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JMM 3, Fall 2004/Winter 2005, section 6

Amalie Ørum Hansen
Commentary on Ansa Lønstrup’s Stemmen og øret – Studier i vokalitet og auditiv kultur (The Voice and the Ear – Studies of Vocality and Auditory Culture)

Lønstrup, A. Stemmen og øret – Studier i vokalitet og auditiv kultur. Copenhagen: Klim, 2004. 210 pp. ISBN 87-7955-277-3.

This commentary engages in two different projects. The first part, formerly published in Danish Yearbook of Musicology (2005) and revised, attempts to create an overall impression of the subject of the book and the use of theory it exhibits. The second part is more of an essay; it is a critical presentation of a possible reading, where the text is looked upon with an eye to its use of dichotomies - as either exclusive or inclusive. As a result it presents itself as a reading with a slightly more narrow aim than in the first part, although ample argumentation is provided in support of its critical point of view.

The book Stemmen og øret – Studier i vokalitet og auditiv kultur (The Voice and the Ear – Studies of Vocality and Auditory Culture) seeks to construe the area of identity formation as occurring in a conditional relationship between voice and ear. Its main purpose is to investigate and disentangle the processes of formation that are experienced when exploring both voice and ear. It consists of twelve short essays, which were all formerly published as working papers or articles. They seek (using different approaches) to conceptualise the notion of a tightly knitted connection between the use of the voice, the act of hearing, and their conditional relationship with the body.

Much of the applied theory belongs to a French post-structuralist approach, associated with researchers such as Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan. It is consonant with these sources of inspiration and the main part of the applied concepts and notions come from the realm of psychological terminology. Though it is never explicated, it seems quite clear to the reader that despite the romanticist character of the project, the notion of formation of identity through vocal expression never seems to be equivalent to the romanticist’s concept of formation, i.e. a process of human improvement. Instead, the texts appear to lean towards a notion of formation that is freed from the concept of improvement; it is rather a question of the very transgression of identity itself. Thus the anthology remains a decidedly psychology-based contribution to the ongoing discussion regarding construal of the notion of aesthetic experience.

One of the main theses of the text is that there is a fundamental difference between that which is audible and that which is visual. According to the author, this is due to the fact that the eye installs a distance between itself as spectator and the object. In contrast, the ear integrates and personalises the object, which consequently diminishes the distance. Hereby the texts reveal another classic conflict of interest found among aestheticians and musicologists, one that is also conditioned by the psychological (or psycho-therapeutic) line of approach. Thus two crucial dichotomies reveal themselves: The first concerns the separation and opposition between language and music. The second is consequently between conceptual communication and the non-conceptual expression. Readers well oriented in psychological research of the last few decades might wonder why more recent research in auditory cognition has not been taken into account. Findings within cognitive psychology and neuropsychology could be expected to yield a firmer foundation for such basic statements.

Apart from the obvious Freudian aspects (for example, the implicit assumption of an unconscious sphere), the anthology inscribes itself in yet another romanticist investigation. This is shown in enthusiastic statements such as: “Nothing can prevent my utter devotion to the musical melodiousness of the voice that is beyond language” (p. 57).[1] This reveals a severe disparity in the length of the book. The impressive commitment and enthusiasm of the author actually occupies a textual space that would have been better used in clarifying the positioning of the text with regard to the history of aesthetics and also the text’s own choice of methodology. This deficiency results in the fact that the texts are struggling to adhere to the very object of analysis. Not only does the object of analysis change throughout the twelve different essays, but also within the single essays; implicit paradigms are employed thus leaving the reader rather confused, not knowing exactly what the intentions are.

But this lack of explication seems also to be the very strength of the anthology as a whole. There is no doubt that it imbues a very complicated area of research with a liberating freedom of movement due to the almost fabulating style of writing. On one hand, the methodological haziness cannot be rescued by the impressive passion expressed, but on the other it is this enthusiasm that infects the reader with a certain confidence that also adds a convincing momentum to the descriptive analysis. This is done with an ease that certainly suits the main object of analysis: the voice. And it suits the very kind of tone, if not to say voice, which the author would like investigations of this sort to evince.

When one engages in a more critical reading of the text, in this case a reading that narrowly inspects the excluding mechanisms that are implicitly activated by the use of certain stereotype dichotomies, one find these have the tendency to embroil the book’s investigation in unfortunate fallacies.

It then seems reasonable to argue that the book does not succeed in fulfilling its ambitious aims: construing the relationship between voice and ear, as well as the relationships between vocality, visuality, and audibility. There appears to be a disturbing lack of consistency regarding the arguments, and the text’s self-sufficiency is far from convincing. Repetition of certain theoretical issues - especially as regards Roland Barthes and discussions of non-conceptual aspects of the voice versus conceptual ones - results in redundancy.

The book optimistically heralds “…the reappearance or renaissance of sensation, orality, and hearing” (p. 13). This claim is both interesting and pregnant. But it is not validated by other than the fact that the claim is preceded by the announcement of the author’s self-presence: “When I during the past decade have been concerned with the voice it could be a sign of the reappearance or renaissance of sensation, orality, and hearing” (p.13).[2] This is never exemplified or substantiated, although obviously the claim of the return of sensuality is an interesting and compelling one.

As I mentioned earlier, there is no doubt that the book is the offspring of an impressive enthusiasm. This enthusiasm is highly contagious, and the text’s seductiveness thus almost surreptitiously precludes a possible critical reading. But the text leads the reader into a labyrinthine sphere of dichotomies that has an excluding effect on the objects of analysis.

