Performing Subjectivity With Extreme And Extended Vocal Techniques
Practice-based PhD – Kingston University, London
This practice-based research aims to explore questions of identities, materiality of existence, performativity and voice. Human vocality is the site of imbrication of complex, often conflicting relations between sound and semantics, subjectivity and interpersonality. Before being a vehicle for language, however, voice is the material site where identity is negotiated.
My research explores the theoretical and practical relevance of Extreme and Extended Vocal Techniques (EEVTs) within this discourse. Examples of EEVTs are shrieking, whispering, creaking, percussive sounds, unusual and strange-sounding vocalisations. The study looks at such ‘strangeness’ as a meaningful occasion for the reconfiguration of the voice/self relationship, and sets itself the task of elucidating the link between EEVTs and queer theory. Explicitly concerned with the issue of voice dysphoria, it investigates the monstrous, the posthuman, the alien and the animalistic within vocality, and their communicative affordances in performance. What is the nature of such ‘otherness’? Which are its sonic signifiers? What subjectivities are EEVTs able to enact, and how can the latter inform debates about identity?
As a basis for discourse, I introduce the idea of EEVTs as ‘another voice’, arguing that it challenges hegemonic notions of ‘voice’ as revealing of a unified ‘self’. Through an embodied practice in singing, composition, choreography, and audio-visual documentation, plus the development of a representational system for the analysis of EEVTs, I explore the potentials of performance in thinking on how identities are negotiated through the voice.
The research follows the conception, composition and production of a new interpretation of “Richard III”, integrating elements of music, drama and dance in a solo vocal performance, inspired by Carmelo Bene’s adaptation of the play by William Shakespeare. My objective is to develop a theory of EEVTs which speculates the existence of a queer voice at the intersection of experimental singing, composition, and vocal-existential document.
The central issue for my research is how to conceive EEVTs as a framework to engage with the issue of vocal identity. I explore the way unusual vocal sounds affect the perception of the body in performance, and how this impacts the way a ‘voice’ or ‘vocalising subject’ is formed, in the construction and reception processes. The condition of voice dysphoria – when vocal self-perception produces feelings of emotional and physical distress – reflects the degree of inconsistency between lived subjectivity and voice, showing to what extent the latter’s failure to match can lead to a loss of the sense of self and instability across time. The constant negotiations between inner and outer voices, however, constitute an essential part of any process of subject formation.
This project articulates the importance of EEVTs in ‘voicing’ such a fragmentation, whereby vocal identity is formed. I will consider the affective power, self-narrative construction and music-specific issues of EEVTs in order to understand how the relation of the voice to the body, in its entrance into the extreme vocal performance context, is subjected to a full reconfiguration (and a possible reconciliation). The ‘otherness’ of EEVTs, I will argue, introduces a radical break with the normative conceptions inscribed on the singer’s body, and produces a thought-provoking short-circuiting between the expressive stratum of the singing voice and its communicative stratum, thus creating the conditions for an ideal tabula rasa of the voice/self relationship.
I will work on a theatrical piece for solo voice and a portfolio of audio-visual materials. The piece will be a reworking of Shakespeare’s Richard III via an adaption from 1977 by Carmelo Bene. Such multiplication of voices (namely, Richard’s, Shakespeare’s, Bene’s and mine) directly feeds into my research by engaging with issues of identity, representation and performance. It will constitute the starting point of an inquiry into the sounding voice that addresses the affective power of EEVTs, and their ability to enact transgressive subjectivities, while avoiding the affirmation of language as the ground of singing.
In his “Riccardo III” – a play about artifices, self-presentation, and theatricality – Bene removes the theme of the thirst for power, replacing it with the suffered desire of a man to be given voice. Other than Richard himself, only a few characters are left, and appear as ghosts, with whom Richard leads a secret conversation, as if they were inner voices. The theme of monstrosity is central, and it is conceived as a social condition (“Since I cannot prove a lover, to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain”, Act I, Scene 1) which however becomes a psychophysical condition. My work on the voice will dramatise such monstrosity through EEVTs.
