THE HUMAN VOICE
LA VOIX HUMAINE
DIE MENSCHLICHE STIMME
What a title for a short talk! How to speak about so vast a field, so enormously rich: on the one hand, thought-provoking and on the other hand. inviting one at once to use it - for it is the first of the instruments given to mankind. Amongst all the instruments that exist it takes a special place, for the very fact that its apparatus functions unconsciously.
The most ancient conceptions refer to an acoustic universe, the elements of which are SOUND and RHYTHM- Through the ages man has explored this universe, availed himself of this instrument, used it or misused it. The question is how much do we really know about his voice of ours?
A good hundred years ago, Charles Darwin, summarized it perhaps once and for all, when he wrote; "With many kinds of animals, men included, the vocal organs are efficient in he highest degree as a means of expression...... when the sensorium is strongly excited, the muscles of the body are generally thrown into violent action; and as a consequence, loud sounds are uttered, however silent the animal may generally be, and although the sounds may be of no use."
Yet, despite enormous and varied scientific searchings, it seems that our knowledge about how emotions are expressed in voice and speech is still rather limited. Nor can we agree upon conceptual definitions. Behind the human voice there still lies a mystery. I personally find that hopeful and exciting. It allows a secret to be unravelled, it allows each and everyone of us to find our own relationship to our voice.
Thus I am here, not to profess to know any answers or clever explanations concerning the voice but to tell you the story of a man, called Alfred Wolfsohn, who at one point in his life had been "heimgesucht" - meaning roughly he had been«haunted by a certain voice and who as a result - first and foremost to save his life - was forced to solve some of the problems surrounding it.
Alfred Wolfsohn was born in 1896 in Berlin of Jewish decent. He had just finished school when World War I broke out. He was called up right at the beginning - a youth of eighteen. What happened to him towards the end of this war was the following - I quote:
"The year was 1917. We were entrenched somewhere at the front - we did not know where - under heavy bombardment. At long last came the relay. Heavy •rain had turned the trenches into swamps of mud and in a short while I became trapped in it. I called to my comrades for help, but no one heard and soon I was quite alone. Hour after hour, inch by inch, I crawled back. After a while I heard a voice nearby moaning incessantly "Help, help, help." I fought a terrible struggle with myself: should I try to crawl to him or not? I did not do it. After an agony of more that twenty hours I reached a reserve dug-out. I do not remember what happened after that, except that I learned later I had been hit and buried by a grenade and that I awoke the next morning in the cellar of a house in St. Quentin, amongst a heap of corpses."
From that time, he fell ill, broken in body and soul. Like thousands of others he returned from the war with an illness called shell-shock or war neurosis - as indeed happened to so many young men after the Vietnam War - and it took him many years to get over the worst of it. In his mind, however, he had no doubt that his illness arose from an intense feeling of guilt. He had denied help to someone who had cried out for it. He was sent to doctors and psychiatrists who tried to. argue him out of it, for had he crawled to his comrade, both would have drowned in the mud for certain.'intellectually, he accepted the argument but emotionally he was powerless to change his conviction that he had forfeited his claim to that which lie had held to be the purest and highest in him; the aim to realize in himself the concept of a human being. He came to the conclusion that it finally depended on him to find the cure for his illness. The inner healing process began when he decided to take singing lessons. He found a teacher who let him shout out his agony, then another teacher who didn't let him shout; over and above they made him do scales and exercises which - in his mind - brought him not much further. Although being gifted with a natural voice and a good ear for music, he was not able to express himself as he thought it should be possible. Why not? He did not blame his teachers for what he considered a failure on his part but he sensed that there must be another way of exploring vocal possibilities, another and more dynamic way of bringing out a voice.
He had cherished a childhood memory which for him was the birth of his idea of a voice, capable of expressing itself over a much wider. range, emotionally as well as dynamically. He describes it in tills way:
"My earliest childhood memory was how I as a very small child, almost still a baby,
laughed when my mother sang a certain song to me. She would tell me how I never stopped begging her again and again to sing me this same song, and how any time she wanted me to sleep, she only had to sing it and I would fall asleep. All I remember of this song are these four lines :-
' Then all the little angels laughed
Hee-hee, hee-hee-hee; hee-hee-hee.
