I attended an utterly unhinged show recently. Two women gave an uncategorizable, incomprehensible, yet intriguingly spectacular vocal performance during Open Space’s “Voice++” festival.
It was art at its purest. It has also ended up seeming as important as any political stories which I might have written about this month.
DB Boyko and Christine Duncan’s “sound poetry” couldn’t have been called singing, theatre, nor poetry cantation. Yet it was these and more. It was wild oral dance. At times they sounded like engines coughing, children taunting, tender chicks chirping, brutal beasts battling to death. They conjured images of primitives banging rocks, natives chanting around campfires, and futuristic technofiles mechanically melting down. Meanwhile, their improvised streams of guttural grunts and ethereal notes, constricted breaths and open discharges wove in and out of sync and contrast with each other, and together the women concocted a mad, unstructured musical story of energy embracing energy.
While much of it prompted fleeting recognitions of places, emotions, languages, events or actions, just as many moments eluded any descriptions. The art was devoid of any popular techniques like catchy choruses, harmonic structures, potent images or linear plots, and easily could’ve seemed like a classic case of I-can’t-believe-my-tax-dollars-went-to-support-that.
Yet for me, it was precisely this lack of standard elements which was compelling. In the end, what fascinated me was how very far outside our cultural conventions this art stood. The two women had interacted in remarkably intense, dramatic, intimate, fun, absurd and profound ways, while holding to absolutely no common artistic customs or comprehensible language. It had been sheer babble, but it had communicated.
‘Why do most people never communicate with each other like that?’ I wondered afterwards.
Our voices do play central roles in our lives. We daily use vocalizations to organize and work together, to educate, entertain and inspire each other, and to connect both superficially and profoundly. Even the deaf can physically feel, and emotionally respond to, voice sound waves.
Yet consider the average vocal range most of us will actually activate in our typical day, while discussing work with our boss, considering plans with our spouse, or gossiping with our friends. Our voices are amazing instruments capable of extraordinarily diverse tones and textures, but relative to our total capacity, most of us speak most of the time in a puny span, in a virtual monotone, don’t we?
We’ll talk on an even keel, with sharp diction and minor inflection, using little tonal and textural breadth. Basically, we’ll match our thoughts to words and utter those words matter-of-factly. Occasionally, we’ll add some ironic or playful layering, or if we become excited we might become louder, and if depressed, slower.
But how accurately does this express true feelings?
Have you ever struggled for words, and then stressfully confided that, “I feel like my life is just going… gaaaagh!”?
Have you ever searched for a better phrase than “I love you”, and then hugged the air or tossed a jacket off a bridge (that’s from an old romantic comedy I saw) while telling someone you “frabblegobble” or “umfrwooners” her?
And how many of us would like to take George W. Bush aside and, well, scream in his face?
Naturally, it’d be embarrassing or impractical in some circumstances to start making bizarre sound poetry, no matter how much we might feel like screaming, crying or just making huge gonging sounds to drown everyone else out. But many of us never do such things under any circumstances.
A baby is a notable exception. Human infants, as any parent knows, use a vast vocal range from high, piercing shrieks to low, tender gagas. Without words at their disposal, they’re forced to articulate all their desires, feelings and responses through invented noises for which we (and the scientists who study them) have an ever-expanding list of names like cries, gurgles, squeals, growls, chants, giggles, babbles, canonical babbles, grunts, raspberries, coos etc.
The development of normal spoken language, though, draws children’s voices into a narrower range. The learning of spoken language is one of the earliest ways in which our instincts to experiment, explore, play and emote with unmitigated vocal abandon is conditioned out of us.
Now, as adults, we feel constrained, don’t we? And this constraint grips more than just our voices. It severely limits our emotional expressiveness, our psychological freedom as well. Linguists lament the “dumbing down” of our language which increasingly limits what we’re literally capable of saying to each other; similarly, our shrunken vocal range constrains what we’re capable of expressing non-literally, both emotionally and energetically.
If we want serious social change, we may need to recover some of Boyko and Duncan’s willingness to commune together outside the limits of these deadening, conventional sonic doldrums.
After all, if I meet an adult, we’re likely to sit stiffly in chairs and speak in monotones, recounting remembered information. How often will that go somewhere vital?
But if I catch the eye of a vibrant child, within minutes I’m likely to be running and rolling around, crying wooosh, grahr, aaaah, and doink! Is that just silly play? Or do we not also create the strongest bonds with those children with whom we “communicate” on such a level?
So then, where would it take our relationships and our society, if we all started regularly communicating and being with each other in more unconventional and creative ways?
Rob Wipond occasionally organizes free-for-all meetings for people who want to explore unusual modes of communicating together. To join in, contact him.