3. Voice and live electronics
- new musical parameters
3.1 The voice as an instrument
The voice has, in its capacity as a human bearer of emotional expression and semantic meaning, extraordinary qualities as an instrument. My project has been to seek out how electronic processing can change the premises for vocal performance, and the new musical and artistic possibilities that are presented by electronic manipulation. First and foremost I have been doing this by experimenting and finding sounds and sound-processing techniques that I appreciate intuitively, due to a sound quality that I like and/or the way the new sounds function as part of the musical whole. After discovering specific sounds and techniques, I have continued to work with them, gradually internalising them as operational techniques and as a basis for intuitive choices in real time. Further, when moving away from the experimentation and practical modus, I have tried to ‟understand” what gives a sound character; is it interesting, appealing, useful ‒ what makes me intuitively want to use a specific sound? By this I mean: what makes me want to work with it, develop it, use it in new constellations, make it a part of my vocabulary? What does the sound bring to the musical interplay and overall expression, and is it the sound as such that interests me, or rather how it relates to the experienced whole? Asking these questions has been a natural part and a consequence of my musical activity, but also necessary in my position as a research fellow.
3.1.1 Electronics and freedom with distance
My motivation for this project, and for working with electronics at all, is my experience of how live electronics open up new and interesting possibilities for me as a vocalist. In the improvising a cappella ensemble Kvitretten, I found it inspiring to work with acoustic extended vocal techniques in our collective improvisation, being able to both blend into and peak out of the other singers’ sounds. When trying to improvise like this together with other instruments than acoustic voice(s), I found it somehow difficult to use extended vocal techniques. I felt that the voice-sound did not blend in; sounds that were intended to “make a colour” or to accompany something else, most often stood out as being ‟human comments” with a different focus than those that I wanted to have. During this period I had already started to experiment with electronics, and through the use of a guitar-effect machine I started to discover how transformation of the voice could offer a new freedom when playing drums and synthesizers in my trio BOL. In my experience, the use of electronic processing brings in a new, important element in comparison with acoustic extended vocal techniques: a perceived distance from the natural voice sound. This distance opens up, in a different way than extended vocal techniques, the possibilities of interacting with other instruments. Why? The natural voice tends to draw special attention in an instrumental setting. This probably has to do with (at least) two things:
- The historical role, and therefore the audience’s expectations of the singer.
- That fact that the sound of the voice is very easily recognisable with reference to the listener’s own (or any human being’s) voice.
I will return to discussing the role of the singer in Chapter 4, and focus here on the special qualities of the voice as a musical instrument. In his PhD thesis Experiencing Voices in Electroacoustic Music (Bergsland, 2010), Andreas Bergsland examines the use of the voice in electroacoustic music from a listener’s perspective. In his research he has focused on how humans experience the sound of the voice.
There is little doubt that the voice has a special status for all human beings across cultures, being the primal carrier of communication, a very important one for non-verbal communication, and of course one of the primary “instruments” of musical expression. This special status is also mirrored in a perceptual sensitivity to vocal sounds, and to any meaning that these sounds may convey, be it linguistic, identity related or affective. That this sensitivity is apparent at a very early stage of our development shows its importance. (Bergsland 2010, p. 71)
Bergsland also refers to neurological research that point towards voice-sensitive areas and mechanisms in the brain. It is not surprising that the voice gets our attention before other sounds. But for me, this attention is not always wanted. If I want to blend musically into something else, or want to be a part of the music without adopting a main focus, this is a hard task for the acoustic voice. The distance from acoustic voice sound, provided by electronic processing, therefore provides new musical opportunities, through my experience.
3.1.2 Bergsland’s maximum - minimum model
How can electronics change the voice as an instrument? Of course electronics cannot change the voice as such, but they can change the sound of it when amplified through loudspeakers. The use of electronics can also change the organisation of sounds, and as a consequence, their instrumental appearance and musical possibilities. Bergsland constructs what he calls a maximal - minimal model for analysing voice sounds in electroacoustic music.
The second central idea in my framework is the model of maximal and minimal voice. This model sets up two poles or extremes as reference points against which the experience of different types of transformed or manipulated voices might be judged and compared, namely the maximal and minimal voice. The maximal voice can briefly be described as a typical informative and neutral speaking voice, resembling in many ways public broadcast voices. At the other end, the minimal voice is usually highly manipulated and often quite abstract, and thus defines the zone between what is voice and what is not voice. The imagined space between these two extremes is thought of as a continuum extending from a central zone, defined by the maximal voice, towards a peripheral zone, defined by the minimal voice (ibid 3).
Bergsland’s Centre-periphery model of maximal and minimal voice (ibid 149)
In his model, Bergsland also breaks this continuum down into what he refers to as a set of seven premises, which he sees as being partly interrelated dimensions with which different vocal expressions in vocal music can be evaluated:
1. Focus of attention
2. Information density
5. Clarity of meaning
6. Feature salience
7. Stream integration (Ibid 142)
Bergsland sees this model as being connected to other theories that are relevant here:
- We experience a manipulated sound in relation to one that is not manipulated (Smalley and Schaeffer)
- We can describe a continuum between the concrete and reference-oriented on one side, and the abstract and sound quality-oriented on the other side. (Hoopen, Young, Chion, Emmerson) (Ibid 3,4)
For me, as a vocal improvising performer, Bergsland’s model is useful when I am trying to understand my intuitive actions. I experience a play with “distance - nearness” in my work relating to this continuum, where the maximum, natural voice is the central zone, and the highly processed voice is the peripheral zone. Further, his premises are not only concerned with a sound’s quality, but also, in the last two premises: how it appears in the whole musical picture. Feature salience is about how vocal sounds “stand out” perceptually, both for themselves and in relation to other sound features. Stream integration indicates how the voice is integrated into one coherent and continuous sound stream. (Ibid: 142)
Looking at my music in the light of this model, I see that the model describes important aspects of what I am playing with. It is also clear to me that this model shows how the voice is very different from other musical instruments through the premises of Naturalness and Clarity of meaning. I see that this model could be used as a tool for analysing my music in a more theoretical way. Rather than providing a detailed analysis (which would be a big theoretical task since the play with these premises exists in an interweaved whole), I will be using the model more freely as a reference and tool for understanding some important aspects of my work.
