Performance of electroacoustic music by Formuls (Dr James Dooley) at the Integra Lab showcase concert, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham City University, June 2019. As in many concerts of electroacoustic music, light levels are deliberately low, encouraging the audience to focus their attention on the sounds emanating from the surrounding speakers rather than on the electronic performer.

Composition as Commentary: Voice and Poetry in Electroacoustic Music


Edmund Hunt

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham City University

1. Introduction

The use of the human voice in electroacoustic music presents a paradox. As an audience, we instinctively recognise sounds with a vocal origin as human, organic, and living. However, in the context of an electroacoustic composition, it is technology, rather than the human voice, which amplifies, transforms, and diffuses vocal sounds. This is particularly apparent in pieces for electroacoustic fixed media, or ‘tape’, in which the only visible performer silently operates a laptop or mixing desk. In this context, the human voice  with its implicit character, age, gender, and grain, and as a sonic embodiment of the human form that produces it  is both present and yet disconcertingly absent.1 When the voice (either live or recorded) utters words that have little or no semantic meaning for the listener, a further layer of ambiguity is added.2

In the face of such potential ambiguity, what is the role of a spoken or sung text in an electroacoustic work? Does the inevitable distancing effect of the disembodied voice impede the listener’s engagement with what they hear? Or does the potentially fluid, changeable nature of electroacoustic vocality open up multiple different interpretations? In attempting to address these questions through my own creative practice as a composer, I was keen to develop a methodology whereby both process and artistic outcome could be seen as integral, complementary components of my research. Throughout this exposition, I use the term ‘practice-based research’ to refer to the various activities that constitute my methodology, in full awareness of the variety of ways in which different practitioners apply this terminology to their processes. Some of the complexities and questions surrounding the language of practice-based research are discussed in greater detail in relation to the two musical compositions that form the focus of this exposition. Although the methodologies of my practice-based research are built on a cyclic model of research questions and investigative processes, the outcomes do not provide definitive answers. As artistic productions, they are necessarily speculative, suggesting open-ended conclusions that could form the basis of future work. 

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