Voice, Narrative, Place:

                                                  Listening to Stories

                                                          Isobel Anderson


Within the dominant narratives on sound art traditions we find very little mention of oral stories or storytelling. Additionally, the presence of storytelling can lead a sound art work to be consigned to other mediums, such as radio or theatre. Perhaps the inclusion of oral storytelling is perceived as weakening the listening experience of sound by imposing narrative and meaning and restricting the listener’s imagination. Although it may be difficult to find these views stated explicitly, if one looks (or listens) a little closer, the silence surrounding oral storytelling, and the lack of discussion of its uses and potentials in texts, reveals that it is overlooked, or even undervalued, within sound art.(1) However, it is possible to find hints at why this might be the case. For example, in Alan Licht’s Sound Art: Beyond music, between categories (2007), Licht proposes that sound art is a non-narrative medium, and seldom attempts to relate to, or express, human interaction. 


Definitions such as Licht’s seem to understand sound art as merely a physical presence. Or perhaps rather, they focus on how sound interacts with the physical world as defined by acoustics, reverberations, algorithms and the physical ‘space’ of sound. Brandon LaBelle illustrates this view in the introduction to his book Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (2006):


It is my view that sound’s relational condition can be traced through modes of spatiality, for sound and space in particular have a dynamic relationship. This no doubt stands at the core of the very practice of sound art – the activation of the existing relation between sound and space. (ix)


Here, LaBelle is describing the physical presence of sound, or the “science” of sound. Sound is something that reacts with space; waves that react with molecules and matter. Even though we do not see it, it is not in the mind. It is out there with all the other things that visibly make up the world. Sound is “real.” 


These definitions imply that sound art consists of sophisticated sounds and their interactions with space, achieved through the use of advanced technologies as well as a deep understanding of sound as a “science.” These are of course important aspects to sound art. The sounds created using these techniques are also evocative and steeped in aural imagery for the listener, and LaBelle does also describe the mental associations triggered by sound throughout Background Noise. For example, he describes how “acoustical moments trigger images completed in the mind, pictures filled in by complementing the sonic signifier with its physical source” (2006: 40). Therefore, LaBelle does also illustrate how sound is about more than space. Interestingly, in Kenneth Goldsmith’s review of Licht’s Sound Art, he points out that “Licht cites numerous examples of sound art that do, in fact, strongly reflect aspects of the humanism he adamantly denies” (2008).


Sound is also about associations, memories, feelings, experiences, imagery and thoughts.(2) These aspects of sound do not instantaneously interact with the physical world and are often difficult to represent visually through text or image for they cannot immediately be seen. But, therefore, sound does provide a platform to explore the “unreal” or at least the indefinable or unseen. As Salome Voegelin suggests, “Sound narrates, outlines and fills, but it is always ephemeral and doubtful” (2011: 5). This ephemeral quality of the sonic is difficult to quantify, rationalise or understand, but it is perhaps one of the closest ways of relating it to the obscure nature of thought, memory and experience. Sound seamlessly conjures up imagery, emotion and atmospheres but can only be held onto through remembering its characteristics in our minds. As soon as sound has arrived, it has gone, and yet it fills every inch of space, seeps out from underneath doorways and through walls, surrounding us in an invisible presence. John Broadhouse describes sound’s mysterious ability to invisibly penetrate the “within” from the “without”:


The cause of sound is without us; the sensation of sound is within us; the ear is the medium which enables the external cause to become a sensation... but although we can trace the motions which produce it, and the machinery which transmits those motions from without to within, we cannot at present tell how the latter become a part of our consciousness. (2008: 1)


Sound is heard in the mind. Although our ears are the instruments that transmit sound, it is the mind that interprets it.(3) Therefore, sound not only has a relationship with space but also with our consciousness. How the mind interprets sound is still relatively under examined, but sound is an invisible presence in constant dialogue with our minds. 


Oral narratives similarly inhabit an invisible territory; with each word drips another second in time, thought in space, and connection to memory. Stories, like sound, form within thin air, as if by magic, and yet they are part of our daily lives.(4) However, traditional oral storytelling rarely incorporates experimental uses of sound. Perhaps if a medium such as sound art defines itself by how it interacts with the physical world, the traditional storyteller might be deterred from exploring its potentials to express the ‘unseen’ worlds described in stories. For, although sound forms such a basic role in making connections and associations with the world around us, sound art is often criticised as being inaccessible to audiences who are not practitioners or scholars in the field.(5)


Perhaps also, just as sound artists may feel that oral storytelling can distract from our listening of sound, storytellers may fear the introduction of experimental sound might detract from the age-old tradition of storytelling. For, this is an activity that has existed for thousands of years in the form of a storyteller utilising solely their body as a means for communicating a story to their audience. However, I would argue that sound takes the listener further into the unseen imaginary world of stories and that in some contexts, oral storytelling, rather than restricting the listener’s imagination, can enable remarkably immersive and creative listening experiences. 


