Earworms, Other Enemies, and Our Voice as Shelter

by Chris Tonelli



Organizers of Western Front’s VOICE OVER mind festival have billed it as a festival of “unusual singers and extreme vocalists.” One question most unusual or extreme vocalists have to get used to hearing often is “why sing like that?”, or, stated differently, “why do you make those sounds?” Though different vocalists may have distinct reasons or answers to this question, the programming of the 3rd VOICE OVER mind festival suggested its own answer by pairing two works dealing with mass media as a threat to agency (Camile Hesketh & Petra van der Schoot’s Feed & Eric Bünger’s the third man) with two sets of works (Tomomi Adachi’s varied set & Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s 12 Lunar Meditations) that demonstrated highly agentic forms of music making and collaboration. By reflecting on the repetition that renders propaganda effective and the essential role media criticism plays in the maintenance of healthy democracies, we can begin to point to the ways in which difference in all its forms acts as the enemy of repetition and a tool fostering the growth of critical consciousness. In a society that places extensive limits on how the voice can and should be used, the act of vocalizing outside of those limits is a disruptive gesture, a transcendence of arbitrary social prohibitions that can encourage further acceptance of difference and denaturalization of the familiar.


Earworms, Other Enemies, and Our Voice as Shelter[i]


What do we want from the voice? Stop and think about it. What do you want from your voice? What do you want from the voices of others?

What do we want from the mind? It’s another question worth pausing for. What do we want from our own minds? What do we want from the minds of others?

Now let’s flip the question. What does our voice want from us? Is that a question we can ask? If it is, do we give the voice what it wants?

What does our mind want from us? Does it want the same as the voice?

One more question—what might it mean for the voice to be “over” the mind? Does the voice want us to help it to be over the mind now and then? Is the VOICE OVER mind festival helping her break that glass ceiling?

The thoughts that follow are a reflection on the 3rd VOICE OVER mind festival, which took place at The Western Front artist-run centre March 18-23, 2015. The festival included a vocal workshop led by Tomomi Adachi; the premiere of Camile Hesketh and Petra van der Schoot’s Feed; a performance of Erik Bünger’s the third man; the premiere of Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s song cycle 12 Lunar Meditations as performed by Gottlieb with Aram Bajakian (guitar), Peggy Lee (cello), Dylan Van Der Schyff (drums), Meredith Bates (violin), and the VOICE OVER mind choir (participating in this performance were Carol Sawyer, Donna Lytle, Diana Stewart-Imbert, Viviana Caro, Graham Webber, Soressa Gardner, Mark Parlett, Laura Crema, and Ross Birdwise) directed by DB Boyko; a solo set of free improvisations, structured improvisations, and compositions by Adachi; two post-concert talk back sessions; and an impromptu unadvertised wrap-up discussion held in the Grand Luxe Hall of Western Front on March 24th.

The mind is in the body and is of the body. The long history in Western thought of imagining the two as separate has been thoroughly critiqued by recent thinkers who have argued we should be wary of attempts to naturalize this imagined binary. But how does the voice figure into this mind/body debate? The voice is produced by the body, but is also separate from it, formed from the manipulation of air. The mind also contributes to vocal production, but it seems true to speak of vocal and non-vocal oral sound that emerges from the body but not the mind—though the mind controls the body (and vice versa) and the mind/body in collaboration with the atmosphere produces the voice, the mind/body is an imperfect controller and vocal and non-vocal oral sound emerge both as the result of intention and accident. In this way, voice being “over” mind might mean embracing the inevitable accidental in the voice, allowing space for it to determine more of what becomes voice.

However, the minds and voices we might want to consider may not be those produced by the same singular body. The minds of others might get into our voices. Equally likely, the voices of others might get into our voices. The “accident voices” of others might inform our vocal intentions and the vocal intentions of others might lead us to want for accident.

I need to begin again here with a personal experience. The morning after the final performance of this VOICE OVER mind festival, I woke up and the first thought I had was a voice and a melody. My mind repeatedly sang three successive melodic phrases as I began my day. They were my thoughts for much of the morning and they faded later in the day. They’re back now as I write this (but gone as I edit weeks later). The three phrases together (at least as I’ve remembered or misremembered them) consisted of sixteen notes. My earworm sang eleven of those notes wordlessly to me that morning and sang five of them with words. The first three words I retained were a sequence: “was the same.” The two syllables of the fourth word were divided between two pitches. These two pitches were the last in the sequence of sixteen. The two-syllable word was “woman.”

