The three cases discussed in this article seek to demonstrate that the sound of breath on a recording points to the processes of mediation and creativity that define record production. Naturally, the sounds of breath vary substantially between records of different musical genres, historical moments, and cultural contexts. Sometimes, breath may be ontologically insignificant, as in the case of the Guarneri Quartet, where the sound of the players inhaling and grunting is merely a by-product of their attempt to render a faithful and convincing interpretation of a musical work. In other instances, musicians and recordists might not only be aware of the sound of breath, but also actively capture, position, and manipulate it as a constitutive sonic element, as in the case of Colin Stetson’s multi-layered bodily polyphony. The case of Miley Cyrus indicates that the recording studio processing of breath sounds can form a part of an overall mediatization of the body.

However, by attending to the sound of breath on these recordings, we can glimpse beneath the apparently coherent surface of the recording to view record production as an inherently distributed creative process. That creative process constructs the musicking body that is presented on the recording as a singular entity. However, the coherence of the musicking body on the recording is often illusory, the confluence of ablist assumptions about coherent bodies and persistent post-Romantic ideas regarding vocal expression. Moreover, the presence of a voice on a recording might not be taken as representative of a musicking body at all, and it is breath that restores the humanness of the performance.[xvi] These three recordings indicate that the recorded musicking body is always a technologically constructed one, and our attention to breath might highlight the nature of that construction in ways that are not always available by attending to the voice alone. As the nominal “excess” of voice, the physiological process that is essential but not considered expressive, breath ultimately acquires and expressive power of its own. It points to the body as a mediated presence on a recording, perceived as whole and authentic, and yet turning out to be distributed and fragmented on closer examination. It is my hope that in future years, we will see more attention to the breath as an expressive device along with the more traditional tools of musical performance.

[i] Christopher Small coined the term “musicking” to highlight the disjunction between the Western conception of music as a thing (the musical “work”) and music as “an activity, something that people do” (1998: 2). Small argued that “musicking” should be broadly inclusive. He wrote, “to pay attention in any way to a musical performance, including a recorded performance, even to Muzak in an elevator, is to music” (ibid.: 9). I use the term “musicking” here explicitly to expand the sometimes narrow bounds of what is properly considered “musical” about the voice.

[ii] Richard Middleton recognizes the connection between voice and breath, with the latter’s “continuity of life [and] periodicity of organic processes” contributing to the perception of voice as “the profoundest mark of the human” (1990: 262). While Middleton talks at some length about the voice and the “pleasures of the body” in popular music recordings, he does not elaborate on this fleeting reference to breath.

Adriana Cavarero, in her critique of the subordination of voice to thought in the Western philosophical tradition, also acknowledges the intimate connection between voice and breath. She argues that “prior to the triumph of metaphysics, the Greeks were thus convinced that thinking was done with the lungs, not the brain” (Cavarero 2005: 63). In Plato, Cavarero finds that a shift has occurred in the conceptualization of thinking, moving from lungs to head, resulting in “the prevalence of head over lungs,” as well as the movement of “the measure of the human being from the physicality of the body to the impalpability of the mind” (ibid.: 65). While Cavarero’s argument will have little impact on my own treatment of breath in the remainder of this article, her profound insights about the process by which voice became subordinate may, at least, provide some explanation for the relative dearth of scholarship on the topic of breath.

[iii] Many thanks to Josh Sacco, recording engineer at Davidson College, for explaining to me how breaths can now be removed digitally, but how they also were commonly excised from tape recordings, particularly of spoken word recordings. The minute cut to remove a breath was then replaced with an identically-sized piece of blank tape to maintain the flow or rhythm of the speech on the recording.

[iv] Following Fabian Holt (2007), I use the term “genre culture” to refer to the broad social and cultural networks and relationships through which musical sound is classified and organized. Thus, I do not necessarily wish to argue that particular musical forms are inherently suited to particular technological interventions in the studio—although this often seems to be the case to practitioners of a particular musical genre. Rather, I assume that the recording conventions for a genre are flexible and always subject to (re-)negotiation based on the particular aesthetic sensibilities of recording session participants.

[v] Unsurprisingly, the debate over which is the “correct” ending for the quartet tends to turn on the role of that often unwelcome facilitator of artistic creation, money. As Lewis Lockwood describes the debate, one side relies on the historical fact of Beethoven’s decision to sever the Grosse Fuge, while the other side argues that the financial motivation presented to Beethoven corrupted his otherwise pure artistic intentions. For present purposes, we need not delve any deeper into the conflict—although I tend to agree with Lockwood that the debate is rather irrelevant for anyone except a quartet who performs op. 130 (see Lockwood 2003: 458–68).

