‘The Play of the Voice’, Mark Ward and Axel Stockburger respectively examine the role of voice in the video gaming experience. They conclude voice is plays a significant role as part of the game play itself and also in performing an ‘anchor function’ necessary for the suspension of disbelief and the total immersion in a game. These chapters are particularly informative and valuable in an age where the video games industry rivals that of film and television for the attention of the public. On a personal level, the discussion of the role of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) gives a new level of comprehension to my brothers extensive gaming sessions over the mic with his friends on Call of Duty.
The final section, ‘At the Human Limits of Voice’, examines other issues regarding voice such as the alienation of the disembodied voice in immigrant diasporas. The section opens with a charming poetic piece by Michael Taussig on the nature of humming.
It is clear that not every chapter will appeal to everyone. Some chapters are more enchanting than others and this of course depends on the readers own interests (this review highlights some of my personal favourite chapters). However, as a whole I found the compilation enriching. While the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the structure and editing allow readers to pick and choose which chapters they want to read.
The individual essays are intelligently written. They are playful and self aware in their use of language which makes the enthusiasm with which the authors write observable and infectious. Rather fittingly, the pages are filled with echoes. Authors hark back to previous writers, with Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’ referenced frequently. As would be expected in an anthology of this sort, the contributors use a range of literary techniques which avoids a monotonous reading experience. Mimicry is also used by several authors (imitation is, of course, the sincerest form of flattery) with Sneft’s reiteration of Lucier’s “I am sitting in a room…” maxim and Amerika/Professor VJ’s borrowing of Kathy Acker’s witty response to the question “Where do you find your voice?” (the reply being: “What voice? I just steal s**t”) being most notable examples.
‘V01CE’ is a thoroughly enjoyable read. It combines abstract theoretical concepts with examples of practical applications. The book is informative, enlightening and eye-opening; all hallmarks of a good book. Here and now, days after my initial reading, I find I’m paying extra attention to various aspects of voice in my daily life, whether it is the falsetto vocals and post-production work on my favourite album, the awareness of the Wilhelm Scream in a film, or even when I speak out loud. I would argue if you finish reading it and you do not have a new found respect and reverence for your own voice, then you haven’t read it properly.
I will conclude with Joseph Beuy’s articulation on what the voice is, which I believe is particularly eloquent.
“Voice is a sculpture of the thought. It is information sculpted by the air through the organs. It transforms the immateriality of thinking into materiality by bringing the body inside sound” (Ibid, p.233)