Self portraits on a path to voice

By Susan Greene

As I was pondering our theme of voice this month, I came across this self portrait of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

It’s not often I turn the lens on myself. So I decided to give it a go. The photo of Cartier-Bresson captured my eye with his use of three different views of himself and his involvement both working and pausing to look out the window. My kitchen window is the same sort of set-up for me. I have spent countless hours standing at the kitchen sink looking out the window while washing dishes or twirling around doing the kitchen dance of food prep, throwing dirty dishes in the sink and washing fruits and vegetables while preparing and cleaning up meals. For many years, I was the privileged observer of my children’s games and make-believe worlds. As they grew and ventured from our immediate backyard – their backyards expanding into the larger world, I started noticing the sometimes quiet other times flurried rhythm of the birds, trees and flowers in the yard.

self portrait in window

Thinking of the backyard days of my children triggered thoughts of my own backyard days and the pure joy of playing outside. It has been quite awhile since I have done that.

self portrait backyard activityFor a time, I was transported to the backyard play of my youth, able to tap into the carefree times of romping in the backyard. The difficulty of running back and forth from inside the house to the outside counting down the seconds to shutter release trying to capture a jump at just the right moment then back in to check the result was a small price to pay.

In the Accidental Creative, author and speaker Todd Henry poses “ten questions that will help you find your voice.” One of the ten: as a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?  I think we can benefit from re-examining our younger selves to clarify our future selves and hopefully this will lead us to creative outlets for expressing our voices.

~ Susan

Does this voice make my thoughts look big?

By Catherine Keefe
I’m waiting for the call that I’ve been accepted as a voice surrogate to create a custom synthetic vocalization for a female “target talker,” one of the 2.5 million Americans with a speech impediment so severe she must rely upon a computer voice.

041

Right now, if you want a mechanical voice, there are about 60 to choose from, the most popular being “Perfect Paul.”  You’ve heard “Perfect Paul” if you’ve listened to Stephen Hawking speak. You don’t have to be a math wizard to quickly figure that a choice of 60 voices for 2.5 million speakers constructs an incredible long shot that a person will sound distinct, which is one basic human characteristic. Each being’s voice creates an utterance so individual that voiceprints are as singularly identifiable as fingerprints.

Life takes odd twists and turns when you wonder what to write about on a Thursday and a Google search for “human voice as unique as a fingerprint” turns up a TED talk by a speech scientist named Rupal Patel who’s developed the VocaliD project to “create unique voices for the voiceless.”

I register as a donor.

If I’m needed, my voice will be recorded for about 3-4 hours, then a computer will chop it into vowel and consonant bits that can be blended with the range of sounds the target talker is able to make.  Most likely it will be for a woman roughly my age as voices develop different pitch and tonal characteristics as we age.  The “target talker” will create the prosody with utterances like “ahhhhhhhh.”  I’ll provide the sound for word pieces.  Together we’ll create a voice, that for the first time will sound like her.

Giving voice to the voiceless.

I’m thinking of this because “voice” is the Backyard Sisters theme this month and also because my students are drafting their first formal projects and the distinct sound of their writing when I first met their voices in informal exercises has taken on a more constricted, stilted tone.

“I’m worried about my grade,” the young man in the front row tells me when I present this observation to the class and wonder aloud what has caused them to change.

Another student ventures, “We don’t know how you want us to sound. ”

Like yourselves?

I introduce a game developed by one of my philosophy and rhetoric heroes, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.  As an example of the impact that language can have, Erasmus famously wrote 150 variations on the sentence, “Your letter delighted me greatly.”

Your pages suffused me with unspeakable joy.

Your lines were as sweet to me as the sweetest of all things.

May I die if anything more delightful than your letter has ever happened.

Your letter to me was pure honey.

honey

My students and I laugh, then I challenge them to write, in one sentence, the primary idea they are trying to express.  It seems extreme to suggest they rephrase 150 times, so I suggest they come up with 10 ways to say the same thing.

While they infuse their ideas with new language, I perform a twist on that exercise, using quotes I find on voice which utter similar ideas.

“A powerful and fundamental aspect of who we are: our voice.” – Rupal Patel (TED talk).

 …a voice is like a fingerprint, possessing a constant and unique signature.” – Seamus Heaney (from a 1974 lecture).

“Oh how wonderful is the human voice! It is indeed the organ of the soul!” Flemming, the protagonist in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s novel, Hyperion: A Romance.

