The Disembodied Voice

As a musician, I feel that I express the deepest parts of my artistic and personal self in my voice rather than any other instrument I have engaged with. As several scholarly sources have revealed, the voice, both as it is perceived by a listener and expressed from a body, contributes to societal constructions of gender, sounds the internal self, and creates a space for human empathy. In my sound piece, which features mainly recordings of both speaking and humming voices, only quietly underlined by computer generated sounds, I hope to address these different qualities and capacities of the voice, mainly commenting on the deconstruction of the voice, which is both defined and somewhat confined by society. The embodied voice as defined by Nelly Furman (1991) is recalled by Leslie C. Dunn in her book Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture: the link between inside and outside, self and other, the “locus of articulation of an individual’s body to language and society” (Dunn: 1994, 2). Calling attention to the voice as inherently linked to a societal notion of gender, expressed through the “individual’s body,” (3) and therefore contributing to societally formed gender binaries and expectations. In my piece I seek to release this “embodied voice,” by collaging sounds of the voice that are devoid of a body or an image, overlapping layers of male and female voices into a gender ambiguous blend of sound.

As Susan Sankin, a language pathologist featured on the NPR piece, “From Upspeak to Vocal Fry: Are We Policing Young Women’s Voices” comments: “the way we speak is our verbal image.” This idea partly inspired me to use verbal sounds as the fabric for my piece, and helped me create a subverted soundscape of sorts: of the voices that surround people daily, that were not connected to a face or a body. By using the words “inside” and “outside” I sought to make a comment on both the way that the voice is policed and dictated in society, like the “inside voice,” that is societally understood to be polite versus the “outside voice,” which one is allowed to use outside of classrooms or meetings, a kind of liberation. As this project progressed, I began to see a journey of this “disembodied voice” evolve as a trackable entity:

When the piece begins, there is the sound of a large crowd, until a few voices saying the words “inside” and “outside” fade in, overlapping. Next, the “voice” entity is projected from the inside of the body, this new sphere defined by the heartbeat sound that begins to play, as well as the voices which now only say the word “inside.” The shimmering hum to follow is meant to signal a journey to the “outside,” of the body, of the voice. A humming voice slides in, the sound grows, another humming voice folds in. This second voice is marked by a “scooping” in the hum, as a “masculine” voice reaches for the note established by the “feminine” voice. This quality was not purposefully staged, but makes an important comment on societal constructions of vocality; without being prompted, this man’s societally trained voice was reaching for a note that was in fact very in his capacity, simply because it was established prior by the voice of a woman. This is an interesting connection to another scholarly piece I referenced, Not with You But of You: Unbearable Intimacy and Jeff Buckley’s Transgendered Vocality by Susan Goldin-Perschbacher.

Perschbacher explores the subversive qualities of Jeff Buckley’s falsetto, namely, in deconstructing notions of the sound of masculinity. Beyond this connection, I also hoped to bring in some of the effects of vulnerability that Perschbacher discusses in her article about Buckley’s voice. Perschbacher argues Buckley’s album Grace is especially intimate because Buckley does not use a de-esser, and there is an “unusually high level of audible consonant and extraneous sound-forming declamation” (217). Buckley exposes his voice in its fullness and nakedness to his listeners, “reminding,” them of and calling attention to his vulnerability with his stark and unabashed vocals. This was a technique I hoped to give attention to in my own composition, with recordings that are basically untouched by effects, coming straight from the body into the recording. The most manipulation the voices go through is in their extensive layering so that they can create a separate entity of a mass voice(s), without boundaries or definitions. It is also worth mentioning that while the voices are not necessarily genuinely indistinguishable between the voices of male and female, the position of the listener is to understand that the voices are meant to be as ambiguous as possible, and with this informed listening a valuable space can be created where there is the possibility to project the listener’s own constructions of masculinity and femininity and recall their own vocality.

Theodor Adorno once said, “a woman’s singing voice cannot be recorded well because it demands the presence of her body” (Bernstein, 7). It is these sort of statements that I think the disembodied voice can begin to push against, and perhaps create a dissonant and sonically ambiguous space to explore gender. The social meanings that go into the “differences” between voices, leads to the silencing of these voices, and the danger that is borne from this is the silencing of a gender. Dunn references the term “orality” in her writing, in which she supposes is “…voices inhabit an intersubjective acoustic space; hence their meanings cannot be recovered without reconstructing the contexts of their hearing” (Dunn, 4). Within the “contexts of hearing” is the position of the listener, and largely their position in society. The reconstruction the voice with ambiguous sound, and divorcing it from the body, allows for a new set of ways to listen and understand the voice as it is “culturally imagined, its powers celebrated, and its dangers exorcised” (Dunn, 4).

There is in fact no biological evidence for the difference between masculine and feminine vocalities, it is merely the visible bodies that give society the power to create their separations (Dunn, 3). It is important to subvert the silencing of these “non verbal meanings,” (Dunn 3) of the voice and instead empower them, which I believe can be begun in their sonic confusion, and reconstruct these “contexts of hearing” in blending the voices as well as recalling and confusing the listener’s own perceptions of their voice and those around them. I hoped to create a piece of work that blends specifically the voices of men and women, and offers an alternate read on the spheres of listening people engage with everyday, reconstructed and released outside of their glaring and confining cultural and societal constructions.


Bernstein, Jane A. Introduction. Women’s Voices across Musical Worlds. Boston: Northeastern
UP, 2004. N. pag. Print.

Dunn, Leslie C., and Nancy A. Jones. Introduction. Embodied Voices: Representing Female
Vocality in Western Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. N. pag. Print.

Goldin-Perschbacher, Shannon. “Not with You But of You: Unbearable Intimacy and Jeff Buckley’s Transgendered Vocality.” Oh Boy!: Masculinities and Popular Music. New York: Routledge, 2007. N. pag. Print.

Gross, Terry. “From Upspeak To Vocal Fry: Are We ‘Policing’ Young Women’s Voices?” NPR. NPR,
23 July 2015. Web. 17 Dec. 2015.

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