The Voice is a Ladder between Worlds

I dreamed I was singing in harmony with a long-lost friend, our voices vibrating in the air that was both inside and outside of us. It was an ecstatic feeling, as such singing can be in waking life as well.

The dream led me to reflect on the truly mysterious attributes of the human voice. The dictionary lists 24 different meanings for the word, but let’s stay with the top two:

1. The sound or sounds uttered through the mouth; 2.The faculty or power of uttering sounds through the mouth by the controlled expulsion of air.

Through the activity of muscles, nerves and breath, our bodies make sound. Mouth, tongue, teeth, lips give this sound shape and texture. Its resonance comes from the empty spaces inside us, from the vibration of bones and flesh. In all its meanings, voice is invisible, and travels across space as wave forms that set in motion tiny pieces of bone and cartilage deep in our ears which, in turn, connect to our brains, nervous systems, bodies triggering a range of involuntary responses in the listener.

My first experiences of the numinous, as a child, came through hearing. Though I had only the most superficial and literal understanding of the central Jewish prayer, Sh’ma YisroelListen, Israel, this force we call God, is indivisible, is One, I knew from experience that the sacred came to me through hearing human voices under certain circumstances.

Between the ages of eleven and nineteen, I went to a summer arts camp for kids and adults. My mother got an office job there to pay my tuition. My father worked on the maintenance crew and acted in The Taming of the Shrew one summer. I was introduced to theatre, graphic art, ceramics and music in open-air studios surrounded by pine trees whose resins melted in the dry summer heat releasing an odor that still comforts me whenever I smell it, over fifty years later.

The high point of the summers was the annual folk-music festival run by Pete Seeger. In those years that place must have been one of the few that would hire him, ignoring the blacklist which had been terrorizing the country. Hearing Pete Seeger sing the South African song of liberation, Wimoweh, with that falsetto African yodeling he did, stirred my insides and gave me goose bumps When he sang The Bells of Rhymney over the dark crashing chords of his 12 string guitar, something in me swelled and vibrated.

Then I heard blues for the first time. Pete brought Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry up to that Mountain enclave to perform and give workshops, Sonny’s whoops that would pick up his harmonica’s cries when they reached their peak disturbed me as, later, would the voices of Robert Johnson and Bukka White. Brownie’s deeper voice contained landscapes and textures, sun-warmed, smelling of earth and tobacco.

By the time I was fourteen I owned a number of Folkways archival anthologies of the old folk blues people from Mississippi and Texas and other places that might as well have been other planets, so far from my middle-class Southern California were they. Their singing was more raw and much less polite than anything my parents would listen to, and it was where I heard God.

I also heard and felt the sacred in the voice of the young, overweight cantor who taught me my portion of the Haftorah, the Prophets of the Hebrew bible, that I was learning for my Bar-Mitzvah. Irwin Halpern, in his twenties, already a husband and father, not much more than ten years my senior, must have been raised in an unassimilated enclave of traditional Jews. He had learned to sob out those modal melodies and intricate melismas that Eastern European cantors had refined over the centuries. There was something in me, very old, that responded passionately to Cantor Halpern’s channeling of these sounds. The same part that responded to Pete Seeger’s voice and Brownie’s and Sonny’s. Was it the minor third interval that George Gershwin recognized as one of the elements that Jewish and African-American music had in common? Their resonating bodies that focused and amplified their voices which rose directly from the ground? Whatever the connection, it was powerful and blew away the echoes of Pat Boone and Johnny Mathis whom I slow-danced to at parties.

At the same time that I was drinking in the blues, Appalachian ballads and black gospel, I carried a growing bag of shame and frustration over the fact that I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t sing. I was told by a succession of teachers from 4th grade on to just mouth the words during the winter classroom choral events. I knew they were right. My “tone deaf”-ness had been confirmed when someone gave my father a tape recorder. They had just come on the market that year, 1954. I was nine. The microphone energized my father. He became playful in a way I’d rarely seen. I loved being with him like this. We spent hours singing old songs from the vaudeville shows he’d seen as a young man, and he’d imitate Danny Kaye and Spike Jones. I sang along and piped in with stuff I’d heard on the radio or the playground. This was before music had ever really stirred me the way it would in a couple more years. When my father played back the whole hour or so that we’d recorded, I was appalled. My father sounded pretty much the same as he had when we recorded. But I sounded nothing like the voice I imagined I was producing. What I heard was the weakly quavering voice of a little boy who had no idea what pitch and rhythm were.

I started playing guitar two years later, in the mountains. I still believed that I couldn’t sing. But gradually, my voice started to respond to the sounds of the guitar. The guitar began to teach me. It taught me how it felt to match my voice to its note and to let my voice move with its voice. I began to understand how it felt when I was “on” pitch, more or less in unison, as opposed to being off the note. I started letting myself sing along in groups. Down by the Riverside. This Land is Your Land. I met another kid in my high school who played guitar. He’d learned old cowboy songs from his grandfather and I played and sang along with him. Old Shep. Little Joe the Wrangler.

