Amanda Weidman on her book, Brought to Life by the Voice

Interview by Constantine Nakassis

Constantine V. Nakassis: Your brilliant first book, Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern deals with the simultaneous classicization and modernization of the Karnatic music of South India through both historical and ethnographic methods, showing how a gendered and casted form of modern subjectivity came to be articulated through a politics of voice. Your most recent book, Brought to Life by the Voice: Playback Singing and Cultural Politics in South India – equally brilliant – deals with so-called playback singing in the Tamil film industry. To start us off, I wonder if you could speak a bit about the relationship, and movement, between these two projects?

Amanda Weidman: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to reflect on this. I would say, in a general way, that in this second book I’ve gotten to do the project I paid lip service to (no pun intended!) in the first book: to explore voice as simultaneously an object of musical/sonic attention and of ideological investment, and to really grapple with the way these two scales—the bodily/sonic/material and the ideological/discursive—interplay with and inform each other. In my first book, the concern with voice remained mostly at the ideological, political level. I used the concepts ideologies of voice and politics of voice to get at the ways that voice, cultivated, framed, and staged in a particular way, became—to the exclusion and marginalization of other things—a potent signifier of Karnatic music’s classical status. The burden in that book was to try to understand how a high cultural status had been claimed and consolidated. Identifying voice as an object of ideology and politics was a way to challenge what has been reified and naturalized as South Indian classical music.

In Brought to Life by the Voice, I decided that the twin focus on voice as object of aesthetic and ideological investment was better captured by the idea of regimes of aurality and the voice, which I think gets at the way that ideologies and politics are actually produced and sustained—voice as a site where macro-level constructs are scaled down to a bodily/sensory level. I think about regimes of aurality and voice in several ways: through modes of discipline in vocal production—how singers learn to produce the supposedly right kind of sound in any context; through recurring contexts of listening and consumption, including performance contexts, as well as technological media through which voices are disseminated (and in the case of playback, the visual images/bodies with which voices are paired or associated onscreen); and through the articulated, verbalized categories that arise to describe and attribute meaning to particular voices and voice qualities. Inherent in the idea of regimes of aurality and voice is the process of regimentation, the shaping of vocal practices and vocal sound to particular culturally and historically specific ideals.

There are some obvious continuities between the two books. The city of Chennai is the center (the authorizing center of semiosis, you might say) for both Karnatic classical music and the Tamil film industry. But in moving from one to the other I shifted from looking at something that, framed as a high-cultural object, has all sorts of authorized knowledge emanating from established institutions, pedagogies, and forms of transmission, to a popular-cultural realm where meaning-making is taking place at many different sites: on screen, in the recording studios, in the postproduction process, on stage, on the street, in music reality shows, in forms of historical and current media publicity, and so on. This presented a different kind of ethnographic challenge, especially because I was exploring the cultural significance of voices that, though people have deep affective attachment to them, have been considered beyond description, anti-intellectualized both by singers themselves and by fans, and mostly ignored in scholarship on Indian cinema.

The movement between these two books also reflects the slow melding of different strains of my graduate training. In the 1990s, I was steeped in then-current thinking about the colonial production of knowledge, postcolonial theory, and the idea of modernity as a culture in itself—all reflected amply in my first book. But I was also trained in ethnomusicology and linguistic anthropology, which at that time were relatively distant from each other and focused on their respective objects: music and language. The point of connection between them was through the music-and-language strand of linguistic anthropology, which constituted the other part of my graduate training. I learned about Peircean semiotics, indexicality, iconicity, performativity, poetics and sound symbolism, and Bakhtin’s concept of voicing, but I didn’t know what to do with it all for a while. The blossoming of voice and sound as analytics and fields of study in the last two decades has really broken down these disciplinary boundaries and created many more points of connection—and has allowed us to hear so much more of what’s going on in music and language beyond what these frameworks have conditioned us to hear. Linguistic anthropology has broadened to become more attuned to questions of mediation, voice, and embodiment, and to the way linguistic and non-linguistic, and visual and aural, forms of semiosis interact. I think of my work as definitely benefitting from, and, I hope, also contributing to these developments.

Constantine V. Nakassis: One of the many interventions of this book is to rethink the metaphysical nexus that links voice, (the visual) body, and subjectivity as a natural, unified package—by pointing to a different “performative dispensation” (Mazzarella)—that of playback singing, where voice (of the singer), body (of the actress), words (of the lyricist), melody (of the music director) are all differently distributed. How has this particular case helped you think about the study of voice?

