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L'arte orale

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Lorenzo Cardilli
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Stefano Lombardi Vallauri

“The body of the voice / the voice of the body”. Vocal Performance Art and its connection to the cognitive unconscious

Theda Weber-Lucks

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  • 1 Th. Weber-Lucks, Körperstimmen. Vokale Performancekunst als musikalische Gattung, doctoral dissert (...)

1Since the beginning of my research on Vocal Performance Art1 it has always fascinated me how intensely the pioneering singer-composer-performers of this discipline have been seeking for new approaches to the cognitive unconscious. It has been a crucial experience to many of them, (1) that through the body voice, or voice of the body, there would be a direct connection to a non-verbal universal language that wouldn’t need any translation, and (2) that the body voice would have a direct link to other worlds or memories or other beings. For some of them, e.g. for Meredith Monk, Joan La Barbara, Diamanda Galás, Sainkho Namtchylak, this experience is at the core of all their artistic efforts. But what is of central importance to all these efforts? In this essay, I will examine how the practice and aesthetics of Vocal Performance Art are linked to the cognitive unconscious and what it is about.

1. History

1.1. Beginnings of Vocal Performance Art

  • 2 As defined in my doctoral thesis (“Body Voices. Vocal Performance Art as a New Musical Genre”); se (...)
  • 3 Pew Research Center, Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government, November 2015, p. 18, h (...)

2The history of Vocal Performance Art2 began in the early sixties in the US: Cold war, the assassination of Kennedy in 1963, the Vietnam War and civil unrest (Vietnam war protests, the equal-rights movement, the women’s emancipation movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, the uprising black power movement – and not at least the Watergate scandal) caused a huge crisis of confidence and trust in the empowered government. «By the end of the seventies, only about a quarter of Americans felt that they could trust the government at least most of the time»3.

3In this highly charged, controversial time, artists of all disciplines were putting into question the establishment and established arts. In search of new ways of artistic expression, they explored interdisciplinary, non-professional approaches, and developed new ways of making and living art as a participative practice of artistic group expression. Until the end of the 1960s Fluxus, Happening and Event were created as well as experimental theatre, sound poetry, free improvised and experimental music.

4Until the Mid-seventies, Vocal Performance Art (like other performance art practices) originated from this political backdrop, but appeared to be rather introverted, based on a single, predominantly female person who investigated and explored new artistic forms of non-verbal vocal expression. And this always included a dialogue with their unconscious or their body, as with Meredith Monk, Joan la Barbara and Diamanda Galás.

  • 4 An introduction into sound color, texture, emotional features of the voice etc. is provided in Th. (...)

5Through a new artistic approach, they discovered or revealed the unlimited possibilities of vocal sound production, from non-verbal speech like patterns and onomatopoetic sound signals to all kinds of vocal colors, textures, dynamics and emotional features, from normal, breathy, whispery, hoarse, creaky, harsh, ventricular, falsetto voices to nasal, stump, brilliant and shrill sounds, or from sobbing, whimpering, moaning, groaning, crying, laughing, coughing to screaming, hurling etc4.

6Thereby the voice became much more than just a musical instrument for singing. It also became an instrument for a new kind of preverbal vocal communication which – at the same time – felt very old. Moreover, the complex dynamic phrasings in Vocal Performance Art appeared to give evidence of a rather holistic mode of sound singing or speaking that everybody seemed to know, as if a hidden language had reappeared from the unconscious where it had been preserved since very early steps of human evolution.

  • 5 M. Monk, Notes on the Voice, «The Painted Bride Quarterly», 3/2 (1976), pp. 13-14, <http://pbq.dre (...)

7At least for the pioneers of Vocal Performance Art, there has been a special, very inspiring connection between their voice and the unconscious, or, in the words of Meredith Monk, between “the body of the voice” and “the voice of the body”5.

1.2. The pioneers of Vocal Performance Art and their approach to the unconscious

8In 1965, when the dancer and pioneering vocal performer Meredith Monk discovered her voice as her central instrument, she directly started to integrate it into her performance work. – But not just for singing, her voice also became

  • 6 Ibid., p. 56.

a tool for discovering, activating, remembering, uncovering, demonstrating primordial/prelogical consciousness […] a means of becoming, portraying, embodying, incarnating another spirit […] a direct line to the emotions. The full spectrum of emotion. Feelings that we have no words for […] a manifestation of the self, persona or personas […] [a] language6.

  • 7 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Meredith Monk, New York 2000, unpublished.
  • 8 Ibid.

9Working with the voice also meant to her «right from the beginning» the discovery of «other worlds», «imaginary landscapes», «unknown voices» within herself and, as well, a «universal language»7. The more Monk worked on the voice itself, «the more primal and primordial» she felt the power of the voice and knew «how much power there was and that there probably always was»8.

  • 9 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Meredith Monk, New York 2000, unpublished.