[vi] The most notable exception is Glenn Gould, against whom the Guarneri position themselves: while Gould valued the artistic possibilities of making multiple takes and editing them together, the Guarneri prized the “take-oneness” of concert performance (Guarneri Quartet 1986: 21).

[vii] The visual analogy of recording perhaps originates with Decca producer John Culshaw, who conceived of using the possibilities of the long-playing record and stereophony to convey the action of operas through sound alone, and often in ways that were more sonically suggestive than would be evidence in a staged performance. Culshaw observed, “The effect [on record] is nothing like that of the theatre…The sense of being inside the drama is heightened by the absence of a visual element: the listener can hear the words and the music, he can hear where the characters are standing and he can follow them when they move; but he has to create his own mental image of what they look like, and in what sort of setting they are moving. Instead of watching someone else’s production, he is unconsciously creating his own” (Culshaw 1967: 23–4).

[viii] Christopher Small has observed that, in Western art music, “a musical performance is thought of as a one-way system of communication, running from composer to individual listener through the medium of the performer” (1998: 6). This notion of musical performance effectively denies any interpretive agency by musicians who perform musical works, reifying and continually reinscribing what Lydia Goehr has famously called the “work-concept” (1992). I argue that by attending to the breathing of a performer like Soyer, we can better understand how the hegemonic “work-concept” functions in practice, discursively erasing the musician’s presence from the performance even as we are made aware of it.

[ix] Circular breathing is a technique that can be employed on virtually any wind instrument in which the player inflates her cheeks and then allows that air in her mouth to flow through the instrument and briefly produce sound, while inhaling through the nose. Circular breathing can allow a wind player to continue to produce sound virtually infinitely.

[x] The technique of crooning has been explored at length by Allison McCracken (2001, 2015), who highlights how the recording and singing techniques worked hand-in-hand for performers like Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby, and how crooners were perceived as sexually threatening. Serge Lacasse has positioned crooning within a broader concept of “staging” in recorded music—the ways that contextual sonic information like reverb shapes how listeners perceive the voice (Lacasse 2000, 2010; also see Zagorski-Thomas 2010).

[xi] Stetson has described and demonstrates these performance and microphone techniques in relation to his song “Judges,” on the Canadian radio show Q (“Colin Stetson Breaks Down ‘Judges’”).

[xii] Reverb has long been recognized as a core component of sound recording, and it has recently been analyzed by Albin Zak (who refers to it as “ambience”; 2001: 76–85) and Peter Doyle (2005). Reverb on a recording conveys the space occupied by one or more musical elements of the recording, and the listener’s relative position within that space. A large amount of reverb—and consequently, a proportionally lower amount of direct sound—conveys a greater distance between the listener and the sound source. Importantly, listeners perceive loudness independently of reverb, because the perception of loudness depends in large part on timbre, and it relies on listeners’ intuitive ability to recognize “the amount of physical exertion required to produce a certain sound quality on an instrument” (Moylan 2015: 169). Thus, a recorded sound can simultaneously be perceived by listeners as loud and distant—having a relatively low dynamic level, a proportionally large amount of reverb, and the perception of intensity in the performance.

[xiii] This effect, which appears during the second verse of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (at about 1:25), was produced by recording the cymbal in isolation and then reversing the tape. The result is a “shoop” sound that begins with the diffuse ringing of the cymbal and builds quickly to a dynamic peak where the cymbal was struck. The technique is described by engineer Geoff Emerick (Emerick and Massey 2006: 135).

[xiv] To be clear, I am not necessarily claiming that Cyrus’s breath was processed with a compressor—although that seems to me the most likely possibility—but rather, that her breath was compressed in the more general sense that its amplitude was manipulated so that it closely matched that of the succeeding vocal entrance (as illustrated in Figure 4). Importantly, although compression is initially a technique that lowers the level of dynamic peaks in a recording, it does not necessarily mean that a recording will have a lower overall dynamic level, because a compressed recording can then have its overall level boosted. For this reason, compression has been a common explanation for the so-called “loudness war” that has been observed in metal music (Williams 2014) and also popular music recordings more broadly (for example, Devine 2013).

[xv] In contrast to the close perspective of female pop vocals, Greene notes that “men’s voices are not usually recorded in such an intimate manner. Rather, they are usually recorded with a spatial distance from the microphone allowing their voices to embody a space containing reverberation” (2009: 64).

[xvi] This is what Paul Sanden suggests when, writing about the appearance of breathing within Glenn Gould’s inadvertent vocalizing, he writes, “the voice we hear on these recordings is not just an ethereal humming sound, but it has a source: a living, breathing body” (2013: 57).



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