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.

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.

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