The Voice in Your Ear

Why does the voice in your ear seem so much more intimate than the image in your eye?

Partly, we’re conditioned to it: someone leans in and whispers in your ear: it’s secret; confidential.

I’ve been FaceTiming regularly with a friend; our conversations have been intimate. I enjoy seeing my friend leaning forward in the FaceTime frame on my laptop screen, listening intently or speaking. But one day when my friend’s FaceTime wasn’t working and we spoke on the phone, my friend’s voice alone, coming directly into my ear, felt infinitely more intimate.

1939 Brit soldier & girlfriend

The same thing happened with a livestream of The Encounter—a play collaboratively developed by the British theater company Complicite, directed and performed by its artistic director, Simon McBurney—from the Barbican Theater, London. Coming soon to Broadway, The Encounter—two hours of one man on a bare but cluttered stage—involves you in an elaborate soundscape that, if you let it, completely enmeshes you with the voice in your ear.

I originally tuned in late, just at the point when McBurney, as Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photojournalist searching for an Amazon tribe, first makes contact. Fascinated, I watched him create the story, listening with my tinny MacBook speaker until I plugged in my small external speakers so I could hear better. As McBurney moved about the stage I was aware of directional sound, seemingly moving as he moved. To work with he had a large head-shape on a pole center stage, lots of strategically placed bottles of water, and a bare table with two conventional microphones on poles, into which he alternately spoke, either in his own voice as third-person narrator or in McIntyre’s American voice, telling his own story. He also had a face mike.

I love watching and hearing someone create a story out of next to nothing. A carton full of tangles of unspooled audio tape furnished the soft crunch of footsteps in the jungle. There were the sounds of other voices, bird song, rain, running water.

McIntyre follows the tribe members to a small encampment and meets a leader, a shaman he christens Barnacle for the warts on his legs. McIntyre has to stay with the tribe because he’s failed to mark the trail from his camp. He has his camera, his watch and his sneakers. He photographs obsessively.

Yanomami_Woman_&_Child_Cmacauley                                                  Credit Cmacauley

Although McIntyre doesn’t know the tribe’s language, Barnacle seems to be able to speak directly into his mind. The tribe’s welcome is ambivalent: Barnacle says “some of us are friendly.” But the leader of the small group McIntyre had first encountered, a warrior he names Red Cheeks for the red paint on his face, keeps trying to do him in, apparently with the cooperation of the rest of the tribe.

As McIntyre moves with the tribe deeper into the jungle, the markers of his identity are taken from him. He manages to rescue his sneakers from the fire that has ruined his watch, but his camera is destroyed by the monkey that’s either snatched or been given it. Barnacle  tells him that, “White people have been here before. They brought death.” Barnacle  is leading the tribe to “the beginning,” perhaps before the white man began despoiling the jungle. McIntyre wonders if this means death.

I loved the piece, but it was only when I went back to watch from the beginning (the video was available for a week after the livestream) that I discovered the soundscape. A message kept flashing on the screen: Put on your headphones. So I did, and, as McBurney began his performance, I entered a new world.

First, he demonstrated the different microphones, and I learned that the head shape on a pole was a binaural mike, in which sounds are registered as if heard by human ears—so that’s how you hear them through your headphones, including swarming mosquitos, recorded live, and McBurney’s voice live onstage. The result is much more intimate than surround sound. (This is apparently the first show using binaural live as well as prerecorded.)

Demonstrations over, McBurney simply turned upstage to become McIntyre in a small plane, being flown into the jungle, to the spot where he sets up camp and encounters Red Cheeks and the others. As I listened, I felt less and less need to watch McBurney performing the story. The sound—with the images it stimulated in my brain—was so much more absorbing,.

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Of course, I’d already watched the piece through, so I knew what was going on. And the notes for the piece mention research showing that audiovisual stimulation is more powerful than audio alone. In fact, the visual can actually force an alteration of the aural. But the intimacy of McBurney’s voice in my ear was mesmerizing. It was like an old-fashioned radio play, only with infinitely more sophisticated technology. I remember, as a small child, listening to The Shadow, a popular radio mystery serial. The setup was a resonant voiceover: What evil lurks in the hearts of men? Sound of a creaking door, followed by, The Shadow knows, and an eerie chuckle.

At the time, the radio play felt like a full sound-immersion. The Encounter really is. Hearing MacIntyre’s voice in my ear describing his trek through the jungle, I was there. Without looking, I saw the jungle, heard the mosquitos, felt the heat; the story was alive inside my head. What could be more intimate?

When MacIntyre finally escapes, clinging to a log, washed into the raging river in a cataclysmic rainstorm, I could not imagine how he was not drowned. But there was his calm voice in my ear, delivering his coda from the safety of civilization. What could be more seductive?

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