Amanda Weidman: The striking thing about playback in the Indian context is that it starts with completely different premises and ideals. Most Euro-Western theorizing about voice, as well as cultural production ranging from Hollywood cinema to popular music, starts from the assumed ideal unity of voice, body, and self—underpinning the ideology of the unified speaking subject (a construct which has come in for a lot of critique in critical theory and anthropology), as well as that of the expressive singing/musical subject (an equally powerful construct, but one that has not been interrogated nearly as much). Within this formation, the voice de-linked from a visual representation or embodiment of its source is the disorienting exception, associated with power and mastery, or with danger, excess, and deception.

Playback, as a technical practice and as a performative dispensation, starts from the opposite assumption: that the dissociation of body and voice, the division of labor between appearing and sounding, is the ideal, and that the embodiment of voice is the artifice, the strategic achievement that provokes anxieties and requires careful management and/or avoidance. One of the things that captivated me about this project is the way playback literalizes/concretizes so many of the concepts at play: production format/participant roles, performative dispensations, animation, and the distribution of the sensible. Goffman’s idea of production format and participant roles, or role fractions, as Irvine would specify, gets at the division of labor that playback sets up—not just between acting onscreen and singing offscreen, but also between singing and speaking, and between animating and authoring words and melodies. The concept of a performative dispensation, so usefully articulated by Mazzarella in terms of both permissions and prohibitions, gets at the way playback, as a cultural institution, controls (or attempts to control) who is visible, who is audible, and the meaning and effects that certain performances may have. Animation allows for a consideration of vocal acts as something other than identity or expression— toward other forms of agency and subjectivity that are enabled by different acts of voicing. And Ranciere’s concept of the distribution of the sensible allowed me to see how playback has constituted a regime of aurality/imageness by thinking about very concrete processes of distribution, ranging in scale from the mass/public level (determining what is seen/heard and what isn’t, and through which media; indexically regimenting voices and flooding the public sphere with particular ones) to the individual/embodied level (where a singer distributes her voice in her own body or how she occupies the space of the stage).

Constantine V. Nakassis:Animation, Voice (voicing), (Bring to) Life, World(ing) – these are some of the very big concepts that this book articulates in its account of playback singing and that have already come up in our discussion. And it articulates them through a set of more technical analytic concepts: ideology (a la Silverstein, Gal and Irvine), semiotic economy (a la Keane), and distribution of the sensible or regime of imageness/aurality (a la Rancière). I’m interested to hear about how the philosophical and aesthetic concept of Rancière’s and the semiotic concepts of linguistic anthropology fit together in this book?

Amanda Weidman:The title of my book comes from film sound theorist Michel Chion’s description of playback, which he tosses in offhandedly at the end of his book The Voice in Cinema: “In playback, the body confesses to being a puppet brought to life by the voice.” Chion meant this as a simple reversal of the usual relationship between body and voice, visuality and aurality, in which the body controls the voice which is seen to emanate from it. But the image of the puppet introduces all sorts of fascinating and productive ambiguities around visibility and voicing, agency and control, the animate and the inanimate. The playback singer is both the puppet—the singer of words and melodies authored by others—and the puppeteer—the backstage or offscreen voice who controls the movements and meanings of what’s onscreen. Much of playback singers’ work is about managing the fundamental duality of animation as a mechanical process of transmission/relay (the puppet role) and as a life-giving process (the puppeteer role). The attention to animation within anthropology has been so helpful in the way it has shifted the focus from the creation of an illusion of life in inanimate objects or forms, to looking at the social world and social relations and actors that various animating practices imagine and bring into being.

To me, the notion of a semiotic economy is a useful way of grounding Rancière’s concept of the distribution of the sensible. Rancière argues against both the autonomy of art and art’s submission to politics—his idea is that different “distributions of the sensible” are not automatically linked to particular political destinies. Instead, their affordances must be taken up in particular ways—there must be a process by which a distribution of the sensible becomes a basis for a politics. “A common world,” he writes, “is never simply an ethos, a shared abode, that results from the sedimentation of … intertwined acts. It is always a polemical distribution of modes of being and occupation in a space of possibilities.” Rancière is not just talking about the distribution of the sensible in terms of things experienced through the senses. The sensible is also referring to the ways that sensory things become sensible, that is, intelligible, capable of carrying meaning or making sense within particular regimes of imageness/aurality. To give one example—the idealized Tamil notion of kuralinimai—voice sweetness—attributed to the voices of certain female singers in the 1960s was not just about voice quality itself, but how certain moral attributes came to be associated with it. It also had to do with the ways a non-projected head voice was made bodiless by being detached from the body of both the onscreen actress and the body of the playback singer herself. The function of a semiotic economy is precisely this—to constitute sensory things as signs by placing them in some kind of meaningful relation to each other.

