[Valentina Valentini] One of the foundational aspects of Italian New Theatre is the non-centrality of the text, which is seen as interchangeable with all the other languages present on stage. What were your leading ideas on the relationship between word, space and body when you began working with the voice?
[Chiara Guidi] The weight of tradition. The weight of technique. The weight of the art of acting. For me, just saying the text is not enough—the imitation of a nineteenth century mode of acting is not enough. There needs to be a vision of one’s voice in relation to the text, and a vision of the text in relation to one’s voice. If the text is the starting point, it should be spread out vocally, allowing the voice to write its dramaturgy.
At the same time, the voice is like any other musical instrument: in order to use it you have to get to know it, learn to play it, know how it sounds. You cannot use the voice without knowing where it acts in space, because the voice moves around as much as a body.
When I use my voice, I see it in front of me: I see it go up and I push it down, I trace out its score in space, I draw out its gestures by putting small marks on the syllables I have to utter. I control my voice the way dancers control a dance or singers control a piece of music. Good actors are becoming increasingly rare, and many are too concentrated on the meaning of words. They forget that while they are thinking about meaning, their voice still sounds out, and that that sound carries its own sense, meaning, discourse.
Another, and even more crucial, issue for actors is the whole of the performance, which the sound of the voice is only one part of. Actors cannot escape this; their voices need to carry the weight of the idea that has made the performance necessary. When actors choose one voice out of the thousands they possess for one particular performance, that voice needs to complete the entire vision, it needs to become the vision in and of itself.
In this respect, part of the issue is that most contemporary theatre concentrates more on gesture, on movement, on the visual and the spatial than on vocal training. As a result of this, an actor who leaves an Italian acting school today sounds clichéd, affected . . .
Actors often fall into clichés . . . They need to be driven out of them. A good way to do this is to record actors and let them listen to themselves, allowing them to hear the flatness of their speech, so they can hear where the limits are in order to push them. An atrophied voice can never do an actor’s work.
Once they have found their boundaries, actors need to imitate and pick up a technique that allows them to control their voice the way painters work with naked models: outlining, contrast, sfumato, chiaroscuro—all of this, with the voice. When I like a voice, I steal it: I try to imitate it. By imitation, I store a lot of sounds, figures, materials. Objects are harder to store than people; for example, it takes at least five people to mimic the sound of industrial machinery.
Every time I imitate a sound, I always find new details of my voice, colors that allow me to break out of my voice’s two-dimensionality. How can you make a voice three-dimensional? How can you find a world in a voice? Imitation helps me to transform sound into language, into an increasingly complex and articulate form.
How can an actor develop a relationship with tradition, nowadays, without confusing tradition with clichés? How can actors master the rules by which the voice functions, what kind of vocal pedagogy do they need?
Do you remember that workshop in Rossano, when I made participants take notes of the sounds of nature and develop them into a score? Some of the sounds we catalogued on that occasion revealed something of their hidden drama—and this happened because we had written them down. Dramatic rhythm is the rhythm of life: you can search for these rhythms in life and watch them, listen to them, imitate them, reconstruct them, execute them until you become truly touched by them—these are important and necessary tasks which, nevertheless, tend to stay out of an actor’s institutional upbringing.
In ancient times, the theatre had a very strong connection with music: words were drummed into beats, into rhythms and melodies, and this allowed them to appear materially on stage. But, nowadays, how can you make spoken words visible? Where can you find the music? How can you allow the alphabet to be seen, each letter to have a voice? Linguistic relationships—between consonants and vowels, between labials and fricatives—need to return to their music; to a sung kind of acting which reminds us of the complexity of life’s emotions.
Often, on stage, words bore us. They run out of power. They sound over-read, over-said, and you wonder what effect the theatre is having on those words: why are those words on stage, why are they not kept for private reading? And these boring words are often accompanied: by gesture, by interpretation, but it is only the voice that is saying them.
Two years ago, I gave voice to Abbott’s Flatland, a short story essentially about geometric planes, about imagining life in zero, one, two and three dimensions. During rehearsals, I read the words again and again concentrating only on my voice, trying to get away from the influence of meaning—I kept doing this until my voice doubled: it had the voice of two characters, one prompting the other.
In Flatland, vocal timbres and tones created a series of intersecting planes that cut through the words, turning the text’s crevices into hard corners: the voice had to imitate geometric shapes, and the vocal chords had to replace the theatre’s ropes. Once I had understood this, I designed an architecture made of echoes, recoveries, interruptions, fractures that allowed me to find the meaning of the words within the words themselves.
So in order to give body to the voice there needs to be some sort of separation—from gesture, from action . . .
