Lending an Ear

Christopher Grobe

It’s 2006 in Iowa City. Two women sit at opposite ends of a library table, fingers arched over their keyboards. A moment’s pause, then they begin—an étude on the voice for four hands. The reading room is so quiet that the clacking of their keyboards easily fills the room, but neither of these women is bothered by the noise. Their ears are full of imagined clamor—stage shrieks and crow song—and keystroke by keystroke they spell it back into being.

At one end of the table, Elena Passarello is thinking about everything the human voice can be besides a “genteel language delivery service.” The title of her essay collection, Let Me Clear My Throat, will sound at first like a polite demurral, but the image on the cover will roughen it. A woman—mouth gaping, veins bulging—clears her throat, all right. By screaming it raw.

At the other end of the table, Judith Pascoe is wondering what Sarah Siddons, the leading actress of “the last generation to go unrecorded,” might have sounded like. Her eventual title, The Sarah Siddons Audio Files, will sound impossible or perverse—like a pair of white earbuds in an 18th-century oil painting—but just stop and listen to it twice. Siddons’s contemporaries stored voices not on metal or in wax, as their children would learn to do, but in passionate memories and notations. They were themselves “the Sarah Siddons Audiophiles.”

I have no reason to believe that Pascoe and Passarello began these books while literally sitting side by side, unaware of each other’s presence, but it’s entirely plausible they did. Elena Passarello began writing essays on the voice while studying the craft of nonfiction at the University of Iowa; Judith Pascoe has taught Romantic literature and culture there for over 20 years. In any case, the truth be damned. I like this story. It fits. Passarello and Pascoe love a good historical conjecture, as you must when you write about unrecorded sound. And their writing represents the search for a lost connection: blending research, memoir, and lyrical reflection, each of them is looking for a place where scholarship and belles lettres might meet.

The Sarah Siddons Audio Files, though deeply researched and amply endnoted, shows refreshingly little resemblance to an academic book. Its 15 brief chapters have no titles, and they follow each other not as steps in an argument, but as episodes in a narrative. Here, for instance, are the sentences that end the first chapter and begin the second:

 

… I resolved to discover how Sarah Siddons sounded. 
 
But instead I returned to Iowa and kept thinking about Siddons’s voice in a distracted and unproductive way as I went about my daily business of teaching romantic poetry.

 

This transition allows Pascoe to establish the broader Romantic context in which Siddons lived—exactly what an academic book should be doing at this point—but she meets such expectations as if by accident. She’s just spinning a good yarn.

In this spirit, Pascoe turns each rote gesture of scholarly writing into an element of personal narrative. A review of existing scholarship begins, “I was not the only one trying to figure out …” and a chapter on 18th-century vocal technique turns into a piece of gonzo journalism when Pascoe enrolls in a class called “Voice for Actors.” Throughout it all, Pascoe develops a complex narrative persona. She smuggles in a close reading of a poem, for instance, by portraying herself as a “zealot” who bores her students with it. Soon afterward she writes:

 

I alone, while passing a quiet office hour, my doorway shadowed by students queuing for the modernist down the hall, marveled at Wordsworth’s attention to the stock dove’s song.

 

Her goal, in these passages and others like them is to cast herself as the perpetual outsider—and us as the few who pay her any mind. We’re reading neither as dutiful colleagues, nor as faithful protégés, but as co-conveners of the Secret League of Antiquarians. It’s a mock-heroic tale of the scholar’s lonely task. The winter sun has set. Her office hours are over, but we’ve lost track of the time and so has she. We’re too wrapped up in the tragedy of a golden voice gone missing.

This tragic yearning for impossible experience, which Pascoe captures in such essayistic fashion, is precisely what drives the essayist Passarello toward scholarship. Straining to hear the castrato’s high C or to reconstruct the original rebel yell, Passarello refuses to admit how doomed her task is from the start. Instead, like Pascoe, she suspends disbelief, hoping against hope that, if she just throws enough research at them, these ghostly sounds will come back to life.

 Sarah Siddons as Euphrasia by John Boydell / Wikimedia Commons

The geometry of Let Me Clear My Throat14 essays separated by 15 brief monologues, and then divided into three sections—is more fractal than that of Sarah Siddons. Passarello unifies these fragmented offerings not with a linear story or argument, but through patterns of imagery and habits of mind.

She titles one essay “How to Spell the Rebel Yell,” but like Pascoe searching for Siddons’s voice, Passarello has set herself up for a pratfall. The whole point, of course, is that the rebel yell of 1861 was “an electric, fantastic, obscene, unspellable thing.” This precise quotation, however, comes not from the essay on the rebel yell, but from the next one, which compares Howard Dean’s infamous scream to those of rock stars born the same year as Dean. Her own warnings notwithstanding, Passarello spends the whole book trying to spell such sounds. IeehAAAA-OOUunh! whenyahhsmiiileeeeeeeeeeeeeng! an’whirra’seggunangouh! Why? Because like the high C of an opera tenor, such coups de typographie are the result of the entire melodic line leading up to them. By the time they arrive we want them desperately, even though we know we shouldn’t. “Because of this infernal ache, that top note, when experienced, feels like a blessing,” Passarello writes. We spell the unspellable when, rather than admit that a sound has eluded us, we start to believe in miracles.

