Monday, 25 February 2013

The sound of my own voice

If you would like to listen to the inaugural professorial lecture I delivered on 6 February, ‘A Short History of Everyday Life’, there is a link to the podcast here:


I’m afraid you’ll have to conjure up my Powerpoint slides out of your vivid imaginations. I’ve been told that my lame jokes are met with the sound of tumbleweed, and not the polite laughter I remember. I maintain that this is because the mic didn’t pick up the audience, but I suppose that’s what they all say.

Not that I will be listening myself, because among other things I cannot stand to listen to my own voice – a common experience, of course. ‘Preserved on tape one’s voice is an ambivalently narcissistic object,’ writes Susan Sontag in her essay ‘The aesthetics of silence’. ‘Its rhythms, intonation and frequencies are material evidence of part of the self become not-self, disconcertingly familiar and alien … Unmoored form the body, speech deteriorates. It becomes false, inane, ignoble, weightless.’

One of the reasons our recorded voices sound so odd to us is that we hear ourselves speak through the bones of our skull rather than through the air as other people hear us, which makes our voices sound deeper. (Stick your fingers in your ears to cut off this bone conduction and your voice always sounds higher.) ‘We scarcely remember when we could not speak; we are scarcely conscious of how we speak,’ wrote Hilda Matheson in her 1933 book, Broadcasting. ‘Confront any man or woman with an audible record of his speech, and his feelings will vary from rage and incredulity to shame and embarrassment.’ According to Simon Elmes in his new book Hello Again: Nine Decades of Radio Voices, an early broadcaster told his listeners: ‘I must apologise for my voice. Since my last talk I've had the somewhat alarming experience of hearing my own voice on the Blattnerphone [an early recording device]. I was frankly horrified. It struck me as being almost the most unpleasant voice I'd ever heard.’

The poor sod. I know how he feels.

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