I will try to show how Bergsland’s seven premises are able to describe musical parameters in my work:
Example III, 1: “Raised, rave” from the CD Voxpheria (2012) with Thomas Strønen:
For the first 3 minutes I work within a continuum between natural voice sounds on one side and different processed and sampled sounds (and reverbs) on the other. I am play, among other things, with degrees of Naturalness and Presence. The most processed sound comes from the plug-in synth Hadron (see Chapter 2), while some of the “sliced up” sounds, are produced by using effects in the Roland SP555 (see Chapter 2). Due to the character of the interplay, in this part very transparent through the use of silence/”stops” between the impulses, it is still easy to recognise much of the voice sound as voice, except for the Hadron pulse (Information density, Focus of attention and Feature Salience, as described above).
Towards the end of the session, (8.38) there is a sequence where the only voice present is a sampled loop processed with granular synthesis, pitched down and filtered through a MaxMSP patch (the G/F patch, see Chapter 2). I use the same combination of techniques a bit earlier (6.41). Here I am in the peripheral zone; the voice is less recognisable and also more mixed with Thomas’s sounds (Stream integration, as described above).
At 3.05, a “text” is introduced, a kind of Dadaistic improvisation with word-like sounds. The only clear word in this section is the word “raised”, and maybe the word “rave”. This was not intended as meaning, but popped up as a part of the improvisation. (The title of the piece is created afterwards.) This is a play with Bergsland’s premise of Clarity of meaning as I see it. The use of something “language-like” has a special energy because it is associated with meaning ‒ at least for me, being a performer capable of delivering a text in a more traditional setting. I experience a distinct difference between textually related vocalising and more abstract sound-sculpting or ‟instrumental” singing.
3.2 The voice as a communicator of meaning and emotion
As stated earlier, the voice’s status as bearer of meaning in our daily lives, both in verbal and non-verbal communication, gives it a very special position compared to other musical instruments. I see this both as a great possibility and a challenge: the possibilities of expression connected to different types and grades of meaning in a musical context are immense. The challenge, on the other hand, is that this meaning may be hard to escape.
I have already mentioned the – from my experience ‒ unwanted attention the voice can get (when wanting to blend rather than taking focus). Even if the vocal performer’s focus is sound, not meaning, this can easily happen due to the human orientation towards the voice as a communication source, as stated earlier. I will return to the challenge of blending in elsewhere, and focus on a slightly different, but still very connected challenge: the easy access to meaning and emotion that lies in the performer’s natural or real world vocabulary. By this I mean the arsenal of non-textual communication-sounds. This has also become very obvious to me through my teaching practice. I regularly use free improvisation with the voice as part of my method, for all students, not only singers. It is difficult to avoid “theatrical” developments in the first sessions of vocal improvisation if there is no outspoken rule against it presented before the exercise. (And even with an outspoken rule it can be difficult…) The students often delve into sighing, crying, shouting, laughing, imitating motors and a dog barking, etc… Much of our natural non-verbal vocabulary is connected to the expression of emotions, or imitating real world sounds, sounds that mean or represent something in this world. This part of our vocabulary is of course also important in art forms like sound poetry, vocal performance art and contemporary vocal music. One example is Cathy Berberian’s “Stripsody”, with its emotional outbursts and “cartoon-onomatopoetic” sounds. I experience that the connection to meaning or emotion in voice uttering is sometimes difficult to control. As an example, there is a thin line separating the possible understandings of a “neutral” breathing sound; is it an expression of fear, of surprise or of sexual pleasure? Being a vocal performer I experience a challenge here, a need for awareness, in relation to what I want to express with my music. For me, the use of electronics is one way to overcome these challenges, by “disguising” the traces of emotional input, or making the expression ambiguous by blurring, mechanising, “rhythmising”, minimising or adding something to, the natural voice sound.
Example III, 2:”Thhh”, studio improvisation with Michael Duch 2011
From the start of the sequence I am working with breath sounds in different ways. The first sound is a pre-sampled sound from my Roland SP555. At 0.17, I use natural/acoustic breaths, which I also sample as Hadron-loops. At 0.46 I use the Roland-sample and the processed Hadron-loops at the same time. Breath sounds is my main material for the first 46 sec. of this improvisation, and the use of electronics makes it possible to vary the material and blur, or even erase, the emotional expression in parts of it.
The challenges of the voice instrument are, as earlier stated, closely connected to the possibilities of the voice instrument. The easy access to meaning even includes the possibility to use words and language with semantic meaning. Composers and artists have, over the years, explored the interesting range in vocal interpretation from intelligible meaning to sonic abstraction.
The voice as a real world experience
In her book entitled Playing with words: the spoken word in artistic practice (Lane, 2008), Cathy Lane has collected articles by several performers, composers and academics, who focus on use of ‘spoken word’ as artistic material in different ways. Many of the contributors think of voice sound and the use of words as a link to the real world in contrast to abstract music.
