In the series Dialectics of the Sexes: no. 13

People here used to believe
that drowned souls lived in the seals.
At spring tide they might change shape.
They loved music and swam in for a singer
who might stand at the end of summer
in the mouth of a whitewashed turf-shed,
his shoulder to the jamb, his song
a rowboat far out in evening.

Seamus Heaney, The Singer’s House


I thought I heard a woman’s voice, then it went so deep that I thought “I’m crazy.” Then again and again I listened. This music drives me crazy, even if I am not.

A “black voice”, that much is clear.

First I think of Roberta Alexander. Long ago, In Amsterdam, I heard her sing in Rzewski’s Coming Together, performed by Ensemble Hoketus. She had the right timbre, that blackness over her voice, yet it is also higher than the one that gets to me now. Nina Simone perhaps? Hers is much deeper, with dark layers like an ocean. A better option.

I am listening to the first song on the album Songs from Liquid Days, called Changing Opinion. The text was written by Paul Simon, the absorbent music was composed Philip Glass. That title seems, unexpectedly so, to the point – a perfect example of chance, even if Chance could not cope with this.

We became aware
Of a hum in the room
An electrical hum in the room
It went mmmmmm


Maybe it’s the hum
Of a calm refrigerator
Cooling on the big night

Maybe it’s the hum
Of changing opinion
Or a foreign language
In prayer

This music is on my iPod, which I have turned on while lying on the siesta sofa in my study. On that little music machine I deliberately made all production data disappear, this in order to facilitate the search for particular songs. Now, all of a sudden, this procedure works against me, I now desire to know instantly the name of this incredibly toned singer.

So I get up, go back to the stacks with cd’s in the bedroom, looking in the Glass section. Like the solid citizen, I buy almost all the music which is loaded onto the iPod ‘in real life’ first, perhaps even ‘in real time’. Anyway, all these shelves full of colourful strips look beautiful to me.

The name of the song on the back of the box reads Vocals for Changing Opinion – Bernard Fowler. It’s not Nina Simone after all, it is not a woman – it’s a man.



Back on the sofa, though, I can not help but listen to it as if it is a black woman’s voice, smooth in its high notes, resplendent in its valleys. I listen to it again three times in a row, however the first impression does not disappear. For me Bernard was and remains a woman, a gender ascription which he might possibly appreciate.

While, given the information, I cannot but change my mind, my ear refuses to do so. How liquid the world of the sexes turns out to be. Quite sure I am, that Glass did this on purpose. Not only did he compose all these songs, he also composed the album and steered my mind into sexual confusion. Immediately after Changing opinion one hears Lightning, this time with a text from Susanne Vega and sung by Janice Pendarvis.

At first you think that the voice of Changing Opinion simply continues singing, taking up the next song – with the same outrageous timbre, deep in a way that no white singer will ever achieve.

Lightning struck a while ago
And it’s blazing much too fast
But give it rain of waiting time
And it will surely pass
Blow over

Thus, love is. Yet, the woman Pendarvis’ voice is surely not the same as that other woman’s voice, that is: the voice of what for me remains a woman. Yes – once you know it, you begin to detect it, even if I do not hear it like that, again and again. Changing my mind is as wishy washy as Charlie Brown.

Roland Barthes once wrote beautifully: “The voice is expansion, innuendo, she traverses the extension of the body, the skin, she is passage, the abolition of borders, classes and names …” The moment there is singing in the air, normally our attention is claimed by ‘the song’ and its words meaning something. According to Barthes, however, with voices like those of Neil Young, Nina Simone or for that matter Bernard Fowler, such everyday significance is absorbed by “a voluptuous set of sound connotations.”

Barthes speaks of “the grain of the voice” – a splendid metaphor. A something in such a voice, which cuts into your bone and marrow and eats the heart out – like the punctum of a photo hits the eye, about which Barthes wrote in La chamber Claire.

Thus, the everyday meaning of the text disappears into the body, the song exiting from a body, then again withdrawing into it. And why not? Into both my body and in that of the singer. This is precisely why song ‘texts’ can afford their ambiguity, often even their utter absurdity. When the voice is what it should be, when the tongue itself is moving, the lingual significance of the song becomes of secondary importance.

There is more to this than mere ‘timbre’. It involves more than the singer’s ‘apparatus’, the expression professionals themselves use when they speak about the production mechanism of their voice. It is also this – plus a something.

That a listener may thus ‘disappear’ in the singer’s body, simply because that singer’s voice slips away into the body of the listener, indicates the complexity of the confusion which arose in me, when the singer of Changing Opinion suddenly turned out to a man. Not only did I change my mind, or at least: not only did I try to change it, but the prime question is: Why this confusion?

Was it a certain discomfort at the thought that it had been a man’s voice that obsessed me? As if being gripped by Janice Pendarvis’ voice would be ‘all right’, less so than being bowled over by Bernard Fowler’s?

It sort of felt like I was fooled by a wonderful and attractive woman, who then suddenly turns out to be a transvestite. This once happened to me, around midnight,  in one of Rome’s tram carriages, tram no. 19 if am right, going all the way to the Vatican. An experience both hilarious, as well is disconcerting – in a way. Certainly a success from the point of view of that man/woman.

This much is certain: An experience like this I never got while listening to the other singers on Liquid Days – Linda Ronstadt and Laurie Anderson. Too thin those voices, not enough ‘body’ to it. Too white.

Sierksma, 02/11/16 Haarlem






Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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