The Transformed Voice
The transformed voice - prerecorded or in live performance - “ranges from a compressed voice to one of extreme sonic transformation”1, In all the cases, human voice generates the sound, which is modified and transformed through a (later on digital) process. It becomes a new sound through the sonic output.
Luciano Berio Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) (1958)
The friendship and collaboration of Luciano Berio and Uberto Eco due to the study in linguistics in Studio di Fonologia of the RAI in Milan, brought to life Thema (Omaggio a Joyce), one of the first tape compositions2.
In the first two minutes of the piece, Cathy Berberian as one of the first Sirens in this exposition, was recorded reading/performing the beginning of 11th chapter (Siren chapter) by James Joyce’s Ulysses. The rest 6 minutes consist of extensive manipulation of the voice.
Berio described briefly the stages of the composition: “After selecting the material, I linked the words according to their acoustical properties […] After that, I connected them according to their meaning. In other words, I established an acoustical and a semantic frame and then transformed the words alternately according to the requirements of one or the other, with various technical means, most of them perhaps rudimentary: complicated editing, filters, acceleration, slowing down etc.”3 .
Berio’s study in linguistics (language as structured semantic sounds) shaped in the magnetic recording with a new perspective due to the electronics as he explained: “It was my experience with the electronic work Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) that first drew my intention to the new possibilities inherent in the human voice. In electronic music we make no distinction between human voice and instrumental sound: we use sound as an acoustical phenomenon regardless of its origin”4.
The editing process and various distribution of the voice aimed “to create a genuine composition by making use of the material of the words, so that we don’t know anymore whether what we hear is poetry or music”5. In the same way, there are times in the piece that we don't know if what we hear is a human voice and this was meant to be one of the desired powers of the Transformed Voice.
Alvin Lucier I am sitting in a room (1969)
“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but, more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have."6
In the pioneering work of Alvin Lucier, through the interactive feedback of 32 repetitions of the above text, voice is transformed according to the frequencies of the room. There is no use of editing process but the room (the space) itself, with its particular architecture and acoustics, becomes both the performer and the medium of transformation7. The composer “remains only in the form of his taped voice, replayed and recorded until it loses its distinctive individuality, and finally disappears, swallowed by the room”8.
Lucier, influenced by the work and research of sound technicians, referred to his work as “perhaps closer in spirit to alchemy, whose purpose was to transform base metals into pure gold”9. The interest in the combination of art and technology or sciences such as physics and architecture, brought innovations that changed the whole view of sound perception and performances that stretched more and more the inspiration, performance art, the research of sound and its transformation.
Within these, voice could become larger than natural, change chambers, timbres, durations, speeds, pitches and directions through spaces. It becomes inhuman and a subject of a more holisitic view of the sound exploration.
Kristia Michael Play the piano for people (2020)
Influenced and fascinated by these possibilities, I explored the editing process of the tape in a work called Play the piano for people. It was one of the first personal experiments regarding the voice transformation, mostly considering the voice in space and different chambers.
After the Second World War, American psychiatrists started filming educational interviews of anonymous people who were having a mental treatment in mental hospitals, in order to research and study different mental disorders. These "medical films" were held in The National Medical and Biological Film Institute in Ontario10 and later on were published in social media.
My first idea was to create a soundscape of these talking voices, perceiving it as a collective human conscious. The process I followed was similar to Berio’s stages in Thema (Omaggio a Joyce). I selected fragments among six interviews from the Canadian Medical Association Journal (1951)11. Considering the combination of both content of language and sound material, I edited the tapes with loops and filters and attempted to create a semantic structure.
The journalist, describing common characteristics of the people with mental disorders, starts talking and soon functions as a speaking drone in the background (coming back to the surface at some points and the end), while voices appear above. When the woman says “music is the best” , I start singing in distance, adding also a singing drone which develops to a kind of a hymn - as if catharsis arrives after the expression of those inner voices. Finally, the voice saying “play the piano for people” comes to finish the dialogue. The voice's humanistic need to offer, in a way demolishes the words of the journalist and the whole attitude society had (has) against diagnosed people.
I wanted to manipulate two main aspects of transformation: the "distance" of each voice and its "place" in the acoustic space. Some fragments seem to be far from the listener while others very close. The various filters filters transform the material in space and in the same time acquire a very important role in the material and structure of the composition.
The idea was to explore the different layers, spaces and frequencies that can be created, in order to obtain the dreaming state of the subconscious, the multifaceted thoughts and feelings of human mind.
Kristia Michael END of the world (2021)
The audiovisual project was created for the SPRING Festival 2021 of the Royal Conservatory, with the subject of wearable instruments. Inspired by space, I was curious regarding the conception of the human body as the chamber of the voice. We usually listen to the voice resonating in external spaces. What if the body becomes the space itsel for the voice to resonate? What kind of sounds does this living chamber produce and how does the voice co-exist among them?
With the use of contact microphones, I recorded sounds from different parts of the body and through amplification and filters I made them audible. Specifically, I recorded the sounds on different sides of the chest, throat and head (near the eyes) achieving the sounds of the heart, breath, voice and sometimes the moving blood.
During the recordings I changed the dynamics and tempo of my breath, the rhythm of my heartbeat and I sung few verses from The End of the World (1962) by Skeeter Davis. The noise was produced either by the amplification or by the frequencies that were caused by the touch of my fingers on the top of the microphone.