Another thing that interested me […] was the sound of informal, unrehearsed speech, conversational speech. This is in reaction to artificial sung speech, and also was an attempt to infuse sounds of ordinary, everyday life with the magic of music. (Paul Lansky, 2008, 108)
As a composer, working mainly with recorded sound, I was initially attracted to “playing with words” because they provided a link between the abstract languages of music and “real world” experience . (Cathy Lane 2008, 8)
What constitutes real world, or the real world experience, in voice sound? For me, it would seem that the experience of meaning in voice sound has something to do with the experience of real world. Meaning can be experienced in several ways and as many nuances. It seems reasonable to think that the highest clarity of meaning comes with verbal/textual utterances, with intelligibly spoken words, presented in a clear, natural way, as with a good radio voice. Still, one could argue that non-verbal, but easy recognisable, sounds or expressions referring to concrete emotions (screaming) or phenomena (engines, dogs barking,) could provide the listener with equally meaningful information as words do. So clarity in meaning is not easy to define. This is also reflected in Bergsland’s writings on the premises of his maximum – minimum model (Bergsland 2010, 270). Bergsland points, among other things, to the importance of the context in this regard.
I will not elaborate further on definitions or discussion of these terms here, but I will share my own experiences of listening to and producing music. I tend to experience meaning and the real world as overlapping qualities within the same vocal expression. Further, when I talk about creating “distance” through the use of electronics, I think that these two terms are useful when describing what I experience a distance from.
3.2.3 Playing with zones
Bergsland’s natural premise and central zone, and Lane’s real-world experience, seem to overlap, to some extent. It seems that Bergsland’s natural premise is somewhat stronger; you can probably move away from the intelligibly speaking radio voice and still perceive a voice sound as a real world sound. Still, the movement from the central zone towards the peripheral zone is also, for me, experienced as moving from the real world towards a more abstract world. The range between these two zones or ‘worlds’, and the potential for play within it, is something that I recognise as being a musical parameter in my own work. I will exemplify this by looking at the improvisation “Spring is like a perhaps hand” and focusing on these zones.
Example III, 3: “Spring is like a perhaps hand”, from the CD Numb, number BOL + Snah & Westerhus 2012
This improvisation has a text, a poem by E.E. Cummins, as a starting point. I work with the words of the text in four different ways:
- 0.20: The text (meaning) spoken in a natural real world mode, a central zone.
- 1.18 A more sound-oriented use of the text, repeating it, reciting it more rapidly and floating, and also using a pitch-shift effect that makes it less natural, less meaningful, and more peripheral.
- 2.07 A more traditional, musical element: a melodic “refrain” using a repeated line from the text (meaning). Using unnatural pitch-shifting, and singing the words instead of talking, I experience this as a step away from the natural/real world. I am somewhere between; moving towards the peripheral, but still with a very recognisable voice sound.
- 4.02 A whispered natural text (meaning) brought “close” by using a compressor, resembles the real world, moving towards the central zone.
This improvisation, in my experience, moves between different zones/worlds, and with a varied perception of text/meaning throughout the piece. It is obvious that this improvisation would be very different without my use of effects and a compressor. It is also clear that the use of effects cannot be understood as an isolated parameter, but is strongly interrelated with how I use my voice. Finally, the interplay with the band is of great importance as regards both the choice of sounds and the way I use my voice. Still, it is clear to me that the experience of unnaturalness, or abstraction, and also the experience of nearness, relates to the perceived meaning and real world.
3.3 Words as meaning and words as sound
Many of the artists in Cathy Lane’s book describe their experiences of language as musical sound - especially when they do not understand the meaning of the words (Jaap Blonk, Oliver Brown, Michael Vincent, Leigh Landy)(see Lane 2008). Language as musical sound is something I recognise as being another musical parameter in my work (though it is strongly related to the play with zones). I observe the use of five main techniques when working with text or language as sound:
1. Natural speaking or reciting text.
2. Singing text.
3. Repeating text.
4. Using “text”; sounds without semantic meaning, but “sounding like text”.
5. Processing the sound of the spoken or sung text or “text”.
1. Speaking or reciting naturally can correspond to Bergsland’s central zone, although there are many degrees of intelligibility, depending on the text itself, how it is performed and what place it has in the musical whole (feature salience).
2. From my experience, singing the text involves an abstraction from meaning. It could also involve a change of meaning when compared to speech. The degree of abstraction varies with the way the text is sung. There is, for instance, a big gap between the recitative-like and text-near, and the more complex melodies.
3. Repeating text, both in real time and with sampling, can gradually reduce/transform it from meaning to sound. (I will return to this in Chapter 4.)
4. When describing my music I often use terms such as ”text” and ”word-like”. I speak or sing, it sounds like language, but it has no semantic meaning. I experience this type of expression as “having a hint of meaning”; it sounds as if I mean something concrete. This definitely adds something else when compared to working with pure sound-sculpting, vocalising or using text with semantic meaning.
5. Processing the sound of spoken or sung text can change it slightly (reverb, flanger) from the natural, or change it dramatically (granular synthesis, big changes in pitch) – and in the grades between. In my experience, the sounds’ quality as being meaningful can often be present even if the processing is strong.
I will give an example of how I use these techniques in an excerpt from a live performance with my trio, BOL:
Example III, 4: Excerpt from “Skylab Audiovision”, live at Verkstedhallen, Trondheim, September 2009. The text is from the poem Skylab (Rolf Jacobsen, translation by Roger Greenwald).
- 0.03: Whispering/‟talking”/singing with Ring Modulator-effect (Roland SP555) with low amplitude, blending with the other instruments – “word like”, a hint of meaning/real world, but towards the peripheral zone.
