'Transmutations & Transgressions'

20th biennial meeting of ISRLC 

(International Society for Religion, Literature & Culture)

16–18 September 2022

University of Chester


Whispers from the Abyss



At a time of incessant chatter and compulsory public muzak, voice is ubiquitous. A force so commonplace hides behind its contents; the materiality of voice is often over-looked and under-heard. This presentation explores how different kinds of meaning can emerge from different types of meaninglessness and 'nothingness' via the technique known as ornamentation.


Religious dogmatists of the medieval and early Renaissance eras genuinely feared the voice, especially when detached from clear meaning and the Divine Logos. In a clear case of

antithesis between the raw and the cooked, the singing voice separated from the Logos was

considered a portal for the demonic. The body was seen as a contaminant, with ever-present sexual overtones: Pier Francesco Tosi (1743) urged singers to aim for 'noble simplicity', to 'preserve music in its chastity' (Bethell, 2009). Thus it is ironic that wordless and affect-rich ornaments and ululations became known to musicologists as 'pure voice'.


Even when religious objections abated, suspicions remained about voices which steered away from the ethereal towards the material register. With near-sexual innuendo or condemnation many critics and musicologists still refer to vibrato as 'the V-word' ; (Malafronte, 2015). 'Pure voice' is anything but pure. It contains contaminants, bastard energies, seeds and viruses which, given the right conditions, grow and mutate without the intervention of consciousness. In this sense certain voices are indeed 'daemonic' and offer portals to worlds outside the human ego. Voices diffract into Nothingness (Laasonen Belgrano, 2020). They function as signposts, boundary markers, grave-sites and springboards for engagements with body- politics.


Drawing on recent practical work involving an all-night vigil for the dead (Laasonen Belgrano & Price, 2021), this presentation gives practical examples of the auto-poetic material force of voice to organize itself via ornamentation, developing concepts from Bennett (2010), Bryant (2011), and Marsden (2020).


Who touched me?


Someone touched me;

for I noticed

that power

had gone out from me  

                                                           (Luke 8:45-46)

'A Mon Seul Desir', Ornament No 2

Elisabeth Laasonen Belgrano & Anna Nyhlin, voices

Tom Beimel, keyboard & soundscaping

Mark D. Price, soundscaping

Selected references

Bataille, G. Visions of Excess.

Corrigan, Father George Corrigan, OFM. - at -


Ficino, Marsilio, On the Hieratic Art. Marsilio Ficino paraphrased the text as “De Sacrificio et Magia” in 1576.also FICINO - ''De Vita'', chapter 21

Kramer and Spengler - Maleus Malificarum
St Francis of Assisi (1224). Canticle of the Sun.
Pietro Pomponazzi, P. (1556). On Incantation.
Shakespeare, W. Hamlet, Act 2 scene 2
Tomlinson, G. (1994). Music in Renaissance, Univ. of Chicago Press.