In his article “The ‘Storylistening’ Trance Experience” (2000), Brian W. Strum describes the altered state of consciousness experienced when listening to stories, or the “storylistening trance”:


...people who listen to stories can undergo a profound change in their experience of reality. The normal waking state of consciousness alters dramatically as the story takes on a new dimension; listeners seem to experience the story with remarkable immediacy, engaging in the story's plot and with the story's characters. (287-288)


When we engage our imaginations in a story, our feeling of reality shifts. By visualising the narrative the story tells (a narrative which exists only through the act of listening to its telling), we lose awareness of our surroundings, and time is distorted.(6) Marshall Gregory argues that the educational role of this listening experience is “to lift auditors up and out of their own tiny spots in time and space and to enlarge their sense of life's possibilities by putting them down in other spots” (1995: 39). With regards to hearing sound, Michael Brewster describes a similar sensation to the altered state of consciousness present in the “storylistening trance”: 


Walking through it [sound] in its resonant state provides an experience similar to perusing a landscape but from the inside, with all of your body instead of from the outside with just your eyes. (1999: 102)


Brewster describes his experience of sound as not merely listening, but feeling and being with all your body. This description of listening to sound as if perusing a landscape could be compared to the sensation of being in the imaginary reality one experiences when listening to stories. This loss of perspective of space and time allows us to feel a profoundly different reality to our normal everyday lives. These are listening places formed of the places of these stories and their sounds, and, as Gregory describes above, the listener’s “spot in space and time.” Sound can “sound-out” these listening places, create atmospheres which quickly draw the listener in and offer the listener sounds that are extraordinary and uncanny by using advanced recording, processing, editing and diffusion techniques. 


There are already various mediums that combine oral storytelling with elements of sound art in mainstream media, such as radio, television and film. However, they each have their own established practices, and, often, sound is secondary to visual elements, with the exception of radio.(7) They do though offer interesting insights into what is rarely written about in texts on sound art or storytelling: the creative and productive listening experience acquired through the combination of both these mediums. Perhaps the field most closely linked to sound art that explores these potentials is radio. 


In Theatre of Sound: Radio and the Dramatic Imagination (2002), Dermot Rattigan describes the process of listening to a combination of oral narratives and sound in the context of the radio drama: 


As the listener hears the drama the void is continually filled with mental visualisations as real and as vivid as the listener's imagination allows them to be. Through the neurological functions of electrochemical reactions in the brain triggered by aural stimulation, the willing listener enters into a state of individual “virtual reality” as they engage with the sounds of the production. (118)


Here, Rattigan describes how our imaginations fill the voids between our senses in experiences.(8) For example, we may hear the sounds of a car crash, such as breaks screeching to a halt and voices shouting, when listening to a piece of radio drama, but it is our imaginations that fill in our other senses, such as what we might see, smell, taste and feel. In radio drama though, in addition to sounds, there are other aspects articulated through the drama’s oral narrative, such as the characters involved in the crash, the context of the event within the greater narrative of the drama and the qualities of the character’s voices, all of which enhance the listener’s understanding and construction of the story in their imaginations. Thus, both the sounds of the described event and the aural presence of the storyteller interplay with one another to create, as Rattigan suggests, a “virtual reality.” 


While there are various online platforms that cater for the listener who is actively searching, and therefore actively listening to radio, the vast amount of radio consumption is very often something that exists in the background of everyday life, behind the washing up and Sunday morning breakfast table. If one chooses to lose ones self in its “virtual realities,” it can be very rewarding, but it is also easy to ‘tune it out’ as just another background sound alongside the fridge, the television in the next room and the kettle boiling.  However, in the context of sound art platforms such as soundwalks, the “virtual realities” described by Rattigan are intended for specific listening events. The listener hears the work at a specific time in a specific place, meaning the work draws its impact not exclusively from the audio heard, but other factors, such as the time of day and quality of light, the surrounding landscape’s fixtures and fittings and the presence (or absence) of other listeners. For example, in their chapter “Voice-Cast: The Distribution of the Voice via Podcasting” (2010), Virginia Madsen and John Potts describe the immersive effect of listening to audio while moving through space:


The iPod listener travelling through urban space is occupied in a private sound-world, listening to a voice apparent solely to that listener… The acousmatic voice is poured into the ears without disruption from the exterior world, enveloping the listener with the intimate expression of its character - its grain - before the content of its message is even considered. (43-45)


This experience of voice, narrative and place is an intimate one. Sound and the bodiless voice of the orator aurally wrap around the listener, pouring into their ears, occupying their thoughts. This embellishes their field of vision as they move through routes and pathways, unfolding over time with each second of audio and footstep trod. 