I always believed that the voice itself is its own language. That you don’t really need another language, that it is a universal language. And it says what it needs to say, in some ways more eloquently than words do, because words point out very particular things9.

  • 10 M. Monk, Songs from the Hill/Tablet, Wergo, 1979.
  • 11 Ead., Education of the Girlchild. An Opera, 1973 (first published on Dolmen Music, ECM, 1982).
  • 12 Ead., Facing North, ECM, 1992.

10In the legendary album Songs from the Hill10, she revealed or imagined inner voices of animals and plants. Even earlier, she had the vision of an old lady singing to a little girl child, sharing old memories11. Musical ideas were also linked to rhythmical, dance-like body movements as riding, shaking, jumping, waving, rocking herself or in a small group with others, like her “Ensemble”. Some of her performances show her travelling back into ancient times where she imagined people’s communication as a kind of preverbal sound-singing. So, in Facing North12.

  • 13 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Joan La Barbara, Berlin 2000, unpublished. See also Ead., Voice is (...)
  • 14 J. La Barbara, Voice Is the Original Instrument, Wizard, 1976.
  • 15 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Joan La Barbara.
  • 16 Ibid.
  • 17 J. La Barbara, Hear what I feel, in Ead., Voice is the Original Instrument/Early Works, Lovely Mus (...)

11When Joan la Barbara started her career as a Vocal Performance Artist in 1974, she explored how she could «eliminate control»13 from her classical trained voice and reconnect with her unconscious. This is how she discovered and started to develop (her) voice as “the original instrument”. The title of her first album, Voice Is the Original Instrument14, became a «manifesto in very view words»15, as she pointed out: «We have voice and instrument. Voice is instrument. Voice is the original instrument»16. In Hear what I feel17, her first solo performance of 1974, she experimented with the double sense of “sensation”: the physical impression and the emotional reaction. After spending an hour in a closed and silent room, with gloves on and eyes covered, an assistant had to guide her to the audience space. On a table in front of her, the “guide” had put six plates with six different objects which she had to touch with naked hands. The surprising sensations of form, temperature or texture were meant to provoke spontaneous vocal reactions and thus, the discovery of new, or even very ancient sounds. Thus, her primary concern was not only about finding new sounds, it was also about direct communication without words and a reconnection to the older, primitive parts of the brain.

  • 18 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Joan La Barbara.

The sounds I make are more like the sounds of babies. The sounds babies make have nothing to do with music. The sounds they make are like: I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m hot, I’m cold etc. Discomfort. Bodily problems. Those are the interesting sounds to me18.

  • 19 J. La Barbara, L’exploration de soi par le son, «Art Press International», 32 (1979): «Au fur et à (...)

12It was about the creation of a new vocal language that would be more truthful and honest, and at the same time very old, coming and going with the trips of the soul, as she wrote in a statement on her artistic vocal work in 197919.

  • 20 D. Galás, A discussion concerning the composition of Wild Women with Steaknives (1982), in Ead., T (...)
  • 21 Ibid.
  • 22 Ibid.
  • 23 D. Galás, interview by Myriam Weisang, London, without date (copy in possession of Th. W.-L.), p. (...)

13In 1975, Diamanda Galás decided «upon the creation of a new vocal music which employs an unmatrixed production of vocal sound as the most immediate representation of thought»20. Her «primary concern» was «with the execution – sequentially, chordally, or contrapuntally – of different processes of severe concentration, “mental” or “sentient” states»21. This meant in every performance to «endeavor» vocally «most elastically» «with complete obedience to the rigor of each state» and, thereby, «attend to the temporal demands of the macrostructure of the piece»22. All this felt to her like «ripping off the flesh» and «getting past the limits of individuality», almost like a «medium»; all this «would never happen in a calculatedway» and resembled much more «natural expression», «truthful and honest»23 in itself.

  • 24 See A. Artaud, Manifeste du théâtre de la cruauté (1932), in Id., Le Théâtre et son double (1938), (...)
  • 25 D. Galás, A discussion concerning the composition of Wild Women with Steaknives, p. 1.

14In 1982, Galás defined her central aesthetic focus according to Artaud’s “Theatre of cruelty”24 as a «need», even an «obsession» she returns to for «the immediate, the direct experience of the emotion itself»25:

  • 26 Ibid. (small caps and italics in original).

An actor may simulate the desired emotive state through a skilled manipulation of external object materials, or he may use the raw materials of his own soul in a process which is the immediate, the direct experience of the emotion itself. This second concern is felt by performers who, not just professional, are Obsessional performers26.

  • 27 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Sainkho Namtchylak, unpublished.

