The Holonomic Voice: Part 1

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There is an idea I have been wanting to blog about for some time, but I have been getting stuck at the first hurdle. So I have decided to break this down into two parts, and deal first with the bit I’m stuck on, and when that’s out of the way move onto the actual application to ensemble singing in a second post. I’m not pretending it’s going to be an elegant way of presenting the concept, but if you really prefer your writing in formal genres, you probably wouldn’t be here on a blog.

So we will just muddle through as best we can, and I hope in due course to have untangled enough of what I’ve been grappling with to be useful for vocal craft. I was put onto the idea in the first place by a choral director, so it may turn out in the end that I am needlessly complicating things here. Oh well.

Now, the bit I am stuck on is the word holonomic. Raymond Bradley, whose work on the social structure of charisma I find fascinating and powerful, uses this word to describe a certain characteristic of the relationships with charismatic groups (which I will explain in more detail presently). Now, I understand the point he is making in that context, but when I happened across an analogous concept in relation to the voice, I though I had better check out the general meaning of the word holonomic to see if applying it metaphorically across to a different field would make sense.

And it turns out that most of the definitions I could find were in the disciplines of maths and physics, subjects in which I have O levels but no advanced training whatsoever. And it’s hard to make sense of explanations when you only know half the words in them, and the words you don’t know are clearly making a significant contribution to what that explanation is supposed to be saying. (I may not know robotics, but I know sentence structure.)

Feeling a bit thick, I next sought a different word that encapsulate the meaning I was after, but which I already knew. Couldn’t think of one. Stuck again.

So, we’re going to use the word holonomic, with the proviso that I have no idea how nonsensical this will look to people who use it comfortably in other disciplines. We will define it in accordance to Bradley’s sociological usage, and then just got on with things, okay?

The Holonomic Order, according to Bradley

One of Bradley’s key discoveries was that in groups that operate charismatically, all members have social bonds with all other members of the group. Whilst there may be a strong top-down control in terms of the power relationships (indeed, this will be necessary to manage the high levels of emotional energy in such a group), there is an equality of access to affective and social connectedness within the group.

You don’t get cliques within such groups (or, if you do, this heralds their disintegration); you don’t find people with whom you are not allowed relate. You may not in practice know everyone equally well, but you share the brotherly/sisterly glow of belonging with all.

Now, one of the corollaries of this relationship structure is that the pattern of the whole is encoded in all the individuals. If you take any subset of a charismatic group, the social/affective bonds will all still work, and you can generate a realistic and meaningful charismatic encounter between whichever members happen to be there. This is why, say, a barbershopper can visit a chorus on the other side of the world, and be welcomed as kin.

It is this sense of the relationship structure of the whole being encoded in each individual that Bradley terms holonomic. The resultant social structure, by extension, he terms ‘holonomic order’. You can see how it is important for generating high levels of emotional engagement (what he calls communion, or flux) via the comprehensive web of social bonding. You can also see how it facilitates evangelism - any individual or sub-group carries within them all the information needed to generate charismatic encounters with potential new members.

Think about when you see a friend all shiny-eyed and lit up about this wonderful new choir they’ve joined, how friendly it is, how inspiring the director. They are really most insistent that you come along and try it too, and there is no doubt in their minds that they are competent to recruit you, that they know exactly what kind of experience they are offering, and that you will be welcome to come along to participate. That’s the sign of a holonomic order at work.

For comparison, compare that with a bureaucratic order. If you work in a large organisation and a friend wants a job there, you don’t say, ‘Sure come along Tuesday, everyone is welcome,’ you say, ‘I’m not sure what the process is, you’ll need to talk to HR to see if there are any vacancies.’ It’s not just that financial relationship is different in the different kind of organisation, it’s that there is a significant degree of subdivision of relationship and specialisation of knowledge involved.

I’ve played round with the social-relations aspect of this concept multiple times over the course of my explorations into the concept of charisma. But I’ve tended to skirt round the aspect of encoding the whole within the individual in the past (not least because I was intimidated by the word holonomic!) But there’s a particular reason why I wanted to get my head round it this time, which I will address in my next post.

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