This brings new possibilities for oral storytelling, as the narrative and sound described in a story can directly draw from the place in which the listener hears the story unfold. Therefore, the story does not melt into the background of a domestic situation or a long drive home at night. And because a soundwalk is so different to other, more traditional contexts of storytelling, such as film, radio and television, its narrative form can be constructed and communicated in more experimental ways. 


For example, rather than the narrative being solely expressed through the words of the orator, other elements of the story may also be exclusively communicated through sounds in the audio and the characteristics of the walk’s setting. The possibilities of the listener’s surroundings open up, and the “virtual realities” they construct with their imagination become associated with a ‘real’ place. These stories, their sounds and their location-based associations are now a part of the listener’s consciousness even though they are unseen. Rattigan suggests that radio dramas similarly resonate with the listener in time and space, even after the actual audio event:

While radio drama performance exists in time and begins and finishes with a specific timeframe, its psychological affective resonance continues to exist in the listener's reproductive imagination as memories where time boundaries evaporate. (2002: 121)


This “psychological affective resonance” is heightened further in the context of site-specific stories that incorporate sound art practices; stories of place, and/or told in place. Our consciousness forms connections with places, and these connections travel with us after the event and beyond the space of the audio encounter. The places in which we encounter them take on new significance, and the “realities” of our surroundings are populated with infinite alternatives.


Although there are many factors that affect the productive listening of these site-specific stories, there are three main factors that significantly shape the listener’s experience of these works, which I will now discuss in more detail. These are [1] the listening environment or listening place, [2] the storyteller or disembodied voice, and [3] our own inner voice. 

(1) One of the discussions most closely bringing storytelling and sound art together is Trevor Wishart’s chapter “Sound-image as Metaphor: music and myth” (Wishart 1996: 163-176). Although not specifically focusing here on oral storytelling, Wishart highlights the potential of using mythological symbolism within sound art, the structural similarities between the two and the the temporal unfoldings of both. 

(2) For further reading on analysis of imagery and narrative associations in sound and music, see; Maus, Fred. “Music as Drama.” University of California Press 10 (1988): 56-73; Demers, Joanna. Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music.m Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010 and Emmerson, Simon (ed.). (1986). The Language of Electroacoustic Music. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.  

(3) This idea has been explored extensively through research into tinnitus perception by neuroscientists Pawell J. Jasterboff and Jonathan Hazell who discovered that although the ear is the instrument that detects sound, it is the brain that turns sound into meaningful signals that we pay attention to, generating emotional responses. Our brain can subconsciously ignore, habituate and give preference to sounds according to our emotional perception of them. For further reading see Jasterboff, P. J., & Hazell, W. J. (2004). Tinnitus Retraining Therapy. UK: Cambridge University Press.

(4) Richard Price illustrates the presence of storytelling in the everyday when he suggests that “the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our days' events to the vast, incommunicable constructs of psychopaths” (1978: 3). 

(5) For further reading on audience reception of sound art and contemporary art music, see Leigh Landy’s chapter “From Intention to Appreciation: Offering Listeners Some Things to Hold On To” (2007: 21-66).

(6) An interesting discussion on “trancing” states when listening to music can be found in Judith Becker’s Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing (2004).

(7) However, in all three mediums, especially radio, there are various examples of artists and production companies that explore sound and storytelling in experimental ways. For examples, see radio stations such as Sound art Radio, Resonance FM, and Weiss, A. S. (2001). Experimental Sound and Radio. Massachusetts: MIT Press.  

(8) Rattigan states that according to Oriental philosophy, “the Ultimate reality is Sunyata,” or “voidless” (2002: 118).

The Environment or Listening Place

We verbalise our surroundings, and our voices and conversations tie us to place. This idea has been explored by the humanist geographer Yi Fu Tuan, who argues that our conversations about place, and the narratives that unfold orally and audibly, reflect and affect our surrounding geographical landscapes.(9) These oral narratives, much like sound, disappear as soon as they are heard. But as Rattigan argues of radio drama, Tuan suggests that we carry them in our minds as we move through time and “space,” embellishing and creating the world around us, or “place” (Tuan 1991). Therefore, the environments in which we listen to stories will affect this process, and listening to stories in specific locations will alter our perception of these environments. 


Additionally, the setting in which a tale is told will not only affect how we hear a story but also our role within the act. In Dan Ben-Amos’ article ‘Towards a Definition of Folklore” (1971), he defines what separates folk art from other art forms as the collective experience of its various practices and constructs. This collective experience will vary in different environments:


In organized storytelling the social roles of tellers and listeners are often more rigidly defined than in casual telling: Quite simply, those identified as storytellers perform, often on a stage separating them from listeners; those designated as audience members listen without interrupting. (Stone 1997: 233)


In the formal context outlined above, Stone illustrates the familiar relationship between audience and performer found in many performance-based art forms, such as traditional theatre or dance. However, a more informal setting may invite participation from an audience, blurring the distinction between listener and teller (Stone 1997). In fact, the telling of the tale may truly be a collective performance and experience. 


