Overweening Generalist

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Human Voice Quality and the Subconscious and Psychedelia

In order to enact the voice of the Judeo-Xtian "God" one must have a deep and masculine and well-modulated voice. Or so I recall from an old Woody Allen essay. But indeed: when you're casting the Part, if you think of James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman you're probably somewhere near the mainstream. Voices like theirs have gravitas.

My casting would have a lot of people up in arms, but I think I'd like Sandy Wood as my voice of God, or the Goddess, the Head Honcho, the Creator of All Things. Here she is. Just listen to her! (Click on any one of those audio links and note how fantastic she sounds compared to the "experts" who say a few sentences.) I first heard Sandy Wood on the "Stardate" syndicated radio spot on my local AM news radio, late at night. I was completely mesmerized by the quality of her voice, and I will listen to "Stardate"and try to pay attention to the content, but will probably lose out to that part of my brain that processes the musical qualities in human voices. It's not just that Sandy Wood sounds sexy in an otherworldly way - she does to me - but there's something...trippy in her voice. I will admit that the subject matter - constellations, planets, asteroids, the cosmos - seem to fit her voice perfectly, but I think if she read from the telephone book it would still sound pretty cool.

I've long paid attention to outstanding voices, male or female, and I think I'm just weird that way, but also: as a 6-foot-tall, 175 pound heterosexual male, I sound "soft" and nasal-y and maybe a tad effeminate. If I don't consciously lower my voice when answering the phone often the person will call me "Ma'am"...and I don't tell them they're wrong. It's not worth it. I've lost my ego on that. I don't care anymore. I'm secure. They're just doing some survey or they have the wrong number and I don't know why I pick up the phone in the first place these days, what with caller ID.

I remember, around age 20, reading about a social science study that had been replicated many times. They tell three or five male college students they're participating in some study that really has nothing to  do with what they're really studying: they are all sitting in a room talking about the supposed subject. After a period of time, a good-looking female enters the room, taking no notice of the males. She moves some paper around, arranges some things, then leaves. She or another handsome woman come in a few minutes later and rearrange things for a minute, then leave. The males subconsciously lower their voice about an octave when the female is in the room. They're told about it later and are not aware they lowered their voices. The argument had to do with the social construction of masculinity, as I recall, but if that was the purpose, I'm not sure it's all that valid because men might do this for evolutionary reasons.

Anyway, this sort of study made me aware of the possibility that I may be acting "masculine" for reasons that had been beyond my own self-perception, so I quit and made peace with my "soft" non-God-like voice.

At the same time, other voices continue to captivate me. It could be some aspect of timbre, or accent. There are people with not-great voices who enunciate words a certain way and the content of what they're talking about is also so fascinating I can't stop listening. Terence McKenna was like that for me: if he didn't care so much about enunciating words his voice would be nondescript. But he did care about his speech qualities and his content was always completely riveting. To this day, I'll listen to McKenna and get almost as much enjoyment from the quality of his voice as the incredibly interesting topics he riffed on. I still remember the first time I heard him, late night on KPFK-FM from Los Angeles. I think I was literally mesmerized, entranced, enchanted. That voice!

I've been reading about what I'll call musical qualities of speech. Idiolect (definition: "the speech habits peculiar to a particular person") isn't a bad place to hang ideas about how you and your friends sound.

David Antin is a good example of an artist I had read, knowing what I had read was originally an impromptu-speech. Antin does free-style improvisations of talks on very intellectual themes, in front of an audience. He's like a jazz monologist. He records his shows and if everything comes together and he gets an outstanding performance, he transcribes the talks into poetry and publishes them in a book. But when his voice started appearing on the Net - I had read him without ever hearing him - I was disappointed he didn't sound more like McKenna, or McLuhan or William Burroughs, or even Buckminster Fuller. (I find McLuhan, Burroughs and Fuller - especially Burroughs - as somewhat like McKenna: great idiolects, riveting content.)

