Listening to Listening: A Conversation on Voice and Race

Annelies Andries, Jacqueline Georgis, Jane Forner
2021 Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle  
Hello. Hi, Jane, and hi, Lin. Welcome to this conversational review of Nina Eidsheim's book, The Race of Sound. My name is Annelies and I'm going to open with a more general review of my thoughts on this book. In The Race of Sound, musicologist Nina Sun Eidsheim aims to make the readers rethink the way they approach the naming of 'voice'. Whenever one hears a voice, she argues, one automatically asks the acousmatic question: 'Who is this?' (1). This question betrays the way we name a voice and
more » ... nderstand it as an essentialized expression of a knowable individual. She perceives this activity of essentializing especially in relation to vocal timbre-a concept that she understands very broadly as encompassing all characteristics that allow us to distinguish between two sounds of the same 'pitch and loudness' (6). It is important to realize, according to Eidsheim, that equating timbre with specific essences is an act of interpretation on the part of the listener, rooted in collective and cultural assumptions. Thus, she seeks to dispel the common notions that voice is 1) singular, 2) innate and 3) that its source is in the singer (9). Instead, she puts the listener in the limelight. It is important to note that vocalists themselves also fall under the denominator 'listeners'. After all, vocalists listen to their own vocal production and interpret and adjust their production based on their own and others' cultural and collective perceptions about voice in general, and theirs in particular. Throughout the chapters of the book, Eidsheim deconstructs how and why listeners read voices as a reflection of essence with a particular attention to race (often in the intersection with gender). She discusses how hearing timbre as racial leads to constructions of imaginary identities that often deny singers agency. In chapter two, for instance, she proposes the concept of a phantom genealogy in which the voices of nineteenth-and twentieth-century Black opera singers were framed within a minstrelsy performance culture. Discussing Billie Holiday in chapter five, she highlights how her voice is interpreted as autobiographical, channeling ancestral history, and biologically determined (156)-all ways of interpreting that suggest Holiday's sound came naturally and that keep us from understanding Holiday's artistic skills in crafting her own sound. A theme that also regularly comes back is how listeners expect that a voice's timbre corresponds to its visual, bodily representation-if this is not the case, representations will be adjusted to fit the vocal timbre; in chapter four, she demonstrates how this is even true of voice-simulation technology such as the Vocaloid. Ultimately, Eidsheim proposes to shift our attention to the elements of entrainment, style and technique as an approach that puts the singers' artistry in creating their sounds centre stage. Yet, even in describing voice in these terms, Eidsheim warns against essentializing and champions the restoration of what she calls 'the multiplicity of the thick event' (5). In other words, a description is only one among multiple options for giving meaning to the voice; there is an infinity of options that do not exclude one another, but add to the thickness of the description. Highlighting only one or a few options creates a hierarchy revealing the micropolitics of listening-a micropolitics that has disadvantaged Black vocalists. Eidsheim's approach seeks to reveal the ideological discourses that underpin our conceptions of voice. In this respect, she wears her activist stance, namely, to counteract racist listening activities openly on her sleeve-this stance may be in part the reason behind the book's availability as an open access publication
doi:10.1017/rrc.2020.6 fatcat:tq5tugfffjambosnzpsc25fwca