In everyday life and through the mediation of technology, we constantly listen to voices without being able to see the person vocalizing. As a practical matter, we may ask, Who is this? Whether or not we ask the question out loud, we think about it, and other questions ramify from it. Do I know this person? How old is he or she? What is this person’s gender? Race? Ethnicity? Class? Educational background? Is the person a native speaker of this language? Where is he or she from? What does the tone of voice imply about the person’s emotional state? Can I trust him or her? And so on.
For the musicologist and classically trained singer Nina Sun Eidsheim, Who is this? is the wrong question–primarily, but not only, because we so often and with unwarranted confidence answer it in terms of essentialist racial, ethnic, gender, and other categories. That is, distinct sounds made by individual voices are reductively attributed to racial, ethnic or gender differences: “Difference is imagined as race.” Eidsheim frames The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music with a convincing critique of the question Who is this? She calls it the acousmatic question, after Pierre Schaeffer (who derives the root of acousmatic from “an ancient Greek legend about Pythagoras’s disciples listening to him through a curtain”), and argues that it relies on fundamental misunderstandings of the human voice and our own listening practices, particularly in regard to vocal timbre.
And what is vocal timbre? “Everything except pitch and loudness” is Eidsheim’s paraphrase of the American National Standards Institute’s definition. It’s that seemingly indefinable quality that makes the voices of Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Scott, Billie Holiday, and Emmylou Harris immediately recognizable, except–and this is a major point of Eidsheim’s argument in The Race of Sound–that the timbre so closely identified with a distinctive vocalizer, such as Holiday, can be convincingly imitated, for instance by a seven-year-old girl of Middle Eastern ethnic background growing up in Norway. More about that later.
Every human being has a unique vocal tract. Its size and length (which correlate with biological sex at birth) help determine the tessitura, or comfortable vocal range, of a given vocalizer, and factors like age and health also have an influence. However, as Eidsheim emphasizes, an individual human voice can be trained to make an almost infinite range of sounds. And if a person of a particular race sounds, to those listening, like an auditory stereotype of another race, he or she may be censured, as when Ralph Nader characterized Barack Obama as “talking white” in 2008. (This is one of the epigraphs to the introduction to The Race of Sound.)
To the acousmatic question, Eidsheim offers three correctives: “Voice is not singular; it is collective”; “voice is not innate; it is cultural”; and “voice’s source is not the singer; it is the listener.” That is, we are all trained throughout our lives, whenever we vocalize and someone makes comments about our voice, to then adjust it to match the culture’s expectations of how we should sound, in Foucauldian fashion–“as a condition of participation in a culture.” As Eidsheim paraphrases James Baldwin, one is always “hearing one’s voice through the ears of others.” If we are always performing for others, then we never simply use our natural voices because there is no such thing as a natural voice unaffected by cultural training.
Why does this matter? When we think of a distinct timbre as an essential quality that can be produced only by a human body of a particular race or gender or sexual orientation–when we believe that only African American women or white gay men can sound like our preconception of what African American women or white gay men sound like–we discount the vocalizer’s stylistic and technical choices as well as the biases and idiosyncrasies of our own perceptions, due in part to the enormous influence of culture, or “entrainment” and “enculturation” in Eidsheim’s terms, on both vocalizers and listeners. The entrainment of vocalizers according to a given culture’s or subculture’s conventions and expectations around voice influences–though it does not determine–each vocalizer’s stylistic and technical choices, as well as our perceptions of the person’s voice. And our confidence in our perceptual, essentialist judgments of voices helps create and regulate musical genres.
Thus when we “reduce [sound] through naming,” measuring each voice against our expectations of what the vocalizer should sound like, we limit our understanding of sound and music–as well as the careers and creative potential of singers and musicians, especially those who challenge racialized and gendered expectations about vocal timbre and particular musical genres. The assumption that race and gender are cultural constructions, not essential identities based in biological difference, is now an article of faith in the academy. But, Eidsheim argues, because of “unexamined listening practices,” many listeners still seem to believe that vocal timbre is an essential, biologically determined, easily detectable quality that correlates with the vocalizer’s apparent race, gender, or ethnicity.
A useful elaboration about the vocal qualities we listen for, cited in The Race of Sound, is drawn from the voice artist and dialect and accent coach Eliza Jane Schneider, who researches voices around the world and has played the roles of eight characters on South Park. Schneider has broken vocal performance into the following parameters: “pitch, tempo (speed), tone, timbre, resonance/vocal placement, rhythm, meter, volume, lilt, emotion, dynamics, timing, breaths, laughs, pauses.” Although some of these parameters, such as resonance/vocal placement and lilt, might arguably fall under timbre, her mere act of naming them can potentially sharpen our perception of what we listen to and for. When we speak or sing or rap, we manipulate all of these parameters with various degrees of conscious control, and when we listen to someone sing or speak or rap, we pay attention to all of these parameters, which arguably matter as much as or more than the words.