- 0.48: Sampling something “word-like”, creating a loop and processing in with G/F patch in MaxMSP (granular synthesis with variations made by frequency filter control, see Chapter 2); peripheral zone, but still with a hint of meaning/real world, even when heavily processed.
- 1.44: Singing with a full, and almost natural voice, with words. I think of this as being close to the central zone (natural sound and meaning, but also abstract because I am singing, not speaking).
- 2.04 Repeating a text phrase, sung with a natural voice, sampling parts and playing back the samples repeatedly, in layers. I experience this first as being close to the central zone, singing words with a “natural” voice. The repetition of words (samples in loops) gradually changes them from meaning into sound, moving further away from the central zone.
3.4 Sound quality as a musical parameter
As discussed, changing the voice’s sound and function by using electronic processing can be experienced as a musical play with distance and nearness. This distance - nearness play can, as demonstrated above, be seen as taking place in the range between a central zone (meaning and real world), and a peripheral zone, represented by a more abstract sound- world.
For me, the “play with the experience of reality” is, most often, not planned or reflected on, but comes as a result of improvising with musical material, from experimenting with sounds and making intuitive choices. These choices are based on the total experience of the music, either in a solo performance or in the interplay with others. The quality of the sounds I produce is often a musical trigger, causing the next event, similar to how a rhythm, a melody, a text or someone else’s sound can create a musical idea or response in me. This is also how Thomas Strønen describes our interplay: “ I often feel that the sounds you choose trigger an impulse and sound from me, and these sounds together becomes a common idea that we develop further in the interplay”.
By observing my own work, I find that through my practice I have developed a vocabulary, a set of techniques that I favour. Even though sound quality is not an isolated parameter in music, it is useful to examine in a more concrete way how I experience and use different types of processed voice sound, with a focus on the sound as such. Compared to ‘playing with zones’, this approach is a more instrumental, and some of this thinking might therefore also be more adaptable to musicians working with electronic processing using other instruments. Still, it is clear, by examining these sounds and techniques, that the usage very often involves a ‘play with zones’. However, it is also possible that some of the techniques, especially those relating to the use of reverb and ”placing” the sound, as well as the use of sampling, will have relevance for an instrumentalist.
3.4.1 Experiential categories of processed voice sound
As discussed in Chapter 2, the choices made in the improvised interplay are (mainly) based on an “inner ear” experience of the sound prior to the musical action. For me, a grouping of sounds and techniques in categories is one way of structuring the possible choices. Being a musician and not a music technologist, I am more interested in the sounding result of different types of sound processing than the technology involved. I find myself working with four main categories for manipulating voice-sound. These are experiential categories ‒ based on how I experience the sound quality:
- (a) Broadening: adding something to the voice
- (b) Narrowing: filtering the frequencies of the voice
- (c) Placing: putting the voice in different rooms/spaces and distances
- (d) Reconstructing: changing the voice sound more substantially
(a) Broadening: adding something to the voice
Example III, 5: “Numb Street Cabaret” with Thomas Strønen - from the CD Voxpheria (2012).
From the start to 2.52: I am using a “cluster”; a pitch shifter effect that I have programmed on the Lexicon (see Chapter 2), by adding two close notes to the original sung note. (This is also the effect I use in the example "Spring is like a perhaps hand” in Section 3.2.3) This makes the voice broader, and more unnatural. It also triggers, here, a way of singing that is theatrical, and it sounds a bit absurd. This inflects the musical idea for the whole expression, I think.
One variant of broadening includes a tonal/harmonic focus. This happens when the interval between the voice and the added pitch is increased above the second, especially with consonant intervals – and if there is a melodic or tonal focus.
Example III, 6: Excerpt from a version of “Mercy Street” (Peter Gabriel), studio recording with Krister Jonsson and Per Oddvar Johansen, 2009.
Here I am using another pitch shifter effect programmed on the Lexicon, adding a 5th under, for tonal reasons as well as for the broadening effect.
I would like to compare this with a non- tonal focus:
Example III, 7: Excerpt from ‟Western Wind” from the CD Numb, number (2012), BOL + Hans Magnus Ryan and Stian Westerhus.
Here I use the same effect as above, but with a speaking voice.
Example III, 8 : Solo part from “Singing again” from the CD Numb, number (2012), BOL + Hans Magnus Ryan and Stian Westerhus.
I use a “slicer” effect, “cutting up” the sung note (from the Roland SP 555). I balance the clean signal and the processed signal so that the effect is in focus. This is an overdub done in studio, after first doing a take with a more acoustic solo that did not work too well with the music. The use of a slicer effect created a kind of mechanical vibrato that allowed a more instrumental, sound- focused approach. This connected better with the guitars.
In all these examples, I experience the voice-sound as becoming richer and broader, and at the same time less direct due to the unnaturalness. This is something that I experience with different pitch-shifter modes, and also with effects like flanger, chorus and reverse delay, etc.
(b) Narrowing: filtering the frequencies of the voice
The term ‘narrowing’, points towards my experience of reduction of the voice sound working with frequency filters.
Example III, 9: “Numb Street Cabaret” with Thomas Strønen - from the CD “Voxpheria” (2012):
At 2.52 I use an EQ/filter-effect (Roland SP 555) and a compressor to create a radio-like voice. The filter removes lower frequencies and adds more of the upper middle frequencies. I find it interesting to see how removing low frequencies can make the voice seem “closer”, more insisting and more important. Could one of the reasons for this be that we are used to receiving important information (airports, trains, fire alarms, rehearsals, etc.) on very bad sound systems which lack low frequencies? Or is it because of the reference to radio or telephone sound; someone far away, but still close to you ear? The compressor makes the consonants very clear, small sounds are amplified and the voice seems to be very close - it resembles whispering, which is often meant to be important and is just for you to hear (personal).
