The insides of our mouths are the resonators of our voices. Breath and vocal cords give our voices tone and individual character, and articulators - the tongue, soft palate and lips - modify these sounds to produce words. I become most aware of these mechanics when I go to say something, but don’t. An inward breath and then an interruption, or perhaps I decide to hold my tongue and stop the words before they leave my mouth.
‘Speakable Things’, Freya Dooley’s newly commissioned sound and moving image work for Litmus at Oriel Davies, is installed within a room painted a deep pink comparable to the inside of a mouth. It is an intimate colour for an intimate space, measuring less than 2m². The mouth repeatedly appears throughout ‘Speakable Things’, as blank space interrupts out-of-sync close ups and scenes of wild landscape. Freya is interested in the voice as something in-between inside and outside, sound and language, thought and body.
In the essay ‘The Gender of Sound’, a key reference text in Freya’s research, Anne Carson expansively investigates how gendered assumptions affect the way we hear and experience the voice. Through classical mythology, philosophy, literature and popular culture, Carson considers how woman’s alleged definitive tendency is to be predisposed to leakages of all kinds, including an uncontrollable outflow of sound. Women are ‘creatures who put the inside on the outside’, they run off at the mouth, shriek, wail, sob, laugh too loudly, gossip and utter noises that are uncomfortable to the ear. According to Carson, verbal continence, or ‘Sophrosyne’ is, by contrast, constructed as a typically masculine virtue, inline with ideals of self-control, soundness of mind, moderation and balance; with a clear dissociation between the contained and the exposed. To quote Carson’s translation of Greek tragedian Euripides: ‘For it is woman’s inborn pleasure always to have her emotions coming up to her mouth and out through her tongue’. Any individual who does not possess Sophrosyne, is regarded as disorderly, a threat to power, sexually deviant, possibly dangerous.
There is a scene in the TV series ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ where a patient is being treated for ereuthrophobia hyperpyrexia - excessive blushing. She’s told about the many possible side effects of her upcoming treatment and Meredith Grey asks her whether it’s worth the risk, just over ‘a little bit of blushing’. The patient responds with: ‘Is that what you think this is? A little bit of blushing? Just a schoolgirl embarrassment?’ She continues, ‘It happens every time I have a feeling for anyone in my life. I can’t get mad. I can’t be happy. I can’t feel anything without the whole world knowing. I can’t have a secret. Can you imagine living that way your entire life?’ I mention this scene to Freya during a studio visit, thinking about how the body reveals and conceals emotion. On researching a little into the physiology of blushing, I read that blushing can’t be faked, because we can’t control it. I also encountered a study where people had to sing out loud while someone stared at one side of their face and that the cheek on the side of the face being observed blushed more than the unobserved side. The participants in the study were all women.
The narrative begins with Echo the nymph, who Carson refers to as ‘surely the most mobile female in Greek myth’. ‘Speakable Things’ uses Echo’s character to embellish and connect fragments of classical narratives to contemporary and personal experience. Freya says she enjoys the soapiness of mythology: like soap opera storytelling, Greek mythological characters reappear across multiple implausible storylines, creating an ensemble cast with a collection of staple morality plays.
Freya describes ‘Speakable Things’ as something between an essay and a performance for screen, assembling a series of real and fictional circumstances and situations. Echo is talkative, perhaps annoying, and to quote Freya’s narrative: ‘her speech is an irritant but her song is a pleasure, pleasure resonating from the inside and out between her lips’. Echo is described by Sophocles as ‘the girl with no door on her mouth’. Putting a door on the female mouth is a running theme throughout Greek mythological plot lines and for Freya; Echo is a kind of metaphor for those of us who are leaky, failing to successfully contain ourselves. There are numerous myths about Echo, each referring to the loss or removal of her voice. Ovid’s Metamorphoses describes how Echo distracted Hera with conversation to stop her from catching her husband Zeus, cheating. To punish Echo, Hera takes her voice, leaving her only able to repeat the last words of another.
The gossipy mythical storylines of Echo are collaged together with pop culture references, anecdotes and so-called guilty pleasures. Echo crosses over with female figures in the public sphere who have in some way publicly ‘broken down’, either vocally or emotionally. Women like Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Billie Holiday. After Britney’s breakdown in 2007, during which time she famously shaved her head demanding that everyone ‘stops touching me’, a conservatorship under her father was put it place. This system typically protects children and the elderly. Extraordinarily, Britney is still under that conservatorship today. Her father manages all aspects of her life, including her physical well-being and her estate. It’s likely that she will never again be able to regain her control.
‘Speakable Things’ first began with Freya considering a literal loss of voice and how this relates to grief, anxiety and emotional distress. The work has developed into a wider exploration of vocalising yourself, taking up space, overstepping. When I met with Freya for a studio visit, she spoke about the history of women in the public sphere referred to as ‘train-wrecks’; the fallen women who have spoken out, made mistakes, made messes. In ‘Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why’, author Sady Doyle writes: ‘She’s the girl who breaks the rules of the game and gets punished, which means that she’s actually the best indication of which game we’re playing, and what the rules are’.
Supporting the lyrical narratives of ‘Speakable Things’ is a soundtrack of alto opera and classical songs, sung by opera singer Alice Burrows. Alto is the lowest female operatic part and their typical narrative roles are nicknamed the ‘witches, bitches and britches’ . Freya has been exploring the use of soundtracks in several recent performances - a way to create and disrupt rhythm, to elevate and support the voice. In ‘Speakable Things’, she further explores the material quality of the voice as instrument, the soundtrack meandering between melody and kakophony. Freya is interested in the soundtrack as a reference to lipsycing and karaoke, alluding to her interest in fantasy, personas, and multiple versions of a self.
In rubbing together anecdote and auto/biographical references against she’s, we’s and they’s, ‘Speakable Things’ echoes and shifts perspectives, exploring the loss, leakage and leverage of the voice. Title cards punctuate the five segments of the film essay, titled Sophrosyne (the contained), Stoma (the opening), Kakophony (the leak), Kosmos (the silence, the order) and Apeiron (the unbounded), as referenced in Carson’s essay ‘The Gender of Sound’. Freya made the typeface out of mince meat, combining the physicality of the body with that of language. Maybe there’s also a joke in there about mincing your words.