And Peter fell in with their joy
Ho-ho, ho-ho-ho, ho-ho, ho-hoho.'
There is no doubt for me that in this earliest childhood memory the latent idea made its appearance for the first time; the idea that there exists a universal human voice of a much broader circumference than has hitherto been imagined. For what did the child hear, of course without having an understanding of it? A woman, his mother, singing the silvery laughter of the angels in a young girl's voice and then the deep bass laugh of St. Peter, in a man's voice. The little child was fascinated by the contrast between height and depth and the laughter with which he greeted this contrast must have expressed his delight that there was a marvellous rhyme linking these two extremes."
Thus, the song his mother sang to him was the happy original source, the war experience, however, was the incentive and the path to its realisation. He gave up being taught and began developing his own ideas on singing. He began teaching himself. But he
never forgot that with this exploratory kind of teaching he wanted to find the answer to his own question as to why he had not been able to sing himself in the way as he had imagined it could be possible. For this reason he accepted pupils with vocal problems of such an order they could be termed 'cases', including those considered to be 'hopeless cases'. Later he recognized that it was more often than not the difficult cases, i.e. people who had studied for years and who had broken down - who helped him to find the answers to his question. Their voices had, become sick because they too had suffered psychic damage, and no progress, no result could be achieved, if it was not possible to heal this damage, to restore their confidence and to transfer his belief an4 strength onto them.
At that time he had also engaged himself in the literature of the psychological systems and found that many facts and observations he had made in his field ran parallel with the basic "principles of psycho-analysis and psychotherapy. He studied in detail the theories of Jung whose concepts of archetypes, shadow, animus and anima were not only visible but could also be made audible. He found that the idea of the integration .of the personality could be shown audibly in the human voice.
Alfred Wolfsohn had only just begun to articulate his ideas and findings on the voice when dramatic political events put a short end to it. He had to leave Hitler Germany and find refuge in London, just before the outbreak of World "War II. Not until after flits war was he able to continue his work and gather pupils around him. Not until after this war was I myself to become a pupil and to witness this unique approach to SINGING.
My own relationship to the voice had been most ambiguous, to say the least. 1 had no natural voice, nor a particular wish to sing. As a small child I had quite S strong reaction to my mother's voice, a beautiful trained soprano. But to me it sounded often shrill and at times even made me feel fearful. It may well be one of the reasons why my voice later developed more in the deeper registers.
I was born, raised and educated in that same country, Germany, where the hypnotic voice of a man had seduced millions of people to rally round a flag which was to be hoisted over practically every European country, a voice which finally drove millions to their death. After the war, when there was but a change of colour - from bro?/n to red - I decided to get out whilst it was still possible. I was 21, when I came to England in 1949. With me, I had the address of Alfred Wolfsohn which my mother had given me on the way, should I need help and advice. I contacted him and a meeting was arranged.
He had at this time his own and first small studio, let's say a tiny sparse cell, in a suburb of London. At first I only really saw his head, this lion-like black head of hair, it seemed to me as if all his strength was gathered there. And then it was his eyes, the look he gave me, or rather the way he looked into my very being.
This first encounter left a deep impression on me. Not that I could have explained or analysed it. I was content to keep it as a personal experience which allowed me to look into a world unknown to me and to listen to this man, who had built up something in this post war time that pointed out a way, at once life-giving and life-affirming.
For the first time, in this studio, I heard how Alfred Wolfsohn worked with his pupils. At that time there were about fifteen men and women of different age groups, people in jobs, amateurs therefore, who came in their spare time. Except a few, amongst them Roy Hart, who later continued his work, and who as an aspiring young actor had started already to give drama classes. What his pupils had in common was that they could reach with their voices,-heights and depths, as I has never heard before and they could also produce within that range, different colours of sound, which moved me deeply. But what appealed to me even more than the virtuosity of their voice range was the witnessing ef what was happening between teacher and pupil. It was the give and take on both sides, this incredible concentration and intensity emanating from both. It was the physical effort in the extreme which seemed to transform their body and facial expressions.