But I was a long way from trusting my voice. It hadn’t recovered from its delayed adolescent deepening and frequently went its own way, out of control.

Meanwhile I had decided that I wanted to be an actor. Up until then, I hadn’t articulated any particular choice of livelihood. As a six year old I’d passed through a scientist-president-cowboy phase and a writer phase and then forgot it all until a moment when I was ten or eleven and a character actress came into my parents’ cleaning store next to the rear entrance of Republic Studios (now, part of CBS) and chatted with my parents for a few minutes. And right then I knew I wanted to be an actor. I knew it deeply and fiercely though I had little idea of what an actor actually did.

I’ll skip forward a couple of decades during which I completed my secondary education, acted in some pretty dreary high school plays but had a great time playing Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus – up in the mountains – went through four frustrating years in the UCLA Theatre Arts Department with a year of education abroad in France, Spain and North Africa, embarked on a career as an actor in film and TV, got involved with improvisational and other kinds of experimental theatre and avoided going to New York or London which were the only places where there seemed to be a chance of actually getting some real training.

The only training I had received was conventional. At UCLA, it amounted to an incoherent hodgepodge of received wisdom from the “learn your lines and don’t bump into anything” school of acting. I remember being told, in an acting class, that I had a “wonderful vocal apparatus” but given no clue as to what that meant.

Luckily, I stumbled into a powerful source of inspiration that countered the deadly flatness of the academic theatre of those years. Jeff Corey, another legendary figure whose life had been shaped by the anti-Communist blacklist, brought me home to myself by insisting that the actor had to bring his or her own personal, quirky creativity to any role. Use yourself was the secret formula that broke the trance of the purely mechanical approach I had been taught at UCLA. Jeff was the first teacher I’d had who talked about impulses – the irreducible atom-like quanta of intention or desire that manifest as gesture or utterance. Something that begins inside the actor ends up outside. I had been given a way to claim my own experience and I was grateful and frantic to put it into practice.

Although Jeff spoke eligaically about the Group Theatre and the values of experimental, ensemble work, he was, for the most part, helping actors get jobs in the Hollywood marketplace. And though I was happy to make as much money as I could in that world, in my heart I pursued a dream of a very different kind of acting in a very different world.

For three years I worked with an Improvisational group that, unlike the comedic, second-city flavor of improv, aimed at creating powerful, moving, coherent and completely improvised full length plays at least once a week.

In almost all this work, voice was taken for granted. Even in the experimental improv work, the focus was on character and structure with little attention to the basic elements that actors work with: voice, body, thought, emotion…

Then, in the early seventies, I worked with a director who had come out from New York. He had been in the first production that Richard Schechner, editor of The Drama Review, created with a group of young actors who would become The Performance Group, and nurture talents like Spaulding Gray and Willem Da Foe and eventually transmute into The Wooster Group after Schechner left.

This was my introduction to work based on the ideas of the Polish radical theatre philosopher and director, Jerzy Grotowski, about whom I’d been reading for two or three years in The Drama Review. Schechner was one of the first American directors to be influenced by him.

Sam Blazer had acted in Schechner’s Dionysius in ’69 but his real ambitions were toward theatre criticism and directing. I read a brilliant essay he wrote in the L.A. Free Press and was impressed. When I heard he wanted to start an experimental company in LA, I jumped on it.

[Sam died a few years ago in the Bay Area where he had become a therapist working in the Gay community.]

Sam had us do long exercises lying on our backs on the floor that began with whispering our own names to the ceiling over and over and gradually moving the whisper toward voiced speech. He told us to let our voices lead us, to go where they needed to go. I remember hearing multitudes of voices calling my name whenever I did that exercise. My mother of course, schoolyard bullies, lovers, but also voices I couldn’t name. Some of them didn’t seem exactly human. Even less human were the voices that emerged in other explorations when Sam asked us to let go of language and let our voices roam the space and ramble through their own possibilities, pushing on limits of high and low, loud and soft.

The company got smaller and smaller as time went on. There were sessions when Sam and I and Harvey Perr, the playwright who was working with us to shape a play out of our explorations would be the only ones in the studio; my voice, the only one at large in the space.

Sam introduced me to Grotowski’s notion of vocal resonators. Where conventional vocal training usually speaks of only two areas of possible resonance – the chest and the head – Grotowski held that every part of the human body can resonate, that the voice can root itself in a hand, a stomach, a knee. This became my first foray into the vast landscape that the voice can travel. Later, I would discover more when I spent a month in a southeastern French village working with Marita Gunther (1928 – 2002), one of the elders of the Roy Hart Theatre and a direct conduit to the work of Alfred Wolfsohn.

