Listening Closer, For The Meaning Between The Words As the work of many experimental and pop musicians shows, sounds made by a body that don't cohere into recognizable language can still have emotional clarity.
NPR logo All Ears: Listening For The Meaning Between The Words

All Ears: Listening For The Meaning Between The Words

Angela Hsieh/NPR
Non-verbal vocalization has always been a fundamental part of music. Today's generation of artists is aided in its search for new modes of vocal percussion by technology that includes AI.
Angela Hsieh/NPR

The potency of "It's Not Right But It's Okay," Whitney Houston's triumphant 1999 call out single, hangs from a tiny ad lib she deploys with surgical efficiency. She uses it to puncture the song's third line, "If six of y'all went out — uhhh -- then four of you were really cheap," succinctly conveying a range of emotions from disgust to disappointment in a single second. A minute later, she whips it out again to temper the uplifting sentiment of the chorus. Here the "uhhh" works as a raised hand, a way of saying "don't even think about it" to a cheating lover without wasting a breath.

Lyrics can be pored over, their meanings endlessly debated, but non-verbal vocals, like Whitney's "uhhh," contain multitudes that somehow get straight to the point. They make sense on an instinctual level in part because they are familiar: Human bodies unwittingly make sounds in response to moments of intensely felt emotion, from pain to pleasure. It's these kind of ad libs that imbue a song with intimacy, and an artist's idiosyncratic take on vocalization that cements their identity in the public's subconscious.

While their meanings can feel innate, there's a level of sophistication involved in interpreting non-verbal exclamations. A scream can raise alarm or indicate extreme amusement, and a "mmm," amongst other things, delight or hesitation. Yet because these mouth sounds make up such a huge part of everyday communication, discerning subtle differences in vocal tone and texture is something many children learn to do long before they have the vocabulary to talk about it.

It's no wonder that so many musical styles around the world have been built on non-verbal vocal expression. From jazz's scat singers to hip-hop's beatboxers to the African ancestors of both, musicians have been finding ways to use their bodies as instruments for millennia. The canon is packed to the rafters with yelps, runs, grunts and sighs; an emotional language of sonic gestures that counts the world's biggest stars of pop, R&B and electronic music among its most skilled practitioners.

When I was a teenager in the '90s, the charts were brimming with such fluent and spontaneous articulations. Alongside Whitney's gutter-punch adlibs, there was Aphex Twin's unmistakable "mmmm-ah" from "Windowlicker" and the ubiquitous 1995 novelty single by Scatman John. It was thanks to DJ Shadow's seminal "Midnight In A Perfect World" (1996) that I first heard Meredith Monk long before I knew her to be a proponent of non-verbal vocal composition. The track hinges on a sample of Monk's haunting "aaaah-oooo" from her 1981 choral piece "Dolmen Music." I can still feel it in my soul.

Today's experimental artists are as interested in exploring the musical possibilities of their bodies; they just have multiple technologies to help them craft, and augment, their vocal percussion. This spring, the air is once again thick with the kind of vibrations that originate from the muscle-bound spaces within the body. Holly Herndon's "Eternal," the second single to be released from the American composer and sound artist's forthcoming third album PROTO, opens with a choral vocalization that passes through rounds of processing to become one of the rousing cyber-chamber-pop song's key melodic phrases. At some points it comes off like bird call, at others like the dying gurgle of a digital device.

"I'm trying to make a world where the computer voices and the human voices occupy the same space," Holly Herndon says. Boris Camaca/courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Boris Camaca/courtesy of the artist

"I'm trying to make a world where the computer voices and the human voices occupy the same space," Holly Herndon says.

Boris Camaca/courtesy of the artist

Herndon has been working with the voice "as an instrument rather than a lyrical vessel" since her 2012 debut album Movement. On that record, she explored her relationship with her laptop, creating digital landscapes within which she embedded fragments of her own processed vocals. For PROTO, she put together an ensemble that includes a choir, a developer and a young AI called SPAWN that she created and is training as part of her recently completed doctorate degree in composition at Stanford University. One of the processes for writing the record involved recording rehearsal sessions, processing the audio with the help of SPAWN and then presenting the sonic material back to the choir to respond to.