Example III, 10: Excerpt from “Waiting time”, from the CD Numb, number (2012), BOL + Hans Magnus Ryan and Stian Westerhus.
From 0.39 I use the same type of filtering and compressing as above, on my singing. I experience, again, that this technique makes the voice sound “closer”,even though it is unnatural and not real world. This ‘sound’ is also inspired by what I think of as the “Stina Nordenstam-sound” (see 1.5.5). I also register that when I use filtering on my voice in real time, I am often enhancing the upper middle-tone area, while I tend to bring out the low frequencies when I filter sampled sounds. I probably use the upper middle tone filtering to make my real-time voice more present, while I often use the filter to vary sampled sounds and therefore use a wider frequency range, also including lower frequencies.
(c) Placing: putting the voice in different rooms/spaces and distances
By using different kinds of reverbs, delays and compressors, the voice sound can be put in different rooms, and be experienced as though it is coming from different distances in the musical scenery. This inflects the experience of room and space in the musical expression as a whole.
Example III, 11: ‟When what” improvised studio session with percussionist Marilyn Mazur, Copenhagen 2011:
Throughout the session the percussion is “placed” in a medium “distant” room, while the voice has various “spatial placements”. The pre-samples I use at the start are experienced as being a little bit closer than the percussion, and the natural voice as being much closer, by using – among other things – less reverb. At 3.37 I change from relatively “close” natural voice sound, to – by using a longer reverb – making it more distant, and sampling phrases that stay in this more distant place due to the use of the reverb. The whistling sound towards the end is also placed in this more distant area. I experience the placing of the voice as being a musical parameter here.
Example III, 12: Excerpt from “Udu”, studio improvisation with Marilyn Mazur 2011.
Here, I work with a talking voice with a short reverb (“dry”), a whispering voice with a long reverb (“wet”) and thereafter a “wet” singing voice. Since the percussion also has a long reverb, the “dry” talking establishes a spatial reference giving perspective to the experience of the total space.
(d) Reconstructing: changing the voice sound more substantially
This is the widest category in the sense that the various techniques can sound very different from each other. Examples of these techniques are:
- Granular synthesis in Max MSP
- The use of different states in the Hadron
- The more extreme effects on the Roland SP555
(like the DJFX-looper and the Ring Modulator-effect)
(All of these techniques and machines are described in Chapter 2.)
Granular synthesis and filtering in MaxMSP
I use a custom-made Granular/Filter-patch (G/F patch) programmed in MaxMSP (see Chapter 2). Vocals with granular synthesis sounds very different to what I can create with my other effect-machines. One major difference is that I can create random variations, both regarding the granulating process and the filtering. This makes it possible to work with loops that are constantly changing “on their own”. I experience the processed loops as being organic rather than static (this can solve some of the challenges with looping, which I will mention later). Sometimes the use of the G/F patch gives a sensation of playing with someone else; choices are being made outside my realm. The patch has a lot of possibilities, and in the following I will provide examples of some of them.
I use the G/F patch to create accompanying layers or an underlying “fundament” in my music. Very often the voice is not, or hardly, recognisable as the source of the sound (at least to people not familiar with this type of processing). I experience that granular synthesis can give some very organic-sounding variations. I will return to example no. III, 12, the “Udu” session with Marilyn Mazur:
An important musical fundament for this session is a sample of short sounds made with the lips, processed through the G/F patch, with short grains and varying density. I am attracted to the way it sounds, and how it ‒ in a minimalistic way ‒ changes all the time, by the stream of short grains with varying density and deviation. The sound immediately led Marilyn to choose the udu as a matching instrument.
I also use the G/F patch to create tonal fundaments:
Example III, 13: “Grains” with Thomas Strønen, from the CD Voxpheria (2012):
The processed loops define the tonal fundament, and they are also an important timbral element, giving the piece a certain colour. At 1.49 I sample a sung note for a loop in the G/F patch, where the pitch is set to an octave +4th below the original note. Between here and 2.54, I sample this down-pitched loop on the Repeater loop-machine, and then at 2.54 I transpose the processed loop up a 4th in order to have a broader tonal fundament that I can vary. Without the granular synthesis, this would sound like “a singer accompanying herself with pitched voice-loops”, but in this way the loop acquires an instrumental character. Again, it is also the sound in itself that attracts me. The way the sound is transformed by the synthesis and varied through the filters in the G/F patch makes it very different to the sound of the pure voice. The connection between the first sung note and the repeated sample is not very obvious, and this takes away the focus from the looping technique as an ‟effect”. The tonal layers “grow out of nothing”. I also use the G/F patch for loops without a specific tonal focus:
Example III, 14: Excerpt from solo performance “ Eugenie – short stories of sound”, live at the Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival 2011:
At 0.07 I use a sampled loop with no tonal focus, in a low pitch, with longer grains and a lower density. This creates a deep and “disturbing” sound-layer. The irregular random fluctuation and density of sound impulses make it “alive”.
Example III, 15: “Numb”, from the CD Numb, number (2012), BOL + Snah & Westerhus :
Here, at 2.19 and 3.07, I use granular synthesis of spoken words (not heard as words, but sometimes as word-like), as a textural “sound-shower”, which I experience as being connected to the spoken samples that are used from the start.
