Scone or scone? Trevor Cox at the Swindon Lit Fest

8 May
Trevor Cox - voice and gesture

Trevor Cox – voice and gesture

Scone or scone? It was the first time I’d seen a British Isles scone map – not to indicate the availability of a cream tea, but of gone scones and stone scones and, which were you? The Scots and Northerners were decisive (gone scone) and most of the south said stone scone, though Swindon – backed up by a quick audience poll – was a mixed bag of scones.

Interestingly, Northern Ireland said Sc(t)one and the Republic of Ireland said Sc(g)one.

So does this tell us anything about ourselves? Is the scone fight a throwback to our early ancestors, when, if the other tribe sounded the same as ourselves they were probably good sorts or, at least, our sort?

So scone may still cause ructions but what’s happened to the oo arr in arm? And why does the Queen sound so different now than seventy years ago?

What’s happening to our voices?

Trevor Cox took us on an entertaining and fact-filled journey through the history and future sound of our voices. It’s the second day of Swindon Festival of Literature and, as festival director Matt Holland said, he set the bar high.

Trevor Cox

Trevor Cox

Trevor is a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford and advises, among other things, on the intelligibility of TV drama. Apparently, since the demise of Received Pronunciation, drama directors have to choose between naturalistic speech and annunciation, i.e. is it vital that audiences understand what actors are saying? Which reminds me of something Chronicler Pete said the other day when watching zombie survivalist series, The Walking Dead. ‘I prefer the bad guys,’ he said. ‘I can understand what they’re saying. Rick and Daryl mumble.’ It’s true. These days TV and streaming services without subtitles aren’t just a pain in the butt for the hearing impaired.

This could have easily been a dry science talk. But not with that scone map, an MRI scan of an opera singer singing Wagner, and an endoscopic camera up a nose of another singer so we could see her vocal folds (not cords) as she sang (totally impressed she sang while that was going on. Judging by the reaction, the Swindon audience couldn’t look at it, let alone have the procedure done and sing a scale at the same time!)? And then a quick YouTube vid of Barcelona by the late Freddie Mercury and Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé. This pairing of opposites, pop rock and opera, demonstrated how legibility and versatility is sacrificed to achieve the sheer power required of the acoustic operatic voice to sing to large crowds.

What can we expect for and from our voices in the future? Those crazy Japanese are turning out for power pop concerts by pop star Hatsun Miko who’s completely created by a computer, including the vocals. But it’s not just fictional singers; our own voices can be reconstructed, a boon for both identity thieves and sufferers of Motor Neurone Disease who’ve lost their voice.

But what of the Queen? Partly the effects of aging, but she’s less plummy too. And what of the arr in arm? And cockney? Accents are fading away as different cultures and languages mix – in real life and through technology – and absorb each others dialects. And they probably want to fit in more, just like the Queen. That might not please traditionalists like historian David Starky, said Trevor, but, like all evolution, ‘that’s what happens’.

Trevor Cox, author of Now You’re Talking, appeared at Swindon Arts Centre, 8 May 2018, as part of Swindon Festival of Literature.

Photos © Fernando Bagué.


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