The Race of Sound builds on the argument of Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice, and together they make vital contributions to the emerging field of voice studies. Rather than the political and ethical implications of the acousmatic question, Sensing Sound focuses on the phenomenological experience of sound and music. In this focus, it follows trends in new musicology, privileging individual performances and context over the musical score, the traditional object of study. Eidsheim analyzes opera sung underwater, vocalizing that does not engage the vocal cords, and other experimental vocal practices in order to defamiliarize our experience with and reduction of sound to what she calls the figure of sound, which “remains the same independent of [the] listener,” is “static” and “defined a priori” and is “judged according to fidelity to [its] source.” Conversely, she emphasizes that all sound is first and foremost vibration, which means that the material production, transmission, and reception of voices, including in and through our own bodies, exceed the limited roles we assign to audible sound moving through the familiar medium of air.
In Sensing Sound, Eidsheim notes that engaging with sensory studies and materialist approaches has been useful: “This perspective removes perceived barriers between music scholarship and the sciences and medicine. It does not distinguish between production and perception but sees them as creating each other.” Similarly, in The Race of Sound, Eidsheim notes that across the various academic fields that study voice, “considerations of the vocal event have tended to fall into two camps, involving attention to either the measurable or symbolic.” That is, a scientific or humanistic approach is taken to the voice; the former seeks to demonstrate “something about the universality of vocal function,” while the latter focuses on “the ways in which vocal sounds are interpreted.” Her approach insists that “the symbolic and measurable dimensions are never detached; they always already work in tandem with the material dimension,” and in The Race of Sound she draws strategically on scientific, linguistic, and medical research on voice to challenge essentialist readings of timbre, and to refine readers’ sense of voice production and perception.
In an early chapter of The Race of Sound, Eidsheim analyzes formal voice lessons and classical vocal pedagogy as acute illustrations of a general tendency to racialize timbre; in interviews she conducted with thirteen voice teachers, eleven told her “they can always tell the ethnicity of the singer by his or her vocal timbre.” Their views about racialized timbre do not necessarily correlate with or arise from racial prejudice, Eidsheim asserts, but rather rely on belief in the figure of sound. The Race of Sound includes case studies to demonstrate her approach of critical performance practice, as applied to the opera singer Marian Anderson, the jazz singers Jimmy Scott and Billie Holiday, and the creation and reception of racialized voices for the vocal synthesis program Vocaloid. These case studies are unified by her effort “to deconstruct how a given voice is created” by listeners as well as the vocalizer, her emphasis on the style and technique of individual vocalizers over assumptions about their identity, and the failure of audiences to fully appreciate or reward these singers’ talents because of beliefs in racialized timbre and, in Scott’s case, gendered timbre.
Anderson’s career, like those of other African American opera singers after her, was limited in artistic opportunities because of “structural racism.” This included skepticism about whether an African American singer could sing opera at all (a number of critics asserted that as a race, African Americans should stick to spirituals) and the limited number of roles offered to African American singers, usually as exotic or marginalized figures. This last is not surprising, given that the European opera repertoire consists of traditional works composed in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, works that also associate villainy with lower registers, for example, “basses and sometimes baritones, while the hero and romantic lead characters are written for tenors.”
As Eidsheim notes, the conventions of operatic vocal performance are so narrowly defined that it is especially ludicrous that a classically trained singer such as Anderson would be heard racially: “The identification of a person who has mastered Western classical vocal production and repertoire as black requires a very different conceptual process than does the identification of a popular-music singer as a member of a racial category.” Not only that, but as Eidsheim notes, “Research on vocal morphology concludes that there are no more similarities within a so-called racial group than there are between groups.” Anderson, as one of the first African Americans to sing for the Metropolitan Opera, “was explicit in asserting her identity as an artist rather than a political activist,” but her career was continually framed in connection to the Civil Rights movement, and her voice discussed in terms of its supposed racial qualities rather than her remarkable, painstakingly developed style and technique.
The jazz singer Jimmy Scott, who was born with Kallmann syndrome (delayed or absent puberty), had a limited career due to beliefs not only about racialized timbre but also about gender, sexuality, and voice–as well as some very bad luck, such as when an album enthusiastically backed by Ray Charles was recalled because of a legal dispute. Scott’s voice was often mistakenly identified as female, and an early recording was marketed, against his will, as if the singer were female. He insisted that he was a straight man, but was often presented or assumed to be otherwise in his musical career. When he found greater recognition later in life, in a widely celebrated comeback that included tours with Lou Reed, his voice was used to dramatize the angst of a gay character (in Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” in the movie Philadelphia), creepily linked with death as he danced alone on an episode of Twin Peaks, and so on. Why could audiences not accept the identity he claimed was his?
