Sites of Violence: Music, Trauma and the Non-Verbal Voice

Composer Damien Ricketson reflects on the medium and metaphor of voice for communicating through sound and through silence.

Sydney Chamber Opera, The Howling Girls. Photo by Zan Wimberley.

Charlotte Wood’s novel The Natural Way of Things serves as a thematic inspiration for the Sites of Violence project and ‘the foul in the air’, its dramaturgical component. A dystopian novel, it reflects on the structures of power that utilise violence and shame to control and constrict individuals, primarily women. As the novel progresses, a central female character communicates less and less with words and language until finally she scarcely speaks at all. Contemporary readings of the novel reflect on the significance of this, in light of a critical tradition led by Luce Irigaray and Jacques Lacan in which the syntax and grammatical form of language is considered to be masculine. Julia Kristeva suggests that this symbolic system of language is predated in individual and collective history by the semiotic, non-linguistic aspects of language, including the rhythms and sounds that convey meaning and express emotions.

Here, Sites of Violence collaborator Damien Ricketson reflects on his body of work, centred at the intersection of music, trauma, and the non-verbal voice.

— Hanna Della Bosca, Research Assistant, Sites of Violence

Socially engaged extreme vocal music

In recent years, the world of new art music in Australia has seen a number of experimental vocal works that explore the medium and metaphor of the voice. What does it mean to have a voice, what does it mean to be devoiced, and how can such issues be inscribed in sound and presented on stage?

In the 2018 MONA FOMA festival in Tasmania, composer-vocalist Eve Klein critiqued the control placed on women’s bodies in her work Vocal Womb in which her outward poise as an operatic mezzo is juxtaposed with a confronting realtime video-feed of the startling and hard-working inner mechanisms of her body. Klein states: “By externalising these intimate, internal mechanisms in an exaggerated and overwhelming sonic and visual experience, participants are asked to confront the contradictions of our voices: who gets to wield them.”

The 2019 Perth Festival included the premiere of Cat Hope’s Speechless: a wordless opera reacting to The Australian Human Rights Commission’s report The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (tabled by Gillian Triggs in 2014). The work extracts visual content from the report – colour schemes, tables, drawings – to devise a graphic score on which much of the musical contours and textures are derived. Featuring diverse vocalists from a classically trained soprano to a heavy metal singer and including community choirs, Speechless can be seen as a visceral artistic response to the Australian government’s silencing of asylum-seekers, and in Hope’s own words, a conduit for contemplating difficult subjects and a means to overcome the “communication limits and barriers of words.”

Like Speechless, my own opera The Howling Girls, co-created with Melbourne-based director Adena Jacobs and premiered by Sydney Chamber Opera in 2018 Sydney, is also wordless, striving for a more direct mode of expression that bypasses the rational organisation of language.


The Howling Girls

The seed for The Howling Girls was an anecdote that emerged following the September 11 terror attacks where five young women presented separately to hospitals in New York with identical symptoms. They were unable to swallow believing debris from the destruction had lodged in their throats. However, the surgeon who examined them found no obstruction. Adena Jacobs and my creative response is an abstract ritual in which the voice is restored. Featuring soloist Jane Sheldon, a chorus of teenage women and an electronic orchestration, the work attempts to grapple with the trauma of being rendered voiceless by turning to the extreme expressive capacity of the voice in the non-verbal domain.

As well as the central trained vocalist Jane Sheldon, a chorus of young women are drawn from ‘The House That Dan Built’. Led by Danielle O’Keefe the group pursues a range of projects around female creative agency. Referencing the Sept 11 anecdote of five teenagers rendered voiceless, the chorus functions as a raw emergent energy. The work is devised in such a way as to facilitate creative contribution from these performers including a manifesto of their own devising articulated in an imaginary language.

The highly-amplified and bass-heavy immersive experience, designed to be felt as much as heard, coupled with the non-verbal quality, signals the desire for a visceral mode of communication that acts directly upon the body.

Opera as a site of violence

Although the three works mentioned are unique and difficult to categorise, they all connect in some way to the medium of opera.