Bünger’s the third man is about melody. But, it’s also about melody as delivered by voices we’ve gendered as female emerging from bodies we’ve gendered as female. The lecture-performance characterizes melody as a “destructive power,” a force that eats at the grey matter of our brains, hollowing us, making us humourless and unintelligent, reducing our consciousness to “one thing and one thing only,” the repetition of sixteen or eleven or eighteen or twenty-three or seven notes. In other words, the piece is about my earworm and others like it.

Beyond this basic thematic surface, at Western Front the third man seemed to be about different things to different members of the audience. I couldn’t stop thinking of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, a classic text that critiqued the aspects of media that diminish our critical capacity while offering strategies to counter its force. I couldn’t stop thinking about the way production aesthetics confer or erode authority and awe in the contemporary mediascape. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much more informed the public could be if we were exposed to less propaganda and more truth. I just couldn’t get these thoughts out of my head. I felt as if the familiar experience of our minds being taken over by the earworm was being positioned by Bünger as a smaller part of a broader power the contemporary media has to shape the minds of the public. The expansion of the theme of the earworm into this broader theme emerged for three reasons: 1) His examples were almost all taken from the media industrial complex, Hollywood films and music videos owned by the “big three” music labels that control around 70% of the global music market; 2) The language Bünger employs in this piece can come across as an exaggerated description of the effects of the earworm but it might well be an appropriate description of the power of media to dull our critical capacities; 3) The programming of that night’s concert—throughout the third man I couldn’t stop thinking about Feed.

Feed is a work about other external forces that are as invasive as the earworm and, perhaps, even more destructive than melody. Feed is about celebrity, reality television, the effects of social media, the surveillance state, and gender interpellation. These themes were invoked as we watched Hesketh’s face both in front of us and also doubled (real-time broadcast billboard-sized) as these forces broke her down, reducing her consciousness to the most basic sense impressions: successions of instances of colour recognition. After experiencing Feed, which I felt to be a devastating depiction of the effects of the media, I saw Bünger’s work as continuing the same themes, moving us further into explorations of the invasive and inescapable power of corporate media conglomerates through considerations of the ways the media industrial complex has harnessed the power of melody. However, the differences in interpretation of the third man amongst the members of the audience were obvious; not everyone was meditating on these broader neo-Brechtian themes. This was obvious via the fact that half the room was laughing throughout the piece.

I asked Bünger after the performance that night how often audiences laugh during the third man. He told me that in some countries no one laughs. He also told me that the laughter in Vancouver was similarly present when he performed the piece in Toronto.

The fact that some were laughing and others weren’t at Western Front isn’t itself proof that different interpretations of the third man were present; some people react to disturbing facts with laughter, others with silence. However, I sensed a divide in the quality of some of the audience’s laughter and in some of their silences. Henri Bergson argued that laughter is, most often, a way to correct others. I felt as if some of the audience were laughing to correct Bünger of his exaggerated descriptions, saying ‘yes, the earworm is an annoyance but the grey matter of my brain is still intact’ or ‘we’re no more humourless or unintelligent in the long run because of the earworms we’ve experienced.’ This corrective laughter may be justified if Bünger’s piece is indeed about the earworm and the earworm alone. If his piece is about the power of the media and the role of melody in securing that power, his language may have been perfectly appropriate.

One of the first moments of laughter that night emerged from the section of the third man dealing with the plot of the film version of The Sound of Music. In this section, the central character of the film, Maria, played by Julie Andrews, is characterized by Bünger as an agent in the earworm army. He retells the plot, recounting how Maria is brought in as a nanny and tutor in a family devoid of music and quickly brings song into the lives of the seven children she comes to care for. He then plays the famous scene where Andrews sings “Do-Re-Mi” on a mountaintop, prompting the children to join in, which they eventually do with the exaggerated enthusiasm characteristic of the musical theatre of the era. He pauses the scene at a moment where the children, now transformed through the “injection” of melody into their previously “unexploited bodies,” are all in line after singing and frolicking in various other formations across the mountaintop and he then transitions to an illustration of a machine built in 1829 designed to produce aspects of human speech. The illustration depicts five anthropomorphic mouths in line, each protruding from small boxes, each labelled with one of the five vowels, and all attached together to a cog-wheel device. He then splits the screen horizontally, with the speaking machine below the image of the children in line and laughter erupts from half of the audience as he describes how “the structure of the two images is close to identical, it’s a structure of submission and ruthless dominance.” In the image, Andrews is to left of the row of children, perfectly in line with the cog-wheel device that controls the mechanical mouths. Some of those who laughed seemed to be correcting Bünger of his comparison, resisting the notion that children singing are “ruthlessly dominated” or akin to automatons. Likely, these individuals saw the children as children. Conversely, some of those who didn’t laugh may have viewed the children as actors hired by 20th Century Fox to participate in a for-profit enterprise that creates demand for its product through harnessing the power of melody and has the power to ensure its products take up a substantial portion of the available space within the public sphere, appearing again and again and again and again, rendering other thoughts, other ideas, and other songs less visible in the process.