Eidsheim shows that Scott’s average pitch and typical pitch range were not unusually high compared to those of contemporary male pop singers, including Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Frankie Valli, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, and others. In pop music, as Eidsheim points out, both male and female singers inhabit a fairly wide middle pitch range. A crucial distinction is that a number of these male pop singers, mostly black though not all, used falsetto, and Scott did not. Eidsheim argues, then, that “the gender ambiguity through which Scott is perceived is due to timbre, particularly through his failure to exhibit falsetto in the higher register. In other words, a singer can sing in a higher vocal register and signal (black) masculinity by exhibiting the otherness of that vocal register through falsetto. In contrast, Scott sang with great timbral integration, sounding no timbral break into falsetto.” She supports this view with research demonstrating that vocal qualities other than pitch strongly signal a female voice to listeners, usefully reminding us that “for male-to-female conversions, hormone therapy does not alter pitch… . Research on the perception of transgender voices shows f0 [fundamental frequency, or pitch] is only one of many cues on which speakers and listeners rely.”
Though contemporary listeners might well have compared Scott to other black male singers they were familiar with in the genres of ’60s pop and soul, and perhaps would have considered the relative use of falsetto within those genres, it would be interesting also to compare his style and technique to those of other jazz singers. Though not inimitable, he was a singular figure; Scott himself said that he much admired Paul Robeson and Judy Garland when he was a child, and the jazz singers he is closest to in terms of genre and style (and those he influenced) are mostly female. It might also be worthwhile to consider a singer’s age alongside pitch range and average pitch; Stevie Wonder was sixteen and eighteen, respectively, when he released the two songs Eidsheim analyzes for pitch range, “Uptight” and “For Once in My Life.” Male voices typically mature late in adolescence, and can get higher in average pitch as they age; Scott also suddenly grew eight inches taller when he was thirty-seven years old. Eidsheim does not report whether his pitch changed over his career, but it would be interesting to investigate it.
I find it hard to agree with Eidsheim when she writes, “I see Scott as a musician-activist who carries out the micropolitics of voice by bringing unexpected timbral content (non-falsetto) to a form (black masculinity), thereby challenging that form’s very definition.” His beautiful voice and the ways he used it may challenge definitions of black masculinity, but Scott’s lack of adequate agency in his career and control over the terms in which his performances were framed make it hard to see him as an intentional activist. Nevertheless, Eidsheim’s analysis of Scott encourages us to listen to his voice more carefully, to take him on his own terms and recognize the achievement of his style and technique, and to question our assumptions about gender and voice (to think beyond pitch) as well as about racialized timbre.
The creators of the voice synthesis software Vocaloid made the rather comically inept mistake of conflating race with the soul genre, which is typically sung with an American accent. Yes, soul and R&B have been called race music, but when Vocaloid hired two singers, one a black British man and the other a Jamaican woman, they failed to fully consider accent. Though these singers might well be able to sing soul persuasively, Vocaloid asked them to record thousands of individual phonemes, and they did so with their native accents, a discrepancy users of the software picked up on and sometimes heard, oddly enough, as a Japanese influence. In a later version of Vocaloid, users and a singer protested when a cartoon image associated with the singer’s synthesized voice did not look enough like a Latina. Thus racialized timbre haunts us even when the voices in question are not strictly human.
Billie Holiday, who admired Jimmy Scott, is the subject of one of Eidsheim’s most telling case studies. Her voice is so distinctive that she has often been described as inimitable, even in the face of numerous convincing imitations. To my ears, none of her imitators sounds as good as Holiday–there’s some sophisticated criticism for you!–but they certainly do capture aspects of her timbre that many fans attribute, as Eidsheim points out, to her hard life, her sexuality, and her race, making broad assertions that her voice represents the suffering of all black women, rather than attending to her style and technique. To hear a seven-year-old girl raised in Norway mimic Holiday’s timbre is itself an apt counterargument, though the performative astonishment of the judges on Norkse Talenter, on which she did so, bears scrutiny. Yet another reason for impatience with beliefs in racialized timbre is how interesting it would be, with all of these singers, to learn more about their style and technique than Eidsheim has space for, given the case she is making against racialized timbre.
Mentioning Holiday’s collaboration with Lester Young, Eidsheim notes that “in terms of style, Kate Daubney compares Holiday’s singing to instrumental vocalization technique and finds that [her] timbre is comparable to that of the saxophone family.” The comparison of jazz singers’ voices to the tenor sax has become a truism at this point, but Daubney’s observation begins an all too brief section that details Holiday’s style and technique and her development of it in the midst of the vibrant jazz scene to which she belonged, from which she learned, and to which she contributed. Such details ought to be more central to the mythology surrounding Holiday than the fact that she was raped as a child or worked as a prostitute. This is not to diminish the intense emotional power of Holiday’s voice. As John Szwed wrote in his 2015 biography of Holiday, which Eidsheim quotes: “Suffering and pain are neither necessary nor sufficient to produce a great artist.” In the case of African American musicians, prurient fascination with suffering can take the place of respect for and interest in their artistry, and all too often be offered as an explanation for it.