The failure of voice

I’ve been writing a paper about the sounds of the voice. Thinking about the topic reminded me of a brilliant gaffe from BBC Radio 4 presenter Jim Naughtie a few years ago. I’m not sure if this will make it into the final paper, but here’s a bit lifted from my current draft, with a YouTube clip of the memorable moment.

 

Voices are machinic from the very beginning. They arise from vibrational systems, as lungs, vocal cords, throats, tongues and ears get hooked up to architectural spaces, bodies of air, microphones and amplifiers, telephones and answerphones, audio and video recording, headsets, headphones and loudspeakers, scripts and autocues. From the first moment that Bell spoke to Watson on the telephone, from the earliest etchings of Edison’s words into phonograph foil, sound machines have pulled apart the humanist subject, reminding the voice of its humble origins amongst vibrating body parts. Not only does listening to the technologized voice tell us as much about contemporary existence as the classic interpersonal interview encounter, but that encounter itself must be rethought to recognize the voice recorder as a key actant.

 

In its restless movements through multiple machines, voice can never completely express the self as a conscious, contained, definable identity. It may present an illusion of rational self-possession and self-presence; it may be eloquent, articulate and clipped, with received pronunciation; the machines may black box its body out of sight and out of mind; and yet still the voice fails.

 

Take the Scottish radio presenter Jim Naughtie. For over two decades his voice was a regular feature of the Today programme, BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news and current affairs show. Naughtie’s voice, like most official BBC voices, produces a sense of effortless rationality. It’s male Scottish accent achieves perfect clarity of enunciation, authoritative without ever being overbearing. Vocal apparatus combines with large diaphragm condenser microphones, pre-prepared scripts, acoustically treated studios and carefully optimised dynamic range compression to produce the most articulate and comprehensible of utterances. Phonemes roll out fully formed. Cadences rise and fall properly. And yet on one memorable occasion in 2010, when introducing Conservative minister Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary, Naughtie’s voice accidentally swapped the ‘H’ of Hunt and the ‘C’ of Culture to shocking and hilarious effect.

Whether this incident was simple Spoonerism or Freudian slip is beside the point. Of more interest is how Naughtie’s voice broke down in the immediate aftermath, like a tower block crumbling following the dynamite blast of demolition. Valiantly continuing to read out the headlines, the voice starts choking on its words, beset by dry coughs and awkward pauses. Utterances are spat out, forced through hoarseness, vocal cords seizing up. In this thickened, viscous tone, veering between laughter and tears, mundane lines about high speed broadband networks and Egyptian shark attacks take on a strangely gasping, almost morbid quality. The rational voice-from-the-ether suddenly acquires a body, which intrudes noisily, all-too-human in its frailty and fallibility. “Excuse me,” Naughtie eventually splutters, “coughing fit” – an excuse whose obvious inadequacy compounds matters. Such is the desperation of a man struggling with his own mouth. At points the strangulated voice is reminiscent of a scene from TV comedy I’m Alan Partridge, in which the eponymous antihero, invisible in a darkened bedroom, tries to speak about the pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre whilst receiving fellatio, vocal tone becoming warped by sexual arousal.

 

Such incidents, where the body trips up the voice, are not uncommon. Broadcasters, presenters, actors and singers routinely experience voices misfiring, script lines being forgotten, communication lines going dead, bouts of laryngitis, guests who say too much or not enough. There is a whole programme genre based on outtakes and bloopers, exploiting the humour that bubbles out when gaffes and fluffed lines puncture the performance of voice. If vocal breakdown can happen to trained, experienced, rehearsed voices surrounded by sophisticated technologies, it can happen to anyone.

 

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