15In the late 1980ies, the Tuvanian Vocal Performer and improviser Sainkho Namtchylak appeared in the European free music scene. She belongs, like Fátima Miranda or Ute Wassermann, to the second generation in Vocal Performance Art. Coming from a shamanistic culture, she always felt the presence of a «huge unknown world» when she was on stage. Thereby she always had «a kind of emotional picture» through which she expresses ideas or visions «which are not possible to describe in words»27.

  • 28 Ibid.

16For Namtchylak, «emotions are much deeper» and «more straightly connected» to the «unconscious» than words, it makes it «easier to touch others», or «to be reached». The «musical language is universal» because of its «direct connection to our feelings and emotions»28. And «all this» is not new, but very old:

  • 29 Ibid.

A lot of things are forgotten like in old shamanistic rituals […] or in ancient time oracles […] when they are in trance, they are using not a language, but oral formulas to help themselves to get into a special state of consciousness and to help listeners also to get in a very special mood or feeling, to feel nature and feel other people and themselves, that they are not just these bodies, there is something more. And for me it is not new. I try to introduce it to my audience with a new key, with a new meaning and feelings, but I know exactly that I don’t do anything new29.

  • 30 Ibid.

17«Being a professional singer» on a certain level allowed her on stage, just to be herself, «not as a woman or Sainkho», but as that part of herself that «was and is and will be forever»30.

2. Theory

2.1. The cognitive unconscious and primary metaphors

18Since the unconscious, or the body and body knowledge, plays a key role in the development of Vocal Performance Art, it is necessary to agree upon a certain definition of the term. Therefore, I will introduce the terms “cognitive” and “cognitive unconscious” as defined by Lakoff and Johnson in their major work, Philosophy in the Flesh:

  • 31 G. Lakoff, M. Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh. The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Tho (...)

As is the practice in cognitive science, we will use the term cognitive in the richest possible sense, to describe any mental operations and structures that are involved in language, meaning, perception, conceptual systems, and reason. Because our conceptual systems and our reason arise from our bodies, we will also use the term cognitive for aspects of our sensorimotor system that contribute to our abilities to conceptualize and to reason. Since cognitive operations are largely unconscious, the term cognitive unconscious accurately describes all unconscious mental operations concerned with conceptual systems, meaning, inference, and language31.

  • 32 Ibid., pp. 16-17: «We have inherited from the Western philosophical tradition a theory of faculty (...)
  • 33 Ibid., p. 17.

19In comparison to Western philosophical tradition in which reason is regarded as being «autonomous and independent from the body», a capacity which makes us «essentially human and distinguishes us from all other animals»32, this new understanding of the cognitive and the cognitive unconscious gives a «radically different view of what reason is and therefore of what a human being is»33.

  • 34 Ibid.
  • 35 Ibid., p. 13: «Conscious thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among (...)

20Based on an «evolutionary view», Lakoff and Johnson provide evidence of their revelatory insight, that «reason uses and grows out of bodily capacities» (like perception, motion, emotion e.a.)34 and thus would be «fundamentally embodied»35.

  • 36 Ibid.

These findings of cognitive science are profoundly disquieting in two respects. First, they tell us that human reason is a form of animal reason, a reason inextricably tied to our bodies and the peculiarities of our brains. Second, these results tell us that our bodies, brains, and interactions with our environment provide the mostly unconscious basis for our everyday metaphysics, that is, our sense of what is real. […] Our sense of what is real begins with and depends crucially upon our bodies, especially our sensorimotor apparatus, which enables us to perceive, move, and manipulate, and the detailed structures of our brains, which have been shaped by both evolution and experience36.

  • 37 Ibid., 12: «The idea that pure philosophical reflection can plumb the depths of human understandin (...)

21Furthermore, they explain why traditional philosophical and phenomenological analysis and reflection cannot even come close to allowing us «to know our own minds» and «adequately explore the cognitive unconscious», as «the realm of thought is completely and irrevocably inaccessible to direct conscious introspection»37.

  • 38 Ibid., p. 15. Cognitive science is understood as the «empirical study of the mind».
  • 39 Iid., Metaphors We Live By (1980), University of Chicago Press, Chicago 20032, pp. 56-57: «most co (...)

22As shown in their comprehensive research, this realm of thought only works on behalf of a conceptual system38 that is entirely based on a «metaphorical structure»39:

The cognitive unconscious is vast and intricately structured. It includes not only all our automatic cognitive operations, but also all our implicit knowledge. All of our knowledge and beliefs are framed in terms of a conceptual system that resides mostly in the cognitive unconscious.

  • 40 Iid., Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 13.

Our unconscious conceptual system functions like a “hidden hand” that shapes how we conceptualize all aspects of our experience. This hidden hand gives form to the metaphysics that is built into our ordinary conceptual system that resides mostly in the cognitive unconscious40.

  • 41 Ibid., p. 56: «Primary metaphors are part of the cognitive unconscious. We acquire them automatica (...)
  • 42 Iid., Metaphors We Live By, pp. 57-58. «Some of the central concepts in terms of which our bodies (...)
  • 43 This is further explained for music by Lawrence Zbikowsky on behalf of the “conceptual integration (...)