And then came the day when when I had my first singing lesson, i.e. that I too had a voice, that I also had the possibility of expressing myself. 'This experience was of such a nature that I knew : I must follow this path ! I believe we all have once in our life a central experience, which touches us so deeply in the very roots of our being, an experience where heart, soul and mind are so equally involved - that it can radiate upon our whole life.
It happened more than thirty five years ago. One of the many reasons why I have kept my enthusiasm for this work and have kept my own teaching alive and fresh is that 1 can recall at any given time the experience of this first lesson.
Enthusiasm, of course, alone is not enough. There came the years of research work. SINGING. Alfred Wolfsohn says about this:
"Here I want to stress once more that when I speak of singing, I do not consider this to be an artistic exercise but the possibility and the means to recognize oneself and to transform this recognition into conscious life. Singing is, however, the primeval field of application of music, the gift bestowed on everyone by nature in order to express himself. For the communication between man takes place through language which does not just consist of a neutral combination of sounds but is used in an up and down of a musical movement. In my attempt to discover the secret of singing, nothing has compensated me more for all my searching and worrying than the discovery that that which I had one sidedly understood as 'expression' in its symbolic and spiritual sense, had to be taker in its literal meaning- I found that the sound of the human voice gained its fullest expression exactly at the point where the singing person - having found the right balance of concentration and tension - could express it bodily. However simple it may sound, important are only three factors which constitute the elements of singing: CONCENTRATION, INTENSITY and as a result thereof EXPRESSION. Whoever is convinced like me that exactly the simplest things in life contain the most complicated problems, also knows that the mastery thereof leads to the desired goal."
We are now in the fifties. New territory in the realm of sound was discovered. One must remember that at that time one hardly spoke of the range of a voice. It was generally understood that - let us say a baritone sings in the middle register between tenor and bass. It was of much greater importance that a voice simply had to be beautiful. A man therefore who produces also distinctly female sounds and a woman who goes down into a deep register, after all run the risk of venturing into the grotesque - at best something for a Variety Show.
Although we understand and accept quite easily from the psychological aspect that in every female being there is also a male side, in some stronger, in some weaker, and vice versa, that every man also possesses female qualities - nevertheless it was then a big step to search for these parts in oneself and to express them audibly; not as a parody or a sensation, but as a serious attempt to find these other sides and thus to learn more about oneself.
Another aspect of the breaking of sound barriers was the spontaneous emergence of an extraordinary variety of animal - bird and mechanical motor sounds. These have a very special meaning for each pupil, almost a certain life-experience, as if suddenly a deeper strata of a past evolutionary process had been touched upon and was being relived.
All these different sounds - possibly there from the beginning of man's evolution but then forgotten - Alfred Wolfsohn had heard them first of all in his imagination. He had heard so-to-speak with his inner ear. I can remember clearly the time when very high sounds were produced for the first time, and I remember how long it took until I produced my first deep bass sound or the first broken sound. This was a far cry from singing beautifully. In the beginning it was a squeaking and a squeezing, screaming and a peeping. And out of this developed a different kind of beauty: the beauty of 'the dared expression'. Like out of the days of the creation something emerged that was not only beautiful: it was authentic. And this .authenticity was nurtured, polished and repeated, until the ear got accustomed to it; or let us say the ability to hear underwent an equally intensive training.
LISTENING HEARING SINGING. Alfred Wolfsohn maintained that every human being has the capacity to sing, just as everybody is given the ability to dream, in waking and in sleeping. In one of his manuscripts he says:
"The ability of relating to art, however tenuous, is in all of us, otherwise art would not exist. If this were not so, then I could equally maintain that it is only given to a chosen few to grasp the most grandiose and sublime idea mankind possesses: the idea of God. Art is the possibility to dream and to be able to interpret and to fashion one's dreams."