Hadron plug-in synth in Ableton Live
The Hadron is my newest device and is still something that I am exploring. (see Chapter 2). What has attracted me so far, but which also is a challenge, is how it creates a very different output compared to what I produce with other devices. To me it sounds very “digital”. What I have used in the Hadron is the possibility of making a pulsating, highly processed sound-layer from vocal samples. It sounds different to what I can do with the DJFX-looper on the Roland SP555 (which has some similarities; it can create a pulsating, processed sound from a sample and change it by pitch modulation and tempo). The Hadron-pulse, which I often combine with various plug-in filters in Ableton Live, can be varied in many more ways than the Roland effect, but it is also more unpredictable and complex, as discussed in Chapter 2. Still, trying to implement the very different sound quality in the Hadron is interesting; I want to examine further what it can bring into my vocabulary. Up until now, I have been using the pulsating effect in some improvisations:
Example III, 16: “Thhh” (again), with Michael Duch:
I use the Hadron pulse as a returning element during the first part (until 4.55), starting with sampling breath sounds in 0.17 and at 0.45 entering the pulse for the first time. For me it has two main functions: contrast and energy. It sounds very “machine-like”, in contrast to the other sounds, especially the acoustic bass. The pulse gives the music a movement, not necessarily “forward”, but adding something more rapid and continuous into a kind of “punctuated” interplay.
Example III, 17: “Raised, Rave “ (again), with Thomas Strønen:
I use the Hadron pulse (1.34) here very much in the same way as in the last example, as a returning element, contrasting the rest of the sound picture (although not contrasting as much as in the example with the acoustic bass,) and bringing in a continuum moving in and out of the, in general, abrupt expression of the piece.
Roland SP555 – “extreme effects”
The Roland SP555 sampler (link) has a lot of built-in effects, and some of them have become part of my musical vocabulary. When I think of effects as reconstructing the voice, I mean that they make the voice sound like “not voice” or “something else than voice” to a certain degree. The sound relies of course very much on how you balance the effect with the clean input signal: distortion/fuzz can be subtle, adding spice to the voice, or it can sound very alien if you turn down the original vocal input in the live mix. I will exemplify two of the effects I often use, effects that give me an impression of a “reconstructed voice”: the DJFX-looper and the Ring Modulator.
Example III, 18: Excerpt from the solo performance “Eugenie – short stories of sound”, live at the Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival 2011:
From 1.07, I use the Roland DJFX-looper, like I often do when working with noisy parts. It has several functions and controllers: looping a fraction of the input and repeating it, changing the pitch of the voice or the repeated fraction, and changing the tempo of the repetition. It functions, for me, as a means of creating a powerful and sometimes aggressive expression. It is voice and “not voice” at the same time, often giving a feeling of the voice trying to “break through” or being “broken down” by something powerful.
Here is another example, where I use it in a much more moderate way:
Example III, 19: “Raised, Rave” with Thomas Strønen, again:
Here, I use the effect in a less “dramatic” way, picking up some phrase endings and samples at the beginning (from 0.07) and then repeating fractions of some of the phrases (from 2.02). The “machine-like” effect are important, providing a surprising, contrasting and abstract element, especially when compared to the natural voice.
The Ring Modulator-effect
Example III, 20: BOL: Excerpt from “Nature is not Beautiful”, live performance at Teaterhuset Avant Garden, Trondheim, 2011:
I use the Ring Modulator-effect on the Roland SP555 with “word-like” speech .The acoustic voice sound is heard, but rather distant, sometimes only through the reverb. I experience that the sound of the Ring Modulator “reconstructs” my voice into sounding like something else. The effect creates a kind of fragile, transparent and distant expression using this type of vocals as an input signal.
The mix of categories
The different experiential categories can, and will, of course, be mixed in different ways. The processed sound, broadened, narrowed or reconstructed, always has a defined position in the musical space, by the use of reverb (or lack of it), perhaps a delay and/or compression. The broadened or reconstructed voice sound can be narrowed with a filter and the broadened sound can be reconstructed, and so on. Working with a mixer, I have the choice of balancing and blending the amount of processed and natural sound in different ways. The balance between unprocessed and processed voice sound, the shifts and the cross-fading, are also musical parameters, related to the play with zones, to the whole sound-scenery and the structural elements of the music.
3.5 Sampled sound/sampling as a musical parameter
When I obtained my first loop-machine in 1992, a new world of possibilities opened up for me – with their respective challenges. I will return to these challenges after first having exemplified what I experience as being important musical possibilities in sampling techniques when compared to working with the voice alone. The possibilities are very often connected and intertwined with the overall musical activity, and in my work they are also often combined with different categories of processed sound and the play with zones. I register three important possibilities concerning sampling:
-Sustained sound and repetition
-A library of sounds
Sustained sound and repetition
The options for making the sound last, without producing it repeatedly in real time, represent a dramatic change for any instrumentalist. For the vocalist, in particular, due to “unwanted attention” (see Section 3.1.1), they also create a welcome opportunity for physically keeping away from the microphone and thereby directing the audience’s focus on the sound rather than the person producing it. At the same time, listening to a recording of the voice automatically creates a distance to the performer because the recording is not in real time (it has been performed already) and the sound is coming from a machine rather than from the performer. This play with live and recorded voice is also an element used in the works of Maja Ratkje:
It is interesting that a recording containing both sampled and “live” voice sounds is perceived differently compared to a concert situation where the audience actually sees what is done live with the voice and not. In some ways, the sounds in a piece coexist more on “equal terms” in a recording. I like to play with the possibilities the recording gives, with the ambiguity of not knowing what is what, and leaving out the explanation so the listeners have to use their own imagination. People are often surprised hearing music like this live after getting accustomed to the sound of the recording. This is especially noticeable when performing in groups with other instrumentalists, when no-one expects “that sound”, being electronically processed or not, coming from the singer.
