Despite the advances in contemporary performer training, which resist a paradigm rooted in Cartesian dualism, an impediment that is evident in the way in which classical singing technique is widely taught remains in the thinking of voice as extra-corporeal. This project centres on uncovering the liminal spaces where the intersection of technology and the lived body may converge in a classical singer’s process. Drawing inspiration from theatre artist Marie Brassard’s use of autobiographical narrative and methods that manipulate voice through mediated means, I integrated my Mother’s recorded voice into the devising process of an autobiographical music-theatre piece which intertwines the personal narrative of my family’s struggle with her descent into dementia and the music of Kurt Weill. The techniques I discovered highlight how using the disembodied mediated voice can function as a catalyst to inhabiting a more fully embodied one. By directly confronting the voice as extra-corporeal, the use of mediated voice in a classical singer’s process demonstrates that technology may encourage the voice to be released from its bodily limitations.
Keywords: Mediated-voice, classical singing technique, autoethnographic performance practices, radical vocality, devised music-theatre, disembodiedembodiment
As a researcher, my work investigates phenomenological insights as they relate to singing training. My research imperatives grew out of my own experiences as a performer working between the divides of actor and classical singing training. I studied and performed as an opera singer early in my career while concurrently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Theatre Performance. My experiences highlight the disconnect I perceived between the pedagogical approaches in each discipline. The classical vocal pedagogy relied on a “discursive self-reflexivity” (Pagis 266), where words are used to impart empirical knowledge. This contrasts significantly with my theatre training, where “embodied self-reflexivity” experienced through “corporeal practices that increase awareness of sensations” (266) was at the core of the pedagogy.
In developing my own “radical vocality” (Berberian 49) or a new way forward in my practice, I grew to understand that despite the advances in contemporary performer training, which resist a paradigm rooted in Cartesian dualism, an impediment that is evident in the way classical singing technique is widely taught remains in the thinking of voice as extra-corporeal (Dolar; Duncan; Novak). I framed my investigations around Adriana Cavarero’s philosophy of a “vocal ontology of uniqueness” (173), wherein the unrepeatable and distinct characteristics of the individual are manifested through the voice. This contrasted with my classical singing training, where the voice is commonly signified as a musical instrument (Sundberg 117) and reduced to mechanical expression over which the singer, after gaining mastery over their instrument, attempts to layer emotion.
Cavarero contests that what distinguishes the human voice from the notion of “voice as instrument” is its ability to carry speech and the humanness contained therein: “Speech, no matter how frustrated by song its semantic valence may be, nevertheless continues to be what the song is destined towards” (127). Cavarero’s theory of the sung voice being inseparable from speech validated the dissatisfaction I encountered in my vocal practice as I sought methods to traverse the mind/body split addressed in actor speech training yet essentially ignored in my experiences in the classical voice studio, where the training centralises the voice as “an autonomous object detached from the body that produces it” (Poizat 35).
Vital in my practice-as-research (PaR) is developing processes that deconstruct traditional texts and forms through autoethnographic performance practices—centralising the self as an essential means of finding greater freedom in vocal expression. These explorations centre on weaving personal experience through sung or spoken narrative into established forms. Initially, these were explorations, yet I subsequently developed them into processes for devising new music-theatre.
This article incorporates the theoretical underpinnings of my PaR with autoethnographic inquiry (through snippets of personal narrative from my notes), video footage and self-reflective commentary of the work. My primary investigations as a researcher centre on integrating a more inside-out mode of practice (similar to the body-based methods I encountered in my actor training) into my process as a singer as I developed a mode of practice that attends to internal somatic sensations—transforming physical responses into vocal expression. However, the phase of my research that I focus on here centres on my subsequent investigations of employing a more outside-in approach by using external prompts in the form of the mediated voice of my mother to activate a similar embodied self-reflexivity found in the inside-out methods as a means of accessing a more profound response in vocal expression.
As my methodology is centred in autoethnographic inquiry, the primary project through which I conducted my initial research was the devising of an autobiographical music-theatre piece in which I intertwined the account of my family’s experience of my mother’s descent into dementia with the Kurt Weill Cabaret song Je ne t’aime pas. In response to my desire to include outside-in investigations in my research, I committed to examine the liminal spaces where the intersection of technology (the outside) and the lived body (the inside) may converge in a classical singer’s process.