Opera is a problematic artistic tradition in that it is an inherited site of gendered violence. Classical music discourse post #MeToo has focused heavily on gender equity and poor representation of diverse voices, with the institution of opera especially in the spotlight due to its normalising of violence against women acted out repeatedly on stage.

In the background of The Howling Girls is the vexed opera trope of the ‘mad scene’. Popular in Bel Canto opera of the early nineteenth century, sopranos are typically tormented to the point of insanity, depicted in a highly virtuosic vocal line, eventually seeking emancipation in self-annihilation. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is the archetypal example.

Working with the image of five young women rendered voiceless in the wake of September 11 as an instance of hysteria and its association with madness, raised the need to recast hysteria as a statement of power.

Hysteria and non-verbal communication

Originating in the Greek word for uterus, hysteria is mysterious and controversial territory and overwhelmingly linked with women. While medical definitions have shifted over the years, one consistent is the abuse of hysteria as a means to pathologize gender.

The writings of Elaine Showalter’s, in particular The Female Malady and Hystories, go some way in redefining the ‘hysteric’ woman in more positive terms as a proto-feminist. When patriarchal culture feels itself to be under attack by its rebellious daughters, one obvious method of dismissal is to label women as hysterical. Central to Showalter’s thesis is the idea that hysteria is an expression of resistance to male-controlled norms: “Was hysteria—the “daughters disease”—a mode of protest for women deprived of other social or intellectual outlets or expressive options?” She cites medical historian Robert Woolsey who considers the symptoms of hysteria as a code used to communicate a message which cannot be verbalised.

The idea that hysteria may be understood as an alternative proto-language is a driving force in creating a wordless opera. The creative process required close collaboration with soprano Jane Sheldon, and with the teenage artists from The House that Dan Built, to develop a vocabulary of non-verbal vocalisations. With further reference to Steven Connor’s Beyond Words, a poetically rich investigation of vocal communication outside of language, we turned to gasps, moans, howls, cries: the often involuntary vocalisations that arguably communicate our state-of-being far more directly than language.

Music for the body

Through the image of five voiceless teenagers, The Howling Girls explores a larger trauma around the feminine voice not being heard or not being believed.

Although the work may be seen as abstract by virtue of eschewing language, it tries to engage audiences not only with the sense of being rendered voiceless, but the possibility of an alternative language via a physiological mode of expression that bypasses the brain to act directly upon the body. For Jacobs and I, the experiential work functions as a ritual or purgation: a fantasy of new possibilities for language and gender, a landscape of sensations that strives for something new.

The Howling Girls is just one of several examples of recent extreme Australian vocal music that has explored the medium and metaphor of the voice and found contemporary resonances in the wake of the #MeToo movement. And as with other modes of music, speaks to the potential of sound to be inscribed with expressive power where words may otherwise fail.

Cat Hope. Speechless [opera]. Cat Hope, 2019.
Adena Jacobs and Damien Ricketson. The Howling Girls [opera]. Curious Noise, 2018.
Connor, Steven . Beyond Words: Sobs, Hums, Stutters and Other Vocalizations. Reaktion Books, 2014
Faludi, Susan. The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America. Picador, 2008
Greenberg, Judith. Trauma at Home. University of Nebraska Press, 2003
Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980. Penguin Books, 1987

Damien Ricketson is a Sydney-based composer and collaborator on the SEI project Sites of Violence. His music is characterised by colourful sound-worlds, novel forms and is often multi-sensory in nature. Recent research has focused on the physiological relationship between sound and the body in the pursuit of a visceral music to bypass the brain and act directly on the nervous system. Damien was the co-founder and Co-Artistic Director of the new music organisation Ensemble Offspring (1995-2015), and the Program Leader of Composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (2015-2019).

For an interview with the author, contact Damien Ricketson at damien.ricketson@sydney.edu.au.

For all other media enquiries, contact Christine Dundas, SEI Communications and Project Officer on +61 2 8627 9857 or christine.dundas@sydney.edu.au.