SEPT 2014

All Issues
SEPT 2014 Issue
Critics Page

A Thick Neck in the Wedge of Habit Speaks with an Inherited Voice

Within the larynx “voice box” that manipulates pitch and volume are the vocal cords, which are abducted to breathe and adducted to speak, as well as the false vocal cords, the vestibular folds that we hear tremble in Tibetan throat singing or heavy metal growls. Once the tone is produced by the vibrating vocal cords, it oscillates in and through the open resonating chambers, activating the four primary colors (resonances): 1) chest, 2) mouth, 3) nasal (or mask), and 4) head. Amidst a conversation over dinner about these organs, the opera singer David Leigh pointed out that the voice you speak with is developed from mimicking your parents. Though a spectrogram shows that each voice is different, like a fingerprint, from an early-acquired habit one might sound more like one’s parents than oneself. Considering the lineage of a single person’s voice, perhaps one’s own is a copy of a copy of a copy ad infinitum.

David said that when he meets someone he looks at their neck and from the length, width, and shape of it assesses if the person is likely a natural bass, tenor, alto, soprano. The dimensions of your neck suggest the color of your natural sound—a low, rustling lavender of Lauren Bacall, or a high, muffled, twisted peach of Mike Tyson. Accompanying the color is its inseparable twin: texture, its material quality. To split them is to neutralize them into generalization.

How, then, can one tune his awareness to recognize the alive and stirring bodies of color—their range, impact, and nuance?1


The potential of natality: “The new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting.”
Hannah Arendt speaking, from The Human Condition, 1958.2
Yet a chasm lies between the capacity to act, and acting.

“Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”3

Perhaps we’re not the same, but—“the fixity of a habit is generally in direct proportion to its absurdity”—absurdly fixed none-the-less.4


The act of thinking: “Unfortunately, and contrary to what is currently assumed about proverbial ivory-tower independence of thinkers, no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think.”5

How then to subvert the tyranny of the status quo? “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down-stairs a step at a time.”
(So says the note in a Mark Twain character's calendar."6)


With practice, the singer says, one can learn to use the undeveloped muscles in the back of the throat to tune, calibrate the voice.


  1. See: Michael Taussig. “What Color is the Sacred?” The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London; 2009.
  2. Hannah Arendt. “The Human Condition.” The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London; 1958, p.9.
  3. Ibid., p.8.
  4. Marcel Proust, from “The Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection by W.H Auden and Louis Kronenberger.” Viking Press, New York; 1962, p. 61.
  5. Arendt, p. 324.
  6. Mark Twain. “The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson: And the Comedy Those…” American Publishing Company, Hartford, Conn.; 1894, pg. 77.

SEPT 2014

All Issues