James Overton

Even in an age when, thanks to electronic technology, the human voice can be recorded and then utilised in music as though it were simply another kind of instrument, and thus is subject to all the manipulations of the musicians, nonetheless it remains sui generis to a considerable degree. Not least because of its physical constitution, which differs essentially from the various limitations imposed upon the others by their respective constructions, it may happen that the voice only reveals or (a better verb) emits some of its own significant potentialities – which would otherwise remain undisclosed – when it is operated at less than peak proficiency or with technique that’s deficient on certain points. Then the aim of remedying weaknesses such as these, although it is commendable and comprehensible in general, might need to be implemented with caution in the case of a voice (whereas as concerns all the other instruments, a musician’s relative lack of skill could be overcome without any compunction), lest the latter’s natural power be adulterated or else refined away entirely in the course of “improving” it.

This line of thought is occasioned by a young amateur singer in Sydney named James Overton. He excels in conveying in sound the rubbed-⁠raw feeling which is the condition of minds and hearts aching under their own passions, and thus he best shows what his voice can do, when he sings the blues (or songs either similar in genre or mood, or to which the blues have leant an undertone): for, in the blues, the voice may be disposed in ways which elsewhere would be taken simply as signs of weakness or lack of expertise, such that, with every momentary vocal tremor, faltering or false note, lapse of wind, and crackling of roughness in the blues singer’s performance, to the organ’s physical nature in general, and in particular to the at times disconcerting influence exerted on it by the heart and the mind in their recollections of distress, listeners’ attention will be called – a result which, although it does not form the whole of the raison d’être for the blues as a kind of song, definitely comprises one major piece thereof. So, it seems, here the singer’s voice tends to rebel against its usual role as pure instrument, and puts its own organic existence on display instead, as though to proclaim that now it is one of the players in a real drama.

In Overton’s case, at least, this self-⁠assertion of the voice is very notable, and its strengths – which are palpable – are intertwined with some faults in an especially intricate fashion, to the point where I rather strongly suspect that work on the latter, if pushed too far, might end in sapping the force which animates the former. Although, on the other hand, even during the very short period of time in which he has been uploading recordings to his Soundcloud page, the deficiencies no longer seem as patent in the most recent numbers as in the earlier ones, and so one could discern an upward trajectory by which he might be borne quite a ways as a singer. Perhaps, in the course of this process, he is acquiring, alongside a greater self-⁠assurance, a better technique with which to modulate the passion he feels, as one hears it embodied in his voice, so that the performances would convey yet not themselves suffer from it.

Of his by now numerous passion-⁠swayed songs, it is a cover of Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been” which manifests perhaps the highest quotient of passion of all – and here the performance is filled without being marred incidentally by it, although the song itself has been transfigured, in a manner which makes me want to linger a while over his version.

Most immediately obvious is the pace, which comes across as moving much more slowly than the original’s, and by virtue of this difference some part of the meaning of the song which was at most implicit in the original, or even actively obscured by Rihanna’s rapidity, is brought to the fore. With this choice Overton has afforded the listener a sufficient span of time to register the sheer rawness in his voice and to replicate it virtually – which is to say, this quality invites one as a listener to think back to moments when in one’s own life one was aware of one’s voice being in a similar state, having been rendered raw but also and on that very account stronger, seemingly as a consequence of some large passion one felt rolling over oneself, and in effect to observe inwardly all that repeating itself once more: thus, after again ascertaining the evidently causal connection between the two occurrences, one then moves to infer from the powerful rawness in Overton’s voice that the singer too had known a like passion and in his performance really was affected by its influx. In short, as the feeling aroused by this version (whose actual genesis its slow pace may prompt a listener to explore) is sympathy, the sense of having had in common an experience that was roughly similar in its essence (which as such is opposed to that dubious species of condescension, pity), the kind of pleasure listeners might take in listening to this version, and to several of his other numbers, is or would be the one correlate to sympathy so construed.

