The Human Voice
At the very heart of many of the most important human art forms is the voice. It is, of course, central to poetry, drama, storytelling, oratory, liturgy, film, auditorium design, choral music and the song, and important in fashion, video, cuisine and computer games. It would be hard to imagine painting, sculpture and architecture that did not profit from and develop through conversation and real-time verbal comment. We often take the voice for granted, but it is a very great biological miracle. Its extraordinary value in various genres says something very important about the natural basis of the arts in general, the remarkable way that our bodies and brains seem to be neurophysiologically designed and specialized to make art.
The voice is an adaptation of the most fundamental of all metabolic processes—breathing. The exchange of gases with the outside world is the first requirement for any living organism. A very large part of our bodies is devoted to drawing in air and distributing throughout the body the oxygen that is the essential fuel for all its operations. The power of the breath is crucial in all physical actions that require timing and rhythmic effort. The lungs of terrestrial animals were adapted from a more primitive organ in the fishes, the swim bladder, which is used to maintain buoyancy and orientation. We are akin to all the higher animals in that we breathe.
The voice is a further adaptation of the pulmonary (breathing) system. The bellows of the diaphragm and the rib muscles suck in and drive out the air, blowing it over the thin walls of the lung’s alveoli, where its oxygen can swiftly and easily be absorbed by the blood. When it is blown out, with the waste carbon dioxide from the slow burning of our carbon-based metabolism, it passes through the extraordinarily complex system of the pharynx, and there the further miracle begins to happen. The pharynx includes the larynx, the voice box itself, the oropharynx behind the mouth and the nasopharynx behind the nose. The whole is lubricated by saliva and sterilized by mucus, requiring glands for their creation. Passages connect to the trachea, leading down to the stomach, to the sinuses, and to the ears and nose. The mouth, teeth and lips, through which the expelled breath must pass, are also the organs we use to eat, so our song partakes of drinking and eating as well as breathing. The arts of the chef and the parfumier are linked in to the same system.
We hear partly through our pharynx itself as well as through the ears—our otolaryngeal system, which enables swift and sensitive feedback between hearing and vocalizing, is one of the unique features of our species, as opposed to the other primates, and is essential for the production of speech. The inner ear, also connected to the pharynx, controls not only hearing but also our sense of balance and the three-dimensional inertial sensor of our semicircular canals, which can sense space itself and changes in motion, and which is essential in dance and gymnastics. In order to handle the potentially catastrophic traffic exchange of mutually incompatible yet essential materials, an amazingly subtle system of nerves and automatic reflexes controls the various valves and membranes, among them the epiglottis.
At the center of this whole marvelous mechanism is the tongue, the powerful and astonishingly sensitive tentacle that rightly gives its name in almost all languages to language itself. Together with the teeth and jaw, the lips, and the hard and soft palate, all more or less controllable by conscious intention, the flow of air, having come already vibrating from the larynx, is turned to articulate speech and imbued with feeling from the opening, trembling or closing of the various sounding chambers of the nasal cavity, the sinuses, and even of the throat and chest. The fundamental tone is created by powerful wind blowing across and between warm, moist, moving, finely controlled membranes and cartilaginous surfaces in the voice box; but this sound is only the raw material that will be shaped again and again until it passes through the lips and nostrils.
At every point in this process, the mind and emotions of the person who is uttering these sounds is engaged intimately across complex surfaces with their production. How and where that person was raised is reflected in exact detail in the ways the voice is used. Babies are genius mimics and vocal trainees, and very soon they can recognize and produce the basic sound spectrum of their native language—and become unable to hear or speak that of another community language. So their family and their native land are represented in their adult voice, together with their own genetic individuality and the habits acquired from their life histories. It is no wonder that we can instantly recognize a voice we know; the voice has all of our soul in it. Each of us is a musical instrument, tuned to our identity.
It is not only our personal history that is reflected in our voice. All the calls, cries, grunts, screams, howls, whimpers, snarls, croons and lovesongs of our animal ancestors and cousins are present in our vocal repertoire. We are excellent mimics, and our totemic imagination makes us able to enter the world of other animals. We inhabit nature with our voices, but transcend it too, because we are not specialists, and share with only a few bird species (especially the amazing parrots) the capacity to speak the languages of other beasts. At the bottom of our vocal capacity is the ancient expressive language of mammalian challenge, endearment, entreaty, alarm and joy. From this ground grows the special individuality of the human voice.