Similarly, there are instances in the context of sound art works where the listener, much like Stone’s description above, is separated from the teller, particularly in recorded works. However, sound art pieces that interact with, or draw from, specific sites play with these defined roles by basing a story in a location with which the work and its narrative interact. Therefore the listener is present not only by listening to the work, but also by being in its inspired location both physically and/or mentally. By listening to audio works about, and/or in, specific locations, the listener is present in the listening place of the piece; a place somewhere between the places described and heard in the audio, and where the listener is physically present. This productive listening act means that the audience construct new meaning within their physical surroundings, transforming it from merely ‘space’, into ‘place’.

One artist who explores identities of place with sound and voice is Cathy Lane. Her work On The Machair (2010) is a 10-minute audio piece available to hear online. Although not composed with the intention of being heard in a particular site, On The Machair “attempts to both explore and communicate something about history and memory related to the Outer Hebrides… through sound” (Lane 2010). The work is based on aspects of the crofting lifestyle in this remote part of Scotland, combining a mixture of monologues, field recordings and interviews collected during a number of trips Lane made to the Outer Hebrides, as well as material from existing oral history archives. Upon first listening to the piece, one might perceive it as being a random jumble of various voices speaking all at once, almost incoherently in places. The narrative of these voices is not arranged as a radio drama or traditional story might be, but these voices and the sounds of this piece do tell a story. This story is just perhaps a little harder to find, or hear. You must listen to each fragment of speech, birdcall and distant melody to catch it. 


Initially we hear Lane’s own voice out on the machair. Amidst sounds of the waves crashing, Lane talks of plants growing around her and their traditional uses. Throughout the piece Lane’s voice is present as she describes her surroundings in this way and in conversation with local residents. Therefore, one narrative of the piece is Lane’s experience of this community as an outsider observing. Another narrative is the clearance of this area in the nineteenth century, predominantly told [or: recounted] by Lachlan MacQueen of North Uist in an interview by D.R. MacDonald in 1974. Lachlan speaks in his first language, Gaelic, and although non-Gaelic speakers may not understand his words, the sound of this language not only gives the place of this piece a feeling of being somewhere other [or: else] and far away, but also a feeling of not quite being of “now.” The skeletons of crofting houses dotted along the Hebridean coast leave the mark of emigration and feudal oppression. Lane does not divulge this story obviously. Instead, the listener must piece it together from Lane’s descriptions of what she sees, and the interviews she has collected, similarly to the way in which Lane must have gathered her story, her sounds, as an outsider spending time in this community.


Salome Voegelin describes the way in which the voices in this piece invite the listener to take part in the story of their home, the Outer Hebrides:


They [the voices in Lane’s piece] are the sonic nature of the place, its thing-ness, hiding from where I have to tease them out in my listening. The land becomes renewed in the rhythm while acknowledging its age and history in its sound. (2010: 22-23)


The listening experience outlined by Voegelin above is an active one. The voices that she hears in Lane’s piece not only tell a story, but also involve the listener in bringing them back into existence; as Voegelin suggests, the listener must “tease them out.” When I listen to the placing of these oral narratives amidst the sounds of the island’s industries and soundscapes, a vivid mental backdrop to my own environmental surroundings begins to form. Through a combination of the place I hear and the place I see, the listening place of this piece emerges somewhere in-between the two. Voegelin describes this process in her chapter “Listening”:


Listening allows fantasy to reassemble the visual fixtures and fittings, and repositions us as designers of our own environment. It challenges, augments and expands what we see, without presenting a negative illusion, by producing reality of lived experience. (2010: 12)


In other words, what we hear can often affect what we see in front of us. Here, Voegelin describes a listening process in place similar to what Mike Pearson and Cliff McLucas, directors of the Welsh performance company Brith Gof, term as “hosts” and “ghosts.” This term relates to the various ephemeral architectures that may be evoked through performance in place. Cathy Tuner describes this term in her article “Palimpsest or Potential Space? Finding a vocabulary for site-specific performance” (2004): 


Both Pearson and McLucas emphasize that every site is always a space still in process, whose meaning is never complete. The “ghost” within the “host” is a catalyst to that process. The work’s structures, in tension with those offered by the site, produce, through performance, a new version of what Lefebvre terms “lived space,” a contemporary spatial practice. (374)


Similarly to Pearson and McLucas’s description of performance in “space”/“place,” sounds and stories heard affect our experience of our visual environment as well as how we contribute to “producing” that environment through our individual perception. The room, view or landscape can start to transform as what we hear excites our imaginations and forms various “structures” as outlined by Turner above. In this listening context, the landscape itself narrates the story alongside the listener and the teller(s), almost performing a duet with narrative. Just as each day is different from the one before, so too is each hearing of the story. A change in light, warmth, smell or atmosphere shifts the meaning and experience of a story from previous tellings.



