Before and beyond words

Dr Carolyn McGettigan reviews 'This is a Voice', the latest exhibition at London's Wellcome Collection.

Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz describes how she aimed to highlight the role of the voice ‘before and beyond words’ in curating The Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition, ‘This is a Voice’. This is indeed admirable – while the humanities and the arts have long engaged with the importance of the human voice in self identity, musical expression and emotional communication, the cognitive sciences have to date maintained a focus on vocal signals as carriers of linguistic information. In a beautifully arranged set of themed spaces, ‘This is a Voice’ invites us to first consider the voice as a pre-linguistic instrument for emotional signaling and maternal bonding, before later engaging with contexts of language and formalised music, as well as emerging methods in vocal analysis and synthesis.

‘This is a Voice’ aligns with the Wellcome’s interests in medicine, health and well-being by taking an embodied approach, where vocal sounds represent at once both body and mind; from the beginning of the space, we are frequently reminded of the anatomy and physiology of the vocal tract through images, models and specimens of the larynx (the ‘voice box’), both in health and in illness. Critically, the items on display are arranged without hierarchy: healthy, professional and diseased voices are presented side by side. This is helpful in communicating the flexibility of the voice, and the notion of control. The voice is by necessity an action, a highly complex motor skill – where some individuals have honed aspects of vocal control to higher levels of expertise (see the quite lovely videos of overtone singing), for others illness impairs this capacity. In ‘EGOPHONY’, we are reminded that the flexibility of the voice is an important aspect of how we convey our own identities (accent, gender), and how we are received by others. Thus, our sounds and our selves are inextricably linked.

Sidtis and Kreiman (2012) describe the voice as a dialogic process, emergent from the actions of the producer, the perceptual filters of the listener and their interacting intentions. In this exhibition, we are reminded of the fluidity and malleability of perception in vocal communication – we can marvel at the illusory experience of ventriloquism, and at Marcus Coates’ film installation (in which a little trickery is used to convert human birdsong imitations into a quite convincing dawn chorus), as well as considering our own biases in what makes a voice sound beautiful (or not) to us as listeners. Voices can be heard in the absence of sound – a nicely curated selection of written and video material covers the life of Helen Keller, the deaf and blind woman who understood speech extremely well through touch alone, reminding us again of the bodily source of the voice. Tying in with the simultaneous release of Charles Fernyhough’s book The Voices Within, we are also invited to consider the experience of voice hearers, a community that is in no way limited to people with mental illness.

In a later section of the exhibition, there is a section addressing how the sounds of the voice are recorded, both to document and diagnose. We are introduced to applications of voice synthesis over the years – 1930s film footage of talking machine ‘The Voder’ is almost comically entertaining, in comparison to the quite arresting recent footage of a patient engaging with an avatar of a vocal tormenter as part of therapy to address the negative effects of her voice hearing. I found myself rather missing something on recent developments of personalised voice synthesisers for patients unable to control their own vocal system – such developments would have tied in well with the exhibition’s consideration of the importance of self in the vocal signal.

As a voice scientist, I came away satisfied with the balance of informational and artistic content in this show. It was intended that the exhibition be highly performative, and this is evident in many of the installations. Visitors are encouraged to be part of the performance, both within the exhibition and through a number of parallel workshops taking place in the coming months. The exhibition ends with ‘Chorus’, a project by Matthew Herbert (pictured) in which visitors are invited to contribute a sung note to an evolving musical composition. I confess that I was a little disappointed with this – after all of the very well considered efforts to engage us with the dynamic properties and social significance of voice, the experience of standing in a glass booth alone and singing to no one left me a bit cold. There were some other tiny bumps in the road, that might have been more obvious to me as a researcher in the field: the initial descriptions of how voice evolved were not uncontroversial yet stated almost as fact, while I also found that the presentation of speech spectrograms in Imogen Stidworthy’s ‘Topography of a Voice’ led to more confusion than communication (but only probably because I was trying to read them). However, overall I was truly struck by how thoughtfully the whole exhibition had been put together. Extremely rich in content, it didn’t feel crowded, visually or auditorily. The show does such a effective job of forefronting the very many qualities of the voice in human behaviour, neither getting caught up in words nor overlooking them.

Ironically, of all the multimedia pieces in ‘This is a Voice’, I most enjoyed the inclusion of Francis Barraud’s painting ‘His Master’s Voice’. In the painting, made iconic through its association with corporations such as HMV and RCA, we see a small dog attentively staring into the horn of a cylinder phonograph, which we presume is playing a recording of its owner. To me, this captures much of what makes the exhibition so thought-provoking – the role of the human voice beyond words, signaling identity and underlining relationships (here, the bond with ‘man’s best friend’), and the power of technological innovation to record and reproduce these significant sounds of the self.

- ‘This is a Voice’ runs until 31 July. Dr Carolyn McGettigan is a Reader in the Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London

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