Popular Art and the Unaccompanied Voice

Amit Majmudar
August 4, 2013
Comments 2

An unaccompanied voice is almost never the voice you find in popular art forms. Even our most popular singers and rappers don’t get on a stage or on the radio without at least one instrument to accompany them, if not full orchestration (and frequently a background chorus). Mass art forms for the screen, the television show and the movie, require multiple voices; the descent of modern-day cinema from the 19th century melodrama ensures extensive background music, too, particularly during climactic scenes.

I note that widely disseminated verbal forms we don’t consider as “art” per se hew to this principle: Consider the newscast, whether on screen or on the radio, in which the primary newscaster’s voice alternates with that of other correspondents presenting their stories. Religious services are not just one preacher sermonizing; most services elicit audience participation with episodic group singing and music; in some denominations, audience members themselves “testify.”

One-poet poetry readings rely entirely on a single unaccompanied voice, with very little audience participation and no music, and sure enough, they aren’t a popular art form. Poetry readings were certain not to have mass popularity, or even popularity, from their inception; the relative popularity of slam poetry performances might have been related, not just to the “stagier” writing and delivery style, but to the fact that a slam offers a sequence of performers, not just one. The striking popularity of Billy Collins’s one-man performances may relate to how his poetic style and delivery, more than any other poet to date, approach the state of stand-up comedy.

Stand-up comedy may seem to be the exception to this lone-voice idea, particularly if you consider, say, an HBO special by Chris Rock at the moment of its televising, when its summed audience, taking all households, numbered I assume in the tens of thousands. But we mustn’t rule out the possibility that the audience’s laughter itself constitutes the accompaniment here. The audience takes on the character of a “co-respondent.” Hence the laugh track on television sitcoms: It’s not just there to cue your laughter, but to create an illusion of community. It feels better to laugh with someone else than to laugh alone. This is why Chris Rock tapes his HBO specials in front of a packed theater, and also why late night talk shows and skit comedy shows like SNL are taped in front of studio audiences.

A lone voice, it seems, is always crying in a wilderness. Adding anything else to the lone voice, whether it’s guitars and drums, a second voice (which was how Aeschylus reputedly invented the tragic drama), or only the spontaneous laugh response of the listeners, destroys that sense of isolation. It is a way of clearing the wilderness.

2 thoughts on “Popular Art and the Unaccompanied Voice

  1. A smile in the morning.

    The solemn
    desire is a
    sadness that
    often returns
    when a fine
    thought appears.

    Francesco Sinibaldi

  2. Count: 1,2,3, Dracula was a hold out as far as clearing is concerned, perhaps a psychic reference to the Gauls who have come to be social only in a familial and woodsy way; clearing has to do with farming, socialization; you can’t argue with that.

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