Now I’ve slightly misled you with that last quote as I didn’t easily find it, although a variation of it appears in Patel’s TED talk, is easily found on Brainy Quote and Goodreads and ThinkExist in a cleaned up, simplified, edited version of the above, stripped of its two exclamation marks, devoid of its sounding like a man falling in love which is exactly what’s happening to Flemming in Hyperion: A Romance, a thinly disguised Longfellow at the time.

Time has been kind and replaced Longfellow’s romantic exuberance with a more mature sound.

“The human voice is the organ of the soul.” – Longfellow

In that revision I hear a restrained baritone utterance with a genteel New England accent.  It took quite a bit of sleuthing to find the original from Hyperion: A Romance.  

It can be difficult to find your voice, I tell my students. But if you don’t, someone will speak for you, or paraphrase you, or give you “Perfect Paul” when you’re really Perfect Cath.

They nod and we begin anew the effort to sound like no one but our selves.

With fingers crossed I’ll be a surrogate,
~Catherine

You can watch Rupal Patel explain her VocaliD project in this video:

 

“All I have is a voice…”

By Catherine Keefe
Up until 1963, when home movies were silent and telephone answering phones didn’t exist, the only way to know your own voice was to hear the sound you made in your head. And then one day right before Christmas my father brought home a small silver box encased in black leather. It’s a tape recorder! He invited me to sing into a microphone.

I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay…

I sang with my whole heart and soul.  The family sat around the living room waiting to hear how well the new gadget worked. Rewind. Play. Rustle, rustle. Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel… I was certain the new toy was broken because the sound was wincingly loud and distorted and much too big for the living room.  All the laughing it caused made the paneled walls vibrate. What was that?

“Stop!” I stood up and shouted. “Stop it now!” In my head I sounded like a choir girl. In reality I made a reverberation like a cross between a goat bleat and toad croaking with swollen adenoids under a mossy river in spring thaw.

rocks

Demosthenes spoke with pebbles in his mouth. I tried that once.

The first time I saw my poetry in print, I hated it too.

i am…

i think.

i’m not really sure.

are you?

It was ten years after the tape recorder incident and my small poem, “i am” was published in the high school literary journal, not a small feat for an underclassman.  I’ve spared you the last stanza.  I’d submitted five poems to the journal and was surprised the editors picked this example of Descartes redux, even though at the time I’d not yet heard of cogito ergo sum.  I thought the poem was too simple then, and when I finally met Descartes’ work in college, I wondered how he got so famous arguing for what I’d already intuited. i am. i think. I dropped the ellipses and began calling my poetry philosophical.

Today I was invited to read my poetry aloud at the upcoming Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle at the end of February. I’m thrilled and terrified, though I probably shouldn’t admit to either. The event is a gathering of more than 12,000 writers, editors and book lovers and though I’ve read my writing aloud before audiences of one, of dozens, and hundreds, I’m still unused to my voice in public. I relate completely when poet Sarah Kay says in her TED talk, “My self-confidence can be measured out in teaspoons.”

But there’s something worse than hearing my voice and seeing my words in print. Silence.

“All I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie” wrote W.H. Auden in his poem “September 1, 1939.” It was one poet’s response to the outbreak of World War II.

What’s the distance between silence and sound? There are 30 decibels between pure silence and a library whisper. Decibels are sound units based on what the human ear can hear. The sound of typical conversation reaches 60 decibels.

I imagine that each decibel is one step in an average 10-step staircase. I know I can climb three stories. I whisper. I know I can climb six stories and speak aloud even if it leaves me breathless.

My students, this first week of the new semester, wanted to talk about voice too.  After they asked a variety of questions about assignment word count and final exams and if it was fine to miss class for the Coachella Music Festival, it was my turn to ask a question.

“What do you want from me?”
Silence. That kind where you hear sniffles and shoe scuffs and the lawnmower outside three blocks away.

Then somewhere between a library whisper and full conversation volume, one girl spoke out.  “Can you help me find my voice?”  

Like frogs slowing waking up to sing in the night rain, voices rising upon flights of stairs, a chorus began murmuring, “Yes, that’s what I want too. I want to sound like me.”

“Me too,” I say. “We’re all in this together.”

~Catherine

from “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die. –

You can read Auden’s complete poem here: “September 1, 1939.”