Yes, in my practice, I look for a body. But even more so, I look for the singularity of a face where the voice is hidden. If the voice does everything it can to be noticed, to be eccentric, it becomes unbearable; the artificiality of its experimentation becomes unbearable.
The voice I tend to look for is a classical voice; a voice that is aware of its movement without having to see it; a voice capable of controlling the sonic molecules of syllables, of phonemes, of the alphabet. A voice capable of pronouncing breaths, groans, saliva, the sounds of the oral cavity . . .
When, in current voice studies, we look back onto the history of voice in the twentieth century (beyond Artaud), what emerges is a deep relationship between body, voice, space and rhythm.
The experience should involve all the senses. That is why I work with children: because they know how to think and imagine at the same time; how to touch what they see and how to listen to what they touch . . . I see voice and childhood as the pillars that frame the way I work, as well as my experience of theatre, more generally. The voice, too, can direct us towards a tactile or visual experience; and the notes I make about voice when I work often go in that direction. When we started to work on the Tragedia Endogonidia, Scott Gibbons and I collected a number of recordings. We now have a sound library which we use as a base for our compositions. Before I met Scott for the first time, I gathered an infinity of ideas on the voice: very simple notes to remember the kind of vocalities I wanted to work on with him. Whenever I found a voice, I would recite a short text in it, or the alphabet.
But the notes I made always referred to tactile and olfactory experiences . . . I had be looking for a velvety voice, a thundery voice, a voice like rolling rocks . . . I wanted to make space around the voice to hear all the indistinct sounds we never hear and are incapable of hearing. After all, when we are happy, or sad, we say very few words—and it is the voice that communicates the intensity of what we are feeling. This is especially true for children. It is in this space that we need to search for the childhood of theatre, and for its voice.
The past few years have seen an abundance of new physical training methods, and very few vocal training methods.
In order to use my voice, I have to know how my voice sounds; in order to know this, I need to know how to listen and I need to know how to mimic. So, before we talk about art, we should concentrate on an artisanal kind of strategy—I devised what I term the “molecular voice technique” for this reason, and it is something that needs to be applied to the singularity of each voice, because there are so many voices and they are all so different.
There is a different voice for every person, animal, thing—and these differences must be scanned, listened to, seen, touched. In order to know and mimic voices, I need to learn to describe them, identify them with a form, with a matter: what does my voice look like? Or, the other way round, what kind of voice is inscribed in a certain object or character? For example, what voice should Hamlet or Othello have for us to see them as if it were the first time? The choice of voice is a central dramaturgical question.
Digital music incapacitates the performer’s body, the body of the musical instrument and the risks of liveness; so, in the concert form, images are increasingly used to make up for something the music lacks—that is what John Cage would have called its “theatrical” dimension.
I cast the actresses in L’Ultima Volta che Vidi Mio Padre solely on the basis of the timbre and the tone of their voices, because they had to fit in with the cartoon images projected on stage. They would only become indispensable to the performance if they played their voice, without interpreting, without attempting vocal registers other than their own. Because the sound of their voices already contained the emotionality of a text that was yet to be written: I chose the voices before I wrote the text. I also got the cartoon drawn before I had a plot that justified the images. It was the voice that would have to go through the compositional process: the plot was suspended and subsequently resumed by digging into the harmonious whole of images and sounds.
Let’s go back to words and text. Please, talk about the musical orchestration of the spoken word you took care of in each and every Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio show up until the Tragedia Endogonidia.
In 2007, I wrote Madrigale appena Narrabile, for fifteen voices and a cello. The composition treats the actors’ voices as the faces of a single geometrical figure: a polyhedron with edges and apexes that is in itself capable of creating full and empty spaces, suspensions and recoveries.
Ultimately, a plot never reveals itself; an image or a situation contains different levels of reality, and if readers want to enter the dramatic action of a piece of writing, they need to approach the text armed not only with reason, but also with imagination and with the senses. This is even more important in the theatre! A staging of a text should grant access to its invisible side—this is something that cannot be done through interpretation or voice only; it has to be done through music: entrusting the text to music to see the contradictory “background” of things without expressing or representing them.
When I first approach a text, I always create a set of practical problems that can allow me to access its sonic background. At first, it is chaos; but, then, a rhythm begins to emerge, and from this rhythm a phrase will eventually lead me to the melody of the entire text. I do this to discover what the voices are hiding, what the words are hiding. And, although I could not articulate what exactly happens in this process, what I do know is that its result is a score, something I can follow and continuously reinvent in the hard groove of the written page. When I act, I do not interpret the words but the shape I have drawn onto them.
It is a rhythm that each of us possesses but buried within us, not immediately accessible.