"I'm trying to make a world where the computer voices and the human voices occupy the same space," Herndon explained to me during a call from her home in Berlin last month. "That involved a lot of mimicry and playful emulation, and then, of course, because [the choir are] human beings, they make it their own. It's so different when you tell a digital instrument what to do [compared to asking] a human to interpret something. It's always going to go through their cognitive filter and their physical body filter and that just makes it so much more alive."

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The chest-bursting vitality of "Eternal" lies in its rendering of the body's physicality, but also its mutability. It's almost possible to hear the choir's skin stretching around their mouths as their chins jut to bend the flow of air pouring from their lungs. The more processed their vocals become, the more I think about the body as a temporary state, which only makes the song more potent.

Herndon's interest in non-verbal vocal communication, it turns out, is rooted in the origins of singing as an act of human interdependence. "You can find some of the really nasally second intervals, which are kind of dissonant, in Bulgarian folk music, but you can also find them in indigenous Tahitian music, and in disparate parts of the planet that probably wouldn't have been in contact with each other," she told me. "These kind of singing techniques developed in different communities as evolutionary survival techniques." She referenced the work of musicologist Gary Tomlinson, who has written about entrainment, which she explained means "using rhythm and singing to get into this mental state where people would be able to coordinate, be able to hunt, be able to create tools. I find that really interesting, how song and music played a fundamental role in the early development of the brain."

The lines between art, survival and evolution form a well-trod triangle. On TEARDROPS, the debut EP from Philadelphia-based sound and performance art duo SCRAAATCH, those lines are redrawn to startlingly fresh effect. "Articles," for example, is a tense and tactile collage of minute vocal snippets. Each one feels like a heartfelt disclosure caught on the tip of a tongue, yet collectively they communicate a sense of deep-seated unease.

"That sound-bed was made for a performance that we did two years ago in Philly," SCRAAATCH's MHYSA told me during a video call. "It was a performance piece where we were thinking a lot about articles in the newspaper surrounding black death, and kind of being freaked out and bombarded by [the reports of police brutality]. We were thinking of representing that in these articles of speech and taking them out of popular songs. We played over that live in the set, and there were projections behind us."

The Philadelphia duo SCRAAATCH, performing here at Shemale Trouble in Paris, made the opening track on its debut EP by sampling vocal sounds recorded during its own soundcheck. Magali Bragard/courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Magali Bragard/courtesy of the artist

"When [vocals are] sliced that small, it's not really a word, it's not a semiotic unit," said lawd knows, the other half of SCRAAATCH. The pair sourced the samples from music they grew up listening to as well as current favorites. "That was an intense project," picked up MHYSA. "Doing that was a lot of, 'What type of work even is this? What are we actually doing?' It feels good to have it in song form because it can just be its own thing."

SCRAAATCH is first and foremost a performance art project. The duo first met in a drama class at high school in Maryland and later reconvened in D.C., where they started SCRAAATCH in 2012 before moving to Philadelphia to complete MFAs at grad school. Music is central to their work, but it's not the sole component. So while Janet Jackson's Velvet Rope era moans ("she used her voice as another symbol of this liberation position she was taking") and rap ad libs like Jadakiss's "uh-huh" have influenced them, their practice has also been shaped by other performance artists. Like Rashaad Newsome's ongoing series Shade Compositions (2005-present), which features a range of choreographed gestures, and Vito Acconci's 1972 piece Seedbed, which involved him making sounds, including masturbating and sharing his fantasies aloud, from underneath the floorboards of a empty gallery space. "He's being his weird Vito Acconci self, but that sets a precedent for interaction, like, what does it feel like to feel that free?" reflected MHYSA.

That is something the duo have been focusing on during the past couple of years of touring: feeling free in the live performance moment. The TEARDROPS track "Soundcheck" features a recording of MHYSA during an actual soundcheck, using vocal techniques that would help them "get more in my body in the set." A shade over two minutes long, the haunting track stitches together melodic sighs, sharp intakes of breath, vocal sounds that MHYSA processed and played through a Korg nanoPAD, and a hummed refrain from the 19th century spiritual "Wade In The Water."

"We used to talk a lot online about how we felt about politics and now we do not," said MHYSA about why they use non-verbal vocals. "These sounds are kind of like the last bit of energy I have left to give on the situation."

