Bjork, Biophilia (2011)

Sound Machine: The Evolutionary Vocabulary of the Human Voice

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.”

Expanding Expression, Reception

…[A] small chink has appeared in the standardization and commodification of the voice that has been dominant since the radio and the gramophone first arrived.

Laurie Anderson shares with Herndon a desire to critique contemporary politics, to use voice technology to challenge the gendered voice and to create new relationships between voice and technology. In Homeland (2010), she creates a lament to contemporary American politics, from the war in Iraq, the economic crisis and the loss of a sense of home. Anderson at times speaks, chants and sings in a restricted range with little dynamic variation. She creates characters who perform in what Novac describes as vocal drag, using the harmonizer to create the character of Fenway Bergamot, the voice of authority.

Novac quotes Anderson on the function of the drag voice: “I wear audio masks in my work-meaning electronically, I can be this shoe salesman, or this demented cop or some other character. And I do this to avoid the expectations of what it means to be a woman on stage.” (p 138, Novac, Jelena 2015)

In “Transitory Life”, she uses Vocoders to filter her voice, and to layer upon layer it through loops and sequencers. But at times a remarkable transparency and immediacy exists between the listener and Anderson as she murmurs stories into our ears.

It’s a good time far bankers and winners and sailors

With their stories of jackpots and islands of pleasure

They keep their treasures locked in Iron Mountain

Locked in Iron mountain

They’re sailing through this transitory life

They’re moving through this transitory life

Novac describes Anderson’s work on Homeland as destabilizing conventional perceptions of musical genre, finding itself between rock, performance art and post-opera. And in so doing, inventing new musical and performative forms. (Novac, Jelaena (2015) p145)

Cathy Barbarian was a pioneer in developing the performativity of the classical voice and breaking the centuries old association with virtuosity, beauty and volume associated with the classical voice. Berbarian, like Anderson, was a singer-composer who was instrumental in bridging the gap between performance and music in the ’70s. She, like Anderson, was a pioneer in the voice technology of her time: the microphone, voice processing and splicing. She used close-miking to explore the range of vocal colours available, including the sounds of the vocal mechanism such as the breath, the lips, the tongue and the sounds of swallowing and gagging.

Barbarian was interested in “the sonic qualities of every aspect of voice production” at a time when many saw her work as of peripheral interest to the real singing done on the operatic stage, which she never did. (op.cit. P159) The sounds explored by Berbarian were considered noise at best and at worst, damaging and a sign of vocal dysfunction. The vocal aesthetic she was challenging was associated with the classical voice: a prescribing of balance between light and shade, evenness across vocal registers, even vibrato of a particular amplitude and frequency and the absence of any extrinsic noise including that of the breath or sounds of the actual vocal process.

Berbarian challenged the banishment of experimentation from the canon of the classical singer and reclaimed it, rejecting the concept of an ideal performance whose aim was to be replicated as closely as possible, as often as possible. It was left to experimental, folk and popular artists to be off the score and to take risks.

In her performance of Stripsody (her own composition), Berbarian alternates the sounds of speech, everyday life, opera, comic characters, sounds of her mouth, lips, animal noises, and improvised vocalizations, challenging the classical singer to be more than a carrier of the intensions of the composer, to be judged solely by how accurately she reproduced the composer’s perceived intentions. Berbarian was a composer as well as a collaborator of Berio’s and John Cage, and was committed to melding the role of singer with that of creator, active interpreter and improviser.

Berbarian was the first classical vocalist to break out of the strictures of the opera theatre, recital hall and church and explore the concept of vocality. Her mission was to break down barriers between the sung and spoken word, between what is noise and what is singing, to use voice technology as part of her art, to challenge the concept of private and public voice, to promote the singer as creator and collaborator and to embrace a wide range of vocal expressions without reinforcing the vocal style hierarchies of her time. Contemporary composer Oswaldo Golijov comments on the lack of vocal flexibility in contemporary classical singers: “Hopefully’, Golijov told critic Paul Griffiths “in ten or twenty years singers will think it is as essential to sing like this (in a Latin American vocal style) as it is to sing in Italian or German style, because there is a world of emotion as big as those of European traditions.”

Singers such as Laurie Anderson, Holly Hendon, Nora Fischer, Diamanda Galas, Shara Worden and Bjork, are among those exploring the way voice technology can transform a singing practice. They’re creating new relationships with technology, with their own bodies, opening up new vocabularies of expression, new connections with the listener, new collaborations, skills and performing spaces. The old paradigms prescribing what are popular and classical vocal styles become irrelevant as we move into the 21st century. Steven Connor’s writing on the place of voice and technology reveals new possibilities in the complex interrelationships between voice, technology and music that are challenging the idealized voice that has been classical voice.

Divisions between speech and singing, machine voice and organic voice, classical and contemporary voices are becoming more permeable. With this erosion of vocal specialization, a small chink has appeared in the standardization and commodification of the voice that has been dominant since the radio and the gramophone first arrived. Perhaps these new practices are leading us towards “a voice full of imaginary drive, and those animate and poetical expressions that turn our bodies toward other species, other material forms, or immaterial apparitions, as well as each other.”


Gelbert, Mathew. The Invention of “Folk Music” and “Art Music”. Cambridge University Press, New York. 2007. ISBN 978-0-521-86303-2.

Cavarero, Adriana. For More than One Voice Stanford University Press, Stanford, California. 2005. ISBN 0-8047-4954-x.

Chanan, Michael. Repeated Takes, A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music. Verso, New York, London. 1995

Connor, Steven. “The Decomposing Voice of Postmodern Music”. New Literary History, Vol. 32, Number 3, Summer 2001.

Connor, Steven. Beyond Words. Reaktion Books Ltd, London, UK. 2014 ISBN 978-178023-2584.

Potter, John, Vocal Authority, Singing Style and Ideology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York. 1998.

Novak, Jelena, Dr, Roberta Montemorra, Professor, “Vocal Drag, Counter-Castrato, and the Scandal of the singing Body” in Postopera: Reinventing the Voice-Body, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Farnham, June 18 2015, ISBN 9781472441041 p133

lyrics from Anderson, Laurie. “Transitory Life” from the album “Homeland”

Placinaca, Francesca, Dr, Verstraete, Pieter, Dr Sivuojo-Kauppala, Anne, Prof, Dr, Karantonis, Pamela, Dr. “Cathy Berbarian and the Performative art of the Voice” in Vocal Performance as Meta-Commentary: Artistry and Cultural Politics. Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Farnham. 2014. ISBN 9781409469841

Elliot, Martha. Singing in Style: A Guide to Vocal Performance Practices. (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2006, ISBN 0-300-10932-6.)

Connor, Steven. Beyond Words. Reaktion Books Ltd, London, UK. 2014 ISBN 978-178023-2584.

Karen Cummings teaches singing to actors at Wollongong University. Her PhD work looks at the use of microphone in relation to classical singing. After working exclusively with the unamplified voice in Opera and classical repertoire, Karen has become more interested in the possibilities sound technologies present to the singer. She’s currently performing works by classical composers, writing for microphone and voice, and creating performances as part of a duo, “Body of Water”, with Stephen Adams.