He certainly took his pupils dreams seriously. In my own case, there is one which has
been with me to this very day. This is the dream:
"I am walking with Awe - this is how we called him - through a large town. We are not just out for a walk but I think we are on our way to a concert, for I remember singing afterwards. In the distance we see a very wide street; all grey and asphalted. The houses on either side are also grey and flowing along one side of the street is a yellow-looking stream. Awe says: "Look at that stream and remember it well. It is the only one in the world that flows on the left side of the street, it is the Gold Stream." I feel that something of great importance is being conveyed to me, although from afar it looks like yellow water. As we come nearer, I can see that it is pure liquid gold which covers half the street amid all the grey of the town, shining in all its fullness. And Awe says to me: "This stream of liquid gold will flow into your voice."
Why do I love this dream so much? Because it contains in one image - a dream image - all that which Alfred Wolfsohn, my relationship to him, my development at that time - meant to me. I was going through a large grey town - at his side. My relationship to him was that of a pupil to her teacher. A great respect, no worship. A love for the man and his work which for me were one. It had fcot been a leisurely walk, but a walk towards something which indicated, however, that it was not a hasty running towards a goal, but that something was to be shown to me slowly, perhaps even with some lingering detours. Everything had seemed to me gray, gloomy and indistinct. This was the world from which I had come and which could not be shaken off so easily. A beacon of Sight, something flowing and yellow was showing in the distance, the importance of which I could only divine. He spoke of something precious, a gold-stream. I was led to it. And this was the decisive factor: this was the essence of Alfred Wolfsohn's teaching and educating. Not a cramming in of knowledge, never a forcing but an infinite patience to encourage energies and gifts which lay perhaps dormant and to bring them to fruition - it was a leading towards oneself. A great calmness radiated from him, and when he spoke, then it was not a discourse with himself, but he had an engagement with the person directly in front of him. He said to me that I should look at the stream very closely and remember it well. Looking and remembering, both demand to be active. Once led to something - the work on oneself begins, the repetition, the searching and the memorizing.
His voice was rather quiet and what he had to say was not only directed to the mind, but that which lies much deeper behind: the receptiveness of the heart. He was a strict teacher, he had no favourites. Punctuality and objectivity - where the work was concerned, and at the same time a great sense of humour. I don't know whether this was the famous Berlin sense of humour - in any case, it had something to do with the sense of proportion, i.e. that one did not take oneself too seriously.
And then we came to the stream which flows on the left side and I too could see that it was of liquid gold. But how was this gold to come into my throat? I had to drink this dream, I had to incorporate it into myself.
For thirteen years, I went by the side of this man. There is no doubt for me, it was he who had the greatest influence on my life. If I had to summarize what I had learned from him - then it is the capacity to love life, i.e. to remain young and to communicate.
There came into this studio world-famous people, and people simply interested from music - and theatre worlds, there came doctors, psychiatrists, writers and journalists - they were invited to judge, criticize and be witnesses. The press began to take notice, articles appeared in international newspapers and reviews. Dubious expressions were used, like 'Voice Phenomenon' and 'Voice Magic', therefore some of the pupils' voices were subjected to scientific, i.e. larynglogical examinations, which confirmed through exact measurement that the vocal chords and the larynx were functioning normally. As a kind of* crowning tribute, Alfred Wolfsohn received a testimony from Dr. Paul Moses, Associate Professor of Stanford University, California, who considered him as one of the greatest experts on the problems of the human voice in the world.
Alfred Wolfsohn had been able to consolidate his life's work up to this point. It had cost him all his physical and psychical strength. He became seriously ill - and despite a partial recovery - during which he took up teaching again, sometimes even from his bed - he died. It was the year 1962.
It was then Roy Hart, who had been Alfred Wolfsohn's pupil for 18 years, who continued his work. He was born in South Africa and had come on a scholarship to London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in order to become an actor. Despite the fact that a brilliant career had been forecast for him, he opted out in order to research with Alfred Wolfsohn into the nature and meaning of the human voice, for the reason that he himself had been aware that his own voice was not rooted, not embodied.
Roy Hart was and is the prime example of the important fact that the study of the voice needs time and dedication. He himself said, and I quote:
"For singing, as we practice it is literally the resurrection or redemption of the body. The capacity to 'hold' the voice in identification with the body makes biological reality of the
concept 'I am'. The ability to hold fast with the whole body in vocal production can, with correct training, develop an ability to hold fast in complex real life situations. Because I had
learned to hold myself in sound. 1 found I was able to hold others as a leader in
Now, he not only took upon himself the responsibility to safeguard his inheritance but to evolve further Alfred Wolfsohn's ideas and to set his stamp upon it.
