Trevor Wishart

February 25, 2009
Suzanne Thorpe

Trevor Wishart is a groundbreaking composer, virtuoso vocalist, and free improviser who is making his first appearance in New York in almost thirty years. As part of Electronic Music Foundation’s The Human Voice in a New World festival, Wishart will be premiering Vocalise, an improvisation for amplified solo voice, and Globalalia, a work for fixed media and voice that processes the syllables of twenty-six different languages sampled from radio and TV broadcasts from around the world. Trevor Wishart’s contributions to vocalise and computer processing are extensive and somewhat unsung. Below is a recent interview that affords us a glimpse into the past, present and future of Trevor Wishart's work.

AE:  Trevor, when talking to musicians who experiment and develop techniques as you do, it is always interesting to hear how they got to the point that they are at now. What is your early musical training and background, and how did it evolve?

TW:  Well, it depends on how far back you would like me to go! I actually started off planning to be a chemist. But I had always written music as well. When I got to university, I had a change of heart and began to study music. My college teacher at the time, who was a baroque organist, said “Oh, you’re a composer, are you? Well then we’ll have to send you to Darmstadt.” Darmstadt is a small city in Germany that hosted a well known contemporary music workshop every summer. I had no idea what Darmstadt was at the time, didn’t speak any German, but gathered that it was terribly important. People like Adorno spoke, and Stockhausen was there. I had no idea who any of these people were, mind you, so I certainly got thrown into the deep end. While there, I got very interested in Xenakis, and started writing these very complicated pieces with tones rows and what-have-you.

And then my father died. He worked in a factory, and I thought, what does all of this stuff have to do with his life? I really wanted to do something in memory of him. So I …

Wishart describes his first foray into electronic composition

AE:  You have developed a process that you call sound transformation, which you developed from voice to digital processing, and that is the platform upon which much of your work is built. Can you tell us what it means and what is involved in the process?

TW:  Well, I had finished my studies, but still had access to the studio (used to go there at 4 in the morning, actually), and I was writing a piece that had to do with transforming one sound into another. I had this idea about metamorphosis. In an analog studio, it’s almost impossible to do, but what I did discover is that with my voice I could imitate almost anything. I could start to make these transformations with my voice.

The second occurrence that contributed to my developing a concept of transforming sounds was …

Wishart describes Sound Transformation

AE:  So how did you segue into the digital realm?

TW:  I think because you can analyze sound and make transformations with computers, it is sort of a natural thing to do in computer work. I had this idea of musical transformations independently of development in computer analysis of sound. And it was in part a political notion. It had to do with the idea of change …

Wishart moves on to digital processing

AE:  What kinds of digital instruments did you build?

TW:  I developed instruments that included phase vocodeing, as I found it quite useful for voice. With it you can track the way the spectrum changes over time, and try all sorts of manipulations with the data. Other tools I used were spectral tracing, which produces a strange fluttering melody, and wave set distortion. Of course, all of my instruments are developed by my asking, “I wonder what would happen if I did this?”

AE:  Sound Loom is another term you use. What is it?

TW:  Oh, well Sound Loom is the name of the graphic interface to the Composers Desktop Project. The CDP is a vast collection of non-real time signal processing. I think it is safe to say that if there is anything you want to do that you can’t do in the CDP, then let me know about it. Anything you want to imagine, like granular reconstruction, wave-set distortion, any kind of spectrum manipulation, any filtering and any of the new things I am doing are all done within the CDP. They sit behind the Sound Loom is which is the graphic interface which calls them. It allows you to manage the materials and do all sorts of high-level functions. For instance, Globalalia, one of the pieces I’m performing, required a huge amount of management, as I was working with over 8,000 samples, all syllables that I had to access in some way. Sound Loom allowed me to categorize them and call them into use in any way I chose.

AE:  So the Composers Desktop Project is still available? And how does it differ from other sound processing applications, like Max/MSP?

TW:  Oh, yes. The reason why Americans don’t know about it is because it started out for PCs. We first used it on the Atari, before the Macintosh was fast enough to work with professional sound. Since then it graduated to the PC format because, well, I’m a freelance composer, I don’t have a lot of money, and Macs were always more expensive here in Europe. Finally, though, we put it on the Mac as well. So it runs on both platforms these days.

The crucial difference between Max/MSP and the Composers Desktop Project is that Max is most useful for real-time processing. CDP does not function in real time, which has the advantage of being able to do things that you can’t do in real time, for example when you need to know what is happening ahead in a signal before you make a decision about what has happened previously.

There is a difference in philosophy. If you're working in real time you don’t know what the input is going to be no matter how accurately you notate. When working in real time you might use a process that doesn’t care about that, like delay or pitch shifting. If you are not working in real time, you can deal with the peculiarities of whtever happens. I might improvise, and some sounds might come out that I can’t reproduce, but they are fascinating. With CDP, I can capture them and I can manipulate the particular details of those sounds, with finer control. It’s more like sculpting sound.

I have these two extremes where I improvise, straight out of the voice box, with no preformed rules, just experience, and on the other hand, I make work that is sculptural crafted, in incredible detail, using these signal processing techniques.

. I should stress that the Composers Desktop Project is a composers cooperative, so it’s not all my own software. At this stage, I’ve written about 80% of it because I’ve been involved for such a long time, but I didn’t write the sound filing system, and so on. I like to work with my own software, because if it goes wrong, I can fix it, and if it doesn’t do what I want it to do, I can extend it.

AE: Tell us about your upcoming New York performance.

TW:  The first piece, Vocalise, in which, as the mood takes me, I begin to improvise. I can generate all kinds sounds, but am still interested in transformation, so I move from one sonority or stage presence to another. Sometimes the transformation is based on sound, sometimes on character. I discovered early on that I have a dynamic face that I integrate into the performance now as well.

The other piece is the other side of my personality, which is Globalalia. One of the ideas behind it is something all human beings have in common, the use of language. If you examine languages they are all made up of a fairly small number of sonic events. I thought it would be interesting to make a piece that captured the universality of language, what is shared between human speech. I’ve collected together samples of speech from the media from around the world, and explored their sonorities. It’s fascinating when you do this, because each one needs to be treated quite differently. For instance ...

Wishart previews his New York performance

AE: Thank you, Trevor, for so much insight into your work. We're looking forward to your performance.

TW:  Thank you. And I look forward to seeing you all there!

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For more information about Trevor Wishart's performance in The Human Voice in a New World, go to the EMF Productions site:

EMF Productions

For recordings by Trevor Wishart, as well as other vocalists participating in The Human Voice in a New World, have a look at the CD listings at the CDeMusic site: