Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

The past was not silent

Performance theorist and archaeologist MIKE PEARSON reflects on some of the issues raised by the Centre for Performance Research, Aberystwyth's recent

An archaeologist was speaking of that creation myth in which the Earth is envisioned as a sphere carried on the back of a turtle. 'But what's the turtle standing on?' came a shout from the audience. 'Well,' answered the archaeologist, 'as far as we can tell, it's turtles all the way down! ' I suppose it is inevitable that a conference on 'An Archaeology of the Voice' should concentrate on metaphors of excavation and retrieval: digging, stripping, opening, unearthing, reveal- ing. It is equally unsurprising that there should be much talk of discovering - deep-down - that priceless artifact, one's true, essential, authentic, natural voice. And thereafter of cleaning the hid- den treasure, conserving it, restoring it, display- ing it. But since excavation is a work of destruction - one layer is destroyed as we dig down to the next - we should be careful what we discard in delving for the illusionary bottom. ('It's turtles...') For it is in these strata of socialisation and acculturation, accent and affectation - that the real character of the voice lies, what Roland Barthes describes as its 'grain': 'the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue'.(1) Which is perhaps why I found as much in the field record ings of Albanian men at a funeral - part mourners, part football crowd - as in the sublime, rehearsed polyphony of A Filetta from Corsica in Llanbadarn Church.

Lampeter-based archaeologist Michael Shanks has written, 'Archaeology is about some very basic and mundane things: grubbing around in decayed garbage, recovering traces of things and processes which go largely unnoticed today - what happens to broken bits of pot, to things that get lost, abandoned buildings, rotted fences, microbial action. A creeping, mouldering under-side of things'.(2) Archaeology leads equally to thoughts of ruin, decay, putrefaction and of aging, erosion, wearing...Which is perhaps why I found as much in the struggles of the canu pwnc group from Rhydwilym chanting John 1:1 - 'Why do you move from a minor third to major third in your chant?', asked the Vietnamese musicologist. 'Because we can't sing in tune', replied the aged choir-as in the practised harmonies of the equally aged Bulgarian 'Grannies' of Bistritsa. Archaeology is a material practice set in the present which works on and with the traces of the past. What archaeologists do is to work with evidence in order to create something, a meaning or narrative or story, which stands for the past in the present.

Archaeology is the relation we maintain with the past. People experience things, appropriate them and produce a meaning for themselves. In this sense, archaeology is something that each of us routinely does: this we could call 'the archaeological imagination'. And there is increasingly a feeling that archaeology should include a defamiliarising of what is taken as given, revealing the equivocality of things and experiences: an attitude critical and suspicious of orthodoxy; an approach which embraces the im- possibility of any final account of things; a poetics of the past; a practice sensual, subjective and phenomenological - making sense of things that were never certain or sure in the first place. Which is why I found little in the authorised presentations on the development of vocal technique in English theatre and much in the autobiographical account/demonstration by Roberta Carreri of her years at Odin Teatret, half-remembered, part-fictionalised, always embodied.

In considering points of contact between archaeology and the voice, three interlocking notions come to mind: the voice in the past, the voice of the past and the voice as past.

Whatever its motives, archaeology does work with the traces of human actions. Yet the human voice is that most ephemeral of traces. We cannot know what the voice was in prehistory but at least we can be assured that it was used. Body remains - like the Neolithic 'iceman' trapped in a glacier - have larynxes and ear-drums: people wailed in the throes of battle-field deaths and sang on the wagon loaded with corn. We cannot hear the past but it was not a silent place.

Architectures specially built for the voice and its extension or ostension - 'sound-houses' - do survive. We Itnow the experience of standing and speaking in a Greek theatre and realising that vocal delivery must have required articulation, projection, clarity. But we must beware! For example, Shakespeare's plays were constituted in an oral not a literate society - only 10 per cent of the population could read - and that when face to face communication was the commonest form of communication then people spoke more quickly, heard more acutely and revelled in the intricacies of verbal metaphor more readily. Which is perhaps why no Shakespearean play should last more than two hours and why the new Globe Theatre can never be used as if in the past.

There are also those places where the voices of the past seem to reverberate. But again we should be careful. The mediaeval cathedral was a busy place; our hushed tones might not be an echo of its essential sacredness! And the mediaeval forest, far from being a silent wilderness, was alive with the sounds of hunting, felling and scavenging. However there are sites, such as the Neolithic tomb at Tinkinswood in the Vale of Gla morgan, where sets of sonic conditions endure: where we might speculate on past employments of the voice by going there and trying ourselves, engaging the architecture, using our contemporary voices as a kind of 'experimental archaeology of phenomena.

The voices of the past do reach us, in fragments: distant voices still echo. Occasionally we discover an artifact which chills and thrills us by the absences it suggests: the recordings of opera singer Adelina Patti, of the last castrato, of the bedevilled blues of Robert Jolmson. And the panoply of ancient techniques are still partially preserved through oral transmission in the voices of practitioners who carry on albeit ever-changing traditions.

Most strikingly, we might regard the voice as past, as the location not of our true and essential spirit but as the very artifact of our constructed identity. Strictly speaking, the voice - except perhaps in moments of true exhilaration or anguish - is always speaking of the past, expressing that thought, that emotion, I had a split second ago. And if it expresses my experience to you, then it is my experience as my story, my history. But beyond this we might pursue several further and perhaps interchangeable metaphors.