Not long ago I heard the President of Bard College, Leon Botstein, give a talk. The content was pretty interesting, but get a load of the big-brass god-like quality of this guy's idiolect. The content is not psychedelic; I personally find listening to him to have a mild psychedelic effect.

With the rise of radio (c.1923 till its heydey in the late 1940s, even up to now), people with certain native and trained speech/vocal/idiolect qualities were selected for. Actors and actresses lost their jobs with the advent of the talkies, as Singin' In The Rain illustrates so memorably. I always had a love/hate relationship with those Voices of Authority or voices of The State ("News...on the march!"): they sounded great, but they sounded a tad too authoritarian. The amount of work that actor and voice-over artist Reed Hadley got in films noir demonstrates this well. Hadley had also done voice-over for the US military in short films about the atomic bomb tests and other demonstrations of killingry and the overwhelming power of the State to murder. And his stentorian voice is also heard on some of my favorite noir films: House on 92nd Street; Shock; T-Men; He Walked By Night; Canon City; Boomerang! and Walk A Crooked Mile. With Hadley intoning, the police, FBI, upper brass military: they were all on the side of Good, and Evil (anyone the State deemed undesirable) didn't stand a chance. I tried to find an example of Hadley's voice but couldn't. If you watch one of the above films you'll hear him and say, "Ohhh...yea. That guy."

Under the Wikipedia entry for "Voice of God" Hadley shows up on a list, but I noted that apparently some conspiracy theorists think the CIA does a voice-of-God thing to beam into people's heads. If anyone has a good line on this, lemme know.

Aside from Sandy Wood and a few other female voices, my relationship with female idiolects is different from male sounds because frankly, I can't separate an interesting female voice from its sexualizing aspect in my nervous system. I will listen to the "traffic on the eights" on local AM radio news shows, if only to hear the often-female voices that had been through vocal training school. I have no idea what they look like; I'm only digging their sound. If I'm comfy-cozy in bed at 3AM and some sultry voice tells me there's an overturned 18-wheeler 35 miles down the freeway from me and traffic won't start flowing again until 5AM...what do I care? I'm digging the way she sounds as she says, "All lanes southbound will be closed for Cal-Trans until six-thirty."

All of what I say here about women's voices and my reaction seems to have some sort of relationship to a new...fad?: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), and here's just one example from YouTube, but there are many, many others. It's like audio porn?

Some other voices that have seemed psychedelic to me:
-John Facenda, the voice of NFL films
-Malcolm X
-just about anyone on the BBC news as we get it in Unistat
-Andre Gregory (ever see My Dinner With Andre? I'm never aware the camera doesn't move out of that restaurant! I won't even comment on how this came out in 1981, vis a vis the world situation now...)
-Spaulding Gray
-Orson Welles

Tics, too many ummms, ahhhhs, the growing "vocal fry" in women's voices: all these make me want to change to channel. I confess I have to remind myself that not everyone who speaks with an accent from the American South is a neo-nazi or Klansman. Yes, I'm prejudiced. I also tend to find it grating when grown women seem to be dialing up the "little girl" sounds in their idiolect.

I suspect most of us find we subconsciously make assumptions about a person based on the way they sound, apart from what they say. In Anne Karpf's book The Human Voice she tells us that between the 1920s and 1940s all sorts of studies tried to prove that we can judge a person's personality by the quality of their voice, "extroverts" speaking faster and louder and pausing less, for example. Here's how  weird it could get:

"In the 1950s an American laryngologist even maintained that neuroses had their own, distinctive vocal means of expression, their oral counterpart. 'Neurosis is itself voice-bound...The man who is afraid,' he argued, 'will show it in his voice...Voice is the primary expression of the individual, and even through voice alone the neurotic pattern can be discovered.' Purely on the basis of a recording of an adolescent boy's voice, this doctor judged him fearful, cowardly, egocentric, self-conscious, effeminate, intelligent, and gifted. When the boy's Rorschach test was analysed, almost identical conclusions were reached."

