Once when I was in London, a friend invited me to a production of Naked Boys Singing! I mean, we also went to see Troilus and Cressida at The Globe, but I digress… As I recall, Naked Boys Singing!, while not without interest, has virtually no plot, just a series of songs. (Also, the title is an unsettling misnomer – there are no children onstage.) The musical story-telling is generally uplifting, generally celebratory of bodies. The nudity is not entirely gratuitous, since the songs touch on themes such as circumcision, sex, and masculinity in general, but the nudity is generally what motivates people to buy tickets, apparently – what a shocker! Of course I am being sarcastic – we still live in a society starved for a greater understanding of our own bodies, which includes, even, how they look. And, perhaps, how they sound…
I bring this up because I sometimes wonder about the relationship between the body and the voice, and how, or if, voice can be affected by nudity. Because our voice is an inherently corporeal phenomenon, can it be related to clothing? Obviously the voice comes from inside the body, and yet there may be reasons that it could be affected by the degree to which the body – and not just the neck or throat – is covered. Are you more completely naked if you are speaking or singing in that state? Do voices carry better over the surface of the pool if the swimmers are nude?
Imagine a time, long long ago, when there wasn’t much distinction between swimming and bathing, between our bodies and the natural world, or among speaking, chanting, singing and other kinds of vocalizations. In the same way that a crow’s call is simply a part of its nature – a part of its being in nature – or a wolf’s howl or a bear’s growl or a frog’s croak – the human voice is part of our natural manifestation, even long before the existence of organized languages. We know that the quality of our voice changes throughout the day, or after drinking a cold or a hot beverage, or if we are fighting an upper respiratory infection, or if our mouth is muffled by an anti-Covid 19 mask! It makes sense that wearing a tight necktie, or a tight shirt or blouse, might restrict the quality of the voice. Church choirs generally wear loose robes, after all, and yet many other choirs or individual singers wear tight suits or tight dresses.
I don’t know, but I’d bet that the singing actors in Naked Boys Singing! might have something to say about this. They have to be very bold to be completely nude onstage, and in movement, not just standing still. And I do think that they have to be even bolder to sing while nude. The first few songs, if I remember correctly, are sung while clothed, and the remainder while nude. I did not notice any kind of difference in the sound quality of their voice that could have depended on their clothing or lack thereof. But what if it’s because I myself was, as were all the others in the audience, fully dressed? In other words, what if clothing not only affects the production of our voice, but also our ability to receive and interpret the voices of others?
It’s a topic I explored in my second novel, Aglow, in the final scene around the rainforest lake when the vibrations produced by a large group of nude people humming together play a key role:
Jônatas, dancing too, shouted out to us, his face ecstatic […] and then his words escaped from recognizable Portuguese, giving way to pure vocalizations, unsettling yet beautiful–the presence of his voice freed from the strictures of grammar, semantics, and pronunciation.
What it sounded like was a release, a liberation–and I wanted to try it, too. Zé and I both undressed our voices as we danced on, letting out trills and moans and shrieks and whoops as naked as our fantastic bodies that birthed them. (p . 236)
In this passage, I’m suggesting that grammar is to our natural voice as clothing is to the body – an analogy that might hold in some contexts, certainly. But it was the need for the characters’ humming to come from unclothed bodies that made the difference in my hypothetical and climactic scenario.
Choosing to go nude is certainly a “statement,” even if made purely by the body itself without the voice. In any case, these are some of the topics that fascinate me related to nudity and voice, that I intend to continue to explore.