Bodies and Technology: Fluid Collaboration
As a voice practitioner who has worked almost entirely in non-mediated processes, confronting what I saw as the impediment of extra-corporality in the classical singer’s process by introducing the external constituent of a mediated voice seemed counter-intuitive, at first, and a radical departure from the more inside-out approach of attending to internal somatic sensations on which that the live voice can. In the context of my vocal practice, established within the highly regimented aesthetic of bel canto, my research aimed to reveal how authenticity might permeate through to a classical singing practice while maintaining the integrity of the form.
The dance scholar and contemporary phenomenologist Susan Kozel asserts for a more flexible means of working with these two elements that I perceived as opposing:
if technology is regarded as abstract, logical and mechanical, and bodies are seen as organic matter only, then the two will be mutually hostile. But if bodies and technology are seen additionally as flows of energy or intensity or as fluid dynamics, then there is ground for collaboration.17
Determining how to access this flow of energy from the mediated voice to the live voice became key in the investigations of using the recording of my mother’s voice to embody the disembodied.
My initial aim in using an audio recording of my mother’s voice in my practice was not to include it in the actual performance but to analyse it in an attempt to make meaning of the seemingly nonsensical language she was using in the midst of her illness—the intention being to have the recording serve as a point of reference in my devising process. However, as I began listening to the recording through speakers in the studio, I resolved it should become an integral element in the devising process. This experience (as described in my studio notes above) opened up a heightened aural sensitivity to the subtle variances contained in my mother’s vocalic expression. It inspired a curiosity as to how I may receive this external and disembodied voice coming through the speakers, inscribe it into my body and re-inscribe it as an embodied vocalic response.
The heightened aural sensitivity I experienced supports Pieter Verstraete’s notion of “auditory distress,” which addresses the necessity of the listener’s response to meaning-making in aurality. By channelling the mediated manifestation of the sound of my mother’s voice through my resonant body (Verstraete 83), I invited the disembodied voice into my process. Verstraete contends the “disembodied voice reminds us that every sound is always embodied because of its need for a body (85). This “need” became vital as I examined the space between my live body in the studio and the sonic representation of my mother reaching me through the speakers.
Aesthetic inspiration also played into my decision to introduce my mother’s mediated voice into my process after I attended a performance of French-Canadian theatre artist Marie Brassard’s solo work Peepshow. Brassard’s pieces often start from a personal and biographical place to which she adds mediated layers of sound and light to twist and distort the recalling of these memories. Technology is used (in Peepshow, the actress speaks into a microphone, and the amplified voice is, then, run through multi-effect processors) to manipulate and transform the solo performer’s voice into a myriad of characters. Brassard has stated that her use of mediated voice seeks to represent a “mismatched body and spirit” (qtd. in Halferty 26); I, however, felt that my use of my mother’s mediated voice served to challenge Brassard’s intention of creating a divide between body and voice, even as I sought to bridge that same divide.
My first impression of Brassard’s work indicated that her views on voice contrasted markedly from mine as she aimed to separate body and voice by disembodying the voice, filtering it electronically and re-mediating it. Conversely, my experience with voice was based primarily on classical singing training,where the focus is on creating a pure and even tone through carefully studied technique. The singer is encouraged to gain mastery over their “instrument,” indicating a separation between voice, body and the one who produces the sound. I aimed to find methods towards a more emotionally connected vocal expression through embodiment, reconciling body and spirit. However, what I discovered to be useful was that Brassard’s separation of body and voice allowed an examination of what lay between the two, opening up the possibility of discovering further layers of acoustic intimacy (Samur and Windeyer), textural nuances and stimulating opportunities to creatively decant a voice deemed to be authentically engaged.
Upon beginning to work with the recording, I employed a form of mimesis, first mouthing her words, then attempting to reproduce them. I intended to explore how I could repurpose one of the fundamental elements in classical voice technique, that of using practised technique “motor actions that are consistently repeatable” (Miller 3). In using her mediated voice, I sought to find ways to allow my body to become a conduit for the sounds of my mother coming through the speakers by allowing her voice to filter through my body/voice instead of merely attempting to imitate them.
As I began to verbally explore my mother’s voice and words on the recording, ingesting sounds aurally and responding to them orally through a form of mimesis, I came to more fully understand Brassard’s theory of how working with technology created this conflict of body and “spirit”; it inspired a broader spectrum of sounds with which to work. This was manifested both in how I felt I was trying to imitate my mother’s voice and by contemplating the visceral inscription made when my mother spoke to me in the moment of recording. Physically, she remained just as I remember her, her body intact, but her mind and spirit (as I remembered them) gone.