(An aside to the theoreticians. In the preceding I have drawn upon a few points in the fine analysis of communicable states of feeling which Adam Smith provided in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, while also electing to disregard outright any hypothesis of the type advanced by Nietzsche’s Götzen-⁠Dämmerung,* according to which the raw condition of the vocal chords might in fact ever so slightly precede in the order of time the distress of head and heart that would subsequently be attributed to it as its cause, an at best semi-⁠fictional ascription obscuring the reality that between these two there could well exist some other sort of relation than a causal one – running in either direction – or perhaps no actual relation at all.)

* “Die vier grossen Irrthümer,” 3

Lest a misunderstanding arise in this connection, I hasten to note that I am not suggesting that the slower pace of his version was also an involuntary effect of his inner state. On the contrary, this tempo seems to have stemmed from a deliberate choice on Overton’s part, the aim having been to stretch the song out so that there be enough of an interval within which the rawness in his voice might manifest itself as a distinct phenomenon. (The softness of the accompanying music also has a share in holding open the interval.)

As a corollary to this, I’m inclined to remark that, on account of the speed with which she proceeded in the original song, Rihanna passed over this dimension of its possible meaning, and hence to a degree was unfaithful to it as it could have been or be.

Moreover, it is not only the tempo of the song which may be extended to memorable effect, but the voice’s articulations, the intra-⁠vocal joints, as well – and that Overton does this represents another quite noticeable characteristic of his cover. Far more than did Rihanna’s original, in his version the vowels really begin to transmit meanings all by themselves; the distances separating them from the other kind, the consonantal sounds, have often been widened, for one thing, and for another, throughout the course of the song it sounds more and more as though he’s putting everything he’s got into belting them out and even then some: in the middle and towards the end especially, there is little to no holding-⁠back in this rendition, and so the complete result anthologises several of the signals that may be sent by means of these elements of speech, the vowels, when they are extricated from the lyric text and emitted individually.

What sort of signals are these, then? Well, they are variegated, but here I am interested mainly in those which display the character of a cry, and more specifically, in the context of “Where Have You Been,” those that are cries of pain – that give voice to the distress of the heart and head already mentioned – as well as what in effect are cries for help. Seldom are both kinds of signal admitted so directly into a song, and accorded such prominence there, as they have been in Overton’s version; in consequence, it is interesting to notice how closely the difference between these two sorts of cry seems to align with one major distinction amongst the various vowels as he sings them, namely, between those which are more rectilinear in their projection, on the one side, and the rounder or more spherical ones, on the other – the occasional es and is versus the abundant as, os, and us: and, upon further reflection, the division seems quite sensible, for considered as vocal elements which are able to bear and bare a signal, the former tend of themselves to be sharp and short, while the latter can be extended quite a bit longer. In this case, however, the difference neither indicates nor affects the intensity of the feeling one hears in either instance, quanta which are roughly equal in both.

Although one might be tempted, and actually the idea would be rather plausible, to aver that in his performance Overton is taken out of himself – the singer being displaced in an ἔκστασις, off somewhere or nowhere, as long as the singing itself lasts – the prominent role played in it by these vocable signals seems to point us in a slightly different direction. For their very intensity and audibility does not only serve to convey feeling to others and/or call forth their sympathy, but it also, and, as Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit would say, more fundamentally, suggests that spaces are from moment to moment arranged and re-⁠arranged responsively to a kind of being which, as it is in every respect essentially spatial, always finds itself already placed therein, regardless of whether or not it cares to acknowledge this primary datum of even its most solipsistic periods of existence. More than that, insofar as they are signals, in fact these different kinds of vowels each pertain to specific kinds of spaces in just that way, and in so doing they constitute indices of that fundamental spatiality – even more patent as indices thereof than are the locative adverbs whose character as such was stressed by Heidegger. (Das »hier«, »dort« und »da« sind primär keine reinen Ortsbestimmungen des innerweltlichen an Raumstellen vorhandenen Seienden, sondern Charaktere der ursprünglichen Räumlichkeit des Daseins.*) All of which is to say, these vowels as emitted do not simply suggest that spaces intrinsically are correlate to beings capable of encountering them in a great variety of ways, and furthermore, under particular conditions, of becoming aware of them as such (and, so doing, thus they would augment the plausibility of a few of Heidegger’s dicta) – no, in addition, and more importantly, they also render it rather more definite how this may happen, in the exemplifications offered by their own specific instances. Hence, by considering this twofold indicative character of theirs, one may infer how it is that such a “spatialisation of space” (if such a quasi-⁠Heideggerian turn of phrase be permissible to utilise) can occur in general: note, however, that space is thought and spoken of here only in the plural, and not at all as the abstract dimension within which every particular space would by definition be subsumed.

