Unimagining Song: Making Kin in the Vocal Scene

Tonelli, C., 1-Nov-2017, In : Yearbook for Traditional Music. 49, p. 149-161 13 p.

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Practitioners in the soundsinging tradition are frequently subjected to evaluations of their vocal music that refuse to label it as singing or song. While these evaluations might be considered justified based on certain commonplace definitions of singing and song, I argue here that these terms refer often to social institutions that exceed these definitions, institutions that mark certain vocal performances as signifiers of "fully-human" vocal expression and that deny this status to other human vocal sounds. Soundsingers commonly challenge these assertions, refusing even the term soundsinging on the basis that it divides their vocal practice from the privileges accorded to practices marked singing and song. To help make these refusals audible, I reject the invitation to imagine liminal spaces between speech and song and choose instead to examine liminal states between this institution—which I, drawing on the work of Suzanne Cusick, label capital S Song—and a new construct I label symsong. I derive the term symsong from the recent work of Donna Haraway and her notion that it is urgent that we begin to identify in sympoietic rather than autopoietic manners, that rather than imagining ourselves as belonging to a closed and exclusive category, we imagine ourselves as coming into existence in and through all other lifeforms with which we are "[n]either One nor Other." When listeners look to the voice to affirm a symbolic order that denies "fully-human" status to some voices in order to reserve that status for others, they are often forced into a liminal state when exposed to sounds that fail to symbolize the "fully-human" emerging from bodies these listeners deem their categorical equivalent. The "less-than-human" sounds they hear become articulated with their bodies through this equivalency and a symbolic privilege they accorded themselves becomes disturbed. With the concept of symsong, I give name to the space on the other side of this liminality. Symsong is a space where no vocal sound is marked as Other and identity through exclusivity becomes unthinkable. Haraway argues that sympoietic forms of identification are necessary to lead us out of our current era of planetary crisis. I attempt to suggest one way we can help achieve this shift of consciousness in the musical realm and I try to bring to light symbolic processes that unfold quietly but regularly in and through encounters with the voice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149-161
Number of pages13
JournalYearbook for Traditional Music
Publication statusPublished - 1-Nov-2017


  • song, SPEECH, Music, SINGING, SINGING VOICE, ethnomusicology

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