Diana Lola Posani in Conversation with Mattia Capelletti

Diana Lola Posani, certified deep listening facilitator and sound artist, presented her performance entitled ‘Scream as if your organs were made of glass’ last April. The extended vocal technique used in her practice voluntarily recalls different traditions, from throat singing from the Tuva region to Metal, but was developed independently through the study of inhalation and deep listening to the frequencies of the voice.

Following the performance, the artist and Mattia Capelletti, writer and independent curator and fellow 2023 of Fondazione Studio Rizoma, had a conversation, which we report below. The conversation was also an opportunity to talk about the book ‘Deep Listening – The sound practice of a Composer’ by Pauline Oliveros, translated into Italian for the first time by Diana Lola Posani and published by Timeo Publishing.

“Scream As If Your Organs Were Made of Glass” is a performance organised thanks to the collaboration between Aterraterra – fellow 2023 of Studio Rizoma – DOTE Festival and Fondazione Studio Rizoma.

The performance is a collateral event of DOTE Festival, Year of Listening – Listening to Seeds, which will take place in Amsterdam, Palermo and Beirut.

Mattia Capelletti: Diana Lola Posani is a sound artist and independent curator. She works with the voice as a starting point for listening: she moves within the margin between vocal expression and listening to the voice. At the moment, she is particularly concerned with performances that unite and try to find a meeting point between sound and poetry.

Let’s start with tonight’s performance: you used a vocal technique called growl, which is traditionally associated with the musical aesthetics of black metal, but which actually as a vocal technique has much deeper historical roots in many popular cultures around the world. It is very interesting that you used this technique since, traditionally, in the subcultural imagination it is associated with the male gender and a very specific type of masculinity.

I am interested in this aspect in relation to your performance: how growl, but also whispering for example, are techniques that act on timbre, making it almost unrecognisable. In an acousmatic context, i.e. when the source of a sound is not visible, this alters the usual perceptual dynamics. Is there this thought in the dramaturgy of this work?

Diana Lola Posani: Absolutely. I never learnt growl or even throat singing, another technique that sounds quite similar. I actually started from some of my experiments with inhalation, in which I perceived a noise. The more I oriented my listening towards this noise, the bigger it became and at a certain point it was as if I had given birth to a new language of my own, made of growls. I say this because if I tried to do throat singing or growl, the way I would do it would probably be technically wrong.

Instead, I started from a tension totally related to listening and astonishment at sound and a narrative developed from there.

The dramaturgy of stage action for me is closely connected to the nature of sound itself, which in this case generated a very strange alienation. As if sound and I were not the same thing.

The immediate connection that followed this physical sensation was with the issue of repressed aggression, which I feel strongly about, both individually and as a gender issue. Repressed aggression is considered an inherent characteristic in women when in fact it is an imbalance that has to do with society and upbringing.

So I started to dialogue with this roar that came from me but which at the same time I felt was something other than me, and the score I created is in some ways very simple, a transition from prey to predator.

In the performance I initially back away, prey to my own voice, only to turn around and show the audience that I am in fact the danger.

M.C: I am particularly interested in this aspect of how the voice is both something external and internal, i.e. it has aspects linked to the pleasure of feeling one’s body vibrate and listening to oneself, but also external aspects: somehow the voice projects us into the world, it identifies us, and at the same time this identification is stratified, also and above all because it transforms. Sound is defined by the register of the ambiguous, and through the voice, which is the identity-language-body nexus, we encounter this theme immediately: that is, in the ways, which are anything but linear, in which the identity between the speaking subject and his voice is defined.

I am also very interested in what you were saying about alienation. Let’s think about how we listen to ourselves: if we wake up one day with hoarseness after a night of partying, we won’t necessarily recognise ourselves in our own voice. Or when we listen to our own recorded voice. These are such common human experiences that they overturn the traditional paradigms of how the voice is narrated, of how we normally talk about it, that is, of its supposed relation of identity to the self.

You talked about listening practices and how the voice has a dual aspect. I wonder how you came to these listening practices and how they have influenced your work as a performer. What is the connection between vocalising and listening?

D.L.P: I am struck by this observation because I realise that the exploration of vocality that transcends the range of speech is also perhaps an attempt to set aside the biographical aspect in order to transform the voice into something more archetypal and absolute.
Because in everyday life, it is inevitable that in using the voice one brings one’s own identity, which is first and foremost sound, to the forefront.