It’s not simply melody, of course, that hollows or that creates the earworm, it’s repetition of melody. Repetition is the source of the power Bünger theorizes, whether he’s talking simply of melody or of ideology. My earworm was incubated through repetition. The single most repetitious moment of Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s 12 Lunar Meditations injected itself into my previously unexploited body. In a slow, cyclical moment towards the end of the cycle, Carol Sawyer and Donna Lytle sang distinct strains of melody that would combine to become my earworm. Sawyer’s strain repeated about thirty times.

Repetition can happen within a musical work, as in 12 Lunar Meditations, or it can happen through works being made audible in public space over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. Is that what the voice wants? To repeat? The submission Bünger claims is demonstrated in that scene from The Sound of Music is surely a joyful form of submission for some. The children are all smiles as many have been who have repeated “Do-Re-Mi” with their voices in innumerable contexts since the song first appeared in 1959 (Bünger reminds us that for decades the film was screened at sing-along screenings). Given this joy, we need to ask: Is the third man a humorous exaggeration of the implications of the earworm or a sober reminder that aesthetics play a role in forms of social control? It can function as both, but ultimately one of these assessments is more true than the other.

The cultural theorist Theodor Adorno is the great-granddaddy of theorizing musical repetition as a destructive force. His critique dealt overtly with the media industrial complex as the source of repetition that hollows. Adorno was primarily concerned with a form of repetition we haven’t yet invoked: his sense that distinct pieces of popular music were repetitions of one another, lacking individuality. Adorno’s theory is both dangerous and essential. It is essential because encounters with difference are fundamental to the development of our ability to effectively foster the cross-cultural communication and understanding necessary to building peace and justice in our complex world. It is dangerous because it affords Adorno the misplaced authority to determine what qualifies as difference and repetition and he exercises that authority without a nuanced understanding of what manifests as difference in the experiences of others. Sadly, Adorno tended to universalize musical meaning.

Does Bünger’s argument extend the essential part of Adorno’s intervention? Does melodic repetition do damage to our critical faculties while enriching a hegemonic media industrial complex? In thinking about this question, we want to be sure not to make the same mistakes Adorno made. I don’t know for sure what others saw in the third man when they laughed or what meanings emerge when they hear or sing “Do-Re-Mi” and I do think it is likely different people laughed at different times for different reasons. However, without knowing for sure, I am intrigued by the fact other audiences outside of Canada don’t laugh and I am tempted to theorize that there may be a link between the fact some Canadians laugh during the third man and the sad state of media criticism and political engagement within this country in the current era. I didn’t laugh at the third man because I can’t help but view aesthetics as an effective tool of social control. As such, I don’t find the suggestion that Julie Andrews participates in a structure of “ruthless dominance” to be absurd (though I’m careful not to universalize any one manifestation of the work “Do-Re-Mi” does in the world). Beyond merely being a corrective to his exaggeration, I feel as if some of the laughter that occurred was laughter in lieu of engagement with any of the implications of Bünger’s argument. I feel as if it was laughter that said: “Of course “Do-Re-Mi” is innocuous. Of course associating it with ruthlessness is a joke. Of course we all can agree on this.” There seems to be a general unwillingness in contemporary Canadian culture to believe that injustice could be systematic, that our elected officials would lie to us, that we can’t place our trust in those in power. We’re a nation, it seems, dominated at present by irresponsible optimists. The idea that something seemingly innocent, something that is a daily part of our national body could be harmful is not an idea most Canadians seem to take seriously. There seems to be an identitarian flaw that compels many Canadians to trust the familiar, exempting it from scrutiny. There seems to be an unwillingness to shift the way we currently look at the world around us. So we laugh to correct those who might ask us to.