With similar persistence, Passarello wonders what relationship a voice necessarily has to the body that makes it. In an essay on the Wilhelm Scream, a sound effect that has now appeared in hundreds of Hollywood movies, she imagines the “looper” who sat in a studio, watching footage of a man getting eaten by an alligator and then figuring out how to “make the sounds that match [his] face.” But Passarello never leaves us to assume some natural relationship between faces (or bodies, or minds) and the sounds they make. In monologues for a telephone psychic, an auctioneer, and a born-again Christian, she makes us wonder where the will leaves off and the tongue takes over. “Your mouth is just going—it’s almost as if you’re watching yourself do it,” says—well, it might be any of them. Such tales of a voice from beyond compel us, Passarello gradually implies, precisely because our own voices are so damned hard to locate. Thinking about Frank Sinatra’s terror at losing his voice, she writes:

 

Though the regions of the body most responsible for singing are easily monitored, singing itself does not calcify or clot; it cannot be X-rayed or splinted, like our other breakable body parts. For the voice is not a body part at all.

 

Passarello balances such fearsome and uncanny visions of the voice, though, against the sheer pleasure of listening to the mystery unfold—a feeling she expresses in her own writing by the use of ecstatic metaphor. The high C “buzzes with a hummingbird’s ferocity” in its “tight cage.” Robert Plant’s audacious double-scream is a “double backflip of sex and longing that nails its ten-point landing twice.” Marlon Brando “rolled his voice toward his molars, where it slumped over his epiglottis like a delinquent schoolboy.” As I type these phrases here, they look garish or showy, but they don't feel that way in context—a testament to Passarello’s way with the long melodic line that leads up to them.

Marlon Brando “rolled his voice toward his molars, where it slumped over his epiglottis like a delinquent schoolboy.”

Pascoe, too, cultivates our taste for the uncanny. In a sense, her whole book takes place in front of a statue of Sarah Siddons in contemporary London, which she gradually brings to life only to set it once more in stone. It was in front of this statue, she tells us, that she realized how pathetically silent her own Sarah Siddons was. Placing this Siddons onstage, breathing her full of biography, animating her with gestures, surrounding her with Romantic culture, and prodding her into action with any vocal description or notation she can find, Pascoe waits for this statue to draw breath.

It never does, of course, but with brilliant sleight of hand, Pascoe turns our attention from the voice to its context. We learn about the tremendous architectural, stylistic, and cultural changes the theater was undergoing at the time. We hear how Siddons’s contemporaries liked to listen, and how their poems and play were built to afford such sonic experiences. And we find out how the theater nearly left Siddons behind, even during her lifetime and even while audiences proclaimed her the Greatest Actress of All Time. This, in fact, is Pascoe’s most compelling claim: that the pleasure of seeing Siddons perform was always a nostalgic one. Against the trend toward larger theaters that muffled actors’ voices and dwarfed their presence, despite new fashions that made her vocal style seem outmoded, Siddons endured. She even made some of the skeptics swoon, keeping old plays alive for another generation.

Each book, then, develops a unique method for exploring its book-length idea. New paths, though, hold new perils. The dense interweaving of essay upon essay is Passarello’s greatest strength, but the moment this thematic weft loosens, the whole thing risks unraveling. For me, this happens in the last of the book’s three sections. One essay, on the stubbornly regional accent of a Pittsburgh sportscaster, fits neatly alongside all of her essays on unspellable noise, but the other three pieces in this section are only loosely integrated. A quick reading of Cocteau’s play La Voix Humaine devolves into a few rather thin pronouncements on vocal sincerity. The story of Passarello’s struggle to deliver a seemingly simple line onstage (“Eew”) treats her actual voicing of that word as a kind of afterthought. And a concluding “interview” with a ventriloquist’s dummy takes the dive-bar audiophile vibe of the whole book and makes it suddenly hokey—like “Free Bird” ending on a honky-tonk vamp.

 <i>The Scream of Nature</i> by Edvard Munch / Wikipedia.org

Much of this well-documented listening is, as these authors would readily admit, conjectural. Where no record survives of the sounds in question, they try to borrow the ears of those who were actually there. Even when a record does survive, they must train their ears to hear it as past listeners did. This is why Pascoe spent a long day listening to every audio recording of Lady Macbeth she could get her hands on: to reach a point where she, like Siddons’s fans, had layer after layer of performance caked onto her memory of these words. This is also the point of Passarello’s most effective bit of autobiography: the story of how punk, grunge, and folk taught her pop-trained ear to hear what was awesome in sounds that weren’t pretty. And this is why both of these authors spend so much time consulting acousticians, vocal coaches, recording technicians, and other experts of the ear. In the end, what they’re interested in is not simply hearing, but listening—and for that you need technique.

As soon as you begin to refashion your own hearing this way, you’ll understand how elusive sound can be. You might begin to worry, as Roland Barthes does in his most famous essay on voice, “am I alone in perceiving it? am I hearing voices within the voice?” Hopefully you’ll conclude, as Barthes does, by asking, “isn’t the truth of the voice to be hallucinated?”

Whether Pascoe has isolated the truth of Sarah Siddons’s voice or not, she helps me hallucinate the atmosphere that gave rise to her “vocal brand.” Whether Passarello’s close listenings are astute or overblown, her writing helps me hear nuances in what I’d previously savored as noise. I’ll never attend a performance of Macbeth again without thinking of Pascoe’s claim that the play is full of “ecstatic listening opportunities.” I’ll never hear a new song on the radio without thinking of Passarello’s thrilling dissection of vowels in popular music. All these stories and arguments and flights of fancy—mute letters on a dull page—might seem like static drowning out the sounds themselves, but they’re not. On every page these authors are lending an ear. Borrow it.