(Maja Ratkje in correspondence, 2012)
Due to this experience of past and present, sampling and playing back in real time also becomes an important part of the play with distance and central/peripheral zones.
Example III, 21: Excerpt from "Heilaloo", Tone Åse/Thomas Strønen from the CD Voxpheria 2011:
At 0.41: I fade in (for a short while) two sampled loops from earlier on in the same session, one from singing (played in reverse) and one from recording a flanger effect. From 1.21 these loops are present for a longer period, first functioning as an accompaniment, and then becoming the main musical material, together with Thomas’s noise-sounds.
There are several elements here identifying the loops as being recorded sound rather than real-time singing. First and foremost because of the obvious repetition, but also because of the way they are faded in and out, and not at least because I am singing something else at the same time the second time they appear.
Example III, 22: “Raised, rave” (again) from the CD Voxpheria (2011) with Thomas Strønen:
At 3.39: I sample a loop with ‟text”, and at 4.20 I sample tonal material, which is played together with the “text” loop while I sing on top of it. The samples are used in different lengths and with varying volume several times during the full sequence, and at 7.24 they appear for the last time.
Repeating something that has taken place earlier on in the music can also be done with the acoustic voice. For example: the refrain of a song is a recognised way of making repetition in real time. In my experience, the repetition of live-recorded sound may cause a different effect, because, as mentioned earlier, it is (in most cases) obvious that this material has already been recorded; it is recalling a former event, but in a new context; it is history given a new function. This, to me, gives the use of recorded samples a genuine and independent musical potential, an element with possible references to timeline and memory.
Sampling and performing multiple layers of sound is radically different from the traditional way of performing on acoustic or half-acoustic instruments with the original capacity of producing one note at a time. This allows more complex constellations of sounds, but also other harmonic and homogenous sound-constellations. I use sampled loops and layers in various ways, depending on the quality of the music. The “text - melody” loop in the example provided above is a typical thing for me to do, and continuing to “play with the loop” and act on the sounds I just recorded (like at 3.58) is typical as well. The option for balancing the amplitude of the individual layers with the loop-machine provides an opportunity for varying the “result-loop” as a whole.
A library of sounds
Another radical change compared to the traditional acoustic vocalist scenario, is the opportunity for creating and storing sound-samples prior to a concert. I register that I use pre-recorded sounds in two different ways: as designed parts of planned, partly composed sessions, and as possible sound-sources in improvised sessions.
Sound samples designed for planned, partly composed music – examples
Example III, 23: Excerpt from “Eugenie – short stories of sound”, live at Ultima, 2011:
For this solo project, I have sampled several sounds that are used both as planned compositional elements and as material for improvising. Most of the samples here are created for specific parts of the whole performance, but I use them in an improvised way. Some of the samples can be put into various parts of the performance, in addition to the parts they are designed for. In this project I work with a story about my late grandmother, and some of the samples are filtered, spoken phrases, my voice with her typical expressions, in her dialect. Other pre-recorded samples are short musical phrases, some non-tonal sounds of a different character, and also some samples with “laughter-inspired” sounds.
Example III, 24: Excerpt from “Nature is not Beautiful”, Avant Garden, Trondheim, 2011:
In my latest project with BOL, “Nature is not Beautiful”, I have used recordings of two other persons’ voices. The text recorded has been created especially for the performance and constitutes the main structure as well as an inspirational starting point for musical ideas. The use of these samples is not improvised, but more like a playback device, where my timing is the parameter of variation. I am not really playing with the samples, except in the last session of the performance, where I recall some of the text samples and use them, sometimes simultaneously, as part of the music. The use of text samples in this piece is not only an attempt to create a, for us, new structural framework. To repeatedly hear someone’s voice without seeing the person on stage, also creates an experience of a “coexisting reality”, a “parallel world”, or perhaps a “real world”, present, but still not visually present.
Example III, 25 “Numb” (again), Bol with Snah & Stian Westerhus 2011:
Here, I have sampled spoken text phrases from a dictionary (explanations of the term ‘numb’). I wanted the text to sound relatively “flat”, reflecting the somewhat stiff formality of the source material, but also, in a way, the word’s meaning. I also wanted the opportunity to create distance, by using a machine, not my voice in real time. I wanted the opportunity to play with the samples, creating a layer that took on a kind of “lead” function, commented by a kind of real- world vocalist singing on top.
Sound-samples as a source in improvised sessions
Example III, 26: Excerpt from a live performance with Thomas Strønen, Dokkhuset, Trondheim, 2009:
In this sequence I use (among other things) pre-sampled sounds as part of the improvisation, where we both play with different impulses, lengths of delays and stops. The samples are processed through various effects and reverbs, and it is not obvious what is pre-recorded and what is not, or what is coming from me and what is coming from Thomas. This also inflects the experience of roles in the interplay, as I will explain further in Chapter 4.
Example III, 27: “Moah”, studio improvisation with Michael Duch, Trondheim, 2009:
From 0.26 I use a pre- sampled “text” or speech in reverse, and I vary it with frequency filtering with the intention of making a contrasting sound, breaking the surface of the longer lines and smoother sounds in the piece.
Intuitive use of pre-sampled sounds
In order to work in a musical way with pre-sampled sounds in improvisations, I have to know what sounds I have in store, and where they are placed on the sampler. By knowing the sounds I mean that I need to hear them with my inner ear in order to imagine them as musical components in the moment. (This is also discussed in Chapter 2.) I have thought of different ways of organising the sounds in order to make this process easy and natural and to be able to act instantly and intuitively. What seems to work best for me is a grouping of sounds that I feel works together. I think of these as different “palettes” that I know well. To store two or three sounds that are slightly different close to each other, also provides an opportunity for variation within the same “sound-landscape”. I also operate with different sample setups on different memory cards, depending on what kind of musical constellation or project I am going to perform in. I also have to rehearse, and I need to go through the sounds in order to locate them in my mind and in my fingers before each performance.
