Voicing Gender – Radio Hats

Voicing Gender was exhibited at Mutek Festival at Place Des Arts,  Montreal and London Barbican and the Winter Sound Festival.


Voices define and identity us. How does one retrain their voice to create a perceived “authentic” voice. Frances Dyson wrote “to be listened to or even heard on radio, women have to adopt the persona (from the Greek, meaning through sound) of the ideal male voice.”  ‘Vocal Fry’ has in recent years been the subject of much discussion or glottalization as it is also known is a low, staccato vibration during speech, produced by a slow fluttering of the vocal cords using the lowest part of the vocal registers. It could be seen as a reaction to upspeak (where women raise the ends of words) to sound more ‘authoritative’. Historical negative stereotyping of womens voices resulted most famously in Margaret Thatcher who lowered her voice to gain authority.

Australian researchers have found womens frequency has dropped by 23 Hz over five decades since 1950’s to 1990’s, from 229 Hz (roughly an A# below middle C) to 206 Hz (roughly a G#).

“Speakers creak differently according to their gender, although whether it is more common in males or females varies among languages. In American English, anecdotal reports suggest that the behavior is much more common in women. (In British English, the pattern is the opposite.) ” wrote Marissa Fessenden.

But its not all about pitch, newsreaders such as Fiona Bruce speak in a lower pitch range between 165Hz to 130Hz,  but still sounds feminine, because of her warm tone and inflection” state Mills and Stoneham. To sound feminine does one really need to have a warm tone and inflection, I know many women who don’t fit that precondition so really this assertation does seems to focus on stereo types.

Voicing Gender moves through sonic environments of pitch and tone and pace. The artist engaged a voice therapist and the work is made up of her own voice as a series of repetitious pitch changing exercises used in speech therapy. The work is relayed binaurally via radio hats inspired by Victor T. Hoeflich of the Merri-Lei Corporation, NYC in 1949, whose early novelty radios hats had valve AM radio built into pith helmets, available in eight colours “Lipstick Red, Tangerine, Flamingo, Canary Yellow, Chartreuse, Blush Pink, Rose Pink and Tan” (Radio Electronics), targeted at women. Sports team baseball radio hats were popular in the 70s and are now the most gender neutral hat in the world, the artist has made a series of radio hats reflecting the bright lipstick colours of the early Hoefich radio hats.

This uncanny binaural piece, works as digital mimicry, a kind of vocal drag, reflecting on the representations of a gendered voice. I was inspired by a voice changing software app and drew from The Voice Book for Trans and Non-Binary People. A Practical Guide to Creating and Sustaining Authentic Voice and Communication by Mills and Stoneham, 2017.

To change ones voice takes time and repetitive exercises, it has been interesting to try and make my self sound more and less feminine and to hear the sounds created from the exercises. I found the exercises also used stereotypes of high and soft pitch and child like pre vocal words such as mama, it highlighted my own voice would never cut it as being ultra feminine, the exercises seem to push towards something akin to a seductive musical voice rather than natural speech I actually use.

This is very much a musical sound work about vocal sounds, voices change slowly over time, but pitch and vowel sounds and intonation do not just start sounding like another gender this takes focused voice work, which can take up to two years. Voice damage can occur if one rushes into it.

I am interested in the voice and this follows on from the research I did around female voices on the radio and preverbal speech. This is very much a work in progress which has its first airing at Mutek and I intend to write more about it. My intention of this work is to create discussion, around what is a female voice. This work was made for an Alt Barbican project called subverting reality which is part of the Mutek Festival in Montreal, commissioned by the Barbican and the Trampary in London.


pitch diagram Mills and Stoneham, 2017