Enchanted Voices: Voice in Australian Sound Art

(extract) by Norie Neumark, in Voice Studies: Routledge 2016

And such is the intense and spellbinding power of the work of Sherre DeLys, who worked on The Listening Room, while also maintaining her own sound art practice, collaborating on installations and with musicians. DeLys’ work is animated by a distinctive, ever surprising and always captivating ‘musical approach to voice.’

Norie: For me, one of your pieces that works with voice in a most poetic and musical way is If.  Can you talk about the process of making that work?

Sherre: I was at The Children’s Hospital in Sydney making a sound installation when I met the young patient Andrew Salter. Andrew has a lively energy that called for movement, and I like walking to keep the conversation grounded in the body. ‘Let’s go for a walk’ I say, and we soon find ourselves in the garden where I ask, ‘What if you were a plant at The Children’s Hospital?’ ‘If I were a plant at The Children’s Hospital and I saw the kids go past, I’d think to myself, ‘I’m lucky to be a plant, seeing all these sick kids go by and I’m fit as a fiddle. I might be turned into a fiddle, but I’ll be fit AS a fiddle.’ It’s not only in Andrew’s words, it’s in his lively vocal rhythms, and his curious inflections that we hear his talent for empathy. As we walk around the hospital grounds we play a call-and-response game, with me asking Andrew to imagine himself as the creatures we encounter. ‘If I was a bird’, ‘if I were a fish’ – his voicing of empathy perhaps priming us for empathic listening. And then when we reach the aviary Andrew coos with the pigeons, a moving communication born of his intense regard for our connection with the natural world.

Norie: There is an affect here that you intensify through the play with his voice, and others’ in the production… can you elaborate on that process?

Sherre: For me studio production can enhance the voice’s ability to move us, to mobilize the body and mind towards sentiment. Listening back as Andrew thinks an answer aloud, the tentative way he stretches out the word a-a-and becomes music, a held note. The different ways he articulates the repeated word If contain universes of emotion — now suggesting promise, now questioning and so on. So in the studio we sample and loop selected words. With tape rolling, I ask cellist Ion Pearce to transcribe the pitch and rhythm of vocal lines we’ve created, and I record him working out pitches by trial and error, striving to mimic Andrew’s voice with his own and with the cello, going beyond his vocal range, reaching for connection. My interest in voice is never purely musical, but always to do with voice’s relational capacities. Arranging these voices, one reaching out for another, the sense of connection took shape along with the music.

Norie: Your work is stunning in bringing out a sense of what musicality of voice is and, unexpectedly, can be. Can you say more about that?

Sherre: During the John Cage 2012 Centenary, Rick Moody challenged me and musician Chris Abrahams to use his lecture, a performed essay on Cage and his masterwork 4’33”, as the basis for a radio composition. Rick’s text was to be ‘one element in the music of the thing’ and his voice ‘just an instrument’.

We started by recording four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence, then cut that 4’33’ audio track into many short pieces, distributing them randomly throughout Rick’s recorded lecture. Cage composed 4’33” in 1952, I liked the idea that our 4’33” of silence would be deployed in a manner appropriate to our more sped up era. I imagined the silences, which cropped up in the middle of sentences and even words, as prompts to return, again and again, to awareness of one’s own thoughts, feelings and sensations- a form of listening to one’s own voice. In any case, the short silences rupture the grammar, offering instead the durational sense of silence and non-silence, thus liberating Rick’s voice from the confines of discursive meaning to become musical. Later we noticed the intervention had unwittingly created an effect similar to Cage’s Lecture on Nothing.

Norie: In that work, it seems to me that you inhabit Cage’s work, in Nicolas Bourriaud’s sense. (Bourriaud 2002. 18)  Could you talk about the piece Fidelity where I sense you ‘inhabited’ an archival recording of Helen Keller– and where, it seems, voices called out to you, touched you, inviting you to work with them?

Sherre: When I first heard the archival recording of an interview with Helen Keller, conducted with the aid of her companion of 34 years, Polly Thompson, you might say the voices ‘touched’ me literally. My emotion registered first as subtle physical sensations, as it’s often possible to notice when paying close attention to the body while listening.

When the interviewer asks a question, we hear Polly repeat the words softly so that Helen can feel vibrations. Helen reads Polly’s lips, with her first finger on the lips, second on the nose, thumb resting on the throat. Helen’s utterances are strange to the hearing world’s ear, and ‘uncivilized’ in contrast with Polly’s perfect British diction, the two voices weaving in counterpoint as Helen strains to reply and Polly repeats her words rolling the ‘r’s’ in red rroses. As with If, the voices in this interview offer the opportunity to appreciate the musical texture of our connectedness to others.

Hearing this the first time, my mind went to the haunting recording of Tchaikovsky’s Vocalize performed by Clara Rockmore playing the theramin, an early electronic instrument played without touch, accompanied by her sister on piano. In that moment I recognized that I wanted to make a radio piece that simply set these two recordings – the interview and Clara’s soaring voice-like theramin performance – side-by-side to hear what happens when they speak together.  Inhabited is a perfect description for the way this played out. At the moment of my first hearing, the Helen Keller interview was in conversation with the sisters’ performance in ways that I didn’t fully understand, although I can now articulate correspondences around touch and voice. I instinctively put a ‘gash’ into the recording so that a 45 second portion of the interview is repeated immediately after first hearing. While a number of listeners have spoken to me of a mysterious power that this conversation between two recordings seems to hold, none have mentioned noticing the very obvious repetition. Perhaps under the spell of this ancient disc recording, with its exquisite surface noise, understanding human expression through language recedes as we are taken up, inhabited, mesmerized by the music of voice.

Through her finely tuned musical intuition, Delys makes sensible the “intimacy of temporality” within silence and the voice. (Ihde 2007. 57, 111)