The outside-in mode of investigation, receiving my mother’s recorded voice playing through speakers, provided a compelling tension. This tension mirrored my experience at the performance of Peepshow, which highlighted what I interpreted similarly as a tension between a live body communicating intimate, personal narrative, and the mediated sound my body (as audience member) was receiving, which I perceived to be something other than that expected from a live body. The resulting sensation provoked by that tension was one which I would describe as disembodied embodiment. It was somewhat unsettling to expect an embodied human sound to emerge from the person in front of me only to receive a digitally altered sound instead. I saw this as significantly extending the actor’s vocalic capacity. Brassard considers the intervention of technology on the live voice as a natural extension of the human body and the normal capabilities of the human voice (Darroch 113). My use of mediated interventions in the rehearsal process and, ultimately, in performance supported Brassard’s intention of adopting technology as a means for extending the natural capabilities of the voice and using the resulting technique to encourage a more fully comprehensive use of vocalisation.
Brassard’s “mismatched body and spirit” invoked an intense emotional response, precipitating a physical sensation which, in the context of my explorations, became key in the exercise of allowing my mother’s mediated voice to penetrate and, ultimately, go beyond being merely an aural experience. Adding to this tension was my own imagining that a similar tension could possibly exist within my mother, as her mind, through the disease, began to betray her and disconnect her body and spirit. The exercise established that, by confronting the extra-corporeal nature of voice and exploiting it through mediated practices, it is possible to find a means of accessing more embodied vocality or “utterance[s] not only of the mouth, throat and lungs but [on] the internal being” (Young 5). My mother’s voice became a “more mysterious sound object when electronically manipulated . . .” (Young 5).
By challenging the notion of embodiment that my research had previously relied upon, where attention relied upon the negotiation of internal somatic sensations, I now examined the intersection between technology and the ephemerality of the live voice. As Verstraete contends, the liminal space between the disembodied voice contained in the technology and the resonant producing the live voice is where the meaning is contained (95). In identifying the tension between the sensation of receiving the external stimulus of the “disembodied” mediated voice of my mother, I allowed it to incite an internal sensation leading to the impulse to respond vocally.
I was inspired to add further layers of technology into the devising process after viewing a BBC documentary about a simulator developed to recreate what dementia patients experience sensory-wise. I worked with Danny Warboys, Stage Technologies Tutor in the Theatre Department at the University of Birmingham, where I was completing my PhD in Drama and Theatre Arts, to develop a soundscape. He layered sound clips and visual effects in the form of flickering lights over my mother’s recorded voice, and I used my own voice to further create a form of resistance between the live and mediated voice. Additionally, I devised the soundscape to leave room for the live cello to enter in the second repetition of the text of my mother speaking. The intention was to achieve a cacophony of sound, representing the chaos and discord that I imagined my mother to be experiencing in her mind. I found that the cello, in concert with the soundscape, provided me with aural prompts and allowed me to mine an emotional memory which enabled a deeper connection to the text.
Among these prompts were varying melodic motifs inspired by the recording and soundscape that were played acoustically on the cello, which corresponded to specific points in the story. An example of one of the motifs the cellist reproduced was a three-note descending triad heard in the background of the recording of my mother. The sound is a code used in the hospital my mother lives in as a signal to staff. The cellist replicates this on her instrument and, then, distorts it precisely at the moment in the piece where I reveal that my father has decided to put my mother into a hospital. These motifs and the musician’s engagement with them became tactics to introduce the soundscape into the process of working in mimesis with my mother’s voice. By mimicking, and at times attempting an exact reproduction and subsequent distortion of some of the sounds she heard in Warboys’ soundscape, we were using a process of filtering what we were experiencing aurally through body, voice and cello. This became a dialogue between the cellist and me, and, through this process, not only were we able to read the subtleties of each other’s embodied dynamic responses but also receive and react to the disembodied, mediated sounds.
The progression I ultimately used in performance, using the recording of my mother’s voice and the soundscape, proceeded as follows:
- Start simply with my mother’s recorded voice sounding through the speakers.
- Begin to mouth her words, then vocalise a mimesis of her voice.
- The cello enters; focus on allowing the sounds of my mother’s voice, the soundscape, and the cello to concurrently stir an emotional response which, in turn, spurs an impulse to propel physical movement and engage with the mattress.