* Sein und Zeit, sec. i, ch. iv, §26

With both kinds of vowels, it sounds as though the singer’s body, and not solely the vocal apparatus, has been disposed in a distinctive way. That it is by no means a matter of the embouchure alone, a listener may ascertain by virtue of the sympathy already mentioned which Overton has elicited, a sympathy that for its part likewise attests to the underlying spatiality of our mode of existence, for, far from designating merely an immaterial state of mind, in this sympathy listeners are moved to dispose their bodies in a manner similar to the singer’s (this point might accord well with some of Smith’s analyses), in order to sing along either in the fullest sense of the term, or else silently, with the enunciations but without the breathe behind them, or possibly merely in the deficient mode of a virtual anticipation of themselves joining in – but whatever be the manner in which they are disposed, the sympathy perhaps is at bottom nothing other than this like disposition of their bodies within a responsive, an attendant space. Accordingly, correlate to the two sorts of vowels in question here, Overton’s performance, roughly speaking, involves a pair of spatialisations, each of a different shape, both of which, by the same token, listeners may subsequently also replicate and encounter for themselves.

On the one side, the es and is that ring with cries of pain, are sonic projections: to produce them, one imagines Overton raising himself to his full height, in order to maximise the range of the sound-⁠signal, which would be shot forth even further perhaps if he were to launch it with something of a minor running start, as it were, an extra push by means of a sudden jolt of his head and torso forward just prior to the utterance. Meanwhile, the space which corresponds to the singer’s posture takes its shape under the sway of distress, that is, a state in which one’s foremost concern orientates one towards the zone stretching out some length in whichever direction it is one is facing, at the other end of which there would most likely be someone else or a few other people, whereas any other area around oneself is as good as ausgeblendet – and here, insofar as these sharp vowels amount to acts for which the verb to beseech is fitting, their ultimate aim is the reduction or elimination of the interval that exists within this zone and which separates whoever emits them from the other or the others. (In so doing, this intention or activity could exemplify Heidegger’s peculiar re-⁠definition of the term entfernen in the existential context: Entfernen besagt ein Verschwindenmachen der Ferne, d.h. der Entferntheit von etwas, Näherung.*) However, perversely, the consequence of the very effort to traverse the gap could well be to elongate it even further, as though the one or those at its other end were retreating into the distance at an equal or a more rapid rate – unhappily then the vocable signals seem to elicit only counter-⁠displacements – and the avoidance too would constitute another dimension of the shape of this kind of space.

* sec. i, ch. iii, C, §23

As regards the rounder vowels, the as, os, us, the singer’s posture is quite another. In this case, perhaps due in part to the relative openness of the mouth, in part to the large volume of breath, there needs be no additional emphatic locomotion; rather the body as a whole remains mainly immobile, poised at the centre of a space into which these sounds emanate on all sides: a circumstance which may represent the most important reason why these vocables are thought of as being round to begin with (even though spherical might be a better description). What is being maximised in a space spatialised in this way, is the obviousness of the location where one is to be found, and the signals are meant to alert someone else to seek one out – they are cries for help or at least come across as comprising something of the sort. All the while one is scanning one’s surroundings (turning one’s head around in order to look behind as well, is about the extent of the motion incidental to this posture) in order to find those others whenever they would be approaching, and also, as far as one could, to encourage them to continue, perhaps as a consequence of some sympathy (but not pity) which one has occasioned in them, by virtue of some similarity of disposition or situation, antecedent, current, or anticipated. The guiding concern in this enterprise is to locate another who would be one’s equal and capable of tendering the right kind of assistance, in communication that would actually be helpful – even though this might present all the difficulties of picking someone out from the midst of an immense crowd.

