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 was of less interest to me than 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, or words struggling to be voiced.

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.

Desert Island Discs

Debby Harry was on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island discs this morning. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the show, each week a different guest is asked to choose eight pieces of music that they would take with them if they were going to be a castaway on a desert island. The person is interviewed about their life and their record choices, interspersed with clips of the music. Because it’s Radio 4, the guests are sometimes famous, sometimes not quite so well known, but they’re always people whose reputation is based on notable achievements – actors, sportsmen and women, artists, musicians – rather than that bloke off of Big Brother series 37.

I really like the format – I like how the social, historical and biographical context gets woven around the music, and I like idea of choosing music to fit an imagined place – but I usually find the choices made pedestrian and predictable. Most people go for stuff like the Beatles, Elvis, Rolling Stones, Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, James Brown, the standard canon of popular music classic, with the occasional fairly obvious jazz or ‘classical’ choice. Not bad music necessarily, just not very exciting. One of the most disappointing I’ve heard was John Cale (viola player who played in the Theatre of Eternal Music with Tony Conrad and La Monte Young, and then formed the Velvet Underground). I’d have thought of all people he might come up with something a bit more unusual, but again it was all Beatles, Dylan, Leonard Cohen. Yawn. I guess that’s Radio 4 for you.

So thank God for Debbie Harry, who was on the show this morning. Her choices weren’t exactly radical in the scheme of things, but I found the music she picked more interesting to listen to than 99% of what normally gets played. She’s 65 – that’s nearly as old as my mum – and there she was choosing Fever Ray and Peaches, swearing a bit (a very rare occurrence on Radio 4) and talking about the Blondie gig where she wore a dress made of razor blades. Is Lady Gaga going to be this cool in 40 years’ time? By the end, the fact that she referred to Mahler 5 as ‘the music from Death in Venice’ grated my pedantic sensibilities only slightly. To listen to the show, and search through an archive of previous epsiodes, go here.

Also, the BBC is giving all of us a chance to choose our own Desert Island Discs. This is my opportunity to make some more interesting choices! Except so far the first two things I’ve come up with are Beethoven 6 and West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys – again, these are fairly safe choices, but they’re important to me for personal reasons. Maybe in the end the set-up encourages a certain middle-of-the-roadness. If you’re going to a desert island, you need stuff you know you can listen to repeatedly, and for most people that would probably exclude the extremes of their record collections.

The other thing to say is that, by coincidence, next week’s guest on the show is Roger Waters, who I was writing about in my last post. I bet he picks one of Pink Floyd’s early hits with Syd Barrett, like Arnold Layne, plus some Beatles/Stones/Hendrix. I’d love to think he’s going to get some Krautrock on there, like some of that pre-Kraftwerk stuff from Tone Float; being slightly more realistic, perhaps some Velvet Underground or a bit of prog stuff like Soft Machine or Led Zep. Somehow, I think even that might be wishful thinking..