I am the first one to hear these scores. In life, I am attracted to some sounds more than to others, and, consequently, those are the sounds I follow, or rather the ones I go digging for. Le Corbusier called this the harmonic axis—each one of us has one. When I start working on a performance, I have the feeling that I am looking for something that is actually already there; it’s just that I do not yet possess it. Research becomes a daily activity and, in a sense, one is bound to fail: I discover voices, sounds, images, lights, spaces, and I always feel that they are not perfect (this is why I alter them slightly every night). I always feel like a latecomer (late, but relatively to what?).
Scholars like Roland Barthes have asked themselves what came first, whether it was the word or the image; but I think what you are saying—and I agree—is that the image is inside the word—that there is no contradiction.
These are difficult issues. And the relationship between music and text is also not simple, nor is it constant. These are thoughts that take us back to a mythical time when language, music and dance were a single entity. Maybe what I do in my work is use voice as a paradigm through which to investigate reality, as a way to look at and save images from the avalanche of consumption. The voice allows me to dig pictures out of the real, to imitate them to feel all the sonic weight an image carries.
Indeed. For example, in my investigations into video art, I have found a number of strategies that artists have used to save themselves from the indifferent image—and one of these strategies was the word (see Godard, Gary Hill, among others) . . .
As we prepared Genesi (1999), I worked on the Bereshit, the first text of the Bible, the divine book we were looking to stage. The text was in Hebrew—a language I did not understand, but, with the help of a teacher, I learned to pronounce those words correctly, and thus hunt for their music. The music, not the correspondence of meaning between the Hebrew and its Italian translation: the score was just the ordered version of the seduction I felt from that sound. What I wanted to hear in those words was the desire that pushed me towards them.
Let’s talk about your work with Scott Gibbons. He is a composer and you work on the voice, so what happens when you collaborate on the compositional process?
The method Scott and I employ varies depending on the work. In the first instance, we collect sound ideas around the images or situations we want to give voice to. After this, we start recording, accumulating sonorities which will give the stage image its tone. This is an interesting moment: capturing sounds, placing microphones, choosing and discarding sounds based on their rhythmic and melodic qualities. This recording phase is very important to us because the richness of the source guarantees the weight of a certain sound. We ask ourselves where to record the sound from, from what part of the room.
While we were preparing Tragedia Endogonidia, we often sought the voice of silence. Easy to say, certainly fascinating, but difficult to put into practice. We coined this expression after experiencing the vacuum of an anechoic chamber. Inside the room, we had both felt a sense of dizziness, but, at the same time, we had heard our internal buzz for the very first time: our breath and our bloodstream became audible and generated a presence. It was a silence, but it was broken by our internal organs, by the sound born within our bodies. We perceived a real space inside of us which suspended meanings and interpretations and made the breath melodic. And, on this occasion, it felt as if we had found the roots of voice: that voice is born from an abysmal silence; a silence the voice also returns to, after having spoken, untainted by what it has said.
In the Tragedia Endogonidia, voice was the matter that made the text visible, and that also made visible Romeo’s images, which he worked on primarily through the medium of light. Tragedia was a continuous exchange between hearing and seeing: sound was a physical entity that inhabited the stage. With Scott, I searched for a sound born from the voice. That is why we recorded hours and hours of material: I wanted to be inside the voice, like breath; I wanted to see it from the inside; I wanted my flesh and bones to enter the heart of words, where layers of time sleep one on top of the other. Quietly. Mute.
Contemporary technologies open up yet another field of investigation.
Machines allow us to constantly switch point of view: a good microphone can highlight aspects of a voice that are normally hidden. Microphones and effects work like elastic bands: they can stretch out the thinner sounds, show them in tension— because I do not want people to hear the strain of my voice when I try to show these things myself.
So, how do you work with microphones—an older tool compared to current digital technologies?
The problem is not the microphone, but what comes out of the speaker: what the spectator hears, and what rhythmic and melodic relation this sound has with the other entities on stage. Sometimes, there will be an unintentional sound that rings out of tune with the sonic dramaturgy of the performance—the curtain might squeak as it opens and the audience will hear it. We should know about this sound and build the tone of the performance accordingly; if we ignore it, the sonic and emotional set-up of the piece will sound flawed, out of harmony.
Unusually, you choose actors for their voice—most directors choose their actor based on physical presence.
No actor can play any text; there are certain texts that just sound better in the mouths of certain actors. There are voices that are out of tune with a certain kind of meaning, and there are meanings that only make sense with one kind of voice. Voice escapes definitions; it has no hard science behind it. All I know is that I need to have a host of voices if I want to be able to respond to the call of an idea.
Our ability to perceive the voice in space is also reliant on technologies.
