Sunday, June 26, 2005

Try and understand it ... whoaaaah whoaaah whoaaahhh. I have recently been thinking about the importance of voice. Last week I was on the tram and I heard a woman talking on her mobile phone. She had the most incredibly annoying voice. I can't really explain what was so annoying about it. It wasn't excessively high-pitched, which can be annoying; nor did it have a whiny tone, which can also be annoying. Maybe it was something about her cadences.

In any case, I found myself thinking snootily, "I could never be friends with someone with an annoying voice." Almost immediately, I realised that was a silly thing to think. Perhaps it's subjective, and an otherwise annoying voice becomes dear to you if you like the person. Still, I do love the way my friends speak. I wonder whether I sought them out as friends because of it. I certainly cherish certain of their vocal mannerisms. Gemma and I have a joke about the way she pronounces the word "delicious". I love the way Jeremy says "Jesus!" I love Stuart's filthy, delighted laugh.

I have been reading Eucalyptus by Murray Bail, mostly "to see what all the fuss was about" and because I am obsessed with books that have been (or in this case, were almost) made into films. All I will say on this front is that Nicole Kidman was completely wrong for this film. She was twenty years too old to play the character and I can't easily see how the script could have been re-jigged satisfactorily to account for her age. Russell Crowe, however, would have been very well cast.

But there was one passage I was reading earlier this afternoon which struck me:
Came his voice, "When the breeder of canaries knocked on Miss Kirschner's door he had dandruff on his shoulders. She had a squint in one eye - something like that. And she had the excruciating taste in furnishings usually found with musicians. It's a mystery how an attraction can spring up in one person for another. Who can say why? It would be amazing, except it happens all the time. A person's voice, say a man's voice, heard in the dark or behind a door is sometimes enough. But it must be a combination of things. What do you think?"
"Just voice isn't enough, I don't believe."
"There must be cases where the attraction is not deliberate. It just sort of happens," he proposed. "It can't be explained - a real mystery. There's no logic to it," he added. It was enough for him to shake his head.
I like the way Bail begins this section, "Came his voice." He suggests that, despite what the protagonist, Ellen, believes at the time, voice may well be enough. The entire premise of the book is that a man woos a woman through storytelling. (Insert obligatory gag about 'oral sex' here.) I don't even think I need to write about the seductive power of the voice, although there's a definite pleasure in it. Perhaps that's a subject you and I can talk about together in an alcohol venue. It would be all the more piquant then. We would no doubt have a lot to say.

Last night I was watching The Wedding Singer on TV. I love Drew Barrymore's voice and her way of speaking, almost sideways from delectable lips. I was particularly taken by the scene in which her character Julia speaks to her reflection in the mirror and has the horrible realisation that she will soon become Julia Guglia. Adam Sandler's Robbie has already anticipated this situation (Glenn (terse): "Why is that funny?" Robbie (deadpan): "I don't know.") but somehow it becomes more awful when said in Drew Barrymore's lovely voice.

By contrast, the name of Julia's true love sounds all the more wonderful in Drew Barrymore's voice. Maybe the audience has this subconscious realisation, and that's why they sympathise with Julia's slow, growing happiness and with Robbie's disappointment as he sees Julia in the window, animatedly chatting to her reflection. Robbie assumes her happiness is about her impending marriage to the odious Glenn. After all, he can't hear her voice.

Are actors chosen for their voices? Think about Jack Nicholson and his voice-a-like, Christian Slater. Think about Winona Ryder's distinctive whistled consonants. Think about Janeane Garofalo's mellifluous sarcasm.

But back to Eucalyptus. What I found intriguing is the way the book attempts to capture the beguiling quality of the human voice using the literary metaphor of authorial voice. I felt it was mostly successful, but it has implications for other forms of communication.

Like, duh, blogs. You imagine a voice for the blogger's endless first-person narrative. I remember being quite shocked when I heard the manslave's voice for the first time - it was completely unlike the voice I'd given him in my imagination. But Will's voice is exactly as you would expect. And when you read letters, emails, text messages or blog posts from people whose voices you already know, you imagine them reading it in their own idiosyncratic voices. You know the most curious thing - I gave Glen the wrong voice. Based on his writing style, I imagined him a kind of playful, comedian's voice, when his real voice is quite gruff. I realised with horror that I'd actually grafted Chris' ex-housemate Tim's voice onto Glen's writing.

Then there are the voices we put on for particular occasions. I used to have a "market research voice", which I put on nowadays for radio interviews and conference presentations. I was taken aback a couple of years ago when I was at a conference in Adelaide, and a chick I met told me that my speaking style had reminded her of a PhD student in her own department, a chick called Saige. Anyone who knows the way Saige speaks might find this diverting.

I realised afresh at the superheroes conference the vital role of the voice. For me, the very clever papers situated themselves as entire performances of an argument, rather than verbal presentations of written arguments. Oh, I wish I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned what Shane has hilariously dubbed "the fantasmatic 'longer version' of their paper." I wish some academics would realise that people pay attention when you can weave your paper into a story, not when you pause annoyingly because you can't get the DVD player to work.

Christian's paper took this idea furthest in the most original way, in that the performance of his paper was itself the argument, and any written version would have to be a literary re-interpretation of the oral original. I remember noting, through a hangover so massive I felt as though my head were drifting clean off my shoulders to bump aimlessly against the ceiling like an errant helium balloon, at the evenness and neutrality of his voice. It was as though he'd hammered smooth his conversational voice, which seesaws between breathy, almost nervous phrases and loud, emphatic rhetorical flourishes, into an assured, fluent Lecturing Voice.

I mean to write more, but I gotta go to a magazine meeting now. Perhaps I'd add to this later.

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