MPSG 2017 Associate Session: The Royal Musical Association – LGBTQ Study Group


Listening to the Dead Voice

Convenor: Freya Jarman (University of Liverpool)

Chair: Richard Elliott (Newcastle University)

This panel brings together scholars working at the intersection of voice studies and queer theory who are interested in what it means to listen to dead or otherwise lost voices. The central case studies under scrutiny are primarily of recordings of voices of now-dead artists in their proximity to death: David Bowie’s Blackstar, Amy Winehouse’s ‘Body and Soul’, and Maria Callas’s Farewell Concerts. The papers are broadly situated within a theoretical framework informed by: recent developments in queer theory (Muñoz 2009); work on affect, hapticity and sound (Biddle and Thompson 2013; Bonenfant 2010; Kassabian 2013); new work on embodiment and (post-)humanism (Braidotti 2013); and work on ageing, loss, nostalgia, and deadness in music (Elliott 2010 and 2015; Stanyek and Piekut 2010). From this perspective, the panel considers the nature of the voice, and of its complexly (dis)embodied qualities, in relation to states of deadness and loss.


Utopian queerness and the end of politics: male intimacy, male fragility and the queer poetics of labour in Bowie’s Blackstar

Ian Biddle (University of Newcastle)

David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, met with critical acclaim after its release in January 2016, with critics referring to it as ‘intriguing’, ‘masterly’, ‘the most extreme album’ of his career, a ‘defining statement’. This paper seeks to understand the processes by which such statements come to be made and calibrates these claims against the musical textures of the album itself. In this critical response to the album, a number of tropes emerge circling notions of intimacy and/or vulnerability, legacy and/or excess and, in particular, some strangely idealised (romantic, even) notions of creative labour.

Drawing on the work of Jose Esteban Muñoz, in particular his notion of ‘queer futurity’ in Cruising Utopia (2009), this paper will explore some of the ways in which the reception of Bowie reflects wider cultural concerns about male fragility and notions of the human more broadly. Muñoz encourages us to explore aging, brown and augmented bodies as sites of radical queerness, open to new possibilities and refusing what he terms the ‘tyranny of the here and now’ and Bowie’s work, incites similar explorations, where tensions between voice, body, disease and legacy are all worked through in a remarkably subtle and challenging manner.

In particular, the paper explores some of the ways in which romantic (orthodox, neoliberal) constructions of creative labour can be critiqued drawing on Muñoz (and Paulo Virno’s) critical deployment of the figure of the virtuoso in relation to normative modes of creative production.


Famous last words: the ’body and soul’ in/of Amy Winehouse’s last recording

Emily Baker (University of Liverpool)

There is a moment in the filmed sessions of the song ‘Body and Soul’ when 85 year-old jazz Tony Bennett comforts a visibly nervous Amy Winehouse by enquiring if she was influenced by Dinah Washington. Winehouse fizzes with glee, enthusing Washington is a favourite of hers, before sharing her astonishment that Washington had ‘died so young, she wasn’t even forty’. The resulting performance captures a range of vocal colours between Bennett and Winehouse, whose voices carry the timbral signifiers of age, time and experience. Only four months later, Winehouse came to her own premature end by succumbing to alcohol poisoning in July 2011; she was 27.

Released on what would have been her 28th birthday, Rolling Stone magazine mused that ‘Winehouse reminds us what we’ve lost in a huskily sensuous Body and Soul’ (2011). In this paper, I examine the cultural effects in the posthumous framing of Amy Winehouse and take a queer theory perspective on the sexualisation of the ‘grain’ of Winehouse’s voice (Barthes 1977, Connor 2000, Jarman-Ivens 2011). To get beyond tragedy-tropes like ‘the 27 club’, this paper draws attention to the ways in which Winehouse is simultaneously present and absent, human and non-human — her body both dead and alive in her recorded and filmed performance. I am interested in this Derridean place and turn to theorisations on death and ‘deadness’ in popular music (Stanyek and Piekut 2010), affect and listening (Biddle and Thompson 2013) and the (early) late voice (Elliott 2015) as well as feminist perspectives on post-humanism (Braidotti 2013) to explore notions of loss, embodiment and haunting through the ghost in the recording.


Lost sounds and the sound of loss: the fetishisation of high pitches in the lost voice

Freya Jarman (University of Liverpool)

Maria Callas’s voice was always ‘lost’. Although she remains the archetypal soprano even 40 years after her death, this is based largely on a mythologised connection between a tragic life and a troubled voice—a dramatic expression that ‘speaks’ of a dramatic life. The ‘trouble’ in her voice is central to her posthumous status. Of all her performances, those most widely regarded as artistic failures are the ‘Farewell concerts’ of 1973-74, when Callas returned briefly from retirement to undertake an international tour. She died in 1977, in her early 50s; the discourse to this day remains one in which her loss of voice signified the end of her life.

Aled Jones’s voice was always destined to be lost. He rose to fame in the 1980s with his recording of ‘Walking In The Air’, and arguably paved the way for the superstar boy soprano in British culture thereafter. But this prized voice had a limited shelf-life, and inevitably it gave way to the voice of male adulthood. Jones has since released two albums in which, as a baritone, he duets with recordings from before his voice changed.

In both cases, an important signifier of vocal ‘loss’ is the high note. For Callas, these are the notes where her agility, dynamic control, vibrato, and timbral quality (or lack thereof) are most keenly felt; for Jones, it is the defining feature of his loss. And in each case, these ‘losses’ have important implications for the gender performance of the singers, as Callas’s femininity and Jones’s masculinity are both always at stake in their vocal work.

Using these two case studies, and as part of a bigger project about the gendered implications of high notes in vocal music, this paper turns to work on deadness in popular music (Stanyek and Piekut 2010) and opera (Cenciarelli 2016), on the pleasure of the operatic voice (Poizat 1993), on haptic listening (Bonenfant 2010 and Kassabian 2013) and on the ‘grammar of nostalgia’ (Elliott 2010) to understand high notes as a fetishised point of listening, whose affective and gendered power is amplified by the mythologisation of their loss.

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