That which had begun as pure research work could now be applied more and more artistically and finally became a theatre, bearing his name to this very day; for after all he was a man of theatre.
What had been, in the beginning, exclusively a teacher - pupil relationship developed into a cohesive group with a group, or rather, a family spirit. What had begun as small voice-demonstrations slowly took the shape of theatrical performances. The idea of a multi-octave voice which had come about as one man's psychological need to find answers concerning his own voice and which had developed into a good therapeutic/artistic tool, in making audible the possible integration of the personality, now underwent ft careful change in bias : from the therapeutic/artistic studies to the artistic/therapeutic application. This is a very subtle point because using the voice as we do, and teaching someone to develop their voice, of necessity touches upon psychic forces, which must be understood and sometimes have to be dealt with. As new ground in the voice is opened up, great surprises await us - they bring joy, satisfaction and unexpected feelings and sensations; but also the light is let in on certain psychological problems.
As an example, whether the rendering of a song or a theatrical production can come out as a result of struggling with a difficult personal relationship, or whether song and theatrical production finally gain flesh and blood by including m and informing it with the struggle of a personal relationship - therein lies the difference of approach.
The group meetings that took place of this 'synthetic family', rapidly swelling in number from 20 to 40 members, from all walks of life, with as many different nationalities as reasons for coming - gave room to exploring our dreams and to see now this dream language related to our everyday experience and behaviour. ]S,o personal problem was left outside the door. But the aim was not so much to resolve a problem or 'cure' a person but to enhance the creative and artistic possibilities inherent in everyone of us, which more often than not gave answer to the so-called problem.
Great importance was given to the art of listening: listening to each other, listening to our own voice, listening above all to the infinite shades of what lies behind the voice. It is the stretching of our aural sensitivity which is so important in our teaching and being taught.
Roy Hart's dream and wish was to arrive at a new conception of theatre: Theatre as a form of life. The first public performances gave testimony to this. Although we insisted on calling-ourselves an Amateur Theatre, meaning that each one of us held a job to earn our living and only our spare-time could be devoted to that which we considered to be the most important part in our life, the need arose to apply ourselves full-time,.
A new experiment was to be tried out: to live and work together under one roof. Such a roof, covering an old chateau in the South of France, was found, and in 1974 the move took place.
Hardly had we accomplished this move when we lost Roy Hart. He was killed in a car accident, together with his wife and another member of the theatre. As well as losing very loved friends, colleagues and teachers, the question arose once again: were these unique ideas totally dependent on the strong personality *of one man, or had they been rooted enough in order to live and to continue evolving?
Not one, but several of us formed a kind of inner council. What had been a group of amateurs began to develop into a small society. New fields of responsibility were formed. There was the artistic leadership, the teaching body, the financial side, there was the house to be looked after and the administrative work.
Life as a society brought also professionalism. It brought recognition and expansion. Today we perform and teach in many different countries in the world, and in turn professional and non-professional people come to us in France to study. For this, we also have to pay a price. The very fact that we have to travel so much; i.e. that we are absent from the centre of our activities means that there is less opportunity to meet all of us together and that there is less time to give to our personal psychic needs and development-
What has made it possible to stay together is that we have held on, despite or perhaps because of the manifold trends in our work on the voice, that is to say the singing- lesson. The artistic creations of the various directors amongst us can tend more towards the musical side, they can be our own compositions, classical or modern plays, or they can include dance and the imaginary. In each case, the starting-point, or better said the centre, is always the singing-lesson: this confrontation ultimately with oneself; the voice as a probe and as a mirror; the learning process of exploring life to its fullest and in transforming it into theatre. A philosophy which contains, as one of its basic principles, the bridging of the gap between life and art.
Alfred Wolfsohn once said: "It is not enough that a creative person creates to please mankind, or to create for the sake of creativity. Finally he must call upon God in order to be really heard by mankind."