Electronics and the human voice

February 18, 2009
Joel Chadabe

How can electronics be used to extend the human voice? This short article is a brief introduction to The Human Voice in a New World. But it's not the only introduction on EMF's sites. The CDs offered at CDeMusic provide a larger context. And the program details at the EMF Productions site fill in the detail. The photo is Golan Levin, one of the creators of Messa di Voce.

We are so used to talking and singing in normal words and familiar tunes that we forget that the human voice is a potentially remarkable instrument. In fact, looking at it from an electronic musician's point of view, it is the ideal synthesizer, capable of such a wide range of song, speech, and sound that Trevor Wishart can say that "The voice is so malleable I found I could imitate almost any sound at all, and hence make a transformation from the recognizable vocal to something else."

Wishart is not the only sound artist to think that way. In notes to Voice is the Original Instrument, Joan La Barbara writes, "As I gave my classically-trained voice its freedom, letting it direct me toward new places and ideas, I developed what was a unique vocabulary and used those sounds to score an orchestra of layered voices."

As complete and powerful as the human voice may be, however, we might reflect that electronics can add quite a bit to the human potential. In general, the use of electronics expands our capabilities. Specifically, the use of electronics can bring two benefits to the voice. It can augment the power and timbral flexibility of vocal production, as in Trevor Wishart's Globalalia, where syllables from different languages are rearranged.

An excerpt from Globalalia

Or the use of electronics can enhance the presentation of the vocal message, as in Golan Levin's Ursonography, in which "intelligent subtitles" track Jaap Blonk's performance.

Given its historical context, the story of Ursonography is a particularly interesting example. Although there had been several examples of forays into sound poetry by Dadaist artists in the years before and after 1920, the major work of the time was Ursonate, "composed", one might say, by painter and collage artist Kurt Schwitters. In 1922, Schwitters began writing a sonata for the voice based on abstract vocal sounds organized as musical phrases and motives. Between 1926 and 1932, he performed it many times and polished it into its present form. He wrote, "The sonata is in four movements, an introduction, an end, and a cadenza in the 4th movement. The first movement is a rondo with four motives, which are identified as such in the text of the sonata. The rhythm is easily felt, strong and weak, loud and soft, tight and relaxed ..." The sonata was written in script to be pronounced in German. Here's an example of the script:

           Fümms bö   fümms bö wö   fümms bö wö tääää?
           Fümms bö   fümms bö wö   fümms bö wö tää zää Uuuu?
           Rattatata tattatata tattatata
           Rinnzekete bee bee nnz krr müüüü?
           Fümms bö
           Fümms böwö
           Fümms bö wö täää????

Schwitters also wrote: "Listening to my sonata is better than reading it. This is why I like to perform my sonata in public. But since it is not possible to give performances everywhere, I intend to make a gramophone recording of the sonata ..."

An excerpt from Kurt Schwitters' performance

I know of three other performances of the Ursonate since Schwitters. Eberhard Blum, flutist, recorded it for Hat Hut records in the 1970s. Christian Bök performed it, as in this excerpt at Utube. And Jaap Blonk performed it as Ursonography.

The reason to follow this path through Schwitter's Ursonate is to point out that in a performance of Ursonography, Blonk's superb recitation of the Ursonate is accompanied by Golan Levin's 'intelligent subtitles'. It's an excellent example of using technology to enhance the presentation of the vocal message. In fact, as the result of Levin's timbral-sensing software, the subtitles follow Blonk's recitation in real time, locking onto the timing and timbral nuance of Blonk's voice. And the typography of the subtitles illuminates the poem's structure.

Jaap Blonk performing Ursonography

Ursonography is one example of Golan Levin's work in extracting visual imagery from vocal sound. In Messa di Voce, created with Zachary Lieberman, he carries the idea further, extracting information from vocal improvisations by Jaap Blonk and Joan La Barbara and using that information to control imagery. It's an elegant and playful theatrical presentation. Its playfulness belies its cutting-edge sophistication in using the human voice to control its immediate visual environment. Here is his description of it:

Golan Levin describes the process of Messa di Voce

To quote a website description, "Messa di Voce lies at an intersection of human and technological performance extremes, melding the unpredictable spontaneity and extended vocal techniques of human improvisers with the latest in computer vision and speech analysis technologies. Utterly wordless, yet profoundly verbal, Messa di Voce is designed to provoke questions about the meaning and effects of speech sounds, speech acts, and the immersive environment of language."

Jaap Blonk performing Messa di Voce