23While we are thinking consciously, our cognitive unconscious operates on behalf of pre-concepts or so-called «primary metaphors»41. They involve our basic embodied experiences of how we perceive the world42. In terms of the “hidden hand”, the conceptual system intermingles and combines primary metaphors ranging from different input- or source domains to complex metaphors – and thus proliferates a basis for conscious thought43.

  • 44 G. Lakoff, M. Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p. 57: «In other words, what we call “direct physical (...)
  • 45 Iid., Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 56.

24In fact, these conceptual metaphors are transculturally inherent in every human being’s daily conversation, in such a way, «that our culture is already present in the very experience itself»44. Hence, not all conceptual metaphors are manifested in words, «some are manifested in grammar, others in gesture, art, or ritual. These nonlinguistic metaphors may, however, be secondarily expressed through language and other symbolic means»45:

  • 46 Ibid.

We have no choice in this process. When the embodied experiences in the world are universal, then the corresponding primary metaphors are universally acquired. This explains the widespread occurrence around the world of a great many primary metaphors46.

2.2. Musical understanding and the brain

  • 47 See S. Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals. The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, Harvard U (...)

25The abilities for singing and speaking mainly function through a series of mental modules of different parts of the brain which have a certain degree of independence from one another47.

  • 48 See J. Laver, Voice Quality and Indexical Information (1968), in Id., The Gift of Speech. Papers i (...)

26Musical pitch processing (like analysis of volume, sound color, volume, pitch/register, speech melody) occurs in the superior temporal area of the right cerebral hemisphere. The temporal area belongs to a more primal section of the brain and was already found in a common ancestor of early hominides and apes. Also, rhythm is processed in a distinct part of the temporal area. This is as well the place for the analysis of indexical information of the voice48, such as emotional state, sex, age, origin, health or character, whether or not the voice is singing or speaking.

  • 49 See S. Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, pp. 32 ff.

27On the other hand, speech-processing – compositional phrasing and referential meaning – is effectuated in the left area of the frontal lobe (Broca’s area) as well in the superior surface of the left anterior temporal lobe (Wernicke’s area) which belong to the younger parts of the brain49.

  • 50 As shown ibid., pp. 62-68.
  • 51 Ibid., p. 62.

28Speech syntax, however, is processed too in the left area and to a lesser extent in the right area of the frontal lobe. Also musical syntax is processed in the same areas, but in the opposite relationship50. This means that both «brain areas might be involved in the processing of complex rule-based information in general, rather than being restricted to the rules of any single specific activity, such as language»51.

2.3. Language of “Hmmmmm” – the pre-linguistic language

  • 52 Ibid., pp. 169 and 254-255 (emphasis in original).
  • 53 Ibid., p. 234: «By having a larger body size, by living in more challenging environments, by havin (...)

29Cognitive science as well as evolutionary archeology and bio-musicology give support to the hypothesis that early hominides had a pre-linguistic «holistic, multi-modal, manipulative, mimetic and musical»52 language, before the cerebral limb for compositional, referential language was generated. This holistic kind of language was most probably developed to its fullest by the Neanderthals, as Steven Mithen explained in his groundbreaking book The Singing Neanderthals53.

  • 54 Ibid.

The selective pressures to communicate complex emotions through advanced “Hmmmmm” – not just joy and sadness but also anxiety, shame and guilt – together with extensive and detailed information about the natural world via iconic gestures, dance, onomatopoeia, vocal imitation and sound synaesthesia, resulted in a further expansion of the brain and changes to its internal structure as additional neural circuits were formed.54

30Mithen’s comprehensive research clarified that the Neanderthals, and also earlier predecessors of homo sapiens, not only used their voice for daily life organization (hunting, fishing…), but also for social bonding, healing, or reinforcing group identity, as in situations where a single person would expose herself to a group of listeners.

  • 55 Ibid.

The Neanderthals would have had a larger number of holistic phrases than previous species of Homo, phrases with greater complexity for use in a wider range of more specific situations. […] some of these were used in conjunction with each other to create simple narratives. Moreover, the Neanderthal musicality would have enabled the meaning of each holistic utterance to be nuanced to greater degrees than ever before, so that particular emotional effects would have been created55.

31Today, this holistic, multi-modal, manipulative, mimetic and musical language seems to be lost, since the referential function of compositional language became the more powerful tool for communication. Nevertheless, since nothing that once appeared in evolutionary history has ever disappeared, we may assume that the cognitive unconscious still offers an incomparably vast choice of non-verbal expressions.

  • 56 Ch. Mello, Mimesis und musikalische Konstruktion, Shaker, Aachen 2010, p. 190.
  • 57 S. Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, p. 266.

