constellations #40: voices

Hi again.

  • Once a week for the past few weeks a professional has been teaching me how to speak better. (I feel very fortunate and kind of embarrassed because most recipients of this company-sponsored training are real broadcasters and not, you know, someone who just shows up on a podcast every once in a while, like me.) Additionally I have homework; every day for about fifteen minutes I do my little exercises — stretching out various muscles in my face, humming, practicing consonants. It feels rigorous and soothing.

  • Remember that moment years ago when podcasts first started booming and everyone was talking about vocal fry, and how annoying it is when young people these days, especially women, speak that way? Even This American Life investigated. The person who is teaching me how to speak better told me that while boomers associate it with, uh, a lack of knowledge (“perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable,” according to one study), millennials actually associate vocal fry with trustworthiness.* So really, she said, it’s just a matter of audience. The emphasis on training vocal fry out of your voice really only matters if you want a middle-aged audience to relate to you.

  • I have a quiet voice and before the pandemic I was regularly being asked to repeat myself or speak up. People would conspicuously lean in when I was speaking, making me want to yell I KNOW, I’M SORRY. (Even though I used to kind of instinctively and dramatically lean away when someone spoke loudly over someone else in a meeting, which is way more obnoxious.) One nice thing about communicating primarily on video chat and on the phone these days is that I place a mic near my mouth and then other people have control over the volume. Good for them.

  • If you were reading this newsletter last September you might remember that I’m a big fan of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings. You might remember that I linked to an album called Wall Music by Gabriel Birnbaum that was inspired by the Sol LeWitt retrospective at MASS MoCA. You might not think I have another piece of music inspired by the Sol LeWitt retrospective at MASS MoCA up my sleeve, but I do! It’s Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices, which received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and which she says was partially inspired by Wall Drawing 305.

  • Wall Drawing 305 is composed of one hundred random specific points that are determined by the draftsman,” says the MASS MoCA website. “The points are random in that they may be placed anywhere on the wall,” it says, and are “specific in that they are created at the meeting of the junctures” of formal elements like corners, midpoints, and center. You can hear references to these instructions throughout Partita for 8 Voices, starting right at the beginning. The first time I heard Roomful Of Teeth’s recording of Partita for 8 Voices, I didn’t know anything about it, but as soon as I heard “to the side / and around / through the middle and / through the midpoint of the line drawn …” I knew immediately what was up. Or I had a strong hunch and Google at my fingertips. Anyway I was overjoyed. And joy is, in some ways, what the piece is about.

  • I first read The Great Gatsby in ninth grade and I haven’t read it since. But one description of Daisy’s voice — that the narrator has “heard it said that Daisy's murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming” — has stuck with me ever since. The too-common claim that a woman’s natural way of being is actually seductive manipulation — but also, I thought, what a charming spin on the inconvenience of being frequently misheard.

  • One time I went to a punk show with my friend Lyndsey and a man tried to chat us up. (Mistake.) He couldn’t hear me well over the music and said, “Your voice is so quiet, are you sick?” and I said, “No, that’s just how I sound,” and he said, “Oh. That’s ok.” and I said, “I know it’s ok, it’s my voice!” An overreaction in the moment, maybe, and definitely an overreaction to still remember it years later. But it stuck with me, too; I took his reassurance as arrogance and was affronted by it — as if I was worried whether he, an absolute stranger with whom we did not particularly wish to make conversation, would be ok with the state of my voice?! Whatever, dude!

  • About one moment in the piece, Shaw told NPR: "It's funny, my first thought was, 'Wow, that's what the Internet sounds like! When you open your computer and everyone's talking at you suddenly.'” No kidding.

  • Lately I’ve seen a trend on TikTok about how to flirt with women. The going story being, of course, that young women are socialized to metabolize any attention from men as a sign of potential romantic interest, and attention from anyone else as friendship, and so, if you are a young woman trying to flirt with other women, neither of you has any idea what’s going on. (Like all going stories about being a woman … your mileage may vary.) Anyway the TikTok trend instructs you, young Sapphic, to suppress your natural inclination to raise the pitch of your voice when talking to a cute girl, and instead compliment her in an even tone in your lower register. When I search the video on TikTok I see streams of young women looking right into the camera, practicing “I love your outfit” and “you look really beautiful” at varying pitches, shocking themselves with their capacity for self-seduction. It’s very sweet.

  • (Oh and relatedly I also saw a TikTok recently about how we have this cultural narrative about the supposed “gay voice” but “is there such a thing as lesbian voice?”, the algorithm gracefully and blissfully navigating me to the middle of the Venn diagram of queer culture and PhD students in linguistics, where I belong.)

  • “Don’t just give up before you even make it to the end,” the voice teacher instructs me, about using my breath at the end of a sentence, but I imagine the lesson applies more broadly.

  • My sister’s fifteen-month-old dog is also finding his voice lately. “It’s like he went through puberty since I last saw him,” I remarked last week, after he barked his head off when Matt walked through the door. He was happy to see me and terrified of Matt, letting out a series of forceful, alarmingly fierce barks while running backwards away from Matt’s outstretched hand. He obviously didn’t sound scared, even though he was visibly very scared — inspirational!

  • “Partita is a simple piece,” Shaw explained when she won the Pulitzer. “Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another” — a desire that, I guess, I am also trying to chase here.

    And just for good measure here is another nice recording of voices, which came out a couple years ago and which Matt didn’t stop playing in our house for like three straight months after discovering it.

    Hope you draw a line from one point to another this week. See you soon.


    *An extremely cursory Google search doesn’t provide evidence for this claim but I’m rolling with it. Also, sorry to leave out Gen X; I’m sure you have complicated opinions about vocal fry, too!