First, we might consider the voice as itself an artifact, manufactured through social practice. Its utterance is its raw material but as with a stone tool it is worked by hammering, splitting, trimming, polishing; as with a pot it is thrown, glazed, decorated, embellished, fired; as with a metal axe it is smelted, cast, moulded, alloyed. The processes of its fabrication are social, cultural, personal, artistic. It attains the deep patina of usage. Yet it is susceptible to wear, corrosion, mutation, decay; it displays marks of time and experience. Mainly we get on with things, in a state of familiarity. But when things change without us sanctioning change, we take notice. ..when things happen -rusting, shattering, disappearing... And these non-reversible changes - connected to time - give us the true sense of our mortality: they are the signs of the human conditions of aging and the journey towards death. There are too marks of origin, individuality, experience. And scars of usage, misusage, over-usage.

It was long the practice to clean artifacts, to destroy the patina, the same impulse which causes us to strip pine furniture, to get rid of regional accents! But now the unrestored artifact is held to have equal resonance, its current state a reflection of its life-history. And it is revealed to be heterogeneous, an infinity of possible attributes and measurements. Which ones are made and held to constitute its identity depend upon the purposes of the researcher. It is notjust one thing: it is polysemic, it has a plurality of meanings. It rnay be classified and associated with other objects it resembles, with activities in which it is employed, with classes of people who make use of, with past events in which it was implicated. Its significance is arbitrary and slippery. What then attracts us to a particular object - to a particular voice - may be what Walter Benjamin called its aura (3) - the sense of associations and evocations which cluster around it: correspondences and interrelations.

A second metaphor is that of vocal technique as constituting a kind of prehistory of the speak- ing voice. Anthropologist Ruth Finnegan laments the fact that her discipline ignores everything besides the denotative and grammatical proper- ties of words and their flat articulation, the voiced equivalents of written forms.(4) And as Dennis Potter famously said, 'The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouth they have been in.' Tempo, volume, dynamics, pitch, stress, emphasis, timbre, intonation, weighting, rhythm, rhyme, accent, pauses, silence go under-considered, as ephemeral, impenetrable and enigmatic as the traces of prehistory in the face of history.

In semiotic terms this is paralanguage: the vocalic features with which the speaker endows vocalese over and above its phonemic and syntactic structure and which supply essential infor- mation regarding the state, intentions and atti- tudes of the speaker. And this itself may be stratigraphical in nature including 'the voice set' depending upon physiological features, gender, age, build; 'voice qualities' such as pitch, range, lip control, glottis control, tempo, resonance; 'vocalisations' - the actual sound emitted - divided into 'vocal characterisers' (laughing, crying, giggling, shouting) 'vocal qualifiers' (intensity, pitch) and 'vocal segregates' (clicks, uh- huhs). All in some way learned, acquired and culture specific.

A third metaphor is that of the voice as an excavating implement. Phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty suggests, 'People can speak to us only in a language which we already understand, each word in a difficult text awakens in us thoughts which were ours beforehand, but these meanings sometimes combine to form new thoughts which recasts them all, and we are transported to the heart of the matter, we find the source. A common property of meaning. We possess ready-made meanings. '(6) It's as if the voice - in speech, chant, song - can excavate meaning, emotion, reaction in the other. It's rarely separate. from those being sung to or about. But why do some voices work in this way and not others? And why do some, so strange and foreign, evoke emotion in us?

A fourth metaphor is that of the voice as palimpsest. Technically, a palimpsest is a piece of writing-material or manuscript on which the, original writing has been effaced to make room for other writing. Contemporary archaeologists have taken this to describe the phenomenon of the site or artifact which exists not only then and now but all points in between, used, abused, written over. And,that is its true nature: it is not some time-capsule bequeathed to us from a specific point in the past. And thus with the voice we might show the heterogeneity, the multi-temporality of what was imagined consistent with itself, a combination of genealogy and inheritance, accent and regional identity, pedagogy and received pronunciation: the voice as autobiography. And thus it was that my thoughts inevitably wandered to those voices that affect me most. To my neighbour Bernard who was hit by a Cardiff tram and who didn't speak for fifty years. When his voice suddenly returned he was already deaf, with no notion of socially appropriate volume or intonation. So he talked incessantly - in the house, in the street, in the middle of the night...

To my disabled colleague Dave Levett, whose fractured rhythms and swooping articulations - on the breath, against the breath - demand our attention, demand that we listen and interpret.

To James Dean Bradfield singing out of tune - from sheer passion - at the 'Brit' awards.

And to Dave Edwards (Datblygu), Owain Wright (Rheinallt H. Rowlands) and Ann Matthews (Ectogram), the 'cracked' voices of Welsh music.

All in some way broken, dissonant, unauthentic and ineffably human.


1. Barthes, Roland. 1977. 'The Grain of the Voice', in Image Music Text London, Fontana. pp.179-189.
2. Shanks, Michael. 1993. 'The Life of an Artifact'
3. Benjamin, Walter. 1992. 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', inlltuminations (trans. H. Zohn) London, Fontana. pp.214-216.
4. Finnegan, Ruth. 1992. Oral Tradition' and the Verbal Arts' London, Routledge. pp.l-24.
5. Elam, Keir. 1988. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama London, Routledge. pp.78-79.
6. Merleau-Ponty, M. 1962. Phenamenolagy of Perception (trans'. C. Smith) London, Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp.174-199.

author:Mike Pearson

original source: New Welsh Review #37, Summer 1997
01 July 1997


Privacy Policy | Contact Us | ©2006 keith morris / red snapper web designs /