Indeed, this extraordinary fleshly instrument is a rich source of metaphors when we try to express the mystery of the human self, as we see with the word tongue as the natural metaphor for language. The word spirit is from the Latin spirare, to breathe; in Greek, it is pneuma, “breath”; in Hebrew, ruach, “breath”; in Sanskrit and Hindi, atman, “breath.” To “express” is to press out. A “cry” is also a plea, an indictment, a sign of grief. The Chinese radical for “mouth” pervades all the written characters in which the idea of human utterance is important. In the Bible, the world is created by word, breathed forth on the wind of the spirit. Singing is the universal metaphor of free and joyful expression.
This amazingly complex and subtle flute, powerful enough to fill a concert hall, is, as other portals of the body are, a site of pleasure. It is a pleasure not just to hear song, but to sing. There is a comfort even in mourning, in a dirge. The pharynx is the birth canal of meaning, of idea, of rebirth, and experiences the happiness of the birth canal. Moses, called upon by God to speak his law, complains that his lips are uncircumcised; the lips of Ezekiel are circumcised by an angel with a fiery coal; the Hebrew rite of circumcision was symbolic of a man’s being given a birth canal for the expression of the word of God and the interpretation of the Torah.
In Christianity, the Word is made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and on Christmas Day it is uttered in the form of a human child. The enfleshment of the Word is celebrated in Christmas carols, in Milton’s “Nativity Ode.” This essay itself was suggested by a remarkable Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Dallas Bach Society, using a small ensemble of baroque instruments and an excellent group of singers. The alto who sang the passage “He was despised and rejected” had, in a movingly frank yet musically chaste and exact way, turned herself inside out; in hearing her, one touched the living surface of her personality. I was struck especially by the utterly different qualities of the voices—the striding tenor, the deepest hornlike baritone as the singer concluded “The trumpet shall sound” passage with the final words “we shall be changed.” The whole pathos of the difference between men and women seemed revealed in sound as we sometimes see it revealed in movement when a fine ballroom or ice-dance pair moves as one, beauty and strength.
The point here is that the spirit is not that which is the most remote from the flesh, as one might suspect to hear some theologians tell it, but is most present in our most natural and fleshly aspects and actions. This is a theme not just in Christianity, where humanity is redeemed through the fleshly incarnation of God, but in the deeper teachings of many religions. In the Bhagavadgita, for instance, Arjuna is enjoined in the most radical way to embrace his mortal and physical duty of kshatriya dharma. Immature spirituality must learn the deeper significance of physical life and action by renunciation and detachment, but the mature spirit makes its sacrifice in and through full engagement in fleshly action. In the beautiful set of woodcuts and poems known by Chinese and Japanese Buddhists as the Ten Zen Bulls, the long process of discipline and ascetic detachment comes to an end in Enlightenment, when the adept returns to human society, to life, to the physical pleasure of wine, garden and marketplace. In the Central African rituals that I came to know as a boy in Zambia, it was the body that was the gateway into this world of the spirit. Song, especially the amazing harmonized song that is a special gift of the Bantu peoples, was the medium of the supernatural. Or rather, perhaps, the supernatural was the expression of the natural; the natural is always and essentially transcending itself as new forms of life evolve and the past sprouts out a new future. In our full experience of our own bodies in song and dance, we enter into nature’s own moment-by-moment self-transcendence.
When we set aside the Platonic and Cartesian lenses through which we have been taught to view the Judeo-Christian scriptures, we see a passionate chronicle of fleshly action and feeling, in which spiritual redemption and lofty meaning are found in the trembling flesh—as words are articulated in that pink, moist, quivering cave of membranes and passages. It is curious that our philosophical tradition so sedulously separates the material, physical and sensory from the spiritual, mental and abstract. If we compare our experience of the world with the experience of a lower organism like a worm (as we can deduce it from its nervous responses to stimuli), it is clear that our experience is hugely more physical and sensory, “fleshed out” in smell, color, musical tone, texture and shape. As our neural capacities expanded through the history of the chordates, vertebrates and mammals, we certainly became capable of more and more spiritual, intellectual and abstract operations—but ipso facto we also became more capable of the carnal and material and sensory. We do not, as Hegel believed, evolve from a state of materiality to a state of pure reason; instead, we evolved from an artless congeries of mathematical abstractions (the quantum world of the early universe) into exquisite instruments of art that are capable of producing and experiencing the richest feats of both matter and mind, flesh and spirit.
