This month’s Sound Voice Project concert promises to be a captivating celebration of the beauty and value of the human voice, performed by people with lived experience of voice loss alongside renowned singers. Ahead of the event, Sound Voice artistic director/composer Hannah Conway and writer Hazel Gould speak with performers Paul Jameson (Paul), Tanja Bage (Tanja), Sara Bowden Evans (Can You Hear My Voice/I Left My Voice Behind), and Stephen Panke (The Willow Tree).
Please could you describe what ‘voice’ means to you
Tanja: What Voice means to me has changed so much. It was something I took for granted, I used to act and I loved to sing. It was my instrument, my creative expression, my femininity, my identity and part of my personality. It was my different roles from partner, friend, colleague and mother to my kids. I miss the sound of my old voice and the ease of talking effortlessly. I miss being expressive and the playfulness of how I used to talk and laugh with my kids. I think I make up for that now with my facial expressions and body language.
Paul: A voice is the primary form of communication and how you express yourself, your emotions and feelings. A voice defines you and your personality, it enables you to make connections with people.
Sara: When I lost my voice, it was all about losing my personality. It’s not just about spoken word when you’ve had a laryngectomy because you lose sounds. I can’t laugh anymore because there is no noise. Now I can speak and communicate – but there’s another side to it and it’s really difficult to come to terms with that. The natural and spontaneous sounds don’t come out. It doesn’t mean I am miserable though!
Hazel: When I started working on this project I probably would have answered that voice is about expression and communication – but since working on Sound Voice and meeting so many incredible collaborators, I have learned so much about how our voices carry our histories and our identities. When we say that someone “has a voice” we’re often referring to people with power, who will be listened to. I think through working on this project, I have become more and more interested in learning to listen better to voices which don’t fit the mould.
Hannah: I find it hard to separate ‘voice’ from a musical voice, this endless instrument with so many different colours and emotional possibilities. It’s the ultimate vessel for who we are.
‘When I lost my voice, it was all about losing my personality.’
How have you collaborated [with Hannah and Hazel] to make the new musical works?
Paul: I attended many zoom sessions which explored voice and voice loss, whilst trying to understand what the voice is and why it’s so important. I have also worked with Hannah and Hazel on ‘Paul’s Aria’ [over many months] performing at the London Coliseum with Roddy Williams and at the Snape festival.
Tanja: We collaborated together on the impact losing my voice has had on me as a woman and mother to two young children whilst going through a global pandemic. Hazel and Hannah interviewed me at length on quite a few occasions where we explored every part of what my voice means to me and the impact losing it has had on me. I shared with them personal thoughts and feelings, from the days leading up to my surgery to have a laryngectomy. All of my worries and fears and everything that followed on from that. I thought the way they took on board everything I shared with them was handled with care, sensitivity and turned into something very moving, beautiful, creative and personal to me.
Sara: It was a really special moment meeting Gwen (Gweneth Ann-Rand) and recording the song Can You Hear My Voice. The other work [I Left My Voice Behind], I think it’s an amazing piece. I’m not sure how much I said personally was included, but I think it gets the message across. I wish we’d had more time in zoom meetings to meet everyone…as we were mixed with many different researchers and healthcare professionals. It does represent what we [Shout At Cancer choir] were talking about and how we were feeling.
Hazel: My main responsibility was to listen really carefully. People’s lives are complicated and messy, but when we tell a story, we want to have clarity – a throughline. I wanted to tell clear stories, while honouring the whole expansive lives that people lead, which intersect, are informed by, and diverge from their experience of voice loss.
Stephen: As the Parkinson’s component [Sing For Joy, London choirs] of the Sound Voice project we found the team to be inspiring. Our group members were transformed. They moved confidently from whisper to forceful speech and rediscovered their voice.
Hannah: This project has been such a privilege – working very intimately to understand and create a musical language for sensitive, individual stories. The conversations, relationships and pieces we’ve built feel very precious – I feel a huge responsibility for everyone; to take great care and make musical stories that have heart and integrity.
What happens to your story when your words (either from your own poem [Sara], or verbatim from interviews [Paul+Tanja] are then transformed into lyrics/set to music? How has this felt?
Paul: We all know how music touches the soul and this is how it felt. Paul’s Aria is a very personal story and that just added to the emotion and feeling, especially as my wife and family were in the audience.
Tanja: It’s difficult to put into words how it makes me feel. It makes me feel an intense sadness about everything that I have been through and the way that I communicate, in particular with my children has changed forever. I struggle to listen to it without crying but I am so proud of the work we made and feel it captures exactly how I have experienced the loss of my voice. I feel it gives hope and there is an optimism at the end of the piece about how I am ok.
Sara: When my text is lifted into music, it brings it to life. It was something I wrote as a personal exercise to start with. I’d read it out at a rehabilitation class. Everyone could relate to it as they’d all had a laryngectomy. But hearing it performed now by someone else – the message is the same, but the fact it’s being taken seriously being put to music. It’s more powerful. I’ve a limit in the intonation in my voice but they [the opera singers] can make the bits that need to be more powerful.