Constantine V. Nakassis: Can you say a little about how gender plays into how the sensible is distributed?

Amanda Weidman:The gendered asymmetries are quite striking. Playback began as way of managing the ways the female form would become available to be seen/heard in the public sphere through expressive and medial forms such as music, dance, and cinema, in a context where respectable femininity was defined by the careful management and often avoidance of public appearance. During its heyday, the mid 1950s through the mid 1970s, the affordances of playback’s division of labor were taken up in different gendered ways. For men, the separation of the roles of actor and singer and their symbiotic relationship was productive, generating a kind of surplus power and political potency. Star status could accrue to both the actor and the singer through the combination of one’s body and the other’s voice because they were understood to be working together, doing the same thing through two different modalities. For women, however, the separation of roles was used and interpreted differently. The assumed moral licitness of a woman singing was used to cancel out, or mitigate, the assumed immorality of a woman acting onscreen. Actress and singer were understood to be doing two fundamentally different things. Female playback singers who had risen to prominence in this period conveyed this gulf between actress and singer to me by describing themselves as “just the voice” or by stressing that their acting was “all in the throat” and they were not doing “mimicry.” I have been pondering for years how this role of being “just the voice” was constructed and inhabited, and what it meant. Rather than seeing it as a simple limiting or restriction in the service of female respectability, in the book I try to show how this role was in fact a coveted status that allowed singers to steer a path between behind the scenes anonymity and onscreen/onstage exposure.

Constantine V. Nakassis:Historically speaking, one of the stories of this book is the transition from the post-Independence period (1950s–1980s) to the post-liberalization period (1990s–2020s). How do these macro epochal moments map onto what you call the performative dispensations, or regimes, of visuality and aurality that have governed playback singing?

Amanda Weidman:In this book I’ve tried to show the historicity of playback as a cultural institution responding to and shaping the ethos of particular sociopolitical moments. Its changes and shifts reflect the different kinds of semiotic/representational economies voice has been inserted into. At its beginning in the 1940s, playback was referred to as iraval kural—borrowed or traded voice, reflecting the emphasis on the partibility of the voice and the economic/transactional understanding of the practice. As playback became set as a dispensation within India’s technocratic, developmentalist post-Independence decades and within the gender politics of the Tamil Dravidianist political context, playback singers shifted to being referred to as pinnani patakarkal—behind [the screen] singers—foregrounding the project of producing a desirable or ideal onscreen body-voice combination over the partibility of the voice as such—a change that went along with a rise in playback singers’ status. In the post-liberalization decades, neoliberal ideologies have introduced a new set of industries, desires and promises centering around the voice, and a new value placed on visibility—the laying bare of what was previously hidden, unspoken, illicit. For singers, this translates into a pressure to couple voice ever more tightly with the self, body, and intention of the singer. All those things so carefully separated and parceled out in playback’s dispensation are being recombined in different—and yet still differentially gendered—ways. Tamil cinema is caught now between contradictory trends of emulating Hollywood-style narrative film and getting rid of song sequences and other supposedly non-realistic elements, and a self-referential, semi-nostalgic, semi-parodic re-animation of older elements. This is why “afterlife” seems more apt than “death” to describe the state of playback now.

Constantine V. Nakassis: Speaking of after(-brought-to-)life (by the voice), what’s next for your research?

Amanda Weidman: One of the most interesting people I met while doing this project was the singer L. R. Eswari, who managed to flout the gendered normativities of playback, combining a professional life as the go-to playback singer for vamp roles in the 1960s with a successful career as a singer of commercial devotional music on the South Indian Hindu goddess Amman—the alternately benevolent and fierce mother goddess associated with subaltern religious practice. I’m thinking about a new project that would investigate the role of aural representations of and appeals to Amman in this commercial devotional music in relation to the politics of caste, class and gender in South India.

Constantine V. Nakassis: I can’t wait to see where this new project goes! And thank you so much for doing this fascinating interview about this amazing book!

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