Voice Intimacy

Making an audio version of The Gift seemed like the obvious thing to do: after all, it’s a book about the intimacy of the recorded voice, whether that voice is singing or speaking. In the book, the narrator establishes contact with someone who, like her, posts his music online. But in the course of their email exchanges, this person offers to send her a different kind of recording – a voice message. It becomes a habit. She describes the first one she received:

It was about twenty minutes long. Most of his voice messages are about that long. It was riveting—not so much because of what he was saying but because of his voice, and his breath, and the sighs, the hemming and hawing that came between the words. His speaking voice, like his singing voice, was deep and very—this is really the only word for it—musical…

So in that first voice message, he spoke a little bit about what languages he liked to sing in and why—and he laughed a little, and sighed, and said “um” and “ah” and “hmm.” That’s what we call phatic language—words and sounds that don’t really convey any information, but just serve to maintain a sense of contact in a conversation… When he’d finished, he signed off, almost as though he were signing a letter. He said, “All right, then, good-bye and have a nice day. Sami.” There was a little break in the recording, and then he added a ps: “Well, I just listened to this, and I’m sorry my breathing sounds like it was, um,” and he laughed, “like Darth Wader or something,” and he laughed again. “It’s not always like that, I promise.” Because he speaks German, Sami sometimes pronounces the letter v like a w and the letter w like a v. I thought that was funny. Darth Wader.

My narrator assures you that Sami didn’t sound like Darth Vader, though it’s true that his breathing was audible. She compares this voice message to a recording of João Gilberto singing softly into a sensitive microphone – the way you can hear the spit on his lips and the hairs in his nose. She says, “I liked it.”

It’s true of me, too – I love the way the recorded voice can sometimes almost feel like somebody’s sticking her tongue in your ear. So imagine. When the possibility of recording the book came up, I was game…


Barbara Browning’s The Gift is out now in print from Coffee House Press. The incredible audiobook will be out from Talking Book in June. Keep on listening…


Barbara Browning teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. She received her PhD in comparative literature from Yale University. In addition to The Gift, she is the author of the novels The Correspondence Artist (winner of a Lambda Literary Award) and I'm Trying to Reach You (short-listed for the Believer Book Award). She also makes dances, poems, and ukulele cover tunes.