An exercise I often use as an introduction in deep listening workshops focuses precisely on this connection: in silence I say the name of each participant in random order and get them to listen to the body’s reaction, the physical response that occurs when we feel called.

It is a very simple way to realise how much we associate our identity with a specific sound.

To return to your question, however, namely the relationship between listening and vocalising, for me it all started with the study of vocal function. Part of the method is based on the studies of a French researcher, Alfred Tomatis, who spoke of the audio-phonatory circuit, i.e. the principle that you cannot express with the larynx something that you have not already heard.

This was the starting point for which I dedicated myself to listening in recent years. Starting from this technical need, I then felt the need to also focus my research on listening-related activism.

M.C: Interesting what you say about the audio-phonatory circle, how voices are influenced by all the other voices we hear. There are studies, by the way, that show how children’s accents are mostly formed by their peers, i.e. the other children they hang out with in the first three years of life, rather than by their parents. There is also research on how children learn language in a similar way to birds: these are all theories that go somewhat against the idea of timbre as an individual property. In fact, our everyday experiences prove the opposite and that is, they challenge the idea of individual timbre as something essentialist and biologically assigned.

Now I would like to ask you a specific question about you and your practice. How did you perceive your voice before you encountered these practices and how do you perceive it now? What is your relationship with your voice?

D.L.P: I think the big difference was an acquisition of awareness. I had never perceived my voice as completely part of me, and I think that during the research journey this changed a lot.

At first I felt a constant sense of disorientation – like when you listen to your own recorded voice and don’t recognise it – but now it has become one with my perception of myself.

The voice, extending itself in space, is something that influences one’s relationship with others even more than one’s presence in a strictly bodily sense. And I think that for women the most complicated aspect of making sounds is precisely this: the feeling of taking back space.

It has been a journey that has led me to not feel embarrassed to take on body and space even on a more everyday level.

M.C: Speaking of which, like all sound art, yours is also a site-specific work, and it is so in the moment in which sound is heard in space, occupies space, but also in the moment in which it reacts to space. This also derails certain assumptions whereby timbre and voice do not change.

You also talked about gender issues so I would move on to introduce a woman who has been important to you: shall we bring up Pauline Oliveros?

D.L.P: Deep listening is a practice that was developed by Pauline Oliveros, a female and queer composer, together with two other women, IONE and Heloise Gold. This book was born as a collection of all the material resulting from their shared research. I would not call deep listening a method because it does not tell you how you should listen but it is a practice that offers a perspective on what it means to move from the state in which we hear sounds to the state in which we listen to them.

More than being strictly musical training, it is an exercise in attention, and it is transversal because it attracts not only musicians but also more generally people interested in the question: what does it mean to listen?

M.C: It is very interesting that the subtitle of the book is ‘the sound practice of a composer’. Deep listening originated back in her university days: Pauline Oliveros noticed that male and female students seemed not to listen to each other during their respective practices. At this point, as a composer rather than an educator, she decided to have an experience that would formalise the practice of deep listening: with Panaiotis and Stuart Dempster she went to play inside an underground cistern found in a place in rural America. Inside the cistern, the sound returns to them through reverberation after about twenty seconds. All his reasoning related to deep listening comes first, but it is this situation that gives it a name. “Deep”, somewhat ironically, because they were in an underground cistern, and “listening” because their playing is reactive: they play, they listen to each other and they react.

She has always been very clear in saying that in other non-white musical cultures – jazz, for example – improvisation is based on feedback, and therefore exactly on this practice of listening and reacting. She incorporates improvisation and listening into a (white western) composer’s practice, but not just for composers, and this is a wonderful thing if we think about it from a perspective of openness and inclusiveness.

D.L.P: In my opinion, it is also very interesting that you broaden the definition of ‘composer’: in your work, the focus is not on the type of final creative expression but on the underlying act of perception, which is common to every human being, and which is intrinsically compositional: we compose at the moment we listen. Right now, for example, you and I are perceiving different sounds even though we are in the same soundscape, and in two days’ time you will remember some and I will probably remember others, and that is already a compositional act. You have managed to take the practice of listening to a more intuitive level, if you will, but also a more radical one.

As you rightly say, she did not invent something, she remembered something: making music in a non-Western way very often already means being in a state of deep listening. There are many listening practices and deep listening is just one of them, but in the end we are talking about the same thing.

And this can also be seen in the fact that deep listening facilitators can put a lot of their personality into teaching. Obviously we all rely on a number of things that we have been taught but then everyone has their own background. If you have an experience with me and then with another person, these might be two very different experiences, but they are still Deep Listening.

