The Body at a Distance: What Singing High Notes Might Tell us About Gender

Freya Jarman

This paper sketches out the theoretical foundation for a wide-ranging project on the gendered implications of singing high notes. With reference to a wide range of vocal music (plainchant, crooning, opera from the sixteenth century to the twentieth, doowop, Broadway, the countertenor revival(s), disco, and more), I argue that high notes can signify a range of concepts that may not, at first glance, be gendered (childhood, innocence, youth, passion, or racial difference, and so on), but that are nonetheless intricately bound up with gender performativity. Ultimately, this is because ‘gender’ does not ‘intersect’ with race, ethnicity, age, class, size, and so on, but is instead precisely the intersection itself of all those features (even as they too are already performative). Vocal high notes therefore illustrate something of the radical complexity of gender performativity and its reach far beyond consideration of sexual difference. Yet the voice operates as something of a paradox, for even though it is intensely of the body (Connor 2000; Dolar 2006; Jarman-Ivens 2011), it also has to exceed the boundaries of the body that produces it; Guy Rosolato describes the voice as the body’s capacity to act at a distance (1976). Yet the relevance of the voice for the operation of gender has not yet been fully addressed; Butler’s “bodies that matter” (1993), for instance, are remarkably silent, and yet the voice is arguably at least as important to the performance of gender as other, more tangible, “corporeal theatrics” (Butler 1990). Indeed, the voice may be the site best suited to understand the intersectional nature of gender, because of its capacity to embody numerous “vectors of power” (Butler 1993) whilst appearing to transcend the fixity of any one such vector; this, I argue, is what the high note can tell us.