Phrenology and its popular accomplices never dies, does it?

I would have liked to have delved into the Voice in history, as clearly some voices have the power to worm themselves deeply into the mass nervous system, for ill or good. I'm interested in the neurobiology of this, but baldly state my ignorance of this as of this date, so bid y'all adieu.

Check out John Facenda, another "voice of God" voice, who made NFL films into an art form (along with the music...and I'm not even a football fan!):


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece as usual. Some of my favorite voices: Tim Leary, Don Preston, Barry Smolin, Rafi Zabor.

I've had the idea for a Marvel Comics character called the Voice, an android who could interact with the Vision in a Crowley-esque miniseries called "The Vision and the Voice."

Anonymous said...

My experience listening to Terence
is the same, he would have been
called a skald or bard in a previous
age. Even more interesting was to
hear women talk to him in the Q and
A sessions. I found it hard to
believe that was their normal voice.

I truly appreciated his lack of
belief in what he was saying, the
provisional nature of his work was
refreshing in an age where everyone
wants some magic certainty to cling

I'm sure there is a lot more work
worth doing in the area of speech
and it's subtleties. Like the safe
tone which in speech until you
percieve a threat and then it goes
away. Having a deep voice isn't
always a good thing, sometimes it
makes people miss a lot of your
content since thhey are tuned to
the TV type of voice. This gets
worse as your vocabulary rises
beyond bestial grunts and groans
of everyday parlance.

I think the voices of movie actors
once they got sound working were
some of the great ones. The Raven
Nicholson, Price, Karloff, and
Lorre as an example, one of the
female leads was an Opera star too.

In art Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, and
Billie Holliday were masters of
the art of projecting emotions into
your ears.

I recall one of the early Roman
leaders had someone killed for
writing down what he said in his
public speeches. That way you don't
lose the Bardic gloss to investigation.

michael said...


I didn't emphasize how trippy I find Burroughs, esp on those CDs Dead City Radio and Spare Ass Annie.

michael said...


That last riff on Roman speech: 30 yrs ago I read some piece that asked, "If you have seen a picture of the writer of the book you're reading, does it influence your understanding of the text?"

I soon extrapolated that to, "If you've heard the voice of the writer you're reading, do you hear their voice in your head when reading the piece, or can you call us other voices?"

I've read texts of speeches and they affect me quite differently than hearing the text being recited. When I read someone whose voice I haven't heard, I look more for writerly qualities and overall: rhetorical devices.

When a female talks at a McKenna lecture, they almost always sound like they're from Berkeley or Marin to me: that regional sound, that register.

The early talkies and voices: stage actor voices and often PROJECTING was something they had to tone down, as microphones were hanging directly over their head out of the shot, of hidden in the flower arrangement on the table in front of them. But: a certain New England sophistication-sound in very many actors. I love the way William Powell, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, and Joan Bennett sound.

In singing: I agree with you in those examples, but there are many other examples from rock that seem off-the-charts because of what musicologists once called - maybe still do - "mock ingenuous" singing. Masks upon masks.

There's a RAWfan who's commented here before and I know him: Brian Shields. He's had a radio career and now works in TV in San Francisco. He's a big dude and I remember the first time I heard his voice: we were going to meet at some gathering, and he'd given me his cell phone number. Previously we'd only communicated by email. The second I heard his voice I thought, "He sounds like I called into the radio station and am talking to the disc jockey like I did when I was a teenager."

What's weird is when thin guys have huge, resonant, booming voices.

You cited Vincent Price. His voice was mesmerizing to me, too. I'd watch a film with him in it if only to hear him deliver lines.

Eric Wagner said...

I had forgotten that Joseph Kerman called the first chapter on the late quartets in his The Beethoven Quartets "Voice".