Ellen Zweig

Printed in MFJ No. 39/40 (Winter 2003) Hidden Currents


A woman leans toward a microphone, singing. She's in a booth, alone; we see her as a shadow. Images on a screen: a woman dances; her head moves slowly side to side; she rolls on the bare wood floor. A woman sleeps; the river flows over her; children on swings, a train speeds across the screen; a dream, swimming through water, up and out of the water; water on bare breasts. Suddenly, the shadow becomes a silhouette on the screen, filled with the other images, echoing the shadow in the booth. Text appears, word by word. This is Sarah Drury's Voicebox, an interactive video installation that asks for the active participation of the viewer. When Drury leaves the booth, it will be your turn to sing.


The premise, Drury has written, is to create "That moment in complex multi-part, multi-rhythmic a cappella singing when you are actually both holding your own harmonic line and at the same time really listening to each and every other part, the whole in all of its syncopation and counterpoint, dissonance and harmony." The story is an old Chinese tale of a woman who becomes split in two. As you sing, a second stream of images and text interrupts the dancing woman of the story; a voice sings the text, slowly moving toward the pitch of your voice. Ultimately, as singer and listener, as manipulator of images and watcher, you find yourself immersed in the ecstasy of singing together and the uncanny position of watching yourself become one with the other. And if you sing well, if you hold one pitch longer than the rest, you enter the image and the image fills you with dreams and text.


The text that answers you is sung word by word and repetitions create suspense. "gazing- gazing- into-the-into-the-dark-the-dark-once-I-was-watching-I-was-watching-watching-and-waiting-gazing-I-was-watching-and-waiting-gazing-into-the-dark."

This use of a poetic structure is very like the kind of suspense that many American poets explored in the early 20th century. William Carlos Williams gives us a line of single words as a tree branch in flower in "The Locust Tree in Flower:"






Each line one word, hesitantly moving through syntax: beginning with two prepositions, then five adjectives, noun, verb as command, two adjectives, noun, and that wonderful "again" that hangs at the end. We move through the words, questioning syntax, hanging (like a branch) on our expectations of syntax; off center when we are both "among" and "of" or when we expect this branch to do something and instead we order it to flower. This poem is an incantation, a magic chant that we move through in a state of surprise. Suspense is in the syntax, in the structure of the very language Williams works with as material.

Drury's choice to deliver one of her texts word by word turns our attention toward language. As the singer causes this poetic text to interrupt the more regular flow of the linear story, she is tempted to add more words to the flow by repeating the words she hears. "left-behind-I-found-myself-alone-echoing-echoing-off-the-walls-of-echoing-walls-of-ice- and- space." Words become both abstract and immersive.


On August 30, 2001, at Temple University, I witnessed two presentations of Voicebox. For both, Drury introduced the piece, then entered the booth. As Drury sings, the viewer gets a feel for the story but doesn't really understand what's driving the interruptions of the story. She invites the audience to try it out.

A woman sings, tentative, abstract tones. As the piece begins to find her, she alters her tones to answer. It's unclear whether she knows she's doing this, but it doesn't matter. Inside the booth, she watches the images get wilder. Then, she breaks into a little Spanish song, familiar, lyrical, joyous.

A child enters the booth, a boy about ten years old. He doesn't think much of this, but he'll try it out. He makes strange sounds, breaks out into giggles, tries again. At first, he's detached, giggling after every attempt at singing. Then, something happens. He forgets to be self-conscious and begins to improvise, moving in and out of tones as the piece catches him, finds him, sings with him. When he leaves the booth, he says out loud: "that was cool."

Voicebox catches you up and takes you along. As I listened and watched, it became clear to me that if you sing with it, it sings with you. Even I, one of those people who can't carry a tune, was tempted to enter the booth. Inside, I found myself trying out all the things I could do with my voice, modulating volume, whispering, playing with rhythm and tone. This experimentation is how you learn to sing with Voicebox.


We aren't, as singers and shadows, completely in control, but we play the story like an instrument. Although Drury isn't the first or only artist to work with multi-stream narrative, she's trying something difficult here. Her choice of one text as linear story and the other text as word by word poetic structure seems well-fitted to her intention to move through story like a song. Drury doesn't answer, rather she asks, the question: Can we sing together? Can we find that ecstatic place of coming together, but also come back to ourselves?