“The lament”, by Eleni Ikoniadou

Audio description: sound performance “The lament”, by Eleni Ikoniadou y Carolin Schnurrer

Yet meet we shall, and part, and meet again,
Where dead men meet, on lips of living men.
—Samuel Butler

What sweet relief to sufferers it is to weep, to mourn, lament, and chant the dirge that tells of grief!

All over the ancient and modern world, death is a woman’s business. Women wash, dress and decorate the corpse, and then sing it to its final resting place with a lament. Lamentation is an extreme expression of sorrow that precedes every other form of oral ritual, and has led to the creation of the oldest epic poems across human culture.

A traditional burial includes the wake, the procession to the cemetery, the funeral itself, and memorials at a future point in time. All four might be accompanied by one or more female lamenters. These are usually older women dressed head to toe in black, vocalising the horror of the loss with a chilling lament, ranging from talking and singing to sobbing, keening, and wailing, for the one no longer there.

Keeners can be friends or relatives of the deceased and their family, part of the wider community, or hired professionals, briefed about the dead person’s character, background and history, prior to the funeral. The ritual may include these participants lifting their arms in the air, clapping their hands in unison, beating their heads and chests, and the pulling of their hair. There is a rhythm to the performance, though performing here doesn’t mean faking it, as even hired lamenters are emotionally invested in the particular deceased person they are lamenting.

The process starts with a light wailing during the wake, which lifts to a crescendo during the procession, subsides briefly in the course of the church service only to rise again on the way to the grave, and soar to a climax during the lowering of the coffin into the ground. But this unspoken rhythmic rule is one of few repetitive elements, as the lament is almost always improvised.

This is known as the primary lament, erupting spontaneously from overwhelming grief, barely controlled by the lamenter. The sound of death is a formidable force, taking over the vocal cords of the woman and gushing out of her mouth like a torrent of wildly manifold configurations: sophisticated literary content gives way to street language, poetry turns to swearing, and stormy outbursts are preceded by calm seas in the voice and intonation of the mourner.

At its core, the dirge is uncontrollable and unknowable, making it impossible to repeat or own entirely. This explains how the same mourner can produce elegies of entirely different form, style, and quality. However, it would be wrong to assume laments merely derive from within. While the main lamenter bursts out improvised words and sounds, the surrounding women incessantly feed her with information about the departed, which she effortlessly incorporates in her keening in real time. Therefore, the lamenter, in addition to speaking, is also always listening.

And yet a lament typically contains more than just pure facts about the history of the dead. Entangled with it is information apparently known only to the lamenter, and which she seems to have gathered from unknown sources. The lamenter criss-crosses the deluge of information she holds about the deceased’s past with the data received in real time, adding speculative material and processing it all at incredible speeds while vocalising it. In so doing, she is making things once considered private into a part of the permanent record.

At its climax, the lamenting voice leaves the past and present of this world to open up a door to the otherworldly. More than sonically expressing the grief and pain of loss, lamentation is rooted in a concrete ancient belief in the afterlife. Accordingly, wakes and burials are of great significance, as the last chance to prepare and equip the deceased for the journey to the underworld. Some of their favourite things—coins for the boat-fare to the other side, praise for their lives, messages to pass on to the other dead, are gathered by the lamenter herself.

Lamenters are actively interested in the dead body’s fate in the next world, and are seen as being capable of opening up channels of transmission between the living and the dead through their unsettling vocalisations. The main lamenter is not to be interrupted at any cost during the build-up of a lament, and is typically feared, admired, respected, but also mocked and hated, largely by the men, who hold lamenting to be dangerous witchcraft. The threat that moirologists are perceived to pose to the social order owes to the extreme uncertainty that such an orgiastic state of grief carries with it. But it is also to do with the fact that, in lamentation, women were allowed an isolated moment of speaking out. Hence lamenters would often deviate from the particular death they were mourning and move on to other sensitive, political, private and public matters, commonly untouchable by females, and in some cases even by males. Mostly, however, the terror of the lament lies in its extemporaneous, untamed, inhuman dimension; that which reveals it as a sonorous force of unspecified destiny and unknown origin, separate from the body that hosts it.

In the lament, we find an urgency to channel the alien, all-devouring unseen that lies beyond this world. The lamenter becomes a transducer of death into sound, an acoustic passage between different orders of the real, devising a direct encounter between incompatible realms. Her unearthly incantation leading across, transferring to or from, vocally mediating and negotiating the ceaseless trade between the living and the dead.

The weeping woman is a device for receiving, storing, processing, and manipulating information. This speaking voice which is not hers, not consciously controlled by her, or a mere conveyor of her thoughts, is an inhuman sound in the service of something. In singing, in keening, in talking, in recording, in transitioning, in revivifying the dead, the voice cannot be said to belong to the body per se. It is not authentic or authorised, it is hormonally masculinised, its vocal pitch lowered. It is never perfect or real, it is corrected, perfected, manipulated. It passes through a chain of software effects. It is unnatural and supernatural. It’s an effect without a cause. The voice is not private, ephemeral, personal, or even human. Processed. Artificial. Synthetic. Forced.

Lamenting is the first step towards dehumanising the voice. The lamenting body is a transmitting device no more human than it is machinic. The temporality of the voice is therefore paradoxical: at once organic and technological; embodied presence and recorded revenant; human but immortal; continually returning yet always anew.

It is anticipated that future developments in deep learning and AI consciousness, will lead to the complete outsourcing of lamentation to artificial intelligence. AI lamenters will detach lamenting from its traditional association with death and extrapolate it to its quotidian state, appropriate for the times of universal sorrow to come. Mourning the loss of cultural life, the horror of politics, the destruction of the environment, but also mundane everyday struggles. You can project and transfer your grief onto them.

The voice makes Harawayan alliances ‘across the killing divisions of nature, culture, and technology, and of organism, language, and machine.’ It drifts from one chthonic entity to another, ‘of, in, or under the Earth and the seas’. Not-us, more-than-us, not finished.

Choruses of voices whose lamenting unleashes the untold tales of history. Dehumanised and undomesticated. Dangerous, threatening and ruinous. Primordial, pre-mammalian, simultaneously ancient and yet to come.

This text by Eleni Ikoniadou was previously published as part of the edited collection Unsound: Undead, Urbanomic, 2019

Eleni Ikoniadou is a London-based theorist and artist and a Senior Tutor at the Royal College of Art. A member of the art group AUDINT, alongside Steve Goodman (kode9) and Toby Heys, she has co-edited the volume 'Unsound: Undead' (Urbanomic, 2019) and produced a series of exhibitions under the same title, funded by the Arts Council of England (2018-2020). She is founder and co-editor of the Media Philosophy series (Rowman and Littlefield International) and author of the monograph 'The Rhythmic Event: Art, Media and the Sonic' (MIT Press, 2014). Eleni has exhibited, performed, curated and presented work at, among others, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Barbican, TATE Britain and Modern, Nottingham Contemporary, Arebyte gallery, Spike Island Bristol, MUTEK Montreal, Loop Berlin, Unsound Krakow, and MIRA Barcelona. Her current research focuses on the linkages between female-sounding human and synthetic voices.

Carolin Schnurrer designs, creates and produces physical and digital experiences with a variety of media, from sound performance, installation, moving image to websites. Her main interests lies in the digitisation of society and questions what these developments mean for the human body and connectivity. Through collaborative work, she investigates new ways to experience, perform and produce music. Caro showed and performed recently at places like the Barbican, Tate Modern, ACCA Melbourne, Serpentine Pavillion and Corsica Studios and Kings Palace.