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Tamar Sella

Tamar Sella is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Harvard University. She holds a BA in music from UC Berkeley. Her research interests include transnational music scenes and global circulation in contemporary jazz; theories of the voice and vocality; notions of vocality and instrumentality in contemporary jazz; relationships between musical aesthetics and politics of gender and race in jazz. Tamar is also a singer, and is currently the director of Harvard’s graduate student jazz bands.

“The Instrumental Jazz Voice: Politics and Theories of Vocal Technology”
When a voice is amplified, does it command more presence, or does it lose its essence? This question highlights an issue that is central to sound technologies of voices. Sound technologies are machines, props, and even instruments that are external to the singing body, yet can serve to heighten its material presence. In this paper, I discuss this issue of voices and their technologies within the particularly pertinent context of jazz. The jazz community has fostered a sinuous conversation around the aesthetics of voices and instruments, constructed along gender and race. Vocalists are marked as instrumentalists’ others, defined as oppositional and subordinate both musically and socially. Instruments are constructed along notions of virtuosity, high art, improvisation, maleness and Blackness, while voices are constructed along notions of commercialism, amateurism, stagnancy, femininity, and ‘Black primitivist’ myths. Yet despite this polarization, a robust undercurrent of reciprocity between singing and playing persists. Vocal instrumentalists imitate vocal timbres, base phrases on spoken contours, and learn to improvise vis-à-vis singing. Instrumental singers scat virtuosically, write words to instrumental solos, and stretch and obscure their voices’ timbres. Additionally, instrumental singers use sound technologies. In this paper, I discuss various technologies used by jazz singers pan-historically—early 20th century amplification that gave rise to new breathing techniques, multiple microphones per singer in the 1970-80s that allowed for different simultaneous effects, and contemporary multitrack recording and looper pedals that render voices bodiless and at the same time omnipresent. I situate the use of these technologies within the vital gendered and racialized discourse on vocal and instrumental aesthetics in jazz. I argue that sound technologies of voices, which at their core contain a contradiction between reciprocity and polarization, introduce a crucial component to this discourse, and that, in turn, jazz provides a fertile context for theorizing voices with sound technologies.

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