- Allow the movement to instigate extended vocalisation (broadly playing with pitch, tone, texture) over my mother’s voice.
- Layer Warboys’ soundscape over all of it and build in dynamic intensity to a cacophony of sound and movement as I wrestle with the beds until a climax of sound and physical struggle is reached, at which point the soundscape and cello stop.
- Collapse into silence and stillness on the mattresses.
I’m Beginning to Sound Like my Mother
The dual reaction of hearing my mother’s voice through speakers and simultaneously reproducing the sounds allowed an internal emotional memory to “react” in a different way than it would have by experiencing the sounds through aural means only. I experienced these sounds in and through my body. Reviewing the video, I can see how the act of producing sound invited my body to be engaged in a very tangible way. As an observer, I could see the voice in the body through distinct gestures, but what was most evident was the way the respiratory system was activated through a full engagement of the breath. I perceived movement in the torso and down into the pelvis as specific to the vibration and resonance in those spaces. Renowned voice and acting teacher Kristen Linklater suggests that “together, breath and emotion create identity” (43), and I acknowledge that what I felt, albeit briefly, was a shift into assuming the identity of my mother. I was able to be more emotionally connected to the text by inhabiting her breath.
Filtering my mother’s voice through a machine and making it both disembodied and embodied demonstrated the effectiveness of using the body to simultaneously receive a mediated voice and filter the seemingly disembodied experiences through my performing body. In doing so, I could transcend the understanding of what I perceived as a lack of emotional connection in my mother’s voice as she spoke those words to me and uncover traces of meaning.
Verstraete contends that the very nature of the disembodied voice always maintains a “level of nonsensicality” (94), which became particularly relevant in my engagement with my mother’s voice. Upon first listening to the recording, her words were illogical, almost gibberish, but hearing them back through the machine, and especially with the understanding I had gained on the sensory differences of dementia patients, I was struck by how much meaning they contained: “I can’t go over there anymore. . .” “Is that black stuff around there?” Listening to the mumbled and almost whispered vocalisation of my mother’s voice amplified through the speakers allowed me to receive her voice in a way that I was not fully able to in person. The nuances of her utterances gave insight into linguistic meaning. As Verstraete maintains, “[T]he distance that stands between our resonant bodies and the disembodied voice is the noise that lends it its message” (95). My experience of placing my own resonant body and my mother’s disembodied voice together in the studio provided a pathway to a profound somatic reckoning between the two.
My mother’s altered voice, through the soundscape, opened new possibilities in the physical responses I was experiencing and the interpretation of these vocal responses: “[t]hrough digital speech manipulation, the human body is revealed as a site of inscription, coupling vocality with variable identities” (Darroch 113). As the words became somatically inscribed, I could access these “sites of inscription” and respond with a broader and deeper sonic palette. The range of sounds with which I improvised through each run of the performance varied widely, but I was consistently able to access my voice to include what I experienced as a heightened and expansive field of vocal expression in flux between spoken and sung, firmly established in the technical, while free from its restraints, and inhabiting a space between myself as performer and my performed self.
Immersing myself in the memories of my mother and the specific events surrounding her descent into her illness, through physical and sonic explorations, I found that the dividing line between her voice and mine became significantly blurred. Furthermore, my investigations revealed inherently complex issues in inhabiting her voice. The difficulty arose primarily in discerning which of my mother’s voices I needed to inhabit, her pre-illness voice or her post-illness voice, and how I might negotiate using each. Her pre-illness voice seemed the most readily accessible to me. I would describe it as somehow a part of my own vocal make-up; “I’m beginning to sound like my mother,” a clichéd sentiment shared by many women, became especially meaningful in this regard: “The Mother’s voice contains a vocal patterning that, over time, the baby shall adopt. Her voice becomes the template—timbre, frequency, sense of time and metre, punctuation, and dialect. This becomes the model, the benchmark, and the norm” (Young 4).
It follows that finding ways in which to inhabit my mother’s post-illness voice became more difficult. I could not rely on the “vocal patterning” that I had absorbed as early as in-utero; her voice, as I had known it, had changed so significantly in such a relatively short time. Her new voice was limited in paralinguistic properties, lacking in variances of pitch and possessing minimal resonance. This voice that I had once considered to be operatic on the spectrum of spoken vocal expressivity was lacking much in expressive qualities.
