Thursday, April 11, 2013

Let me Clear my Throat by Elena Pasarello - Review

A marvelous read all the way through, Elena Passarello’s first book, Let Me Clear My Throat is a charming and enlightening read all the way through.  The book comprises a series of short essays on the human voice, its limits, failings, and potential to soar. Each essay is well placed and contains a variety of thoroughly well researched essays on the subject of voice and what it means

"The voice of war  can turn gossip into
nicknames, dialogue into mythology."
The book is divided into three sections, Screaming Memes, Tips on Popular Singing, and The Thrown.   Screaming Memes goes into subjects such as the Wilhelm Scream, the Rebel Yell, and the "BYAH" that ended Howard Dean’s presidential race.  I’ll admit this first section was my favorite, particularly the last chapter, Harpy, which details Passarello’s loss of voice that drove her to victory at the Stella Screaming Competition, viewable here.  The essay is the first personal essay in the book, and feels very intimate.  We really understand where Passarello is coming from, and after all this radiant description of the human voice that she cares so much about, the idea of someone losing theirs seems repugnant.

Tips on Popular Singing’s “Space Oddity” delivers possibly the best possible commentary on the launch of the Golden Record on the Voyager Probe:

"Once the Voyager Probe was loaded with telemetry modulation units and spectrometers, we then made the decision to attach human voices to the contraption's flanks. And we added not just the voices of our leaders, but singing voices, including [Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode."] This is what beats out speeches and formulae and IBM The Ring Cycle.  According to NASA and Carl Sagan (and me) this is what the universe wants to hear.
Which is another way of saying that we have more faith in popular music than anything else on the planet."

Her insights into various popular singers, from the rise and fall of the Castrati to Judy Garland to the crows outside her window paint a vibrant portrait of music over the years, and had me scrambling to update my iTunes with an impressive variety of music.

The Thrown is a bit harder to summarize.  I suppose you could say it’s simply meditations on the human voice, what it means to us and why it matters so much to Passarello. This section is more freeform, and more fascinating for it.  It’s conclusion, an account of a Ventriloquist Dummy’s search for a voice all its own, is surreal and insightful all at once. 

Passarello impresses me by pulling off that trick that made me fall in love with Up Jumps the Devil, the trick of compressing sound into words.  From a scream that “Cuts a big yellow gash in the air” to an ‘Eew’ that skips out perfectly like a smooth stone across the audience, the visual, textural feeling of sound comes through magnificently.  I definitely advise reading this book with a computer handy, so you can listen to each song Passarello mentions, so that you can have the experience of nodding, as you read her words, and say “Yes.  Yes, those words are exactly the right ones for what I’m hearing.” 

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