Even if we do not resort to the eloquent language of religion to understand the mystery of the voice, the empirical facts are amazing enough. If we consider tonal languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese, we can see (or hear) the miracle more clearly, because it has not become for us, as it has for them, a commonplace. Every Mandarin speaker produces the falling and rising tone with exactly the same set of pitches. This perfect pitch is achieved without thought or effort. But we do the same, using pitch and stress to indicate and disambiguate grammar, logic and meaning. A rising pitch at the end of a sentence indicates a question. In context, “The DOG bit the man” means that the cat did not do it; “The dog BIT the man” means that the dog did not lick him; “The dog bit the MAN” means that it did not bite the woman. The rhythm of the sentence changes with the pitch and stress. Intelligent reading, even silent, is largely a matter of deducing where those musical choices should lie. Autism, which can be defined as a deficit in our human dramatic capacity, our ability to model the thoughts of others, is often signaled by an inability to master the correct patterns of tone and stress.
We are immediately here on the border of the whole art of poetic meter, which uses the prosody of natural language to make a further level of meaning. The change of pitch and stress when we speak, especially with force when we strongly need to express something or persuade someone else or celebrate something, creates a little melody in itself. We are all tunesmiths, even if we do not recognize that that is what we are doing. Great song-writers, like Shakespeare or the Beatles, are well aware of this—think of the unforgettable refrains:
Heigh-ho, the wind and the rain
Sweet lovers love the spring
Silent night, holy night
Good tidings of comfort and joy
It’s a long, long time from May to December
I did it my way
All the lonely people
Strawberry fields forever
Language, dance and music thus have a common root in the body and the natural rhythms of the body and brain—the heartbeat, the breath, the three-second attentional and informational present of the brain’s short-term memory.
The human vocal overtone series is the most complex of all vibratory systems. With the hearing system, it can comprehend and combine the sonic trajectory of a lifetime, the one-hour periodicity of a symphony (a great symphony is a single, hugely complex Fourier wave), the three-second slow beat of a dirge, the ten-cycles-per-second beat of a tattoo, the twenty-cps beat of the deepest audible tones, the 20,000+ cps beat of sibilants and squeaks. As such, it is a system that mimics the language of the physical universe itself, which is a dance of frequencies from the Planck time interval of 1/1044 second through gamma rays (about 1/1025 sec), the visible spectrum (about 1/1014 sec), radio waves (about 1/104 sec), the periods of planetary orbits (days to millennia) and galactic orbits (millions of years) to the frequency of the longest possible wave, the present age of the universe, about 13.7 billion years. All matter and energy is made of various combinations of these waves alone; the universe is, strictly speaking, a piece of music. The waves that constitute the colors of the visual artist range in periodicity from 790 to 400 trillion cycles per second—color is musical tone or pitch, some billions of times faster.
We could argue, then, that not only is the voice the most powerful instrument of art in the universe, it is designed to comprehend the universe by a sort of sampling process. By its combining of different frequencies in music and poetry, it creates something like a perspective painting of a landscape, which indicates by the differential placement and size of detail (i.e., different detail-frequencies in terms of the proportion of the picture-space occupied) the boundless three-dimensional world in depth. We know that the auditory cortex and the visual cortex of the brain use the same basic system of interconnected neural columns with hierarchical organization for recognizing tone, shape and spatio-temporal placement, and that both are involved in the production of art. But painters and sculptors need brushes, chisels, paint and stone to make what they make; the singer is her voice, is her own instrument.
And this instrument is profoundly natural, the product of biological evolution hugely accelerated by cultural evolution. Art that involves it cannot be arbitrary in form. Poetic meter and the tonal system of music are formalizations of its natural limits—limits that are also powers of almost unimaginable scope, subtlety and depth. What cannot be sung may not be worth singing. As our art gradually recovers from its modernist hubris and postmodernist relativism, we will rediscover the bodily and natural basis of the arts, and in particular the miracle of the human voice.
American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2010, Volume 27, Number 2.