Conference and Book

Electrified Voices. Media-Technical, Socio-Historical and Culturological Aspects of Voice Transmission [view german version]

Concept and Organisation:
PD Dr. Dmitri Zakharine, University of Konstanz, Germany [view CV] [contact]

The aim of this conference is to explore the phenomenon of the electrified voice through interdisciplinary approaches such as media and technology studies, social history, and comparative cultural studies. The conference will focus on the following three problem clusters: reflections on the societal level about the task of electronic voice transmission; the mediation of gender- and occupation-specific vocal stereotypes in audio and audio-visual formats; and the genesis of such vocal stereotypes in national radio and film cultures. Such a historicizing approach to societal experience in the field of voice mediation, including the use and interpretation of voice media, is of great relevance today in light of the collective learning processes currently triggered by rapid advances in technology.

Goals and Schedule of Work

A greater awareness of electro-acoustic voice media increasingly defines the day-to-day experience of the modern historical witness. This witness is able to calmly read about catastrophes while eating breakfast, but will quickly lose his appetite when he is confronted with the voices of catastrophe victims in audio or audio-visual real-time formats. Calculated strategies of “letting hear” can manipulate the individual’s sense of perception and guide it in various directions. And vice versa: by accessing electro-acoustic means of production, the contemporary individual seizes the possibility of manipulating the perception of others. By modifying amplitudes, frequencies and phase shifts, electronic “voice transformers” enable the user to model new identities by refining shrill voices or suppressing pronunciation mistakes.

In order to analyze the listening experience accumulated by this new historical witness, scholars of voice must develop a suitable set of instruments. The development of such a conceptual equipment, which must take place at the disciplinary boundaries between philosophy and media philosophy, linguistics and media linguistics, literary studies and film studies, sociology and sociology of the media, history and media history, is the primary goal of this conference. The program of the conference is divided into four thematic blocks. Within the first, participants will address broader questions regarding voice transmission. In blocks two and three, presenters will focus on the communicative functions of audio and audio-visual voice formats, whereas contributions in the fourth block will emphasize transformations of vocal stereotypes in national film cultures.

Elaborating a Conceptual Apparatus

A. In the context of broader philosophical and aesthetic approaches to the human voice, the goal of the first thematic block is to historicize the media voice phenomenon and to integrate it contextually. The discussion will therefore focus less on the “subversive and transgressive potential of the voice” which is of importance in the context of the opposition between “performance” and “language structure”. Instead, we will address the communication that takes place via the established electro-acoustic voice media in various socio-historical contexts.

B. The context central to this conference is, of course, not the only historical context within which the human voice is communicated. Viewed in terms of a grand historical arc, this context can be defined as the context of “secondary orality,” to use Walter Ong’s term. The adaptation of spoken idioms to the phonetic alphabet of the Greeks and the division into oral and written language cultures during the early-modern print revolution were the first crucial steps in the development of voice media. The rise of electro-acoustic means of production in the early twentieth century constituted the third epochal development stimulus for these media. Presentations within this thematic block will therefore begin by analyzing electro-acoustic voice media in relation to writing-based mediation processes. Our goal will be to debate the following question: how do the new voice media interact with literature, and how does literature reflect the advancement of electro-acoustic voice media?

C. This thematic block moreover aims to chart the relationship between voice, speech act, and media carriers for the purpose of systematically grasping media voices. The conceptual apparatus of non-verbal communication studies and of media linguistics, both of which emphasize social and socio-psychological aspects of articulation, prosody, and phrasing, seem particularly well suited to this task. Such a conceptual framework will allow us to discuss the following questions: How might we comprehend sound characteristics of voices by leading film and television speakers that were favorably evaluated by a trial audience? Does the articulation of messages that are relevant to communication depend on the status of the target audience? Other questions pertaining to communication studies and cultural sociology seamlessly follow questions of a media-linguistic nature: How are the social norms of voice formation established and how are these norms implemented in the development of artificial voices and the recording of automatic announcements? What is the role of voice-related identifiers and disidentifiers in social interactions? Which vocal characteristics can be improved through voice training in adult speakers and which characteristics are acquired exclusively during the early socialization phase?

Voice Media and Indoctrination

Based on the presentations and discussions in thematic blocks II – III, we will further attempt to determine which vocal characteristics are used in various social contexts for the purposes of propaganda and indoctrination, as well as for information and entertainment. Two separate sections will be devoted to audio versus audio-visual formats of electrified voices.

The audio format generally refers to an acousmatic listening context, in which the acoustic perception of the voice cannot be supplemented by a synchronic optical perception of the speaker’s person. Listening behind a curtain serves as an illustration of such an acousmatic perception of voice: according to a legend, the silently listening students (akusmatikoi) of Pythagoras hid behind a column in order to focus on the teacher’s voice without being disturbed by visual stimuli. As long as the source remains invisible, the association of a voice with a concrete person is made more difficult in any situation, regardless of whether the communication is direct or mediated. The anticipation of errors of ascription in telephone conversations or conversations conducted in divided rooms speak for themselves: “Listen, is there someone in the room with you or is it the radio that has such an annoyingly penetrating voice?”

In connection with the second thematic block, we will discuss the variety of tasks facing radio directors and recording studios in the development of vocal elements that are intended only to be perceived acoustically. For example, what is the difference in the effects and interpretations of male and female voices in terms of the type of information conveyed by voice, e.g. political news, weather forecasts or sports news? How were certain features of “gendered voices”, such as the soft aspiration or the raising of intonation at the end of a sentence in women’s voices, adapted to the audio formats of the 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s, as well as to the communicative demands of society at the time?

In contrast to audio media, audiovisual media use “acousmatization” as a dramaturgic strategy that leaves open the question of whether the voice source will be shown or hidden on the screen. The removal of the voice source from a frame generally increases the difficulty of matching a voice to a character and stimulates the viewer’s imagination. We will discuss the processes of synchronization and the insight they convey about the relationship between voice and image in the third thematic block. In particular, participants will aim to determine to which extent the meaning of visual image carriers (which are in themselves polysemic) can be modified and amplified through the inclusion of certain vocal components. Which communicative effects are enabled by the montage of voice and recorded sounds or special sound effects such as are used in theatrical and filmic sound designs, as well as in video games? How are voice and image to be juxtaposed so as to increase or decrease the effect of authenticity of a given image?

National Audio and Audio-Visual Cultures of Voice

The fourth thematic block is devoted to discussions about the vocal stereotypes that have developed in the context of national radio and film cultures. This discussion seems relevant in view of the increasing unification to which international voice transmission formats are currently subjected. As a result of this unification in film and radio, the national vocal stereotypes that have emerged over the past century under the influence of audio media are exhibited less and less by themselves. Instead, they are shifted within, into the incorporated interpretive patterns of the actors and thus seem far from obsolete. Based on the public reception, imitation, and parodying of media voices, every culture developed its own concept of identity, which reflected the vocally constituted nature of the respective “national character”. Our final thematic block is concerned with the development of such views of identity. Its goals are to determine cultural differences with regard to the collective interpretation of voices. These differences will be elucidated based on individual presentations on American, German, and Russian theatre, radio, and film voices.

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