Using your voice

The Barberellas in concert at the Stones of Stenness, Orkney. How did the original users of the monument sound?

A few months ago I  spent a week working on voice and communication with Kristin Linklater. It was a fascinating experience that got me thinking about all sorts of things. I never set out to be an academic (if, indeed, I am one). I was just unsuccessful at getting a permanent job, and I have always enjoyed analysing things and talking (or writing about it). Working freelance suited me and it meant that most of my reports were published. It was a privileged position in which to find myself. The workshop at Linklater Voice made me realise how much I live in my head, I don’t deliberately shy away from emotion, but I do think everything through very deliberately, though I no longer realise I am doing it.

The techniques developed by Kristin Linklater are all about instinct and spontaneity. It is necessary to shed the desire to monitor everything. It made me think about how much communication is tied up with caution and restriction. Of course, this is not an original realisation. Others have long studied the way in which we measure our words before we speak. There is an interesting body of literature, not all of which agrees. Some see it as a thoroughly modern trait. Social inhibitions, when practiced in this way, may (or may not), have shaped the Western world of today.

It is a specialised field, and not one where I am qualified to comment. But it did get me thinking about how it would be to live in a society where communication had a closer relation to ‘gut instinct’. Indeed, there is an increasing body of material that suggests the existence of complex links between the brain, the stomach and the emotions. According to some, the increasing use of tongue and throat to vocalise has allowed us to impose restrictions on what we say. We hide our true emotional speech in this way.

Over the course of an intensive week I learnt to vocalise without using ‘manufactured’ sounds. I learnt about resonance and we discussed communication and the impediments to communication. I now understand that voice is much more complex than the simple interplay of vocal cords and air. When we research the voices of the past, therefore, we need to consider social factors as well as physical factors such as lung capacity, breathing, and convention, in addition to elements like the size of sinuses and brow ridges. Vocal cords are interesting but hardly the whole picture.

We don’t know how our Mesolithic and Neolithic ancestors sounded when they chatted to one another. We can’t be sure at what point we started to weigh the impact of our words and to hide our true feelings behind facial and manual gestures as well as through the use of tone and pitch. I’d bet that the effect of moving from small, familial, communities into larger unfamiliar populations had something to do with it.  As did context and circumstance. Passing a message is very different when you are on an open mountainside, to being on a crowded factory floor. The collective voice of today is unlikely to have formed in a single event, rather I imagine something that has been developing, in fits and starts, around the globe, for millennia. It is a work in progress. Today, perhaps, we are witnessing the emergence of a new form of communication as keyboards take over much of our everyday chit chat.

Just a quick note – I wrote this shortly after attending the workshop, but I like to sit on my posts for a while before I release them. That way I can think, refine, and edit. I am publishing the post now in tribute to Kristin, who died very suddenly a few days ago. She was an inspirational figure who touched the lives of many, both within and outside her own profession.