Set as a word-less and characters-less play for one performer, the piece will also incorporate elements from Butoh. This is both a dance language, however non-codified, and a concept. In Butoh’s thinking, the work of art is the body itself. The focus is on its tendencies, rather than its intents. Butoh grounds itself on the feelings expressed by the artist, which are lived on stage. I look at Butoh firstly as a framework for choreographing the piece; secondly, as a significant conceptual model in thinking about self-perception in performance. I will combine Bene’s approach, Butoh, EEVTs and queer performance, within a ground-breaking interdisciplinary project. As I prepare the work, I will document, analyse and critique my decision-making throughout.
The portfolio will constitute the vocal-existential document of the research. Developed as a series of small pieces for solo singer, plus a body of multimedia documentation, the self-reflexive narration will explore the territory of EEVTs, by making the creative and learning process transparent. This document will scrutinise the organology and phenomenology of EEVTs, while the issues of amplification, recording, and notation will be developed through this work.
From the organological perspective, I will focus on the relationships of the body to singing, approaching non-traditional methods of vocal production from the standpoint of the singer, who creatively deploys the innate capabilities of their voice. From the phenomenological perspective, I will approach EEVTs from the standpoint of the listener, as a significant means available to the construction of an ‘otherly’ musical subjectivity. From a technological perspective, I will investigate the issues at play in valorising the dynamic and timbral richness of EEVTs, and how to notate, analyse and compare them. The synthesis of the three perspectives will be framed by Carmelo Bene’s work on the actor’s amplified voice, and through Brian Kane’s model of the voice, as put forward in The Voice: A Diagnosis (2015). The primary text of my work will result, therefore, from a combination of notation, text, audio recordings, sound analytic data and videos.
The written thesis will be articulated through four points:
(1) Another Voice: My investigation of vocalities and identities will be framed through Mladen Dolar’s theory of the voice as “the other of logos” (Dolar 1996, 24), in junction with Steven Connor’s and David Appelbaum’s thinking on the materiality of voice, and Carmelo Bene’s radical vision of phoné. In engaging with dysphoria, I will bring into light the tension between materiality and performativity within the discourse on gender. I will also draw from Adriana Cavarero’s theory of the ‘feminine principle’, and its supremacy in opera, “as a victory of the vocal over the semantic” (Cavarero 2005, 126).
(2) Performing as Unselfing: I will borrow Iris Murdoch’s philosophy in order to ground the relationship between Butoh, Bene’s thinking on voice, and EEVTs on the notion of ‘unselfing’, or “the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is” (Murdoch 1970, 93). The deconstructive work I plan to do through the practice to attempt a reconfiguration of the voice/self relationship will be informed by an inquiry into the ‘unselfing’ process as a basis for creativity.
(3) The Monstrous Subject: Here I will focus on theorizing the link between EEVTs and queer theory’s deconstruction of identity, while attempting to ground a definition of queer performance on the troubling of logics of representation and stable terms of reference for identity. I will also draw from Freya Jarman-Ivens’s book Queer Voices (2011), in order to develop an understanding of the uncanniness (Freud’s unheimlich) of EEVTs, and the issues of identification at play within vocal music.
(4) Organs, Techniques, Phenomena: I will delve into the production, reproduction, and reception of EEVTs, by developing an original analytic apparatus that will allow to understand EEVTs and put them in context. I will reflect critically on the body of work that I will produce, putting it in relation to theoretical research and in dialogue with other works, while expanding my reflection on the way voice affects the perception of the body and vice versa.
My research is interdisciplinary, spanning from Voice and Performance Studies, to Gender and Queer Theory, Music Composition and Technology, and Drama and Dance Studies, while being rooted in psychoanalytic theory and contemporary phenomenological thinking on voice. To my knowledge, the case study and the focus on EEVTs will fill a significant gap in the existing literature. Furthermore, the engagement with the broadly neglected area of subjectivity in musical performance (Laws 2020), will contribute to a developing field.