Sound Machine: The Evolutionary Vocabulary of the Human Voice

Karen Cummings
Bjork, Biophilia (2011)

Amplification and voice technologies are bringing a broader palate of sounds to the singer. It’s not all beautiful, but it's very human.

The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have seen a fragmentation and upheaval of the old hierarchies of vocal style. It's no longer possible to identify which are the dominant classical or contemporary vocal styles, as 21st century art music embraces amplification, voice processing, looping and other voice technologies. As a consequence, creating new relationships with the listener and making old conceptions of what is classical singing and contemporary singing irrelevant. (I'm aware of the problematic definition of “Art” song. For a detailed discussion of the problems with categorization of vocal genre see The Invention of “Folk Music” and “Art Music”.)

Singing techniques and styles are being transformed through voice technology, and these new and reinvented singings create new relationships between what it revealed and what is represented by the voice. As Adriana Cavarero has said, "Nothing …communicates uniqueness more than the voice." New sound technologies, including the microphone, reveal more facets of the voice and the body it inhabits than ever before.

Michael Chanan describes the impact of the microphone and recorded music on audience expectations in classical music: “Recording has developed conventions that contravene the acoustical limitations of the public auditorium”. He quotes the noted classical pianist Glenn Gould: “the sound the listener hears possesses characteristics that two centuries ago were neither available to the profession nor wanted by the public, like analytical clarity and almost tactile proximity (my emphasis). We have come to expect a Brunnhilde, blessed with amplification, who can surmount without struggle the velvet diapason of the Wagnerian orchestra.”

As Chanan notes, a singer performing with a close-miked clarity of expression reveals those vocal expressions we use in intimate relationships, creating a sense of proximity and knowing between the singer and the listener. At the same time, voice technology can recreate a phantom; transforming gender, age, and even humanity, and blurring the boundaries between human and technology.

“If cancer could sing, this is what it would sound like,” commented one listener on a YouTube recording of Yoko Ono. Yoko wails, screams, and laughs, yodels and cries out in her performance with the Flaming Lips on The David Letterman Show in her performance of “Cheshire Cat”. “The electro-acoustic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen experienced similar outraged responses to his works, which he then incorporated into further works: “ I have used quite a lot of words and syllables, shouts that I have heard during performance of my music. Remarks like “Stop it!, “Ugly”, “Beautiful”, “Terrible”, or “Be Quiet!” -- these are all incorporated, and I have indicated how these syllables should be delivered, sometimes strictly in rhythm, sometimes chanted as in church.”

New dimensions of vocal expression are finding their way into popular and classical vocal styles. These vocal expressions have been part of spoken and sung voice since before human beings had language; amplification and voice technology are providing these vocal sounds with a new platform. One where they can be detailed, transparent and immediate; as if the singer were in intimate conversation with the listener.

It’s not all beautiful, it’s not about perfection, but it is all about being human. And then again, not.

A new vocal vocabulary is being explored, which Steven Connor describes as “the phantasmal life… the mouth… a meditation on the kinds of magical thinking attached to the sounds of the voice and the imaginary mechanics of their production. These sounds, rather than being considered extraneous noise or signs of vocal imperfection, have now crossed the divide between classical and contemporary singing, and in doing so have forever changed the nature of vocal styles and their associated authority." (For a discussion of the politics and evolution of vocal style see Vocal Authority, Singing Style and Ideaology.)

Amplification and voice technologies are bringing a new palate of whispers, sobs, gulps, grinds, sighs and giggles to the singer, and at the same time this technology has helped to shape a listener who is desirous of a relationship with the singer that is immediate, direct and tactile; where every inflection, texture, word and colour is heard and felt.

David Garland, a New York-based, self-described classical composer describes these changes in aesthetics: “They’re creating and performing songs that achieve a kind of intimacy so unattainable in traditional art song recitals. They are merging the benefits of their classical training -- the ability to read and notate music, audiences that are practiced at careful and thoughtful listening, an appreciation of subtle formal and structural techniques -- with the tools and frameworks of pop music -- studio production, amplification, performances in bars and clubs rather than concert halls. But don’t mistake what they’re doing as 'breaking down barriers between genres,' the much-ballyhooed practice of using inconsequential references to pop, jazz, and folk in classical music (or vice versa). These composers are developing a new and unique style of creative songwriting that does not fit comfortably into any pre-existing genre.”

Let's discuss these changes in vocal style and aesthetics using works and performances by Laurie Anderson, Cathy Berbarian, Bjork, Roomful of Teeth, and Holly Herndon.

Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, “Partita for Eight Voices”, is an example of the new directions classical art music is taking the voice. The eight-member ensemble, of which Caroline is a member, performs exclusively on microphone, and has studied a wide variety of vocal styles to explore the expressive potential of voice with microphone, including yodeling, belting and Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music and Persian classical singing. “Partita” uses virtuosic multi-part harmonies that can move anywhere from whispered hums, grunts, gasps, to full bodied- rich and powerful yells, to balanced chants and multi-phonics.

Bjork’s album, Medulla (2004), explores the capacity of the voice to traverse large swathes of territory: whispering, seducing, sobbing, caressing through layers of voices physically present and not, desirous of the same immediate tactile relationship with the listener Roomful of Teeth aims for. Music journalist Michael Beaumont describes Medulla as, “starts with a panting in the left ear, a crooning Björk all over, a wall of Icelandic choir and human beat box Rahzel (The Roots) providing the bottom end…. It’s (the track, “Pleasure Is All Mine”) made entirely of vocals; some spliced, some programmed, all apparently originating from human beings, but warped, twisted, and spit out like spattering raindrops… it is often easy to forget that the role of the artist is to, at best, push us crashing into realms we’d overlooked or never imagined, and to offer us a glimpse into an imagination that we, as unique individuals, would fail to possess ourselves." (Kraftwerk was one of the first music groups to use the vocoder and it was Laurie Anderson’s traco, "O Superman", and its use of this technology that helped to make its use popular in the early '80s.)

Holly Herndon, a composer studying for her Ph.D. at Stanford University, uses a laptop to create works described by music journalist Ben Beaumont-Thomas as vocal-led dance tracks "buffeted by weird sighs, breaths and mumbles". On her breakthrough album Movement (2012), the track “Breathe” uses the sounds of the breath: a throat and its associated processes gasping, breath strangled, suspended and released to invite the listener to breathe and join the rhythm of the tracks’ breath in an intimate and tension filled dance. The Guardian’s Ben Beaumont-Thomas nominated her album Platform (2015) as one of the best electronic albums of 2015.

‘Unequal”, (from this album), layers synthesized voice with her own, creating a yearning digital requiem for our time. Commenting on her work, Herdon said: ““The right is really good at coming up with a paradisiac alternative to whatever the current condition is, and it’s usually pretty racist and nasty, but the left sometimes fails to come up with their own paradisiac alternative. That’s where music can come in. Because one thing music is really good at is getting strangers in a room together to emote.”

Her laptop collects the sounds of everyday life, woven with electronic sounds like those heard on Skype, the sounds of her computer, which she seamlessly weaves with her own voice, and synthesized voices into music that is alternately mesmeric, frightening, seductive, comforting and terrifying. She embraces her interaction with the laptop and its associated processes to challenge the concept of the female voice, and ultimately the human voice and its relationship to technology.

Herndon challenges: “How can we expect the diversity of the musical landscape to change when the archetypes we are presented with are intrinsically tied to an older, more segregated era? We need new fantasies, and until we demand them we are not going to get them.”

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