“Beyond Words. Sobs, Hums, Stutters and Other Vocalizations”

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Steven Connor, Professor of English at the University of Cambridge, UK, has written a new book titled: Beyond Words. Sobs, Hums, Stutters and Other Vocalizations (+1 for the period, rather than a colon, after “Words” in the title). Borrowing in part from the publisher’s description: “Steven Connor seeks to understand spoken human language outside words, a realm that encompasses the sounds we make that bring depth, meaning, and confusion to communication… he reveals the beliefs, the myths, and the responses that surround the growls, stutters, ums, ers, and ahs of everyday language.”

The title had me wondering if he mightn’t have investigated some familiar territory, and it turns out he did:

hum©2014 Reaktion Books

The following isn’t a criticism of the book, just a related issue that I’ve wanted to mention.

One of the issues that can confuse matters related to Gould and his vocalizations is the usage of the word “hum.” I find more often than not that both fans and critics of Gould’s recordings—musicians and non-musicians alike—tend to use the words “hum” and “humming” to describe the apparent vocal phenomena that occurs in his performances. This description isn’t necessarily incorrect (he does in fact hum at times), but there is a broad spectrum of vocalizing to be found in his recordings. The physical and cognitive components of humming differ in nature to those of, say, “singing”, which in turn have separate physical relationships and musical contexts associated with them as found in Gould’s performances.

Secondly, there are psychological characteristics associated with humming (e.g. a sense of withdrawal from outside stimulus) that may get freely associated with any vocalizing Gould may have done. With those instances, one has the unenviable task then of differentiating whether Gould was actively shielding himself from the outside world (e.g. the audience, recording engineers, etc.), or making an extraordinary attempt to access the inner, “ecstatic” experience (as Gould called it).

Biographer and philosopher Geoffrey Payment offers this description of Gould’s notion of “ecstasy”:

“Gould uses the term “ecstasy” indiscriminately for a quality of the music, a quality of the performance, an attitude of the performer, and an attitude of the listener. But his lack of discrimination is intentional, and is the essence of Gould’s meaning: that “ecstasy” is a delicate thread binding together music, performance, performer and listener in a web of shared awareness of innerness.”

Connor’s book of course is about much more than Gould’s humming, and it’s an interesting foray into the search for deep meaning in the seemingly meaningless.

NB: Contrapuntalism is not associated with the author or the publisher, and receives no compensation for links or referrals. 

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