"It speaks to the fact that we don't chiefly communicate with words anyway," continued lawd knows. "Like the awkward dog-faced thing that gentrifiers do when they're walking past you. It is super pregnant with all this information. It's at those moments where you think you've run out of things to say, but you actually just hit the threshold where you can say way more. Because you've quit trying to cram it into word form. And it's not exclusive to music, but musicians generally get a platform where you can put all of these things for people to digest a certain kind of way."

Over the past couple of months, artists working in a broad range of musical spheres have presented many such opportunities to process the things that are said when nothing is said. Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, an artist who has long pulled cultural traditions into new contexts, released a mesmerizing new EP called Toothsayer. Its five songs were commissioned by London's National Maritime Museum for its Polar Worlds exhibition and showcase Tagaq's extraordinary non-verbal vocal storytelling. At times, she sounds like cracking ice, at others like a hungry gull or the sea licking a cold shoreline.

On Virginian duo ot to, not to's exquisite album It Loved To Happen, murmured lyrics frequently fray away into wordless refrains over a strummed guitar and electronic ambiance, as if the project's blues singer Ian Mugerwa is simply too emotionally spent to finish a sentence. Which in itself speaks volumes. Melbourne artist Makeda also works with a sense of unraveling on the eerily compelling "Basstrap" from her new EP Lifetrap. Amidst the static and echoes — some the result of digital distortion, others the result of processed vocal percussion — is a lonely siren that turns up in the second half to show you the door.

Tucked away in the final third of DJ Earl's "GARDEN," from his recent release of the same name, is a vocal fragment that demonstrates the lush ambient track's raison d'être. "Exp-," he repeats at intervals, like an organic rendering of the digital hi-hats that punctuate his footwork productions. The track is about growth through self-exploration and while this snippet is but a seed in the song's landscape, it feels particularly fertile.

There is something about mouth sounds that make me think about mortality. They remind me of the limits of the body and the fragility of flesh. Our bodies are squishy and home to pockets of air and liquid that reverberate in a world of intentional and unintentional — sometimes embarrassing, sometimes mysterious — ways. One artist who gets that more than most is Anna Homler. The LA performance artist, visual artist and vocalist first become known in the '80s as Breadwoman, a mythical figure who sang in a language of her own creation, and has in recent years found acclaim thanks to a 2016 reissue of an '80s cassette release on the New York label RVNG Intl. Her philosophy, she told me during an interview in March, is based on something that Oskar Fischinger once told a young John Cage: "Everything in the world has its own spirit which can be released by setting it into vibration."

"The language we know shapes our reality and how we see things," says the performance artist Anna Homler. "The language we don't know takes us into the emotional realm." Randy Tischler /courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Randy Tischler /courtesy of the artist

This month sees a new release of Homler collaborations spanning decades. I have found myself returning to the 15-minute title track "Deliquium In C" many times, especially during moments of anxiety. Amid a sea of synth waves by her late longtime collaborator Steve Moshier, Homler pulls sounds from deep within her that evoke the sonar signals of dolphins and the slow creak of time. I find it weirdly comforting.

Funnily enough, as Homler told me, deliquium means to dissolve into liquid. She composed the piece for a live performance in 1990, and it is just a short section of something much longer. "'Deliquium In C' is very tidal," she told me. "The tide goes in, the tide goes out. It's really about the rhythms of life. There are cycles of expansion and contraction, and it's about not freaking out when there is a contraction or when the tide goes out. Keep breathing through things."

Homler's background is in anthropology, which she studied in California in the late '60s. Her exploration of her voice began when "a melodic, phonetic language bubbled up and out of me while driving in my car in 1982," she explained. Through developing a vocal approach that is about "exploring the body like a cave," Homler created her own musical vocabulary. "Sometimes you can say more without using a known language," she told me. "The language we know shapes our reality and how we see things. The language we don't know takes us into the emotional realm."

In this world, Homler continued, "there are mysteries with a capital M. And they lose their capital letters when we try to shrink things down to our brain size." When I hear Homler's work — or Makeda's or Monk's or any of the artists I've discussed here — I feel something in my core. There's something about the way they use their bodies to communicate that viscerally reminds me I have a body, too, and that I won't always have one. The sounds they make are unique to them, audio fingerprints with a tactility that refuses easy explanation. While some things in life need spelling out, others are endlessly communicated in a variety of non-verbal ways: a look, a touch, a sound that grazes the spirit and keeps resounding round and round.