3.6 Concluding comments
The play with zones
Working with live electronics makes it possible to manipulate nearness and naturalness in respect of how the sound of the voice is perceived. I experience this as a play with the zones that Bergsland suggests, constituting a continuum between maximal and minimal voice (Bergsland, 2010). I can also relate to this as a play with the concept of real world (Lane, 2008, Lansky, 2008). For me, the real world experience is connected to the experience of meaning and naturalness in voice sound. It is therefore perceived as being part of the continuum that Bergsland suggests, with clarity of meaning and naturalness as defining premises. The variable experience of meaning shows us how words and linguistics can play an important part, not only by introducing semantics, but also by the act of speaking, using “text” as sound, not as meaning.
The play with zones is, as I see it, a creative field that is not only natural, but also almost unavoidable when working with voice and live electronics. For me, this play widens the range of expressional possibilities available in music. It is important to emphasise that many aspects of this play can also be a part of performing with the acoustic voice alone, but as I see it, live electronics widen the possible range of this continuum. It is also important to see this play not as an isolated activity defined by the vocalist in a musical setting, but as a result of how the musical interplay is working as a whole (the solo performance being an exception of course).
Experiential categories of processed sound
By undertaking an experiential categorisation of the processed sounds that I use, I find the terms broadening, narrowing, placing and reconstructing (see Section3.4.1) to be useful. These terms seem to reflect, in a broad way, my four main “working areas” – areas that are most often intertwined with each other. Although “instrumental” terms, the quality of sound is always in some ways related to, and very often an important part of, the play with zones.
Loop-machine and sampler –some strategies
Looping: limitations, challenges and means for overcoming them
Most loop machines are constructed for, and often used as, musical tools for building metrical, repetitive patterns. One brilliant example of this is the solo work of Jarle Bernhoft (http://www.bernhoft.org/) who builds complete concerts with pop/rock tunes, performing and looping himself as he goes along. The repetitive aspect can also be experienced as a limitation, especially if the lengths of the loops are – as is the case with one of my loop machines - determined by the first one recorded. In my work, I am often interested in “working against” the periodical aspect of the loop. Even if I sometimes think that repetition can work well in combination with other musical developments, repeated rhythmical patterns can soon appear to be static and boring. This is of course the danger with any music being repeated too often, regardless of whether or not is is rhythmical. My approach when trying to avoid this is often to work against the periodical feeling – trying to make the sounds flow rather than correspond to the cycles. I try to avoid “sharp ends” and to make loops without an obvious start or end. Often, I also want to vary the loop along the way. I have become aware of some methods I use in my work regarding these things:
- I overlap endings by dubbing the first sample with similar material
- I make loops with irregular attacks and pauses
- I vary the impression of length and start/end points by fading the loop in and out
- I stop and start the loop (!)
- I use amplitude balancing between multiple layers to vary the loop as a whole
- I vary the amplitude and reverb
- I process the sound of the loop
This is an area for continuous exploration.
The sampled sound library
To be able to play back pre-recorded sound from a sampler is another great opportunity that widens the vocabulary of sounds. It also brings in the distance of the recorded voice by not having to produce the sound in real time. As noted: in order to improvise freely, I need to “hear” the sounds with my inner ear – and there is a limit as to how many I can remember. “Sound palettes” have, as mentioned, been one of my working strategies here.
3.7 What does “new musical parameters” mean?
The play with zones, the possibility to “hide” the voice, the use of different methods of sound processing, the different uses of sampling, both in real time and with pre-recorded sound – are all areas that were opened up through the use of music technology a long time ago. The technology and techniques that I use are not new – especially not when compared to what is being explored and used in other fields and genres, as discussed in Chapter 2. Nor are these musical parameters new as such – but rather newly made available for the improvising vocalist through access to new live electronic devices. The “newness” lies in the exploration of how these musical parameters can be used in improvised music. There are relatively few vocalists using live electronics in improvised interplay in my field (although there are an increasing number of artists using live electronics in their solo performances). The potential inherent in (very available) live electronics devices, especially for vocalists in my genre, is relatively unexplored in this respect. Access to new musical parameters creates new opportunities for musical interaction and thus for taking on new roles in the interplay. This will be demonstrated further in Chapter 4.
 Described in Section 1.5
 Described in Section 1.5.
 Bergsland, Andreas: Experiencing Voices in Electroacoustic Music, NTNU, Trondheim 2010.
 “magnifiCathy – the many voices of Cathy Berberian” ,Wergo Scallplatten 1971/1988, West Germany
 Lansky, Paul: Interview by Cathy Lane, in Lane, Cathy, ed.: Playing with words - the spoken word in artistic practice, CRiSAP/RGAP, London/Manchester 2008.
 Lane, Cathy: Introduction: act of translations, in Lane, Cathy, ed.: Playing with words - the spoken word in artistic practice, CRiSAP/RGAP, London/Manchester 2008.
 The central and peripheral zones (Bergsland, 2010) and conception of “real world” is discussed in Sections 3.1.2 and 3.2.2.
3.1 The voice as an instrument
3.2 The voice as communicator of meaning and emotion
3.3 Words as meaning and words as sound
3.4 Sound quality as a musical parameter
3.5 Sampled sound/sampling as a musical parameter
3.7 What does "new musical parameters" mean ?