I saw Wye Oak play again last week. Like every other time, hearing them live made me want simultaneously to burst into tears and to stare awed at the sun. Jenn Wasner's voice stirs something, even when it's tongue in cheek. How does she do that? What is it about the voice that makes it echo through the psyche like a gunshot?
What makes the voice so powerful, I’d wager, is also what makes it a tempting explanation of how humans model meaning on top of the sensate world. At bare sensate reality,¹ voices are little more than a few croaking, trumpeting, flowing, or clicking sounds ushered from a throat. On that coarse flow of vowels and consonants, listeners impose wordbreaks and syntactical rules, plying a lever that opens up noise and fills it with meaning: the sound of the voice bears intent, concept, desire, emotion, memory, and all the other untidy and joyous gristle of human existence.
When you take that already doubled noise-signal and combine it with the rhythm and flow of music, you fashion a potent layering of sensations — perhaps because it reminds us just enough of the frailty of our interpretation of the mess of the world. When a singer’s voice works, it works awe; it overwhelms. This is what people talk about when they talk about the sublime.
Sometimes this can be had without much other than a melody, a rhythm, and a singer.
Sometimes there’s a lot more added on.
Different as they are, both of these voices carry an impact that’s somehow bigger than the sum of their flawed components: the old man’s voice ain’t so pure (but I like it that way), the lyrics for “Wandering Star” are a little overwrought. Likely, there could be some very interesting work done to describe the specific resonances of both voices, which, phonologists will tell you, are produced by the specific configuration of each person’s vocal apparatus and how it adds (or doesn’t) a spatial depth to their singing. See this post on Jill Abramson’s voice at Language Log for the sort of exhaustive analysis that is possible — which is fairly scientific, unlike calling a voice “nasal.”
Nasal, thin, weak: all things we don’t want to hear in voices. We want airy, soulful power. The sort of voice that Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner has (Exhibit A). Or She Keeps Bees’s Jessica Larrabee (Exhibit B). Other examples abound of course, and these reveal my inclinations: ladies who sing in mournful tones. You might like squeaky boymen or surly dudes. And that’s fine. No one’s perfect.
But whatever a voice’s specific qualities, if it haunts us, it does so in no small part by calling attention to the strange unity at times possible between noise and meaning.
1. Already an abstraction for anyone who speaks the language being spoken, though we can listen to songs in a language we don't speak or Sigur Rós if we’ve forgotten what it feels like to be unable to hear the particulars of what a singer is mourning or praising.
Image via dance like hell