The other moment of the festival where laughter played a notable role was the next night during Tomomi Adachi’s set. One of the pieces he performed was his Psalm, a transcription of a 1987 recording of an 8 year old girl in the throes of demonic possession. Here, it is not the laughter of the audience I am invoking but the laughter of the girl/demon and Adachi’s decision to take that laughter into his own body and allow it to shape his body and voice for the duration of the piece and the preparatory process that led to performances of the piece. So much of Adachi’s work is about allowing unusual sources and structures to enter and shape his body: Voice Sound Poetry Form Ended With X, another piece he performed during VOICE OVER mind, involves a taxing rapid, incessant thirteen minutes of repetition of several short abstract rhythmic phonetic sequences; Torturing Twitter, a new piece also included in his set at Western Front, requires him to read streams of twitter tweets being generated and complied in real time during the performance; and his Minna No Uta (Song for Everyone), not performed at VOICE OVER mind, involves asking an array of individuals to vocalize the sounds emerging from an improvising turntablist which they, and not the audience, are hearing through headphones.

Adorno’s work makes a distinction between repetition and mimesis. Mimesis, he argues along with his co-author Max Horkheimer, is repetition wherein the difference between the repeated and the repetition is made manifest. All repetition contains difference, but not all repetition is perceived as distinct from that which it repeats. Adorno argues that we exercise our critical faculties when we perceive the difference present in repetition, when we are capable of seeing that all repetition is mimesis, that repetition does not, in fact, exist (somehow this theory exists in his work alongside his assessment popular music of his time amounted to pseudo-individualization). In other words, when we are able to see that A and A are different because they occupy distinct positions on the screen or page and that they came into existence at different times, we are more aware, more alive, and more capable of critical thought.

Bünger argues melodic repetition temporarily makes zombies of us and that we submit to its power rather than consciously choosing to bring it into our bodies. Adorno would likely agree. He might argue that as the melody infects us we repeat without attention to the difference of these repetitions. He might also point to the same absence of agency Bünger notes. As Bünger describes watching The Sound of Music every Christmas in Sweden, he recounts: “I remember the effort it took to regain control of your own body. Your feet were tapping. Your brain was ticking. Your mouth was silently humming for days after.” Agency manifests in fruitless attempts to end the repetition, but is not an element, as Bünger describes it, in the process through which the repetition entered the body in the first place. Conversely, Adachi’s work is highly agentic. External sources inform his embodiment and his vocalization, but only because he has chosen to allow them to do so. Though it is true that some people choose to sing “Do-Re-Mi,” Bünger is pointing to the fact that for many “Do-Re-Mi” chooses them despite their efforts to resist.

The “silence” Bünger alludes to in the above quote is also interesting. In his experience, the voice is able to resist repetition in a way the rest of the body can’t. This, of course, is a function of the way we all learn to self-police our voices in public spaces. Few of us when we’re in public vocalize whenever the urge strikes because we’ve internalized a prohibition against it. Very young children are, of course, the most common exception (and it’s significant that most of Bünger’s examples of repetition extending into the voice are examples of children singing). However, while vocal resistance may be possible in most cases, this internal police officer is not always on duty. It’s context that decides the presence of this officer and while the types of vocalization Adachi engaged in while performing Psalm are generally permitted in public only extremely rare circumstances (like festivals celebrating “unusual singers and extreme vocalists”), sung melodies are permitted in a substantially broader range of public spaces. Thus, while Bünger is hollowed but silent, others “find themselves” singing. Andrews’ voice gets into and “over” the voices of unwanting listeners.

Bünger’s silent struggle might be thought of as voice over mind, the voice, not just of a singer but a media industrial complex that has the power to make its product audible in innumerable public spaces across the globe, over Bünger’s mind and the minds of countless others “for days on end.” This variety of “voice over mind” is important to contemplate, but not something to celebrate as many of these listeners are unwanting. What would be worth celebrating is a reversal of this scenario. The voice of the relatively powerless individual being injected into the “voice” or “mind” of the media industrial complex. Or, at least, our own agentic mind over our own voice or our own agentic voice over our own mind.

