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The Human Voice
Review by: Gordon Stewart, August 2006
The power of the voice has just, as I write, been well illustrated in the World Cup final when whatever Marco Materazzi said riled Zinedine Zidane to such an extent that he butted him in the chest. Exactly what that was has severely tested the Italian lip-readers, but it served to underline how significant the sound of the human voice can be.
Very aptly, it more or less coincided with the release of this stimulating book by Anne Karpf. Every page gives proof of her reasoned passion for the Human Voice: "This book was born out of a sense of frustration that its brilliance and importance in human society has not been sufficiently recognised."
The subject is huge, and one which she examines from, as the title implies, a human angle. The titles of the chapters give you more idea that I can in a short piece like this. For example: What the voice can tell us - What makes the voice distinctly human - Mothertalk - From oral to literate society - Do I really sound like that? This last one was the name Anne Karpf gave to the paper she presented at PEVoC6 last September. Those who heard her on that occasion didn't, as it happens, include me (usual problem at these blockbuster conferences). Having read what she's written here I wish I'd been there.
Her writing reads easily, the style lucid and personal. The layout is open and welcoming - subdivided chapters let in the light (or do I mean "breath" ?). It carries the excitement of an enthusiast, without the anorak wardrobe of those who wait at the end of railway platforms. It's well researched, with the sources acknowledged in the text by the user-friendly method of end-notes, numbers in superscript, so that the flow is uninterrupted. The notes themselves take up eighty pages, and I would suggest that you only use them as you read through if you really want to know where an idea or a theory comes from immediately. Otherwise your fingers will get tired trying to keep the place in two places at once. Equally, don't forget they're there - when you've finished the main text, look at them. In them lie nuggets of information which Anne Karpf obviously decided would over-burden the main text. As well as acknowledgement of her source material, of course.
Sweeping historically through voice use brings her from prehistoric grunts to the public attempts to influence us one way or another in our own times (another sort of grunt?). And the life-long trail takes her from the tones of voice used by babies, through inter-partner exchanges to telephones and beyond. She's gathered together so much information in a mature and reasoned way. And it's not just reportage, a transmission of information from a collection of other books into this one. This is a lively mind we're in contact with, not afraid of drawing conclusions, and consequently making you think further. Bringing you consolation, for example, as you realise that there are others like you who are struck brain-dumb by an answer-phone message.
Her analysis of a Radio 3 presenter "gambolling in an unnatural rhythm and with abnormal cheerfulness" is only too accurate. And funny. (In self-defence, I must say it's hard to find your own voice on radio when you're reading a script, even if you wrote it yourself, and even if you deck it out with little tricks and hesitations and mini-fluffs to disguise it.)
The anatomical stuff is dealt with as information, not instruction - after all, this isn't a text-book; the sight of two BVA names in the thank-you letter of acknowledgements at the beginning (Stephanie Martin and John Rubin) is reassurance enough in that direction.
Anne Karpf reviews the way we use our voices to communicate, not just with text, but with intonation, voice quality, emotional content, real or assumed. She sifts through the ways we hear, not just with our ears, but with our minds and hearts. Sound is sense. Entendre in French, intendere in Italian, can mean both hear and understand. And yet, maybe, we don't trust our ears as much as we should - even in our own field of voice we want to see things - on charts, on screens - we want to see what sound looks like.
There are several leitmotivs running through the text. One is the way women's voices have been treated over the years. On the evidence of what has been published, she laments, "almost the entire female vocal cycle [from cradle to grave] is found deficient or pathological." The initial unwillingness of the media to use women's voices except when a woman was desperately needed (as it might be in a play or such), because they've been perceived as shrill, still hangs around today. The descent of the Thatcher voice from young political debutante (Oxford vintage) to unwilling dowager duchess (Lewis Carroll vintage?) is chronicled here. But then so are the Blair emotional breaks, worked so that they don't sound feminine; Ronald Reagan is here, playing an Oscar-perfect performance in the rôle of president of a large country - true and entertaining. And so it goes on…She has a way of telling you things, and then - a test of the best - you go on thinking about them, looking into your own experiences, maybe seeing them in a different light. Or rather, since this is The Voice we're dealing with, hearing them with different resonances. Thinking of which, when God was doing Creation, he created Light, but not Sound…
I can't stop scribbling in books. It's my way of making sure I can find things later. My copy of this book is filled with scribbles made in the delight of discovery or of a view well put. And now I've reached the point at which to stop trying to advance snippet-wise through this highly engaging, informative, challenging book.
I'd give it to anyone with a mind, an ear and a taste for good writing.
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