I have explored the relationship between stories and their listening environments in my own creative practice. Last Night’s Party (2011) is a soundwalk based on stories of fairy abductions set within Belvoir Park Forest in Northern Ireland. The walk takes the listener through one of Ireland’s most historic woodlands, enveloping them in the sounds, poetry and myths from the area. As the listener walks, the sounds and voices they hear embellish the visual landscape they pass. The piece takes on new identities at different times of the day and with each season. For example, at one point in the walk, the listener walks through very dark, dense forest. At this point in the audio, the listener is surrounded by whispering voices reciting poems about the area’s magical qualities and the supernatural beings that dwell within. On a bright summer’s day, strong rays of sunlight pierce through the dense trees, illuminating spots of bright green foliage growing amidst the dark forest bed of pine needles, imbuing the piece’s story with a sense of magic and enchantment. A dark winter’s evening, however, gives these whispers a more sinister tone, as no light shines through the thick trees. In this way, the piece’s story and its environment are in constant dialogue with each other and the listener.

The listening environment can also be seen as a negative distraction when listening to stories. With regards to listening environment, Strum states that:


The participants agreed that, in general, they did not notice things going on around them while they listened to stories. If they did mention such an awareness, it was usually accompanied by a negative connotation, as though they did not want to notice things other than the story. (2000: 291)


As this statement would indicate, in general when we want to engage our imaginations with narrative we assume we must limit the external distractions of our surrounding environment. I would argue that one of the interesting characteristics of listening to site-specific stories is that the world around the listener plays a crucial role in the story. Listening to stories of place, in place, enables the listener to see alternative landscapes intertwined with what is taken for granted as “reality.” This is why I would argue that sound art works which incorporate oral storytelling are so immersive and engaging for listeners.

(9) For further reading on constructions of “place” and the relationship between “space” and “place” see: Tuan, Yi Fu. Space and place: the perspective of experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. 

Last night's party soundwalk

Last night's party 

The Teller or Disembodied Voice

Much as the environment or listening place strongly influences our perception of site-specific stories, so too do the voices of the storyteller(s) we hear, and each voice brings its own unique qualities to a story. In his study, Strum found that “the style of the storyteller was the most frequently mentioned influence on the listener’s experience” (2000: 295). In traditional storytelling, the presence of a storyteller is an actively performative one. Dick Leith describes Geordie Stewart’s telling of the Scottish folktale “The Green Man of Knowledge”:


...he exploits all the resources of his voice by varying his vocal quality, tempo, pitch, and volume… the absence of vocalism, as in music, may be as significant as its presence; thus a pause is seen not merely as a gap between words, but as a rhetorical resource. (1995: 56)


Additionally, Leith states that the storyteller might also engage the listener with direct dialogue as well as “gestures and other body movements” (Leith 1995: 56). Leith describes the above combination of factors as a “full performance,” which collectively influence our relationship to a story, and together contribute to a storyteller’s own individual style. It is this concept of the “full performance” which separates storytelling from other forms of narrative expression. If the performer engages his or her audience in the direct dialogue described by Leith, it can even become difficult to distinguish between performer and listener, as previously mentioned, and between reality and fictional narrative. And it is in this way that traditional storytelling is not dissimilar to sound art. This blurring of the fictional and the real during a “full performance” can easily be found in the work of contemporary voice artists. These artists employ many types of performance technique to engage their audience with a narrative in multi-sensorial and experiential ways. 


One example of this type of “full performance” is Laurie Anderson’s Stories From the Nerve Bible (1993), a retrospective covering a twenty-year period from 1972-1992. During this time, Anderson slept in various public places to see how her dreams were affected. This performance (which is also a book [Anderson 1993] and audio book) consists of pieces that are almost like diary entries inspired by these dreams, with images and texts from different stages of her career juxtaposed to underline the recurring themes in Anderson’s work.

In the 1993 performance of the work, Anderson incorporates “a little music, some comedy, an illusion, a dance novelty, a film, a song, a few homilies, [and] a ventriloquist's dummy playing the violin,” as Jon Pareles describes in his review for the New York Times. He continues, “It's the stuff of vaudeville” (1993). Anderson uses these different performance tools to transport her audience to far away, exotic places:


Ms. Anderson goes globe-hopping, from tribal cultures to modern Berlin, from describing hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro, where she gazed down on fishermen next to a sewage-treatment plant, to showing an unnamed American city where the police are rounding up illegal aliens in images modelled after the jerky video-verité of shows like "Cops.” (Pareles 1993)


When I listen to the audio book, it is Anderson’s vocal performance that transports me with her. She uses various voices, and processes on her voice, to bring the people and places she describes to life. For example, when speaking as an American businessman at an airport she changes the pitch of her voice so that it is impossibly low and protracted. This emphasizes the words in such a way that I can visualize the character and imagine the airport and situation in my mind. He sounds masculine—comically masculine. The processing on her voice and the way she drags out her words creates a sense of someone who is perhaps a little pompous and ostentatious. In comparison, when playing the role of a spiritual or supernatural character, she uses a vocoder on her voice, which for some reason washes me with a serene melancholy, as if I am somewhere far, far away. These vocal effects bring a “reality” to her words, which engage me as a listener.


