March 26, 2013

BOOKS: Let Me Clear My Throat, Elena Passarello (2012)

The subject of Passarello's delightful collection of essays is the human voice, the sounds it makes, and what they tell us about ourselves.

The book is divided into three sections -- scream, song, and speech. Topics are wide-ranging; the scream section alone gives us essays on Brando's "Stella" (and on Passarello's, as she was the first woman to win New Orleans' annual Stella Shouting Contest), the movie sound effect known as the Wilhelm scream, and the yelp that contributed to the demise of Howard Dean's presidential campaign.

Even when she's tackling familiar topics, Passarello's approach is often unexpected. Her chapter on the voice of Frank Sinatra, for instance, is built around a "Tips for Popular Singing" pamphlet that Sinatra published in the early 1940s; a meditation on birdsong turns into a hymn of praise to the "crows" of the human world, men like Tom Waits and Sid Vicious, and the music that can be found in their not-terribly-musical voices.

Passarello's writing is filled with colorful details. In a discussion of the castrato voice, she notes that unnecessary castration was a sin, punishable by excommunication, and that choirboys all arrived with plausible sounding excuses; "in the 1750s," she reports, "every last one of the soprani in the Sistine Chapel was an alleged victim of a wild pig attack."

And her descriptions of the voice, a notoriously hard thing to describe in words, are both technically precise and filled with vivid imagery. Here's how she describes Howard Dean's scream:
It is a one-second glissando from an impossibly high note down two full octaves to a flat, guttural trough, as long as a slide down sixteen keys of a baby grand. It is the sound of a Muppet, or a baby in tantrum, or a bike horn half-squeezed. Or, rather, it is all three sounds at different milliseconds, smooshed. It meets his unbuttoned collar and the sloshing bottles and the fibers in that long mic cord and the tone of the HVAC to make a unique recorded moment -- an electric, fantastic, obscene, unspellable thing.

Delightful, thought provoking reading all the way through.

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