Yes, but ancient technologies this time. Because when actors opened their mouths in Epidaurus, they knew their voice would travel to the last row, all the way to the top. Bodies have a temperature, and so do voices. Technology should not be seen. Those who act should not allow themselves to be recognized (actors often shout! So much effort to be seen!). This is what technique is for: if it is excellent, it allows the actor to hide. An actor’s job is to walk onto the stage and deal with that walking on; the spectator’s job is to await the naked apparition of vision which turns its back to us and leaves. For me, the voice is an autonomous body that exists between me and the spectator, a sound we both listen to: I as I act and you as you sit and wait.
We are very used to our image, but not our voice—people suffer when they hear themselves.
We are used to hearing our voice from the inside, and when we hear it recorded it disorients us—but all it takes is practice. What I do is work by subtraction: the cry should be held in the theatre, it should be contained. If you hold it in, it garners more power. And the same thing applies to the voice that lies hidden inside the throat, inside words, or inside all of those inarticulate sounds that express emotions, as well as groans, moans—it is as if we had forgotten the expressive power of all of these sounds. It seems we have forgotten this expressive power. Whereas the great actors of the past possessed this knowledge as an innate force: it was moving to hear them breathe, to hear them cough . . . But, perhaps, audiences used to listen differently, too.
Let’s return to this question of childhood: to your own relationship to children’s theatre and to sound, as well as to the child’s sense of sound—and, hence, also imitation of voices, deformation of sounds . . .
My “Molecular Voice Technique” contains a number of exercises that focus on imitation, and imitation is central to child’s play. The chair is a horse, and that horse is wholly perceived, with all the senses. The child wants to smell, hear, touch, act, get up, get closer. Children allow you to understand wonder; the kind of wonder that makes the jaw drop, unpolluted by words, connected only to action, to doing. It is similar to what Robinson Crusoe experienced when he was catapulted into another world where all the usual objects had lost their names—in renaming them, he made words follow matter.
And, lastly, child’s play is imitative. In order to imitate a cow, I have to listen to it, smell it, see how it moves its head, its tail . . . An imitation is not just a soft toy version of the cow: it relies on closeness, on lived experience. For me, this practical awareness is crucial: the realism of experience, not only in order to make art, but also to find sense in life.
An actor who asks herself why she is on stage, an actor who does not know the limits of her voice, can only be dragged out of this state by traversing a liminal area, where she is neither an actor nor a singer . . .
What I seek to execute is Monteverdi’s idea in reverse: not “recitar cantando,” to sing by acting, but “cantar recitando,” to act by way of singing. When I act, the questions I ask myself are musical: they have to do with attacks, breaks, with how to allow one voice to come into another . . . When I work with actors, the problem I pose myself is, how can I enter and exit the very sound generated by an actor’s presence?
At the theatre, music should be the musicality of a word, of the voice, of the performance; an internal quality and not a genre, as it tends to be considered in Western culture.
The theatre is the locus of the gaze, but it is a gaze that grounds a feeling, which digs up figures and destroys them, the way children destroy their toys to see what is inside. If it s true that it was the word which initially named things, then we need to find those things again through voice . . . A voice that beats, beats, beats … and warms.
 Translated by Flora Pitrolo. A longer Italian-language version of this conversation was originally published in Drammaturgie sonore. Teatri del secondo Novecento, edited by Valentina Valentini and published in Rome by Bulzoni, in 2012 (pages 159-81).
*Valentina Valentini teaches performing arts and new media in the Performing Arts Department of the University of Rome La Sapienza. Her research interests focus on performance in the twentieth century, especially the relationship between theatre, art and new technologies. She is a leading authority on performance and multi-media events, and author of several theoretical and historical studies devoted to twentieth -century theatre. Recent books include Mondi, corpi, materie: Teatro del secondo Novecento (2007) [Worlds Bodies Matters (2014)] and New Theater Made in Italy, a research project on the Italian theatre of the years between 1960-2013, published in Italian (Bulzoni) and in English by Routledge with the support of a website. See here.
**Chiara Guidi, along with Romeo and Claudia Castellucci, was one of the founders of Socìetas Raffello Sanzio, in 1981. She was the soul of dramatic rhythm and vocal composition for the company’s productions, directing numerous plays and researching each actor’s spoken part. Taking sound as a paradigm and through this practically and sensorially experiencing reality and its double, since 2008, Guidi has been the artistic director of “Màntica. Esercizi di voce umana,” a program of theatre and music at Cesena’s Teatro Comandini, which extends the horizons of her personal research in artistic development of sound and the voice. Guidi is currently conducting parallel research on the relationship between theatre and childhood.