32In fact, we still do have quite a few remnants of the ancient “Hmmmmm” in modern language as e.g. the «musical envelopes»56 of spoken phrases. And there is as well an astounding similarity between grammatical and musical syntax. Moreover, we still cannot prevent ourselves from infusing non-verbal sound gestures and emotion signals into our daily conversation, such as screams or cries or laughter. And we still make use of non-verbal contact sounds, like “hm”, “ahem” or “ah”. Besides this, little children still communicate in the holistic style, and grown-ups as well manage the exaggerated prosody of early infant and infant directed adult speech (ids) while talking to little children. We also find it in ritual or religious vocal practices, and of course, we find it in «music» that must have «emerged from the remnants of “Hmmmmm” after language evolved»57, as Mithen points out:

  • 58 Ibid.

Compositional, referential language took over the role of information exchange so completely that “Hmmmmm” became a communication system almost entirely concerned with the expression of emotion and the forging of group identities, tasks at which language is relatively ineffective. Indeed, having been relieved of the need to transmit and manipulate information, “Hmmmmm” could specialize in these roles and was free to evolve into the communication system that we now call music.58

  • 59 Ibid.

33Thereby Mithen emphasizes a discovery he made while writing his book: «throughout history we have been using music to explore our evolutionary past – the lost world of “Hmmmmm” communication – whether this is Franz Schubert writing his compositions, Miles Davis improvising or children clapping in the playground»59. – And moreover, I would add, artistic research on “Hmmmmm-language” became the aesthetic program in Vocal Performance Art.

2.4. The body voice

34As we saw in the first section of this essay, for the singer-performer Joan La Barbara, the human voice is the oldest musical instrument, or even the “original instrument”.

  • 60 Ibid., p. 111.

35In fact, we still share similar types of phonation for basic emotions with a common ancestor of early humans and apes60. These basic emotions also appear in more subtle notes: a voicing can glide or modulate from one extreme to another or skip from one to another (laughter, yodeling) or just move from an extreme to a more subtle ore even neutral mode – which is basically the same that can happen in a free improvised musical line.

  • 61 It consists of three distinct sections: the breathing section (with lungs, diaphragm etc.), the la (...)

36When we remember that the homo sapiens voice is an extraordinary complex, highly refined body instrument that developed in coherence with the brain and the spinal cord, we understand why it is the first and only organic communication instrument that is capable of both singing and speaking as well61.

  • 62 For Ilse Middendorf returning to the origins of language happens via the «experienced breath» whic (...)

37Thus, exploring and playing the voice as an instrument, as Vocal Performance Artists do, also meant re-tracing the path to the origins of language itself and even further. Reconnecting with our sensation memories through the «experienced breath»62 and corresponding vocal resonances can release “new” sounds that are at the same time very old, and thereby create a million hidden stories. This has been imagined by Stephen Mithen for the very origin of language in the mimetic period:

  • 63 S. Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, p. 254.

The presence of onomatopoeia, vocal imitation and sound synaesthesia would have created non-arbitrary associations between phonetic segments of holistic utterances and certain entities in the world, notably species of animals with distinctive calls, environmental features with distinctive sounds, and bodily responses […] these non-arbitrary associations would have significantly increased the likelihood that the particular phonetic segments would eventually come to refer to the relevant entities and hence to exist as words […]. The likelihood would have been further increased by the use of gesture and body language, especially if a phonetic segment of an utterance regularly occurred in combination with a gesture pointing to some entity in the world. Once some words had emerged, others would have followed more readily, by means of the segmentation process that Wray describes63.

2.5. Metaphorical creation or Mimesis in Vocal Performance Art

38When Meredith Monk, Sainkho Namtchylak, Diamanda Galás or Joan la Barbara speak about getting back to old memories or ancient voices or the unconscious, they probably get back to the preverbal, holistic, multi-modal, mimetic and musical language of the “singing Neanderthals” which provides the transcultural basis for all conscious speaking.

  • 64 Following Merlin Donald, the human body is in possession of a «central mimetic controller» which w (...)
  • 65 Ch. Mello, Mimesis und musikalische Konstruktion, p. 191.

39Since this kind of holistic language is not yet a part of the cognitive and cannot be accessed by the means of reason, it is entirely based on the metaphorical structure of the cognitive unconsciousness. However, this does not mean that it is locked away or not reachable. It just follows other rules. Moreover, it has always been possible for human beings to access it by the means of mimetic skills64, as in mimicry, imitation or through metamorphosis. – For Chico Mello, it is the transitory moment from real life perception into metaphorical concepts, where the cognitive unconscious can be accessed and creativity, or the creation of art, begins65.

  • 66 J. Sundberg, Speech, song and emotions, in Id., The Science of the Singing Voice, Nothern Illinois (...)