According to Strum’s study, it is often the ability of the storyteller to create a sense of reality in their stories that listeners feel is most important in traditional storytelling events (2000: 293-294). Vocal artists such as Anderson are storytellers, and similarly invite their audience to step into another world with them. Artists and storytellers alike must be able to convince their audience that the stories they tell are not just a performed fantasy, but rather, perhaps, they might just be “real”; the storyteller can enable these stories to become “real” in the listener’s imagination.


Additionally, the quality of a voice affects how engaged our imaginations are with a story. However, defining the vocal characteristics that might be considered attractive is complex. In his chapter “The Concept of the Ideal Voice” (2000), Harry Hollien explains that a voice that exhibits variability in pitch, pace and dynamic is more attractive to a listener. Additionally, the context in which a voice is heard will affect the vocal qualities deemed appropriate or preferable. In an interview I conducted with the Northern Irish storyteller Fra Gun in August 2011, he explained that “the quality of the voice depends on the context. A voice that’s easy on the ear is best, but it’s all subjective.”(10) (2011). The factors outlined by Hollien and Gun above not only indicate the importance of a voice’s aesthetic appeal, but also its appropriateness to a given situation. 


One interesting example of a sound artist whose work illustrates these theories is Ergo Phizmiz. His practice spans theatre, music, sound, storytelling, poetry and more. Much of his work centres on his own voice and the ways in which it can be utilised to tell stories, however bizarre and nonsensical. His vocal performance combines various alternations of vocal attacks, pacing, pronunciation and emotion, which grab your ear, and hold it to his story. In particular, his piece Cave, from a collection of recorded sound works titled Sfl Bjcts (Phour Fonetic Sound Rooms) (2002), demonstrates his vocal gymnastics. Although Phizmiz states that this piece “inherently means absolutely nothing,” Phizmiz creates evocative scenes, which weave together strange and disorientating narratives made up of various sounds. 


Cave opens with an accordion and flute lilting in an out almost as if they were an orchestra tuning up before a performance. A voice then enters, split between the left and right of the stereo field, and begins a surreal poem in which the sentence “several mongoose riding around in a red corvette” gradually transforms, changing a word here and there, until the meaning has changed completely from its original utterance. Accompanying this poem are shrieks and cries. Afterwards, various voices performed by Phizmiz, but with different tones and characteristics, begin reciting a story from the perspective of an onlooker who describes a scene with two other characters, Esmeralda and Cupid. 


Esmeralda is “clawing at the wall, tearing off the wallpaper” while Cupid is ‘crawling round and round the light fitting, licking the ceiling’. Esmeralda wants to get out of this room while Cupid has hung himself by a noose from the light fitting. As the narrative unfolds, it appears as if Phizmiz’s voices might be those of Esmeralda and Cupid. Once the voices have recited this tale, a sinister metallic sound enters, almost like a drill. The audience applauds the sound of an opera singer warming up drifts into the background, and another voice enters, speaking in gibberish. In certain places the audience laugh and the language becomes more and more absurd. The audience applauds, and again the flute and accordion enter with the split voice reciting the poem heard before. This time the poem is recited backwards so that the last line recited in the piece is the first, while the screams are louder and more disturbing than before. The piece ends with applause, and the musical instruments fade out as they faded in to begin with.


These various orators and their faceless audiences together weave atmospheres and characters, which unfold absurdly out of control. But however bizarre these scenes become, the worlds they create still resonate with my own personal memory bank of imagery and experience. It is the quality of Phizmiz’s voice and the way he utilises its many possibilities that makes his telling unique, memorable and communicative. I feel I can almost see the words he utters as well as the characters and situations they create. 

(10) Gunn, Fra (2011). Interview with the author on 3rd August 2011 [Personal communication]. Belfast.

The Inner Voice

But if we can mentally visualise the stories we hear, how do we sound them out in our minds? I will now discuss the third factor, perhaps the most complex, that affects how we listen to site-specific stories: the inner voice. Freud was interested in the voice of our conscience, particularly with regards to procuring some insight into why paranoiacs hear voices commenting on their behaviour (Velleman 1999: 59). According to psychologists Dr. Charles Fernyhough and Simon McCarthy-Jones, the voices that paranoiacs hear are a very normal phenomenon, except for the fact that these voices are usually perceived as conscious thoughts. When we perceive these voices as separate from our own thoughts, they seem to be coming from somewhere, or someone else (Jones and Fernyhough 2007). Is this perhaps similar to the sensation of imagining sound and voices when listening to stories?