The implicit dichotomies are rushed into rather hungrily but are never satisfied. “The voice is characteristic for man; it represents the immediate human as opposed to the animal, the technological or the societal, and has it not always been like this?” (p.14).[3] Hereby, the book construes and acknowledges several dichotomies. It insists on the division between the voice as distinctively human opposed to that of the animal, technological or the societal. But such a simplistic view (we find that animals, society, and technology have voices as well) seems unacceptable when the aim of the text is explicated as broadly being studies of vocality and auditory culture. The quote also implies that the voice of man is an expression of an inner sphere, while technology and society belong to an external sphere. It is questionable whether these dichotomies provide us with an applicable distinction or not. Whether we choose to focus on the intonation or the sonority of the voice, or on what it speaks, there seems to be a presence of the external. Even the intonation or quality of sonority of the voice of a given politician or an intimate lover appears to bear an impression of an external world, of society. To claim that the human voice is the locus of the authentic or of truth is a romantic conception (p.14). It is rather tiresome to be confronted with vast paradigms such as the discussion of the voice and the authentic, i.e. the text has the character of an outdated historical presentation. It would have benefited from a discussion of the voice versus sounds of objects. The notion of the voice as the “absolute subjective, the individual, and personal[4] somehow implies a notion just as old and complex as the question of man, animal and God (p. 28). The voice is granted access to that which is absolutely subjective and is thereby positioned as occupying an almost sacred place, the place of that which is neither God, nor animal/society, but that which is man, the subject. The anthology displays the conviction that the voice has the potential of becoming a modern temple of subjectivity. If one uncritically adopts the psychoanalytical conception of the voice as having a privileged access to that which is of a pre-linguistic character, one is easily caught in the fallacy of a romanticist’s glorification of the natural, the unspoiled. When presenting the voice as possibly being of the absolute subjective it seems reasonable to question the presence of subjectivity in the pre-linguistic sphere.

There are, however, interesting general reflections. A historical overview of the influences of the surrounding society on the vocal is presented. It takes into account the role of technology (recording, microphones etc.) as well as that of actual surroundings (the room, buildings etc.). Although it is possibly intended as a consideration that is to produce a nuanced conception of the voice, in this regard the text rather seems confusing and inconclusive. It seems unclear whether the text is searching for or trying to rehabilitate the authentic or whether it is trying to apply social history to the construction of the concept of the voice. In this way the arguments do not seem to validate the ideas of the text; they seem rather to indecisively wage war on each other.

The crude division between the eye and the ear provides an excellent example of the seductiveness of the text. “The difference between the visual and audible conception of the world is for instance characterised by the fact that the objectification of the seen, that which is looked upon, becomes an object to the beholder, thereby creating a difference between the beholder and that which is seen. As an organ, the eye confirms the distance between the beholder and the object, and it defines the way in which a person relates to the world” (p. 28).[5]

Though this statement is concerned with a positive description of the quality of the eye and the beholder, it also suggests a negative characterisation of the ear. It reveals the ear as something that absorbs the world, as a possible container of the outer. But also, that the external world has the possibility, thereby, to be transformed into an inner world – without the presence of a will, a choice; it is almost a primal animalistic conception of hearing. But if that is the case, why has the very sensitivity to distance (the ear’s ability to construe space – its ability to position a person in space) that is a characteristic of the ear, not been considered? The ear is also an organ that positions us in the world. It is true that we find ourselves with closed eyes in order to forget time, but not in order to forget things, objects, and our position in the world.

“If we close our eyes and listen we will become sensitive to ourselves as both being in the world as well as being different from the world” (p. 28).[6] Another distinction lies implicitly in the abovementioned quotation: the eye becomes synonymous with engaging in an act, it is subscribed the ability to engage actively in the world. The eye has the power to govern given objects; the eye conducts the world. The negative characteristic of the ear thereby becomes that of passiveness. The ear is an object for the world to conduct. It is questionable if this comparison of the eye and ear is an accurate and productive one.

“…The sense of hearing…absorbs the outside world in us” (p. 28).[7] It appears that this is a simplistic and outdated conception of the sense of hearing. The notion of the ear’s ability to internalise and personalise the world (opposed to the scrutinising distance exercised by the eye) is a romantic conception. Though it might be argued from a metaphorical point of view that the eye engages in a more active meeting with the world (e.g. ‘he shot a glance at…’ or ‘run one’s eye over…’) there seems to be no reason to argue that the perception of the ear is a passive one. Auditory perception is just as active and extroverted as the visual. The eye as well as the ear is equally governed by attention; they seem equally, though in different manners, to be objects of both control as well as of diversion. And we depend on both senses to actively perceive and interpret meaningful contexts.

“The ear…eliminates the distance between the subject and the object” (p.28).[8] Surely, one cannot ignore the history of the eye and the beholder that is symptomatic of more resent art history. But this history consists mainly of theories that are conceived in an investigational process concerning the eye and the beholder. Therefore, it seems reasonable to question its direct applicability on the concept of the ear and the process of listening in general. In other words, the book reiterates a visually based paradigm in its attempt to investigate the ear (and the voice). The investigation with which the book is concerned becomes caught in a closed system that works at cross purposes with regard to its chief goal, i.e. to point out the renaissance of sensuality, orality and hearing. Were the text to be successful in fulfilling its aim, it should have committed itself to the investigation of sensuality, orality, and hearing on their very own terms.

All in all, the book provides thorough analysis of crucial areas such as language and music, the voice and formation of identity, the voice and its relation to the body, and, finally, music and narration. Though the book lacks methodological clarity, especially the parts containing concrete vocal analyses exhibit promising potential for music pedagogy.

 

 

 

 

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JMM: The Journal of Music and Meaning

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