Voices in limbo
There is an ever-slight ‘decay’ on the “p” in Gregory Whitehead’s recurring uttering of the words Full stop. It’s murmured over and over in this vocal braid to acknowledge the end of an interrogation line or voiced interview script. There’s a nostalgic hue, like something you might say while reading a telegram aloud. Here, at every utterance, pulled back in the mix, it’s like a spasm or a lurch of the breath or something muscular we have no control over.
Poet Mary Oliver suggests evil is one part of our beautiful world; an artist feels its almost muscular agony of impotence, unable to interfere or assuage it.
Spasm, lurch, gurgle: these are voices of the artist; they haunt; they’re bound together with sinew, loosening, then tightening. This is the darkest hour of the voice. It reflects the darkest hours of U.S.-sanctioned torture.
A perverse overture.
Each element of the vocal braid is vital in this unrelenting litany of sound. Gelsey Bell’s improvising anthem winds like a gnarly, worm-infested heart. It seems like Whitehead directed her to feel this iconic song through her bones and rattle it up towards her throat, to heave her chest, to push out barely audible screeches that lay on top of many other sounds. The morphed song is inharmonious to frequently spurted American values.
There’s an eerie resonance in the conversation between a torturer (Dick Cheney) and a journalist (Chuck Todd, of Meet the Press) about the definition of such torture as Whitehead sings this into another kind of libretto—one that reflects a conversation we were permitted to hear (via the media), come forth as earworm. Listen repeatedly; you find yourself humming these desperate words while cooking dinner. Snap yourself away from this queasy horror. Try. You can’t.
Anne Undeland’s narration frames both these song-styles with calmly voiced lists, on par with the quiet screeches, quiet descriptions of how loud music like the national anthem is used to sour an interrogation and break its victim. Descriptions of both detainee’s and torturer’s behavior feel matter-of-fact, until you listen closely to the words and discern who has power, who writes the script.
Whitehead reads the wound. He calls himself a vulnerologist. The element of obliqueness creates a space of engagement and even resistance, he says: first for the three performers, then for the listener. By chanting the interview and singing the interrogation log, there’s a different understanding than if it were simply re-enacted.
Gregory Whitehead makes work that is circular, such that you could enter at any point and glean a story and not ‘miss’ anything. True for this piece, and yet there is a growing tension, especially as the national anthem morphs and pulverizes into something so surreal, it insists on returning to hear its progress forward.
Proof who gets to write the script.
The ear might do better by listening to this from the very start, through to its tortuous end. Come back when the fullness of this nearly hour-long raining down of sound can be entirely absorbed. Rather than cringing in front of what’s become this week’s metabolic news-cycle’s viral video of distant horror, perhaps better is to know you will spend 45 minutes immersed, closed in. And perhaps you will be completely changed by your immersion rather than just horrified by it. Art can do this much better than a grainy, cell-phone video of another person gunned down, a body left inert, all the world watching.
I wanted to create enough distance, such that the contemplative space could deepen, and reduce the space of shock. Radio creates the ideal space for such a performance, allowing the listener into the ‘script’ of this interrogation without complicit voyeurism.
The listener, too, is composed by this montage of libretto, glottal singing, choked and plosive gasps, whispered reflections upon this space of secrecy and demoralization and the uncertainty of torture’s end. We’re beset by wound-up and creaky sounds of what might be a gun barrel being engaged and disengaged, slowly cycling through the vocal braid. How do we absorb, along our own bodies, those cuts or thuds into flesh so completely altered in tempo as to become percussion of a different sensibility? No-touch torture avoids obvious physical brutality; this is a voiced artistry that pushes vocals so far out, we don’t realize we’re listening in towards the heinous.
The beat that shatters the soul:
Maybe you hear something else by listening to such morphed sounds, like looking at an image and finally seeing its negative reflected back.
On the Shore Dimly Seen was first broadcast in March 2015 on ABC’s Soundproof and shortlisted for the 2015 Prix Italia media awards. Visit Gregory Whitehead for more projects in voice and sound.