To explore this idea, we must first identify how this inner voice is conceived as well as the implications of its presence. Fernyhough defines thinking as “words sounding silently in your head” (Abumrad and Krulwich 2011). This idea relates back to the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky’s theory that words and thoughts move from speech outside our heads to speech inside our heads, and that this is part of the process of how children learn to think (1986: 210-256). As we get older, we internalise these thoughts, which, as young children, we verbalise externally. These thoughts then begin to murmur underneath our everyday lives. This running commentary can take on various voices with which we are familiar, such as a parent’s or teacher’s voice. Jones and Fernyhough state that “inner speech has been proposed to have a dialogic quality” as it develops through dialogues between children and their caregivers. Additionally, inner speech “frequently has a condensed nature” (2011: 1586-1587) due to a processes of syntactic and semantic abbreviation. 


Therefore, in the context of listening to sound and stories, this voice might listen by talking internally with sound stimuli as it is processed in our minds. In other words, our inner voice internally verbalises the imagery and associations triggered through listening to sound and stories.  


According to scientist Luc Steels, the voice that we hear inside ourselves is in fact such a naturally occurring sensation that it is even found in people who have been deaf from birth.(11) Steels states that our inner voice “jumps from one topic to the other” rarely producing well formed sentences, but instead, “fragmented bits and pieces of thought” (2003: 2). This voice accompanies us as we orientate ourselves through time and space. Steels explains that: 


The inner voice is closely linked to the self; indeed we have the feeling that it is the ‘I’ that is talking, like in a first person narrative. (2)


Drawing from Steels’ theory that this voice forms a first person narrative and Jones and Fernyhough’s definition above, this voice might act almost as co-narrator with external voices when we listening to stories. As discussed before, the storyteller utilizes dramatic techniques, such as adding pauses and spacing for dramatic effect. Perhaps these pauses are the space in which our inner voice communicates in a silent dialogue with the external voice of the teller.


But how does this inner voice communicate with a storyteller who is not physically present, as in the case of recorded sound works, for example? In her chapter “Voices In My Head” (2004), Georgiana Keage describes this process:


When we imagine a sound... blood rushes to the auditory centers in your brain, as if the sound were outside rather than inside your head... Neurons fire. Juices flow. Electrochemical charges occur. You begin to "hear" something, not quite a voice, but a shadow of a voice. (99)


These internally realised sounds are figments of our imagination. Even though the storyteller is not present, the listener’s inner voice responds to the sounds and described situations in oral narrative sound works. In David Toop’s chapter “Drowned by Voices” (2011), he describes an experience of hearing external voices and his internal processing of them:


I… recall a murmur of speaking and singing voices heard many years ago at night, as I lay half awake in a room directly above the mill race of a barn in Devon. These apparitional voices were picked out from the white noise complexity of a rushing stream diverted through resonant interior space below. They gave the impression of communicating in an unknown tongue bridging music and human speech, and even though it made no sense to me I felt a strong compulsion to decipher the language. (7)


The voices heard by Toop exist somewhere between the “space” or “void” of sound and association. Toop heard the sounds of the water rushing beneath him, but it was his conscious mind and its dialogue with the sounds he heard that produced the sensation of hearing external voices. This experience was perhaps his inner voice in dialogue with the external sounds he heard. A conversation between the “within” and “without.”(12)


One sound artist concerned with the inner voice and the linking of inner and outer worlds is Hildegard Westerkamp. In her chapter “Say Something About Music” (1999), Westerkamp writes about the way in which our inner voice speaks to us as we read the text in her chapter:


I imagine the reader looking at this page. All ear. Listening to these words. Hearing this writing. Listening to the sounds I am making at this moment on this page… Listen. Words on this printed page are sound. Listen. The quiet voice on this printed page is sound. (17)


When we read Westerkamp’s chapter, we think the words, and the words sound inside of us. But there is also this same dialogue when we listen to Westerkamp’s own voice in her compositional work. When I listen to her piece Kits Beach Soundwalk (1989), for example, her soothing, lulling, lilting tone gently tries to tease out the chattering and trundling of my own inner voice. She begins the piece with a recording of Kit’s Beach in Vancouver. You can hear the waves crashing, traffic in the distance and what Westerkamp refers to as “the clicking” of tiny barnacles in the water. Westerkamp demonstrates that the roaring of the traffic can be lost, and the barnacles foregrounded, through studio processing. Westerkamp then explains that the frequencies she is highlighting in these sounds are “healing” and describes dreams she has had in which she hears them. Westerkamp eventually brings us back to the beach and introduces the traffic into our listening again. 