Hannah: For me, music is the most incredible essence, vehicle and wardrobe. I can clothe words, giving them different colours and meaning, or leave them totally naked! I can create acres of space for audiences to think and feel; be still – or move with pace and drama – sweep everyone along with passion or urgency. It’s terrifying and thrilling at the same time, transforming text into song. I am always thinking about the voices that I am writing for and the audience’s experience, trying to create a musical language and physicality special to each story.
Hazel: As a librettist, it’s always thrilling to hear the words that you’ve written turn into something bigger through music, but in this project it was particularly special, because I could hear how Hannah had captured something on the nature of each collaboration within the musical world.
What was the process as works moved from ideas to paper – to musical score – to performance? What changed/what stayed the same?
Paul: The aria has pretty much stayed the same and I don’t feel much needs to be changed. If anything I’d like more rehearsal…I always like to give everything I do my best shot and I’m worried that I may mess up at the King’s Place if I don’t practice enough in advance!
Tanja: It was a very collaborative and organic process and as the words moved from ideas to paper and onto the performance we just naturally found and changed anything that didn’t feel right, or flow. The majority of it stayed the same if I am honest as we collaborated on everything, so there was never a moment of any big surprises or feeling like the point had been missed or lost. There were a few things we removed or tweaked but I think because I was so involved with it the changes just naturally happened as we stumbled across anything that wasn’t quite right.
What do you want audiences to know about ‘losing voice’ or ‘gaining new voice’?
Tanja: Losing my voice has felt like losing a limb. I miss it and I grieve it. I hear it all the time. I think in my old voice and it pops up and catches me by surprise in my dreams when I open my mouth to speak. It soothed my children in the middle of the night, shushing and singing lullabies. It told stories and got into character and put on funny voices for my kids. It was my instrument and my creative expression and sang beautifully and performed in shows. It was confident, feminine, bubbly and chatty and loved to laugh!! It is a part of me that’s gone forever now which I am learning to accept. My new voice isn’t so bad and I’ve learnt how to use it. It still sounds like me, my old voice is hiding in there but it can be unpredictable and sometimes it just doesn’t work or do what I want it to do. I think it’s less confident now, it doesn’t always work the way I want it to at the school gates when I’m trying to chat to the other mums and it now laughs and cries silently. I have accepted and got used to the way I sound, as have my family and friends but this doesn’t mean my heart doesn’t ache a little. There are so many things I miss, like being able to laugh with sound, cry, sing and just do so many other things with my voice that we take for granted. I think my personal relationship with my new voice and grieving my old voice is a journey I will always be on.
Sara: It’s important to raise awareness and understanding. If you can’t see somebody but can hear their voice, don’t judge without knowing. I don’t speak on the phone as most people think I am male. I’ve had such rude comments. If you could raise awareness – people wouldn’t be so judgemental.
Paul: Most people take voice for granted both for communication and a way of expressing themselves. When you have no voice, you can use tech to communicate, but it’s very difficult to express feelings or emotion – music helps to bridge this, it gives you a chance to show your true self as if you have your voice back again.
‘I think my personal relationship with my new voice and grieving my old voice is a journey I will always be on’
In our industry there is a big conversation about whose stories are told and why. How do you feel you were central in this process? Do you feel this work represents your story?
Paul: I feel I was only central to this process as I have lost my voice, so in that respect, I did feel central, but only one part of the jigsaw, as everyone played an important role. The work with Sound Voice is all part of a bigger story of how I’ve found ways to cope with MND and voice loss. It is however a very important, rewarding and interesting part of the journey I’ve been on and I feel very lucky and honoured to be involved.
Tanja: I feel I always remained at the centre of this process, Hannah and Hazel handled so very sensitively handled the telling of my story and this work reflects it in such a beautiful and heart-breaking way. You feel the grief, the tragedy, the fear and onto the hope and optimism that things will be ok.
Hazel: It’s really welcome that our industry is beginning to interrogate itself – in terms of who gets a platform to write and perform work, and whose stories are told. I see the way I work as being artisanal, so I bring some craft to the process of creating this work, and our collaborators bring the raw material – and we make something that we could only make together. It’s a great honour to be trusted in this way, and Hannah and I have tried to respect that trust all the way along. But questioning the process, and our role as artists in it, is actually a vital part of the process. Throughout we continued to check in about how best to go about certain elements of the work. In short – I don’t know the answer to this question, but I am sure that the conversation, the questioning, is helping improve what we make and how we make it.
Paul: Why not? They are central to making that connection with someone with voice loss, so there needs to be that bridge. It’s more about the artist’s ability to make an empathetic and meaningful connection.
Tanja: I think if done collaboratively and with people who have the experience then absolutely they can. It’s about the research and the relationships made with those of who have the experience of losing our voices. I had total trust in Hazel and Hannah and felt very empowered by working with them and grateful that they were doing this, helping us tell our stories.
Sara: I think it all helps to raise awareness. The artists are listening to the person that has had the issue. If they have a platform to be able to do it – then it shouldn’t be an issue.
With thanks to Sara, Tanja, Stephen and Paul for their time and contributions to this conversation.
For more information about The Sound Voice Project: www.soundvoice.org