Let Me Clear My Throat
LINER NOTES to Let My Clear My Throat
How could a book on the human voice not come with its own soundtrack? A few months ago, Sarabande sent an advanced copy of Elena Passarello’s Let My Clear My Throat to Atlanta-based musician and producer CJ Bargamian, just to see what from the book might inspire him. The result? An EP of five vibrant and very different tracks, each inspired by an essay. These songs even use lines from Let Me Clear My Throat, rearranged, as their lyrics. We asked Bargamian to walk us through each stellar track.
- "Down in the Holler," inspired by the essay on Marlon Brando’s “Stella!” Yell
I may be a clownish brute/ but I need you. / This voice of mine / it shakes the alleyways. / I say I am here and you will hear me / I will die in vain if you don’t come to me.
CJ SAYS: The rhythm in this song was created out of fabric tearing and doors slamming, both inspired by things from the scene in Streetcar. I didn't need that old pair of underwear anyway, and it sure sounded good when I ripped it. Anyway, on top of the rhythm, I layered atmosphere that felt good for the scene (echoes-down-the-street, some whistling, the sound of rain recorded in my yard) and the lyrics are all from the essay. I did the vocals kinda in a breathy, broken, scratchy, sad-man way to reflect the character’s inner vulnerability.
- “The Wilhelm Scream,” inspired by the essay about the 1951 cult sound clip that has appeared in over 200 feature films.
Even the smoke / that curls from his cigarette / stows away on the tape / Wilhelm studied my mouth so he can match my face.
CJ SAYS: Instead of focusing on the specific films in which the infamous scream has been heard, I opted to imagine the rationale of the sound designer who created it. I love the thought of a man sitting in a dark and smoky studio in 1951, surrounded by the rudimentary recording equipment of the era, struggling to create a sound to be matched with film of a man being eaten by a fake alligator.
- “How to Spell the Rebel Yell,” inspired by the essay on the infamous Civil War cry.
The voices of war/ can trick our selves / into nicknames /and iron law /into myth…. A scream is / essentially / the sound of the self / trying to run / it was the sweetest music that I ever heard.
CJ SAYS: I imagined this piece in two parts. The first section is a bunch of Yanks takin' it easy in the calm between battles; a bit on edge, but no fighting. Then there's a brief buildup of thundering drums followed by the loud, terrifying/beautiful chaos of the Johnny Rebs attacking and screaming. Hell, there's even a light marching motif in there.
- “Please Hold,” Inspired by the essay on telephonic voices.
A lie can be useful / make parting last painful. / This wire is the last thing that’s joining us together. / Last night I slept with the telephone.
CJ SAYS: The image the struck me most about this essay was of someone sleeping with a telephone – not in the hopes of it ringing, but rather as a stand-in for the person who is not calling. Percussion on this recording was created by Mark Carbone, and his approach was completely different from what I originally intended – which is why I like it! Many of the lines in this piece come from Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine, which Elena references in the essay.
- “A Monstrous Little Voice,” inspired by the essay on ventriloquism
I am made of cloth and wood and I / can’t move my eyes at all ….when I give a show I feel / manipulated .
CJ SAYS: A surprisingly gloomy for a tune about a ventriloquist dummy, but I opted not to go the easy route and make it sound like a goofy circus. Instead, I chose to focus on how sad a dummy's life could be – unable to do anything on his own, and never being able to speak for himself. I wanted it to have a light ‘skittishness’ to it (hence the strange percussion, once again provided by Mark Carbone), which I will admit was inspired by Mr. Marbles…a dummy featured in the “The Chicken Roaster” episode of Seinfeld. Look it up – you’ll thank me.
Down In The Holler
Here we have a film still of Brando at his most filmable: garments rent and wet, hands cradling his temples, and the name of a star on his wide, taut lips. A half-dressed mass of wet sinew and moxie could keep any scene in the cultural memory, but “Stella!” would never be “Stella!” without Brando’s gloriously ugly noise.
Most speech teachers will tell you the best way to tax your “instrument” is either to flatten the sound hole made by your lips, jaw and throat, or to finish your words in the rear of the mouth, rather than at the lips and front teeth. Throughout his movie career, Brando, the forebear of Mumblecore, rolled his voice toward his molars, where it slumped over his epiglottis like a delinquent schoolboy at the back of the bus. “Stella!” is no exception. That clenched neck squashes his airway, and his downturned mouth and retracted tongue reduce resonance. The bared teeth add grit and rape tone. If this voice had come from an inanimate instrument—a trombone, say-- it would be one whose bell and slide had been run over by a streetcar.
To read full excerpt, click on the link at the bottom of this page.
—John Jeremiah Sullivan
“When I first read Elena Passarello's essay, ‘How to Spell the Rebel Yell’, I was so excited I pumped my fist in the air and let out a celebratory, "Yessssss!" Her much-anticipated collection, Let Me Clear My Throat has that effect on the reader. This book is a stunning and exhilarating intellectual romp, each piece singing with the muscled verbal and emotional intensity of a great Sinatra song; it's both a Whitman-esque yawp and an elegant dance through the personal, natural, and cultural history of the irrepressible human voice. I love this book. It will teach you things, shake up what you thought you knew, and change the way you listen to the world around you. It might even make you want to holler.” —Steven Church, author ofThe Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record, and editor of The Normal School
“Elena Passarello's writing sings—and screams, quavers, and falls meditatively hushed—and this collection captures that startling range with the charm of the tracks on a crackling, spinning LP.”
"With her extraordinary powers of listening, Elena Passarello helps us hear the sorrow, the epiglottis, and the Allegheny River in the many wondrous things the voice can do besides talking."