[from Left: Grotowski, Wolfsohn and the young Marita Gunther in London, Roy Hart in performance]

Alfred Wolfsohn believed that the so-called “normal” voice was a pale fragment of the true potential of the human voice. There was no reason men could not sing soprano or women bass, no reason not to give voice to all the angels and beasts within us. He had come to his ideas about the voice, in part, while by hearing the cries of dying soldiers on the battlefield during the First World War. After the war he experimented with the voice in Berlin, at a time when so many healing processes seem to have been developed – Wilhelm Reich, Ida Rolf, Fritz Perls, Charlotte Selver and others were nurturing seeds that wouldn’t fully flower for another thirty years or so. Wolfsohn worked mainly with opera singers until the Nazis came into power and as a Jew, knew he needed to escape.

In London, Roy Hart, a South African Jewish actor, became Wolfsohn’s protégé and, during the sixties, founded his eponymous company. Marita Gunther had been Wolfsohn’s most advanced student as well as his lover. Roy Hart, his wife and his mistress all died in a car crash just after the whole company had relocated to a crumbling chateau in the South of France. By the time I got there, in 1987, a second generation was starting to take the leadership from the founding members who had survived the early years of desolate winters doing odd jobs, repairing the chateau and building a respected international teaching company with a large and devoted following.

Every day for a month, Marita guided me into the “dismemberment” of my voice and then helped me put it back together. Using a process named, with ironic understatement, “The Singing Lesson,” she would begin at the piano asking me to follow the notes she played. These series of notes might be the usual fragments of major or minor scales that we all know so well. But after a while, she might have me repeat one or two notes and then suddenly say, “There! Again!” and I’d try to remember what I had just done. Before I knew it I’d be in a completely unknown territory. Sounds that I’d never ever heard myself make poured out of my body. Marita would exhort me to go further or lower or higher. My skull might feel as if a laser was boring through from the inside out, or two different sounds might be coming from my throat at the same time, or…

The RHT have old recordings from the sixties of Roy Hart himself performing something from one of the few productions that the theatre presented in their London days. You hear what sounds like two distinct voices, though one of them sounds bleached and desiccated like an image of a hungry ghost from a Tibetan Buddhist thangka

What Roy Hart was doing though, was very different from the chorded vocal techniques we’ve grown used to after repeated exposure to the Tuvan Throat Singers or the Tibetan Monks. It wasn’t part of an indigenous tradition of singing with the whole voice. It was Western; it sounded tortured but still carried a sense of the numinous. The right voice for Euripides.

Most days after my Singing Lesson. I would ramble around the narrow roads and goat trails to one swimming hole or another that someone had told me about. A river with a name as sinuous as its shape, the Salindrinque wound its way around the dry, rocky hills of Les Cevennes, the region we were in. The Salindrinque had many smaller tributaries and there was no end of deep holes with water-striders stilt-walking lightly on their surfaces.

I went everywhere on foot which was anything but a hardship. The weather was glorious that summer and the distances were long enough to make travel eventful, but short enough to keep it pleasant.

One day I walked back from a long afternoon at the best of all the swimming holes I’d found. I could lie in the sun on a fifteen foot wide slab of granite to warm up from the bracing water. The swimming hole was in a deep and narrow valley with no houses nearby. As I hiked up to the road, I sang wordlessly, deeply pleasured by the freedom, and a sense of mammalian contentment that saturated every cell. I kept vocalizing, letting my voice roam where it would. It felt fuller, deeper and at the same time, brighter than I was used to. A green lizard, about two feet from head to tail tip rain up the white plaster wall of a house I was passing. Its green was as vivid as a chameleon’s, a radiant, joyful color that looked exactly like my voice sounded to me.

I’ve written and told that story a lot. There’s an earlier version somewhere in an old entry in this blog. One of my favorite gleanings from the world of neuroscience is the discovery that memory is actually nothing like a tape recorder or a camera. Memory, they say, is something we create, over time. As we retell ourselves and others the story of an event, we begin to remember the telling rather than the original experience. The process actually causes physiological changes in the protein structures that build up as memories accumulate. You can read more about this in A General Theory of Love, a book that I consider one of the most important that I’ve read in the last ten years, at least. So in telling this story over and over, perhaps I’ve created a lens that lets me know my voice in a new way.That moment, on my walk in the Cevennes, has become a green metaphor for the mystery of the voice.

Pete Seeger on a 1950’s short-lived TV show hosting Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry. They’re about the ages they were when I first met them as a young teen-ager.

photos, from top: Pete Seeger and a young folksinger; Brownie McGee; Jeff Corey; The Performance Group in Dionysius 69; Jerzy Grotowski, Alfred Wolfsohn and Marita Gunther sometime in the 1940s, Roy Hart; bridge and stream in the Cevennes where the Roy Hart Theatre is based at the Chateau de Malerargues.

One thought on “The Voice is a Ladder between Worlds

  1. It’s wonderful to hear the roots of your vocal training and inspiration having been a beneficiary of so many sessions, lying on the floor sending my voice upward. I remember those early sessions when I would just mouth a sound, so afraid to really give it voice, my throat tight and aching. And then, years later, how my voice would move out of me, no longer afraid, finding where it wanted to go.

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