40When Vocal Performance Artists make use of mimetic skills, they do it via the body voice as experimental tool, through the exploration and re-conceptualization of «pre-conscious expressive gestures»66 of the vocal folds or relying body resonances. La Barbara’s way to access the cognitive unconscious was through surprise sensation in a self-experimental performance setting that would provoke unknown vocal responses. Like her, also Meredith Monk and Sainkho Namtchylak think of their voice as a research instrument in many alternate ways that would connect them to their cognitive unconscious and thus reveal “new sounds” or even “new worlds”.

41But, as they say, it never happens on purpose, through reason, it only happens incidentally, or by surprise, whenever unknown responses from the cognitive unconscious or body memory are triggered through sensational experience. – It might be through systematically studying and exercising vocal techniques, or through imitating other sounds, or just by carefully listening, either to one’s owns feelings, sensations and emotions or to other beings, or through any experimental non-verbal voicing that makes the body move, shake, vibrate, and resonate in manifold ways.

  • 67 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Meredith Monk. This meant for Monk, as a performer, being technica (...)

42The kind of mimetic or creational process that is on demand in Vocal Performance Art is instead based on a special kind of awareness or concentration which is «tight and lose – totally concentrated and totally open at the same time»67 – and which sometimes feels like being not oneself, but a medium.

43From this perspective, it seems very fascinating to see Vocal Performance Art as a practice of return to the creational moment of language itself. At the same time, this would exactly be the moment were the “holistic, multi-modal, manipulative, mimetic, musical” language turns into a composed and/or improvised performance. Hence, it becomes almost self-explanatory why Meredith Monk speaks about «the two ideas» she «always had for her work»:

  • 68 Ibid.

One was this non-verbal vocal music that would touch people in the core of their beings like deep inside and that would delineate emotions that we don’t have words for. So, going to these areas of communication that we have lost […] that sense of going back to the origins of human being […] very intuitive […] totally instinctive. […] It was always to open up the sound and the memory and the hearts and the bodies of human beings. And in a way, open up to other worlds. And then the other part of the work was the thing of making pieces where the music was somehow woven together with movement, visual images… And that holistic way of thinking about performance was a kind of antidote to the fragmented, speedy life that we were living68.

3. Conclusion

44We live in times where there is still a strong belief that there is no connection between the body or cognitive unconscious and the intellectual or cognitive. Moreover, human beings still use to think of themselves as being separate from the rest of the world.

45As we saw, on behalf of the profound research in cognitive science and evolutionary archeology, the cognitive depends to a huge amount on the cognitive unconscious which is metaphorically structured and accessible only through mimetic processes. It is also understood that humans and all kind of animals are based on similar rules (due to their evolutionary state) and, moreover, that our consciousness is modifying in constant change and exchange with the external world, rather than being a separate entity for itself. This is why our psychological state of being is so difficult to hide and why strong emotions are highly contagious. If somebody is sad, we will feel sad too, we resonate with him, move with him, be with him, without knowing how and why. Our physical body or cognitive unconscious is not only re-presented in the voice, it is in fact the voice. The rhythm of breath, the vibrating modes and microgestures of the vocal folds, as well as the overall muscle tension and diverse diaphragms symbolize and embody our state of being at the same time. Listening to the non-verbal voice is about understanding and communicating on a direct level of pure body language. While compositional, referential language helps humans to learn about the world or “make it work the way they would like it”, the older, holistic or musical one still helps to express the inner self on a psycho-physiological level. It gives self-confidence and self-consciousness while letting others participate.

46So, if we want to know more about ourselves, we have no choice but become aware of the language of our body. This is one of the many reasons, why Vocal Performance Art counts amongst the most fascinating, revelatory holistic art practices of our time.

Notes

1 Th. Weber-Lucks, Körperstimmen. Vokale Performancekunst als musikalische Gattung, doctoral dissertation, Technische Universität Berlin, 2005, published online 2008, <https://depositonce.tu-berlin.de/handle/11303/2308>. See Ead., Aufbrechen – ergründen – transformieren. Frauen in der Lautpoesie, «Neue Zeitschrift für Musik», 159/5 (1998), p. 34; Ead., Vokale Performancekunst: Zur Verknüpfung von Stimme, Körper, Emotion – Meredith Monk und Diamanda Galás, «Positionen. Beiträge zur Neuen Musik», 40 (1999), pp. 28-32.

2 As defined in my doctoral thesis (“Body Voices. Vocal Performance Art as a New Musical Genre”); see note 1.

3 Pew Research Center, Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government, November 2015, p. 18, <https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/11/11-23-2015-Governance-release.pdf>.

4 An introduction into sound color, texture, emotional features of the voice etc. is provided in Th. Weber-Lucks, Körperstimmen, chs. 3-5 (3. Die Stimme. Forschungsansätze und ihre Brauchbarkeit für die Entwicklung einer Klangdatenbank; 4. Konzeption und Aufbau der Vokalklangdatenbank; 5. Das Klangfarbenspektrum: Genderspezifische und individuelle Besonderheiten).

