Notice

Timbre | The physical properties which give a voice its grain or singularity, and the ways in which these properties are used, in various contexts, to seduce, inform, sell, convince, reassure, terrorize, imitate or mask oneself.

This collection is split between examples of voices taken as such, in their more or less fantasized natural states, and the perception of timbre as a construction. We will first define timbre as a physiological constant of any voice. However, it is easy to find examples of timbre being transformed and modified. We will mainly focus on the ways in which speakers can modulate certain of their voice’s properties and use timbre as a resource for doing so.

Our first example makes up a collection in and of itself. Actress Amy Walker shows us how a single utterance can be spoken using various accents and vocal modifications. However, we can very clearly recognize the singular timbre of the speaker’s voice being maintained throughout these modulations.

Timbre as singularity

In his performance Deaf Bach, artist Arthur Zmijewski asks deaf people to sing Bach cantatas. Hearing such a choir of dissonant voices gives us the impression of having access to the singers’ intimacies, to the raw sound of their vocal chords.

A voice’s timbre is the result of purely physical, anatomical, and physiological properties. It depends upon the length and thickness of the vocal chords as well as on the specific conditions of their junction. It also depends upon the characteristics of resonant cavities (pharynx, mouth, and nasal cavity). The combination of these various parameters will give each individual a particular timbre based upon the specific characteristics of their vocal apparatus. Of all the other phonic parameters that can be used to characterize a voice (pitch, intonation, accentuation), timbre is the most mysterious, the most irreducibly physiological. In a certain way, it is not a function of the body, but the body itself.

We can thus recognize the timbre of the radio presenter Macha Béranger’s voice on France Inter, Sylvie Caspar’s on Arte, or this little girl’s “from among thousands,” contrary to the “bodiless” voice performing this poem.

Because timbre is hard to define, we often use metaphors to attempt to do so. For example, we say that timbre is a voice’s color. On the other hand, certain voices are said to be flat (or “blank” in French) when whispered, without timbre, as in this excerpt from the show Peter Peter Pet…er!!! Timbre can also be given a temperature, substance, taste, value, shine, and thickness: Macha Béranger and Leona Anderson’s voices have a dark warmth, while Macha Béranger’s voice shares a muted thickness with those of Gaston Bachelard, Leonard Cohen, or Pierre-Alain de Garrigues. The timbre of this ten-year-old child’s voice is thin like David Lynch or Mary Lou Retton’s, which is also soft, or like Didier Gustin’s, which tends to dry up. Both are light like Paul Léautaud’s, like this lady’s, or like Fanny Charmont’s, which shines like Auguste Branly’s, which in turn is sharp like Antonin Artaud’s.

Timbral transformations

As this children’s television show host shows us, radically transforming one’s voice can easily be achieved by inhaling helium.

A body going through changes can find the timbre of its voice modified, sometimes to the point of non-recognition. These changes often mark stages in a process: adolescence, aging, illness, etc. During puberty, for example, teenage boys must learn to manage the air pressure beneath their vocal chords to avoid producing the “caws” that make their voices screech up into high notes. A similar change can be observed in “F to M” transsexuals during testosterone treatments. Here are two states recorded before and after such a treatment.

Of course, timbre also changes with age. Here it can be heard at three different stages of Marguerite Duras’ life: light, then worsened by age and tobacco, and finally after having undergone a tracheotomy.

A simple cold can change a voice’s quality to the point of making it unrecognizable. In a more radical example, this man, who has undergone a laryngectomy, has a voice with a very particular timbre: sounds are produced by swallowing air into the esophagus and reproducing it in the form of “burps,” a technique similar to that used by this ventriloquist. The voice of this child, who has been possessed by a demon and sounds like a strangled puppet, or the voice of this leper, provide us with further examples of extreme timbral modifications.

The glottal channel, one of speech’s primary tools, can be extended by various prostheses that radically modify our perception of a voice’s timbre: megaphones, microphones, not to mention the acoustic specificities of the space in which speech is being emitted. In this example, Pierre Schaeffer shows us how a ribbon microphone can give a voice a particular color. Mixing techniques also allow us to remove or accentuate certain frequencies from a recorded voice, making it deeper, softer or sharper, horrifying or irresistible.

Timbre as resource

It is hard to reduce timbre to entirely physical attributes: as a singularity, a marker of identity, it is also a social construction, a resource that can be put to use and modulated by a speaker to produce certain specific effects within a given context.

Screaming techniques used by the singers of grindcore band Eye Sea show us how one can “get out” of the timbre of one’s voice and modify its body. On the other hand, communication technologies allow us to very lightly play with it, as in this message recorded by a young lady for her lover.

We have already cited the example of Sylvie Caspar’s voice—suave, intimate, and erotic. We also know how news reports, cartoons, gameshows, voicemail, business answering machines, and parisian subway announcements all use timbres skillfully chosen for their more or less reassuring, adventurous, dramatic, serious, or institutional qualities. Advertisements in particular make use of a small number of “timbral characters” that follow fairly rigid codes: fifty-year-old men with virile voices, warm and reassuring, George Clooney-like, a bit rough and guttural, used to sell coffee, perfume, sports cars, or for announcing Sunday evening films on television; “sexy moms” with clear, smiling voices, lightly puffed-up, carried by American intonations, praising shampoo or tissue wipes; casual young men whose voices are rife with hope for the future, their intonations drawling, ready to move in with their girlfriends; falsely mischievous children with slightly sour but enthusiastic voices (see also Te taper les fesses par terre); cartoon characters with voices both unreal and familiar all at once; Black men from the ’90s whose tone is exaggeratedly low and articulated.

It is through this same logic that the depth and “virile” warmth of Michel Sardou’s voice allow him to deal out a couple of very reactionary truths to an audience in a paternalistic tone. We can also see how Bourvil, interviewing himself, uses his voice to construct a certain public persona.

The use of timbre, among other performative strategies, thus enables one to respond to a journalist’s stereotypical expectations, as in this prank, or to parody critics of conservatism during this meeting of the American Republican Party.

This collection also includes a series of imitations: in this history of the anime Dragon Ball told by celebrities, Yves Lecoq mostly reproduces the way that Poivre d’Arvor and Johnny Halliday play with the timbre of their voices.

Timbre “is man (or woman) themselves,” insofar as they let us hear them.

Index

Y’a trop d’émotion

Rod Paradot, acceptance speech, Césars ceremony, 2016. 

Il avait un salon tapissé d’astrakan

Serge Gainsbourg, excerpt from an interview on the radio, France Culture, 1982

Votke see koer ara

Protests of a man forced to the ground by the police, YouTube video, 2014.

A global citizen of the world

Commercial for investment opportunities in cyprus real estate development, 2016

Une voix œsophagienne

Excerpt of an interview with a man having had a laryngectomy, unknown source, 1960s.

Sto telos, mia apati

A leper’s account, excerpt of the film L'Ordre by Jean-Daniel Pollet, 1974.

Sangoku

Yves Lecoq, excerpt of the performance Un homme public by Philippe Parreno (Frac Bourgogne collection), 1994.

Oh my goodness I'm a fairy

Excerpt of a video posted on YouTube, 2011.

Nous nous guidons de bicyclette

Bourvil, excerpt of the show Soyez les bienvenus, Radio Mémoire, 1959.

Mit dem Testosteron angefangen

An account, excerpt of a YouTube video, 2008.