The Authentic Voice

Your voice is your voice … or is it?

There is a lot of talk about ‘authenticity’ buzzing around at the moment. Just Google ‘Authentic Voice’ and you’ll see 11,000,000 results.

Many of them are about writing, urging authors to find their ‘authentic voice’, but ‘authentic’ also seems increasingly to be seen as a desirable asset for actors. Everyone, it seems, is trying to achieve that ‘an authentic performance’.

Surely there can be no such thing!  A performance by definition isn’t ‘real’ or ‘natural’ or ‘authentic’ – it can never be. It is a performance. 

I think most people have a variety of voices, and regularly adopt a slightly altered voice for different occasions. If you’re chatting with your friends you’re likely to speak differently from the way you would speak if called upon to make an after dinner speech or recite a poem for example. The ‘telephone voice’ is a phenomenon witnessed all over the world in all communities from Tiverton to Timbuktu. So which ‘you’ is the authentic you?

I became ‘bi-lingual’ within a few days of starting school because I knew that if I spoke at school the way I spoke at home, I would sound too different to be accepted by my peers. So, I am left struggling with the concept of one voice being more authentic than another – particularly within an audiobook, or any other kind of vocal performance. ​

We are actors. It is our job to make whatever we do appear believable. When we act we aim to create someone who is credible and convincing, even though the character we are playing may be totally different from ourselves in age, experience and attitude. The joy of audiobook narration is that we get to play all the characters. Our skill as narrators is to make every single one of those voice appear to be authentic.

My vocal training was perhaps rather old fashioned when viewed in retrospect. It was focused on clarity and pronunciation; on developing a wide vocal range and extending my natural pitch and tone to make my voice more flexible and expressive. My ‘natural’ voice was honed to make it more responsive; my vocal technique was tweaked so that undesirable noises such as sibilance, nasality, ‘vocal fry’ and repetitive inflections were reduced. And my flat Midland vowels were definitely discouraged. 

Does this mean that I lost my ‘authentic’ voice? Does the fact that I (and many other actors and narrators) speak with a neutral ‘RP’ accent, make our voices less authentic than someone a voice with a regional dialect?  

I don’t believe so … and I am inclined to think that applying the word ‘authentic’ to a voice is just so much gobbledygook! We are charged with creating something that appears to be truthful in an artificial environment, how can that ever be described as authentic?

And of course, this discussion is ever evolving, because with the growth of ‘synthetic voices’ or ‘cloned voices’ or simple digital voices, authenticity even more slippery than it used to be. One thing is certain; the human voice has more flexibility, more textual and personal connection with a text than anything that can be achieved by AI – no matter how clever the algorithm.