5 M. Monk, Notes on the Voice, «The Painted Bride Quarterly», 3/2 (1976), pp. 13-14, <http://pbq.drexel.edu/wp-content/uploads/archive_pdfs/pbq_10_3_2.pdf >, repr. in D. Jowitt (ed.), Meredith Monk, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore-London 1997, pp. 56-57.

6 Ibid., p. 56.

7 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Meredith Monk, New York 2000, unpublished.

8 Ibid.

9 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Meredith Monk, New York 2000, unpublished.

10 M. Monk, Songs from the Hill/Tablet, Wergo, 1979.

11 Ead., Education of the Girlchild. An Opera, 1973 (first published on Dolmen Music, ECM, 1982).

12 Ead., Facing North, ECM, 1992.

13 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Joan La Barbara, Berlin 2000, unpublished. See also Ead., Voice is the Original Instrument. Die Vokalperformerin Joan La Barbara, «Neue Zeitschrift für Musik», 163/6 (2002), pp. 34-35.

14 J. La Barbara, Voice Is the Original Instrument, Wizard, 1976.

15 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Joan La Barbara.

16 Ibid.

17 J. La Barbara, Hear what I feel, in Ead., Voice is the Original Instrument/Early Works, Lovely Music, 2003.

18 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Joan La Barbara.

19 J. La Barbara, L’exploration de soi par le son, «Art Press International», 32 (1979): «Au fur et à mesure que se développe mon art, les théories sous-jacentes au travail se clarifient, les tentatives pour atteindre une partie primitive du cerveau, tendant à un langage vocal nouveau et plus honnête tout en restant ancien, un langage qui va et vient des tripes à l’âme. Hear what I feel […], une de mes premières performances expérimentales, fonctionnait comme son et comme communication directe sans paroles, jouant sur le double sens de la “sensation”, à la fois impression physique et réaction émotionnelle. Toutefois, elle m’a emmenée dans un lieu trop troublant et psychologiquement terrifiant pour continuer. En étudiant ma peur, je me suis rendu compte qu’elle avait été accrue par mon refus d’exprimer verbalement en public le fait que j’avais peur. […] Mon nouveau vocabulaire m’est devenu aussi familier que le langage, il est souvent plus facile d’émettre les sons que d’expliquer d’où ils proviennent».

20 D. Galás, A discussion concerning the composition of Wild Women with Steaknives (1982), in Ead., The Shit of God, High Risk, New York 1996, p. 2.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 D. Galás, interview by Myriam Weisang, London, without date (copy in possession of Th. W.-L.), p. 2.

24 See A. Artaud, Manifeste du théâtre de la cruauté (1932), in Id., Le Théâtre et son double (1938), Paris 1964.

25 D. Galás, A discussion concerning the composition of Wild Women with Steaknives, p. 1.

26 Ibid. (small caps and italics in original).

27 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Sainkho Namtchylak, unpublished.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 G. Lakoff, M. Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh. The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books, New York 1999, p. 12.

32 Ibid., pp. 16-17: «We have inherited from the Western philosophical tradition a theory of faculty psychology, in which we have a “faculty” of reason that is separate from and independent of what we do with our bodies. In particular, reason is seen as independent of perception and bodily movement. In the Western tradition, this autonomous capacity of reason is regarded as what makes us essentially human, distinguishing us from all other animals».

33 Ibid., p. 17.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid., p. 13: «Conscious thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among cognitive scientist that unconscious thought is 95 percent of all thought – and that may be a serious underestimate. Moreover, the 95 percent below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought. If the cognitive unconscious were not there doing this shaping, there could be no conscious thought».

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., 12: «The idea that pure philosophical reflection can plumb the depths of human understanding is an illusion. Traditional methods of philosophical analysis alone, even phenomenological introspection, cannot come close to allowing us to know our own minds».

38 Ibid., p. 15. Cognitive science is understood as the «empirical study of the mind».

39 Iid., Metaphors We Live By (1980), University of Chicago Press, Chicago 20032, pp. 56-57: «most concepts are partially understood in terms of other concepts. […] Concepts that emerge in this way are concepts that we live by in the most fundamental way».

40 Iid., Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 13.

41 Ibid., p. 56: «Primary metaphors are part of the cognitive unconscious. We acquire them automatically and unconsciously via the normal process of neural learning and may be unaware that we have them».

42 Iid., Metaphors We Live By, pp. 57-58. «Some of the central concepts in terms of which our bodies function – up-down, in-out, front-back, light-dark, warm-cold, male-female, etc. – are more sharply delineated than others. While our emotional experience is as basic as our spatial and perceptual experience, our emotional experiences are less sharply delineated, in terms of what we do with our bodies. […] Since there are systematic correlates between our emotions (like happiness) and our sensory-motor-experiences (like erect posture), these form the basis of orientational metaphorical concepts (such as happy is up)».

