Voice is a ubiquitous phenomenon. Historically, people have used their capacity to emit sound as a primary means of communication, ultimately evolving as a socially organizational norm. Given the omnipotence of banal speech, elements of a voice that are dissimilar to what our ears are used to and comfortable hearing have the ability to captivate a listener. In the most basic sense, eccentricities from the norm can grasp a person’s attention. A conventional idea of captivating voices often references music. In addition to its sonic deviation from speech, the sung voice regularly proffers a resonant message and context, along with enriching paralinguistic features like tone, pitch quality, timbre and rhythm. Not only is such a voice capable of captivating an individual, but it can also influence large-scale sociality by connecting empathizing members of the listening group. There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the vocal arts and sociality, each influencing the other, as exemplified in South African revolutionary music, which evolved from and influenced larger social issues. While the sung voice is, indeed, an excellent example of a captivating voice, so too are other forms of vocal art, like spoken word poetry.
Spoken poetry is a unique blend of speech and clear elements of musicality, both contributing to its uniqueness as perceived by the listener. At the 3rd Annual Intercollegiate Poetry Slam at Duke University’s White Lecture Hall, Lauren La Melle of The College Hill Writers at UNC-Greensboro recited a particularly captivating poem (https://soundcloud.com/tanner-johnson-55/lauren-la-melle-slam-poetry). The audible characteristics of her poem provide a platform for optimal delivery of message to audience. Primarily significant is the actual content of La Melle’s poem, or the referentiality of language. However, the myriad paralinguistic features that shape the reception of the voice are what truly enhance this voice’s ability to captivate. Whether intentional or not, such a combination of connection-conducive features embodies a voice that elicits more affect than others.
There are some key elements that speak to this voice’s capacity to captivate. In the recording, the listener experiences a sense of paradoxical spatiality. The clear reverberations suggest this voice is distant and has been amplified. However, the recording process, along with the use of amplifying techniques, enhances the prevalence of sibilance, a sonic quality typically discernable only in close proximities. Thus, the listener becomes aware that this is a performance intended for a larger audience, but there is still a sense of intimacy established through superficial closeness. This intimacy contributes to a feeling of emotional connection between La Melle and her audience. Her poem revolves around very personal, yet widely applicable, experiences with the callous realities of the traditional college education system. The combination of intimacy, content and context (talking about college in a college setting) contributes to the poet’s perceived authenticity and, further, an emotional connection with an empathetic audience. Equally essential is La Melle’s delivery. Though she recites a poem, her voice could be described as musical. She adjusts the speed and rhythm of the poem and varies pitch throughout (e.g., in more emphasized portions of the poem, she raises her pitch and actually emits a crying voice).
La Melle establishes a setting that is unmistakably resonant with the audience. The very nature of spoken word poetry as a genre comes with unique norms for audience response and participation, and in this case, people like what they hear. The following tracks explore aspects of this voice, and the setting that accompanies it, which contribute to its ability to captivate. At the root of it all, slam poetry is generally a vulnerable space for poets--something extraordinarily striking to those who listen.
In her poem, La Melle shares rather personal parts of her life, exposing a sense of vulnerability. At the climax of her poem, her pitch rises significantly and eventually, she loses control and cries while continuing to recite the poem. Specifically, she emits voiced inhalations, a fundamental icon of crying. Not only does this aspect of her performance contribute to the audience’s perceived intimacy and authenticity in the voice, but it also suggests a particular emotional affect—sadness. This feeling and its connection with the audience point to a widely experienced emotion. The ability to serve as a mechanism to bridge social connection through similar emotions describes icons of crying as meta-affects.
In the primary recording, it is easy to identify the voice as distant. Indeed, this track was recorded in a large lecture hall—the performance is intended for a larger audience. Though significant evidence of reverberation defines the voice as far away, the recording and amplification processes magnify sibilance, or strong ‘s’ sounds. Considering these types of sounds are only identifiable in close proximities, the recording places the listener closer to La Melle. Close proximity coupled with the personal content of this poem contributes to individualized intimacy with the listener. The voice moves closer to the ears and radiates personal, exposing words.
In this track, Rev. Audrey Bronson preaches, but it is no conventional sermon. Rather than using prosaic speech to deliver her message, she utilizes musical qualities to captivate her audience. Specifically, she alters her pitch often, usually raising it to levels that starkly contrast with her spoken voice. Similarly, La Melle’s pitch changes at different points in the poem. She seems to emphasize critical moments in the poem by raising her pitch. Not only does this deviation from the norm peak the listener’s interest, but the heightened pitch also increases volume, further emphasizing her point. Overall, both voices resemble sung voices, for they vary pitch as opposed to speak monotonously. Musicality is inherently captivating, so this feature adds to the foundation for positive audience reception.
Slam poetry is a unique vocal genre. In both this track and the primary tracks, the poets induce audience responses that are distinct from typical forms of audience participation commonly found in musical settings. At the end of this track, the audience claps, as they would at a typical music performance. However, during both poems, audience members snap if a particular line resonates with them. A snap differs from a clap because the former produces less reverb that muddies the words that are so crucial to the performance. A snap is subtle enough as to not compromise the understanding of words, but it is recognizable enough to suggest a strong connection felt by the listener.
In this excerpt, Fran Capo, the world’s fastest talking woman, demonstrates the effect of rhythm and vocal speed. In stand up comedy, timing is everything. The punch line is the focal point that must be emphasized in some way. Leading up to her punch line, Capo speaks at a tremendously speedy rate, but slows and slightly lowers her pitch at the punch. Similarly, near the end of La Melle’s poem, she slows down to emphasize a crucial piece, giving the listener time to soak up every last word in addition to changing her pitch. Moreover, both clips exhibit a continuous speech with little to no discernible pause between sentences or phrases. For Capo, this validates her superlative title. For La Melle, it suggests that she has a message that cannot be contained any longer. She essentially pours her emotions out freely.