Extending Sonic Possibilities
Working with mediated voice and the soundscape provided an essential opportunity in my process of finding methods that may allow a yielding of technique to authenticity in the performed voice. As well, the recording of my mother’s voice and the soundscape both provided vital insight into diverse ways of negotiating the representation of my mother’s experience in performance for both myself and the cellist. Critical in my findings was how, by moving away from myself to encounter another self (my mother), a more profound vocalic experiencing was made possible.
The techniques I discovered highlight how using the disembodied mediated voice can function as a catalyst to inhabiting a more fully embodied one. By directly confronting the voice as extra-corporeal and linking the notion that the sung voice “challenges human possibilities” (Cavarero 125), the use of mediated voice in a classical singer’s process demonstrates that technology may encourage the voice to be released from its bodily limitations. In my process, I integrated the soundscape and my mother’s recorded voice into the beginning of the show, where it functioned as a complete warm-up, opening up the possibility for profound physical, vocal and emotional connection. While I use more traditional classical singing technique later in the show, I felt, after opening each performance with that sequence, better able to let go of the preoccupation with the mechanical elements of singing technique to make way for free and authentic expression through song.
Exploring where the intersection of technology and the lived body may converge through the integration of a soundscape made up of sound clips representing the kind of chaotic sensory experience a dementia patient may experience, combined with my mother’s voice functioned to inspire a more embodied vocal response. Inserting the soundscape into the creation process provoked emotional memory through aural prompts to realise a broader mode of vocalic expression and incite an understanding of an authentic performed self. Using this outside-in mode of practice revealed how my mother’s recorded voice, when played through speakers, could become inscribed in my body, filtered through it and, then, be re-inscribed through my voice as a means of challenging my own preconceived notions of my vocalic potential, by receiving the sounds coming from the speakers and allowing the response to be received and live-through my resonant body (Verstraete 83).
This was particularly meaningful in the context of my carefully practisedclassical mode of singing, as the key outcomes demonstrated my vocal palette (or the sounds I presupposed to be available to me), broadened as I extended the sonic possibilities (inspired by the recording) to include utterances beyond what I may have considered “natural.” This approach, integrated into my practice of radical vocality, not only served to open up my body-voice to a broader mode of expression but moved beyond being just an exercise to a crucial constituent in devising new music-theatre.
 I have trained in a broad range of voice methods for actors, among them the methods of Kristen Linklater, Roy Hart, Jerzy Grotowski and Catherine Fitzmaurice.
 This work began during my doctoral research at the University of Birmingham, U.K. My thesis “Ephemeral Repetitions: Deconstructing Vocal Technique and Freeing Spontaneous Expression for Authentic Vocal Performance” was published in 2020.
 The video documentation provided is from the dress rehearsal of my solo devised show The Crook of Your Arm, recorded in June 2016 at The Other Place, The Royal Shakespeare Company’s studio stage in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
 My mother lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and when this research began, I was living in Montréal Quebec. She had recently been moved into a care home as her dementia had progressed to a point where my dad could no longer care for her. I made the trip out to help her settle into her new home. It had been our habit over the years to record our conversations when I asked her to tell stories of her life growing up. In this recording (the one I used in my investigations and subsequently performance), she is responding to my question; “what was it like growing up on a farm?”
 Authenticity, in this context, is defined as that which may transcend the technical proficiency required in classical singing in order to reveal the whole-self through sung vocal expression.
 Peepshow, written, directed and performed by Marie Brassard debuted in 2005. The production I saw in 2016 was a co-production between Infrarouge and Espace Go in Montréal. It was directed by Brassard and featured the actor Monia Chokri.
 Dementia simulator mimics symptoms of condition by Victoria Derbyshire first appeared on BBC Two on January 22, 2016.
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*Shannon Holmes is an actor, singer, theatre-maker, educator and scholar. She holds a BFA (Major Theatre Performance, Minor Music) from Concordia University, an MFA in Interdisciplinary Art from Goddard College and a PhD in Drama and Theatre Arts from the University of Birmingham, U.K. She is trained in a broad range of voice, acting and dance methods, including bel canto, extended vocal technique, Contact Improvisation and Fitzmaurice Voicework. Her Practice as Research centres on developing cross-disciplinary methods that disrupt the dividing line between speech and singing to mobilize new tools for performers. Central in her explorations is the use of autoethnographic performance practices to examine the connections between the lived body and voice to centralize the self in devising theatre. New research threads include merging technology with somatic practices in performer training. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Copyright © 2021 Shannon Holmes
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