The ephemeral human voice
I just got my voice back. At least I’m told it’s my voice. A surgeon did a couple of hours work on one of my vocal cords, removing a papilloma, and on Christmas Day, after two weeks of silence, I spoke.
For 20 years, my voice has sounded the way hickory bark looks. Now it sounds like I don’t know what. My brother tells me I sound like my old self. My ears tell me that what comes out of my mouth is now ungravelled, pure in tone, if still uncertain in pitch. It’s also unfamiliar. And yet it’s authentic. The photos show that my vocal cords now look completely normal, with nothing to damp or obstruct their vibration. I walk around the house playing myself like a new bassoon.
What strikes me is that I have only one brief recording — a minute or two — of the way I sounded 20 years ago, before my voice got smoky, though there are plenty of photos from that time. I remember the regret I felt after my mom died, years ago, that we had no recording of her voice on tape. And yet when my dad died in 2008 — same thing. Plenty of photographs, but no record of the sound of his voice. I’m glad to have the photos, but I miss the immediacy of those voices, the way that even a recorded voice captures the movement of time and the resonance of the body with extraordinary intimacy.
The recording of sound has always lagged behind the recording of images. There is a gap of more than 40 years between the first practical photographs, taken in the 1830s, and the first practical sound recordings, made in the late 1870s, and a gap between “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903, the earliest narrative silent movie, and “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, the first successful talking movie.
For most of us, the gap that really matters is the one between the first consumer camera, the Brownie, which was introduced in 1900, and the audio equivalent of the Brownie, the recordable cassette tape, in the 1960s.
Now, it’s every bit as easy to record sound on a smartphone as it is to record images. And yet because sound is always a function of time, most of us still prefer to capture digital snapshots instead of digital audio samples, even in the form of video. There is still a kind of documentary formality in setting out to record the sound of your parents’ voices — a formality that has vanished entirely from photography.
The present is the place where sound thrives. After all, sound is motion, nearly life itself, and compared with the roar of the present, the silence of the past is deafening. Work your way back to the early 20th century, and the thicket of recorded voices (almost none of them the voices of ordinary people) grows ever thinner. In the late 19th century, there is Florence Nightingale and Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Gladstone and P.T. Barnum. Go back further and you reach 1877, the year Edison invented his phonograph cylinder. And before that, there is silence, except for a few stray sounds captured from phonautograms made in the 1850s but first heard only a few years ago.
In that silence, there are only descriptions of voices. Lincoln was said to be a tenor, with a voice capable of expressing a fervor we have never seen in photographs of him. Of Dickens’ voice we learn how mobile it was — like the rest of him — and how readily it captured the spirit of his characters. Wordsworth spoke with “a deep and roughish but not unpleasing voice,” said his contemporary Leigh Hunt. Boswell tells us that when Samuel Johnson spoke, his mode was “very impressive,” “sonorous,” with “a firm manly manner.” What we can hear in such descriptions is the impression these voices created in those who heard them but nothing of the physical vocalization itself. It is as if the voice were a kind of psychological posture, not a matter of timbre, pitch and resonance.
What would we know if we could hear the voice of Cleopatra? How odd would Napoleon’s Corsican accent sound to modern French speakers? And what if we had two minutes of the voice of Shakespeare, who managed to leave so little of his personal self behind?
We might feel awe at hearing these voices, but very likely the recordings would be mere artifacts, overwhelmed by legend, deed and word. And these figures would still be strangers. It would be nothing like hearing again the intimate sound of a voice that has gone missing in your own life, a voice that recovers memory and emotion and loss itself.
As for me, I’m getting used to this new old voice. Soon, I’m afraid, I won’t hear any difference in it, and the sense of having traveled in time will go away. And if I really could go back to an earlier self, here’s what I’d say: While capturing sound is now so easy, make sure you record the voices you will want to hear again. The sound alone will say everything someday.
Verlyn Klinkenborg writes for The New York Times.