Danni Zuvela and Joel Stern, April 2017

We Are We, Utter­ing Together

Polyphony is a state in which we hear many dif­fer­ent voices, in their full tex­ture, simul­ta­ne­ously. (Poly/​many + phonos/​voices). Musi­cally, it is dif­fer­ent to har­mony, which is a system for organ­is­ing pitch rela­tion­ships. Polyphony in music refers to a tex­ture con­tain­ing many inde­pen­dent melodies or voices within a given frame­work as prac­tised through­out the world. Polyphony needn’t, but can still have har­mony”.

Figure 1. Useful because it is so unuse­ful

Socially, polyphony refers to the dynam­ics of col­lec­tive voic­ing. When many sounds come together as one, we say they are in unison. The prob­lem with unison is that it means one sound’, which we know can never truly exist – it’s more a guide­line, an aspi­ra­tion, a ref­er­ence point, a melody to follow, than it is an actual state to achieve.

—We are as close as can be, we are totally in har­mony, on song, as one (point)
—We will remain irre­ducibly sep­a­rated, because we will always be, in the first and last instance, sep­a­rate voices (coun­ter­point).

It is in the trying for togeth­er­ness, in reach­ing out for each other, that we must acknowl­edge the dis­con­ti­nu­ity between us, because that void is also the space of dif­fer­ence where fric­tions and dis­so­nances resound.

Your Head in My Voice

There is no dis­so­nant sound per se. Joseph Jor­da­nia reminds us that dis­so­nance is a qual­ity of an inter­val that shouldn’t be there – because in the moral econ­omy of sounds, dis­so­nance sig­ni­fies evil (Devil).” (Which is why clas­si­cal pieces end on a prover­bial high note – good-God must be heard to tri­umph). Joseph hears polyphony eth­i­cally and evo­lu­tion­ar­ily, as a tactic mobil­is­ing dis­so­nances for the voice under siege. When a pack howls, it’s poly­phonic. In deviant har­mony, the vocalic body mul­ti­plies the pack’s sound­ing: more pop­u­lous, more many, more dif­fi­cult to attack. Threat­en­ing vio­lence against the stranger, poly­phonic dis­so­nance, in the wild, cor­re­lates with sur­vival.

For Bakhtin, our utter­ances are always poly­phonic (many-voiced) and het­eroglot (other-lan­guaged). When we speak, our voice is not solely our own but rather is inflected with the accu­mu­lated weight and tone and colour and expec­ta­tions of our his­tory, our social posi­tion, our sum of expe­ri­ences, our place in the world now and where we dream to be. We are always speak­ing other lan­guages, in many voices, all at once – this, per­versely, is what con­sti­tutes us as indi­vid­u­als. As indi­vid­u­als, we are loaded with poly­phonic vocab­u­lar­ies: “(e)ach word tastes of the con­text and con­texts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are pop­u­lated by inten­tions.” I can embody your utter­ance even while saying it in my voice. As in quo­ta­tion, or mim­icry, or ven­tril­o­quism, you don’t actu­ally have to be present for this to be dia­logue.

Polyphony is my utter­ance that con­sumes yours; it is your voice in my head (and mine in yours).

Bad Com­mu­nal­ity

If polyphony is the many voices in the one voice, it is also the voice in dis­guises. A plural-sin­gu­lar can be many and one; it is both. (Every­body solos, nobody solos). When we raise our voices together, the voice-body we con­ceive is a noisy soul. The ques­tion con­cerns the ethic of lis­ten­ing amidst col­lec­tive voic­ing, since the promise of com­mu­nion comes bun­dled with the prospect of indi­vid­ual dis­so­lu­tion into the greater group-body.

So we are all singing from the same song­sheet – Think about crowds, choirs; think about speak­ing in tongues. Aren’t they all the state of being pos­sessed by the voice of another – a voice that speaks through you – if some­what unin­tel­li­gi­bly – from a power that’s beyond you? Aren’t they all, to some degree, req­ui­si­tions?

Aren’t they humans, instru­men­talised?

Steven Connor says the col­lec­tive voice of the choir is essen­tially fan­tas­tic:

There is in fact no vox populi that is capa­ble of sound­ing upon the ear, how­ever irre­sistibly it may seem to claim the con­di­tion of voice and clam­our for hear­ing in the urgent yet hal­lu­ci­na­tory voice-body of choral­ity. Choral­ity is the means whereby we allow our­selves the col­lec­tive hal­lu­ci­na­tion of col­lec­tiv­ity. The point of trying to under­stand the power we allow our­selves to exer­cise over our­selves in the fan­tasies of choral­ity is to be able to refuse and as nec­es­sary rescind its demands.

The throat thick­ens, the sign solid­i­fies and our ears rush with blood, so we don’t notice or maybe don’t care about the mod­u­la­tions of the mean­ing, because we are utter­ing together.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Prob­lems of Dostoevsky’s Poet­ics
Steven Connor, Choral­i­ties