This is the dream of Feed. When I described Feed earlier as depicting its central character undergoing a process of the media industrial complex breaking her down and reducing her consciousness to basic sense impressions, I failed to mention that this was not how Hesketh and van der Schoot interpret their piece. They see the piece’s sole character as eventually finding peace, self, and agency amongst and in spite of the din of an incessant mediascape. Whether it comes across as a cautionary tale or an aspirational narrative, the message might still be one of the urgency of maintaining the agentic mind over the many voiced beast of the media industrial complex (as well as the mouth-eye of the surveillance state, an image that factors heavily into the visual symbolism of Feed).

Though Feed is a collaborative work, it depicts solitary struggle, a lone female protagonist struggling to maintain her agentic mind. This aspect of the piece stood, in the context of the festival, as a stark contrast to 12 Lunar Meditations, wherein agency emerges through the formation of collaborative communities. Though there was one artist at the core of 12 Lunar Meditations and that artist, like the protagonist of Feed and like Adachi during Psalm, was voicing the words of others, the minds that were “over” her voice were minds she agenticly invited to collaborate on the work. Each of the 12 meditations were settings of poems Gottlieb commissioned from 12 different women on her chosen lunar theme.[ii] This multi-vocality was coupled with her decision to share the delivery of those words with the voices of the VOICE OVER mind choir. In a touching nod to their individuality, each of the nine members of the choir were featured at some point in the cycle and each of their voices reflected unique histories of training and tradition, distinct ethico-aesthetic imperatives, and different cultural backgrounds. And while melody played a major role in the piece, these were not melodies owned by corporations taking up more than their fair share of the public sphere. Nor were they melodies that failed to share space with other kinds of vocal sounds; DB Boyko conducted the choir through improvisatory explorations of a wide variety of timbres and textures, sounds that ensured a wide expanse of vocal difference was present and that the vocal sounds considered most acceptable in the public sphere weren’t the only sounds accepted in this public space.

12 Lunar Meditations left me with an earworm but it also left me hopeful because of the way it embodied a respect for difference. The danger of the earworm is that it might contribute to a desire for repetition in Adorno’s sense, a desire for a world that blinds us to the presence of difference and that enlists us into a perpetual celebration of an illusory, imagined sameness. My latest earworm didn’t come from a melody but from a repeated spoken phrase. In a recent interview on the CBC weekly political program The House, our Conservative Minister of Defence Jason Kenney kept repeating the phrase “genocidal terrorist organization.” The earworm only becomes truly dangerous when it ceases to be an annoyance and begins to become a source of comfort. Those who think, “Of course ISIS is dangerous. Of course associating it with ruthlessness is a simple truth. Of course we all can agree on this” without questioning what is motivating Kenney to repeat the same three-word phrase over and over and over again are those for whom repetition of an illusory, imagined Canadian national sameness is comforting, more comforting than an inclusive sense of human sameness in and through the universality of difference. Some of those people who laughed during the third man may well have been those that prefer to trust the familiar, whether the familiar is a film they’ve seen over and over again or one of the leaders of their country. By asking his audiences to look critically at something they’d prefer to understand as pure, simple, straightforward, and good, Bünger may have been asking a lot of his contemporary Canadian audiences.

So, what does the voice want? Can the voice want? The truth is that we can’t know what the voice wants unless we truly let it try new things and then manage to let it decide, rather than letting our minds decide, whether it found what it wanted. If this was possible, which it is not—we can approach this condition but never truly occupy it—we would find that our voice would want never to repeat anything, but it would be entirely aware of the impossibility of repetition. It would explore every vocal possibility and exclude none. And it would never want for anything, because it would already have access to the infinite. But these are not the methods we’ve practiced, not the culture we’ve been given. And this is why the VOICE OVER mind festival is important. Its support of artists who have moved outside of normative forms of vocalization and closer to this impossible condition of endless vocal exploration pushes us a little further away from repetition and a little closer to the embrace of difference. And doing that makes us a little more critical and a little less reliant on the comforts of illusory imagined sameness. And this is the only path to a better world.

June, 2015


[i] This essay was written with assistance from Western Front and the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation. I am grateful to DB Boyko for her invitation to visit and reflect on VOICE OVER mind and to all the Western Front staff for their help and hospitality during my stay and as I prepared this essay.


[ii] One of the poems was selected by rather than written by Gottlieb’s chosen female collaborators and her cycle also included an epilogue, a 13th text chosen by Gottlieb herself.


Works Cited


Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Kalamazoo: Black & Red, 1970.




Chris Tonelli 

Postdoctoral Fellow

International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation

Memorial University of Newfoundland