M.C: In the case of tonight’s performance, by the way, this, method is evident: I am referring to the aspect of dissonance in space and listening to space and observing how it reacts to your voice. You start with a sound and react to this sound by listening to yourself. Do you want to talk about this or is it a mystery?

D.L.P: Absolutely not, let’s talk about it! Performance, for me, from a certain point onwards is no longer controllable in the sense that I hear the frequencies, the harmonics, in space and my voice follows one direction of development over another. This means that my performances are never the same and that from a certain point on I am no longer able to determine what will happen because a lot depends on the resonance of the sound in space.

In some ways it can be frustrating, but on the other hand it allows you to avoid a whole series of choices based on aesthetic considerations that then lose touch with reality, with what is happening in the here and now. This limitation is useful to ensure that each time for me is a fully felt ritual rather than a result concocted exclusively for the public – in a negative sense, of course.

M.C: This is the aspect of composition, as we understand it, that goes to unhinge precisely those authorial questions of composition. Think, for example, of Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, which is a composition written without any indication of instrumentation: it is an abstract composition in the sense that mathematics is, and no matter what instrument you play it on, the result is perfect. This kind of practice is exactly the opposite of what we are talking about. The practice of the here and now really unmasks the supposed abstraction that is taken for granted in compositional pedagogy. There is, if we think about it, also an ecological issue in approaching music in this way.

D.L.P: Normally, in the traditional view of music, it is the performer who has to re-appropriate the sounds. He must take them and re-inhabit them in order to make sense of them. The human is the last component that is added in the abstraction.

In this case, however, we work in the opposite direction, and there is definitely an ecological aspect to this approach, because of the correlation that exists between listening deeply to sounds and listening to the other. Embodying empathy for me is a very powerful act because normalised empathy, therefore separated from the body, will always have flaws and imperfections while empathy must be able to become body, must be able to be activated on another, deeper level. In this sense, this work inevitably becomes a musical and artistic investigation but also a form of activism.

M.C: M.C: Pauline Oliveros, in the part of her book about forms of attention, talks about fractal listening and forms of attention that can be focal or global. I find it interesting that the examples she gives are related to the voice. He could have used any other sound but he decided to use voices. It is interesting because it goes towards an ethical dimension, empathic in fact, even counterintuitive and problematic if you like, but very interesting. The example she gives is that of the crowd at a baseball game: focal listening is listening to the single voice while global listening is the murmur of voices. She calls this type of listening fractal, meaning that it can be taken to all levels of scale. Next, Pauline brings up another example, that of a rapper, and says that again you can listen to what he says, so the language, or the prosody and melody of the words. We often listen to rap songs without understanding the words and focus on the melody. In my opinion there is an ethical aspect to this scalar level of listening, because this means that one voice contains all voices. This is a concept that comes from Eastern philosophy – also partly from Western philosophy if we think of Spinoza, Leibniz, etc. – thus from the idea of the coexistence of the collective in the individual, the macro-cosmic in the micro-cosmic, the universal in the molecular and so on. The ethical aspect lies in the fact that, in order to be able to listen to the other, one must start from the idea that the other is in oneself, somehow. There are, in conclusion, many ethical, ecological and therapeutic aspects, as you said, of the practice of deep listening, which are equally important.

D.L.P: There is a term I love that Brandon LaBelle, a sound artist and listening researcher, uses to define listening: ‘joyful permeability’. This expression encapsulates exactly what I love about listening and conveys well the idea that there are really no limits in sound. In the workshop I will be doing this Friday, I will focus in particular on the lack of boundaries between different types of sound, between sounds that are imagined, heard, dreamt, between sounds inside and sounds outside of us. There is no real boundary between a sound that comes from me and a sound that comes from you, again because of the principle of the audio-phonatory circle we were talking about earlier: if I can only emit what I have already heard, it means that my voice is the result of all the sounds I have heard in my life, and at this point also of imagined sounds and dreamed sounds.

Very interesting research reported by IONE tells us how our ears are activated by hearing dreamed sounds in exactly the same way as when we are awake and hear sounds in ‘reality’. Our reception of sound while asleep is on a par with the reception of sound while awake and this means that our voice really does contain all possible sounds. And it is very nice this horizontal aspect that you also mentioned. I find the meaning of ‘joyful’ interesting because there is first of all joy in recognising a complete horizontality and in the belonging of tuttx with everything.

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