Legend has it that it all started with Louis Armstrong in 1926. In the late 30’s the BBC banned its use on air, believing it lacked respectability. But in fact, scat singing had been around long before Louis Armstrong forgot the words. In the New Orlean’s jazz scene it was said, ‘if you can’t sing it- you can’t play it‘ and Jelly Roll Morton insisted that it had been invented by an old comedian called Joe Sims around the turn of the century. Regardless of how it started, scat became one of the first ways, we in the west popularised the abstracted voice, using it as an instrument without the limitations of linguistic meaning. It was new and exciting to our by-now conservative ear, but in fact, singing without words has been an integral part of ancient cultures in all parts of the world – even our own – from the moment we learned to vocalise.
Meredith Monk is famous for her vocalising. A prominent figure in the avant garde scene, Monk is still recording at the age of 72. Her 1981 album Dolmen music is a fine example of how the voice can be considered a bona fide instrument of sound without inherent meaning. The voice, abstract and with the versatility of being both tonal and percussive, can be difficult to distinguish from the inanimate instruments in some parts of Dolmen music. Monk’s Walking Song (which you might remember from The Big Lebowski) is another wonderful example of the way vocals can be tonal and percussive, abstract and rhythmic; taking on meaning in the same way that a violin or piano might.
Vocalising can also however, take on the semiotics of language while still being abstracted. Australian artist Lisa Gerrard is also renowned for her vocalising but her style utilises word-like singing as opposed to the more abstract sounds of Monk’s work. Hans Zimmer worked with Gerrard to create the iconic theme of Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator; Now We Are Free. Gerrard claims that the ‘language’ she sings in is one that comes to her from God, that she sings in the ‘language of the heart‘. Gerrard has describes her lyrics as ‘an invented language that I’ve had for a very long time‘. It is, she says, ‘not corrupt, it is pure. You can not lie, while you can lie in English.’ While we might not understand the meaning in her lyric, there is to her, a deep, ascribed meaning, which is where it bleeds out of the realm of pure abstraction.
Bjork’s album Medulla makes use of the human voice both instrumentally and lyrically. Each track contains meaningful lyrics that we can understand while the accompanying music is almost entirely abstracted, sampled and processed vocalisations and includes various examples of singing without words including throat singing, choral singing, whistling and beat-boxing.
In Mr Bungle’s third album, the final track Goodbye Sober Day contains an example of the Balinese kecak singing which is where a large group of men chant the word ‘cak’ over and over again. The kecak has roots in sanghyang, a trance-inducing dance to exorcise the spirit of hyang, but has since become a tourist-driven performance piece that was developed and adapted to tell the story of Ramayana by German painter Walter Spies. The Kecak chant shows how repetition of one simple sound can result in a rich and percussive orchestra of sound.
If you saw Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut you might recall the disturbing music that underscored the masked ball scene. Kubrick used an extant track called Masked Ball from the album Flood by British composer Jocelyn Pook who also wrote tracks specifically for the film. There are vocals in this track but not ones that we can understand as they are the result of a Romanian orthodox liturgy played backwards. In this example you have multiple re-codification of the vocalisation. Not only are the lyrics in a ‘foreign’ (to the intended audience) language but they have been physically reversed and ideologically polarised; transforming a vocalisation that once had deep, spiritual meaning into an abstracted, highly emotive musical piece used in a context that is in direct contrast to the original purpose of the song.
Sigur Ros’ () and some other previous albums, contain tracks that have been sung in a made up language that Jonsi calls Hopelandic. The band believed that putting traditional lyrics to these songs seemed redundant, because they had been performing some of these tracks live for years and they felt that these songs were fully formed without meaningful lyrics.
Sigur Ros’ Hopelandic, Meredith Monk’s mouth sounds and any other kind of vocalisation without linguistic meaning are called non-lexical vocables. And while we might think of these techniques as avant garde and exciting, there are cultures both near and remote that have been doing it for a very long time. Examples of abstract vocalising from all parts of the world include Alpine yodelling, Native American Blackfoot singing, Celtic Puirt a beul, Appalachian eefing, Jewish nigun, the joik of the Sami along with the numerous global variations of throat singing that stretch from Tibet to Bashkiria. Our voice was our first instrument and what a wonderfully flexible and adaptable instrument it is; high, breathy, rough and rumbling, pointed, low and smooth, whispered, spat and splintered.