In the 14 short essays and 15 monologues spliced between them that make up "Let Me Clear My Throat," Elena Passarello parses the aural components of human screams, shouts, screeches, hollers, howls, yells, yelps, yawps, bellows and caws, concluding that often the sounds we emit come from a place beneath our consciousness.
An actor and "sonic educator," she homes in on "vocal moments" in our collective memory -- among them, the "first concentrated Confederate yell" at Manassas, Marlon Brando's raw "STELL-LAHHH!" in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Howard Dean's 2004 "rant" that torpedoed his presidential aspirations, Judy Garland's triumphant 1961 comeback appearance at Carnegie Hall, and Chuck Berry's "forty-two repetitions of 'Go!' on a waggish F" in "Johnny B. Goode," a recording of which is even now spinning through outer space on the side of a space probe, a signal to alien intelligences that this is among Earth's choicest voices.
Passarello spices her essays with the aural idiosyncracies of Lucille Ball, Enrico Caruso, Bob Dylan, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Plant, Elvis, a 15-year-old Peruvian mountain girl, a Pittsburgh sports announcer and scores of other well known and not so well known people who make "weird" (a favorite adjective in Passarello's lexicon) and/or lovely use of their larynxes.
In "Communication Breakdown," in a typical passage full of technical information and imaginative leaps, Passarello describes Howard Dean's "BYAH": "a one-second glissando from an impossibly high note down two full octaves to a flat, guttural trough, as long as a slide down sixteen keys of a baby grand. It is the sound of a Muppet, or a baby in tantrum, or a bike horn half-squeezed. ... It is all 3 at different milliseconds, smooshed ... a unique recorded moment -- an electric, fantastic, obscene, unspellable thing." This "wild meme" told us "it was over, that Dean's body had admitted defeat before his brain did."
In "Teach Me Tonight" she dissects Frank Sinatra's "balletic voice," that seemed instinctively to know "vowels are where the action is." It was, she says, the "guttural thrust" in Sinatra's "UH" that bested Bing Crosby's "plucky AH." Bing's sound was "ever-so-sweetly an avuncular bassoon," while old Blue Eyes "sang the 'all' in 'All the Way' with a kind of unh-unh bump that no one should ever associate with her uncle."
And in "Harpy," she describes how she herself won the annual Stella Screaming Contest in New Orleans in 2011, by tapping into a hitherto unknown "lonely ... sonic pocket with a trap release" to create her "scaly, winning" sound. Written with élan and rapier-sharp wit, Passarello's first book is a trove of esoteric and fascinating lore about the sounds we make and what they say about us.
Kathryn Lang, former senior editor at SMU Press in Dallas, is now a freelance reviewer and avocational art historian.