Although, in the foregoing, several parts of the meaning of the song were laid aside and only a few directly addressed, and these quite partially, Overton’s version, I should like to suggest, invites to such a wilfully incomplete consideration by virtue of its pace and the manner in which his treatment of the lyrics stretches them out. Its force is exercised not least in bringing out the significance contained in the vowels, which, in their careworn roughness, are revealed as being avowals by someone who sounds like he has found how all-⁠encompassing loneliness can feel, lived through from within. In his passionate rendition of the song the elements which elsewhere would have been mere sonic particles, now declaim Here I am! and Find me! by turns – yet there no reply is forthcoming.

Loneliness as an encompassing state is where the song in his version leaves us, and loneliness so understood is what should explain or justify the introduction here of a very few pieces of the analyses in Sein und Zeit; for, generally speaking, this state constitutes the main backdrop, usually so obvious there as not to require any mention as such, of the existential conditions Heidegger called “Befindlichkeiten” (although the term itself is met with generally in the singular, it seems patent that he had a number of them in mind), which always involve a corresponding disposition of space, of a space spatialised in a twofold correlation to the specific condition, in that those enmeshed in those conditions are placed by them as long as they last in these spaces in two senses of the verb: situated such that others may locate them in a manner befitting the condition they then happen to find themselves in, they also situate themselves in such a manner as to enable themselves to move about while within it, however haltingly they must proceed as they do so. Here, in the various delineations of this dual situation and of the limited ways in which they mainly and for the most part can become aware of it, whereby finding and seeking would evidently exclude one another as real possibilities for them, a peculiar pathos may be detected in Heidegger’s text, a tone which testifies to their fundamentally lonely state, as if in the philosopher’s view the basic human locale were henceforth the largest cities – all others having become mere attenuations thereof – the basic human type, the isolated individual lost in the crowds.

Amongst his remarks concerning “Befindlichkeit” in general, there is one that seems especially mysterious at first but for which, it becomes clearer upon further reflection, that whole urban scene constitutes the implicit setting. Als Seiendes, das seinem Sein überantwortet ist, bleibt es – i.e., in Heidegger’s terminology, Dasein – auch dem überantwortet, daß es sich immer schon gefunden haben muß – gefunden in einem Finden, das nicht so sehr einem direkten Suchen, sondern einem Fliehen entspringt.* According to Heidegger, therefore, the moment of escape from the sway of something, someone else, some other mood, is primary and perhaps also secondary in the order of time, if, that is, one takes his formulation (namely, the verb entspringen included in a dative construction) to mean that in most cases it’s only once the initial flight has come to an end or even itself then been fled from, that anything will subsequently be found instead; thus the eventual finding of it – which is to say, in the present context, the attainment of a fuller self-⁠awareness of one’s own situation, fleeting as the latter in turn might prove to be – would represent a third step: for this very reason, however, insofar as in attaining this awareness the course had been set much more according to the indirection of negative avoidance than by a positive search for something definite, the provisional outcome to an appreciable degree would emerge out of chance and error – forth from the vicissitudes which proliferate most obviously in large cities.

* sec. i, ch. v, A, §29

That this haphazard urban loneliness is the implicit setting of “Where Have You Been” in Overton’s version as well, will I hope by now have become a plausible statement of the case. Yet, in this performance, there is another dimension to the situation in which the singer found himself when he sought to bring out some of the meaning left untouched by the original, a situation into which one has likewise to venture or re-⁠enter with one’s sympathy if one’s aim is to comprehend his work: and it’s to this, in concluding this overlong essay, that I should like to direct attention. This further dimension emerges when, after the original’s rapid search for its “you” is slowed down and then the singer steps back from that pursuit itself, the latter is offered as a subject for reflection – for how indeed could anyone or anything possibly persist for very long at this peak of desperate intensity? And how did things ever come to this pass to begin with? At which point, rather than squander his passion any longer on someone who’s conspicuously absent, the singer with all the force he can muster, fires off vocal questions at “all my life” instead, a span of personal history that now, evidently in answer to this mood of fierce self-⁠assessment, crystallises into a region from which he could withdraw if he should so choose, to find himself elsewhere anew.