43 This is further explained for music by Lawrence Zbikowsky on behalf of the “conceptual integration network”. It involves four interconnected mental spaces. Central to the network are two correlated input domains: speech and music/singing, whereas the process of mapping between these domains is guided by the generic space (at the base). From here, the analytical results will be forwarded and put together to more complex metaphors in the blending space. See L.M. Zbikowski, Conceptualizing Music. Cognitive Structure, Theory, and Analysis, Oxford University Press, New York 2002, p. 78.

44 G. Lakoff, M. Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p. 57: «In other words, what we call “direct physical experience” is never merely a matter of having a body of a certain sort; rather, every experience takes place within a vast background of cultural presuppositions. It can be misleading, therefore, to speak of direct physical experience as though there were some core of immediate experience which we then “interpret” in terms of our conceptual system. Cultural assumptions, values, and attitudes are not a conceptual overlay which we may or may not place upon experience as we choose. It would be more correct to say that all experience is cultural through and through, that we experience our “world” in such a way that our culture is already present in the very experience itself».

45 Iid., Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 56.

46 Ibid.

47 See S. Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals. The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Ma) 2007 (first ed., London 2005), p. 62.

48 See J. Laver, Voice Quality and Indexical Information (1968), in Id., The Gift of Speech. Papers in the Analysis of Speech and Voice, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 1991, pp. 147-161.

49 See S. Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, pp. 32 ff.

50 As shown ibid., pp. 62-68.

51 Ibid., p. 62.

52 Ibid., pp. 169 and 254-255 (emphasis in original).

53 Ibid., p. 234: «By having a larger body size, by living in more challenging environments, by having particularly burdensome infants, and by having even greater reliance on cooperation, the Neanderthals would have evolved a music-like communication system that was more complex and more sophisticated than that found in any of the previous species of Homo».

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid.

56 Ch. Mello, Mimesis und musikalische Konstruktion, Shaker, Aachen 2010, p. 190.

57 S. Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, p. 266.

58 Ibid.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid., p. 111.

61 It consists of three distinct sections: the breathing section (with lungs, diaphragm etc.), the larynx section (with the pair of vocal folds and its adjustment system etc.) and the pharynx section (with its different resonating areas, cheeks, tongue, lips and teeth etc.). In the larynx section the sound itself is produced through the subglottic air pressure from the breathing section and an overall muscle tension puts vocal folds and adjustment system into distinct vibrating modes. In the pharynx section the primal source sound from the larynx section is forwarded and its resonation is augmented, enhanced, and shaped by the diverse articulation modes of the jaws, tongue, velum, teeth and lips. The breathing section affects resonation through different body zones – stronger than others, puts them into resonance (cavities, diaphragm, muscles, bones). This will again inflect the sound quality of the voice (volume, brilliance).

62 For Ilse Middendorf returning to the origins of language happens via the «experienced breath» which would reveal «sensation memories» through which words might have been created once: «If we are present with all our senses and allow the breath to flow, it will be all-embracing. We will feel it not only as a movement, proceeding or becoming, but also fulfilled by the content of our inner being, soul and spirit. When we experience the breath like this, then we know that it will continue living in us in form of a sensation memory that will be “causative” and find its expression in the outside world. At the borderline between the physical experience and the regarding word a transition would be generated. The spoken word is rooted in the breath. This is how the experienced breath tells the word from its contents and the word helps to configure it. Perceiving and conceiving are not separated any more in this very moment in which the molding word allows itself to embrace the matter and the body is fulfilled with the experienced breath» (I. Middendorf, Der erfahrbare Atem in seiner Substanz, Junfermann, Paderborn 1998, p. 74; my translation).

63 S. Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, p. 254.

64 Following Merlin Donald, the human body is in possession of a «central mimetic controller» which would be a result «from a revolutionary improvement in motor control» that not only required «to rehearse and refine the body’s movements in a voluntary and systematic way», but also «to remember those rehearsals, and to reproduce them on command». It allows humans «to function as symbolic and cultural beings», «to assimilate and reconceptualize events» and «to create various prelinguistic symbolic traditions such as rituals, dance, and craft». See M. Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind. Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Ma) 1991, p. 189.

65 Ch. Mello, Mimesis und musikalische Konstruktion, p. 191.

66 J. Sundberg, Speech, song and emotions, in Id., The Science of the Singing Voice, Nothern Illinois University Press, De Kalb (Il) 1987, pp. 163-194.

67 Th. Weber-Lucks, interview with Meredith Monk. This meant for Monk, as a performer, being technically «open and vulnerable» and at the same time having «a certain level of control», having «a kind of pinpoint concentration» and at the same time being «totally open and loose. So, it’s tightness and looseness at the same time, which is not so far away from meditation».

68 Ibid.

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