As I listen, I engage in a dialogue with her and the places she catches in time and space. As she brings me through the “real” sound of the beach to the “unreal” sounds of her dreams, I imagine I am there with her. I remember dreams I have had where I hear beautiful sounds that I can no longer imagine when I wake. And there is a voice, at times incoherent and condensed, at other times speaking in full sentences, that articulates these associations internally while I listen. 


Rather like her text in the above chapter, Westerkamp’s voice, suspended in digital air, is disembodied. This no-man’s-land of the disembodied narrator creates new dialogues with my own inner voice. In this solely auditory context, my mind must create the narrative world with the audio heard without Westerkamp’s physical presence. 


Whether a story is told by a storyteller, disembodied in a book, or preserved in a recording, our inner voice is the tool with which we actively listen to that story. In the context of listening to site-specific stories, might this voice not only form our sense of self, as Steels argues, but also our sense of place? When listening to site-specific stories, this voice assigns meaning to the places described, as well as the place in which we hear the story. This is especially prevalent in the context of the soundwalk. 


Soundwalks directly relate to places in terms of routes or paths, which are discovered, walked and re-traced using sound and narrative. Artists such as Janet Cardiff produce works that directly interact with the landscape they aurally inhabit. In some instances, such as Cardiff’s soundwalk Her Long Black Hair (2004), Cardiff’s voice narrates a journey through place and sound. In this piece, Cardiff takes the listener on “a winding, mysterious journey through Central Park’s nineteenth century pathways, retracing the footsteps of an enigmatic dark-haired woman” (Cardiff and Miller 2011). 


Cardiff guides the walker, her voice narrating their journey. Along the way, the listener is prompted to stop and observe photographs from a bygone era, taken from where the listener is standing. These points in Cardiff’s storytelling are much like the pinpoints on a map. For example, at one point Cardiff tells the listener, “We’re following the course of an old stream they put underground when they began building the park.” She continues, “They uncovered human bones buried a hundred years before.” Alongside this, birds are singing, the breeze gently murmurs and the sound of footsteps form a meditative rhythm underneath. My inner voice searches my internal archive of experiences and associations, gently muttering through the instances and memories that relate to Cardiff’s story. I imagine where she is, where her feet are treading. I imagine myself there: a place I have never been, a listening place, is constructed through the dialogue between my inner voice, Cardiff and these sounds. 


I have explored the idea of the inner voice through my own creative practice. Sounds and Letters (2011) was a project that was the result of a residency at Curfew Tower in Cushendall, Northern Ireland, and which explores the inner and outer voices experienced when listening to a letter read aloud. The piece contains five letters in handwritten and recorded format. Each recording is made in the place the letter is written and plays with the relationship between the author (my own voice), place (the letter’s inspired location), and the recipient (the listener). While reading a letter, we often imagine the sound of the author’s voice silently in our minds. When writing a letter, we also imagine what the recipient might think when reading it. In Sounds and Letters both these processes are explored and a narrative is constructed. 


For example, in Letter No.1 the voice of the author describes the place of this recording, its sounds and physical characteristic such as grassy hills and trickling water. I, the author, tell the story of how I came to be in this place and why the recipient might enjoy being here too. But the piece also leaves questions for the listener, such as why the author is there, whom they are attempting to communicate with and why. The listener’s inner voice is required to fill in these gaps by forming a narrative dialogue with the author and perhaps even the missing recipient, for it is left open as to whether the recipient is the listener, or someone else. These disembodied voices float somewhere between the listener’s consciousness and the sounds of the places where the recordings are taken.

The elements I have discussed above, combined, affect our listening experiences of site-specific stories. Like ghosts, sound and narrative have no physical presence and cannot be contained or seen, however, they surround us in their invisible presence, suspended in the air, waiting to be heard once more. Together, they haunt the ephemeral and illusive geographies that are constructed through listening. Site-specific stories and their audible unfoldings let us walk within the many possible “realities” constructed through their listening place, disembodied voice and our own inner voice. Much like Tuan would argue of speech and language, stories and sound are vital in the creation of what we relate to as “place.” Therefore, the act of listening is not a passive one, but instead, creative and productive. 


Through listening to sound and stories of place, in place, we produce and create the overlapping physical and psychological characteristics of our surroundings. The work of the artists discussed above demonstrates how the combination of oral storytelling and sound art profoundly enhances this listening process. While the use of oral storytelling within sound art is rarely acknowledged or discussed, this combination engages listeners in unique and immersive ways. Therefore, further discussion and analysis of this combination’s possibilities would generate a greater understanding of the present and potential narrative identities of our surrounding landscapes. 

(11) Interestingly, this conflicts with Vygotsky’s theory that this voice is developed in children through verbal dialogue with caregivers.

(12) For further reading on the haunting quality of sound see Toop, David (2010). Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener. New York: Continuum.  

Letter no. 1


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