One of the best Resonance FM podcast series is focused, as its name puts it in an admirably straightforward way, on the Voice on Record. The series, hosted by Sean Williams, shares various audio examples that emphasize human speech.
In the past, this has involved everything from children’s records to the landing of man on the moon to early modern poets. The November 17, 2009, episode of Voice on Record, just posted online earlier this week, focuses on the sound of the voice in experimental music and sound art (MP3). Among the pieces heard is work by Luciano Berio. In between examples, Williams discusses the origins of this sort of music in not only technological advances, but in the culture of experimental radio. The segment, the 12th in the Voice on Record series, is titled “The Voice in Musique Concrète and Electronic Music.”
Not a whole lot of vocal music gets covered on Disquiet.com, for reasons that have somewhat eluded me, though came into mental focus when I read the following recently in Martha Mockus’s book Sounding Out (Routledge, 2008), a critical overview of the work of Pauline Oliveros, the avant-accordionist and deep thinker about improvisation and listening. This is Oliveros speaking, as quoted in Sounding Out:
“I figured out a practical use for the overtone series. As you know tones consist of not one but many overtones. If you listen carefully you can hear them. The tone quality of any instrument depends on the prominence of these overtones. For example, the sound of the flute, the octave overtone is most prominent but not the higher overtones. On the clarinet the octave but mainly the 12th is prominent and etc. The human voice though has the most complex overtone series.”
Much of contemporary experimental music, especially experimental electronic music, is focused on the transformation of individual sonic elements. There’s something about the human voice that is so dense with tone, so complex, that it can overshadow everything around it. When the human voice is one of those elements subject to transformation, often the composition, the instrumental composition, becomes a background — becomes secondary — to the vocal. The exception, of course, is when the meaning of what is sung or spoken is itself ignored — or, more to the point, rendered secondary — in favor of tone and texture. And that is the sort of vocal music that ends up getting covered here.
In any case, this Voice on Record segment is a good introduction to early experiments in using tape delay and extended vocal techniques to transform the human voice.