Max Ernst, Ubu Imperator, 1923

How Do I Sound?

Some people can make a declaration of love sound like whining, and others can turn a passage of history into pornography. This is not all about phrasing and intonation, of tempo and rhythm. It is not, in other words, merely a question of interpretation. Our words acquire substance—are embodied, if you will—through a most amazing apparatus of muscles and membrane that are worked by pumps and flaps and valves. A physicality. One that, unless we are singers, actors and public speakers, we do very little to train. Which is odd, considering the important things we do with our voice—how we use it, for example, to seduce others—and considering how much effort we devote to re-shaping and re-coloring other parts of our body for precisely the same reasons.

Admittedly there is not a lot we can do to change the way we sound. Singers can learn to manipulate the resonators of the cavities and chambers in their bodies to develop resonances, but much is given that cannot be changed. Unlike triceps, vocal folds cannot be stressed into growth; a vocal tract cannot be elongated.

In the end, this voice is who we are, much as the way we walk is. And like our walk, our voice is a mark of our identity that only others observe. We do not hear our voice. At least not in the way we see our face, that daily reporting in to the morning mirror, the flashes of self seen on the myriad of reflective surfaces on which our face is fleetingly captured—the momentary brush of our features on a car window, a metal door, a still pond. We look and the world returns our countenance. We speak and the world extinguishes our voice.

You say, but we do hear our voice, all the time. Tell me, then, how you sound. Tell me if you think you would recognize someone who sounds like you, as you would someone who looks you, with the same ease and certainty.

Even if we did pay attention to our voice as we speak we wouldn’t hear it the same way as others do. We hear ourselves not only with our ears but also our bones; our voice is literally too much in our head. “Is that how I sound?” we wonder when we hear ourselves on video, and ascribe the strangeness to the medium. Cameras make people fatter than they are, don’t they?

I’ve been told I have a nice voice. I can’t really tell myself, but others must find it pleasant enough. I’ve been paid to lend my voice to documentaries and a radio ad or two. But no one has ever explained to me what they mean by a nice voice. I doubt if they could. I doubt if I could.

We don’t have the language, or enough of it. We hear gravel and reeds in some voices, honey in others. Voices creak and honk. They shimmmer and peal. But mostly we use the workhorses of measurement: depth, light, temperature, weight. Voices warm, thin, bright, dark, deep.

I sometimes wonder, what if each voice could be represented as the sum of its component factors, each measured on a particular continuum and together yielding a value that could then be looked up in some master index, some Pantone matching system for the voice, composed not of varying amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, but of things like timbre, pitch, and resonance. Each voice could then be quantitatively described. Vocologists have already done a little bit of this work. A bleating, fluttering voice is but “amplitude changes or frequency modulations in the 8-12Hz range.”

I realize, though, that for most of the regions in this great map of voices we would have nothing more than some identifying hexadecimal code, useful only in the crime lab for identification purposes. We would lack the descriptors, the vocal equivalent of agave green and Mykonos blue, ballerina pink and cinnamon stick. We would need to map these voices to words, perhaps words like midnight clarinet and spring brook ripple.

I was thinking of this when I listened to the translator read. She had a nice voice all in all. No, let me try to be more specific: it was warm, complex, earthy but smooth, like malt whisky. Something brownish in any event, like nougat (Pantone 16-1320). That is to say, it was nice but only when she was speaking in her own language, introducing the poems she was about to read. But when she read the poems that she had translated in their original language, a language that wasn’t her own, her voice sounded, I don’t know, off. She had lived for many years in the country of her second, adopted language, and the clarity and fidelity of her vowels were right as far as I could tell. But her reading sounded like the announcements of train delays one hears in the subways of London and Berlin, composed by a computer from the set of discrete numbers, stations and precipitating causes that a single, faceless human voice had recorded: “The [insert name or number] line is currently expecting delays of [insert number] minutes due to a [insert cause] at [insert station].”

It was in the interstices that the poet-translator’s foreignness was revealed. She hopped from word to word when one expected she would tumble and glide. She goose-stepped when one would ordinarily spring, bow and pivot. Borges one said, “Poetry always remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art. It remembers that it was first song.” There was no song or rhythm to her voice, and this is a fatal error when reading a poem. If there was any music, it was only a march.

Perhaps she was just a bad reader of poetry. I do not doubt that in her everyday use of this foreign language she was what one calls a near-native speaker. I have a love-hate relationship with that word. It’s flattering and dismissing at the same time. For those of us who speak a second language as if it were first, deploying it when we make love, argue with the tax office or read poetry, there is always something that betrays our belated acquisition of the language—the ever so slightly twisted vowel, the misstep of prosody, the collocation remarkable not for its improbability but for its rareness. We are always an approximation, an imperfect copy of the original, our identity betrayed with the second or third or tenth sentence we utter, when not the first. I once thought there was no way to truly hear the way our native language sounded to others. There is, though. Listen to your countrymen speak a foreign language.

The cadence and sounds of our native language imprint our voice and give it character, as much as timbre, tempo and resonance do. The habits of our native speech are more amenable to training than, say, fullness or color. But they remain the weeds of our speech when we speak a foreign language. They rise with alacrity the moment we let down our vigilance, when we are tired or angry or (I think of the poet) when we try too hard.


Image: Max Ernst, Ubu Imperator, 1923


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