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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: voice

La Voix Humaine

Cocteau, Poulenc, Duval, and technological art of the telephone

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Denise Duval sang passionately about broken telephone connections, about the way our technology can mimic, taint, and amplify human connections. She died a week ago, on January 25, the New York Times reported today.

A French soprano born in 1921, Duval is best known for her work with the composer Francis Poulenc. Foremost among the pair’s collaborations is the opera La Voix Humaine, based on the play by Jean Cocteau. La Voix Humaine is high on the list of essential viewing and listening if you’re interested in art informed by technologically mediated human interaction.

The opera tells the story of the end of a love affair. Expertly constructed, it unfolds as one half of a phone conversation. The other half takes place on the far end of the phone line, unheard by the audience. The woman is Elle, and Duval was the first to perform the role. There’s a filmed version of Duval’s performance, directed by Dominique Delouche, which uses another technology, television, to emphasize the creative constraints inherent in Cocteau’s vision: a woman, alone in a room, trying to navigate a failed love — and her own faltering psyche — using failing technology.

I spent a chunk of last year working on — and failing at — an extended essay about the intersection of art and technology that just never ended up going where I’d hoped it would. Only toward the end of the writing process, before I put it away half-finished, did I finally switch from wondering about the relationship between the artist and the technology and, instead, began to focus on the audience’s experience of technology. At that point I’d blown too much time and just couldn’t dedicate myself to it anymore, though I hope to get back to it at some point.

This morning, having read the news of Duval’s death over coffee, I was reminded of the centrality of that telephone in La Voix Humaine, not just to Elle, but to the audience of both the play and the opera. The play was first performed in 1930, the opera in 1958. By 1970, when Delouche’s filmed version was broadcast on television in France, the phone was long since not just an everyday but essential part of life. To witness Elle’s story in 1930 must have been a very different thing than in 1970, from the perspective of an audience’s experience of the phone as a lifeline. There is something very J.G. Ballard about La Voix Humaine, as if it’s taking place amid the narrative of his novel High Rise, like Elle lives in an apartment whose door the book’s narrator never happens to knock on.

Nicholas Muni

Eventually La Voix Humaine did leave the boudoir. For example, a staging by the Cincinnati Opera’s Nicholas Muni in 2003 re-situated Elle (soprano Catherine Malfitano, above) as the survivor of a car accident. We witness Elle wandering around the wreck while she tries to communicate with her former lover. The wreck isn’t merely a contrivance to switch to a cellphone. It’s part of the original story that Elle reveals her attempted suicide. In the Muni depiction, the scene of the accident serves as both setting and evidence. Of course, switching to cellphone in 2003 also made sense because the phone needed to cut off once in awhile, something far more common then — and today — on a cellphone than on a landline.

The lingering lesson of La Voix Humaine may be that if you’re making technological art, ask yourself if you are reflecting on the means by which that technology is infused in the lives of its audience.

The Delouche version with Duval is on YouTube in four parts. The image up top was colorized (and found at tutti-magazine.fr). The original is in black and white.

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Also on YouTube is an Ingrid Bergman (above) version of the play, from 1967.

And to bring things back around to electronic music, there’s an audio-only version of the play done for the BBC by Scanner, aka Robin Rimbaud, that was first broadcast back in 1998. It stars Harriet Walter, best known these days as Lady Shackleton on Downton Abbey and as the doctor who briefly but memorably tends to Chewbacca in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Human Voice is an important transitional work for Rimbaud, as it employs techniques he developed when making music to accompany cellphone conversations captured on scanners (hence his moniker), but applies them to prerecorded dialogue — or, in this case, monologue.

This first appeared in the February 2, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Vowels Accumulate Over Days and Months

An experiment in beading, accrual, and tonality by Steph Horak

Yesterday, on a brand new SoundCloud account, the artist Steph Horak posted a track of layered vocals, just tones, just soft vowels, that when played against each other yield a familiar, lovely, gently abrasive beading that sounds less like a choir of one and more like a glass harmonica played by an expert soloist. Her explanation is that it’s part of an art project that accrues and amasses individual tones over time on a regular basis.

Here is Horak’s description:

I am attempting to sing a note a day for a year because I want to know if my body holds a certain tension, or harmony, a resonant bias. Therefore, I record each day’s note in isolation, without hearing any of the previous days, and then I make a mix of the month. This is a somewhat indulgent side-project. This is not about singing in tune. This is about data. Trigger warning: People with absolute pitch may find this jarring to listen to.

The track is labeled “366 JANUARY 2016,” though it’s unclear how much time is accounted for, how many vowels over how many days.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/threehundredandsixtysix. More from Horak at her other SoundCloud account, soundcloud.com/sheisrevolting, and at stephhorak.wordpress.com and noisevagina.tumblr.com, the latter of which includes this intriguing sonified lipstick case:

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Horak works as part of the computing department at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she earned an MA in 2013. (Track found via a repost by soundcloud.com/leafcutterjohn.)

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Northern Darks

Music and sound Norwegians make come winter, including Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere)

Island Life: Map of Senja, Norway, home to the musician Biosphere

Island Life: Map of Senja, Norway, home to the musician Biosphere

Starting off in “the cultural hub of the Arctic Circle,” British broadcaster Petroc Trelawny reports on the sounds of deep, dark, sun-less winter — music of Tromsø, Norway, including its local ballet, orchestra, and a church choir known as Arctic Voices; the traditional vocal style of yoik (which a Norwegian student of mine did a report on last semester); and, most pertinent for this site’s coverage, the efforts of Geir Jenssen, aka Biosphere, to use the sound of frozen lakes and other natural regional resources as source recordings for his music. Jenssen’s segment, recorded on the island of Senja where he lives, begins at 26:30 and runs for a tad over 12 minutes. Jenssen discusses how at the right time of year, the ice on a frozen lake can serve like the skin of a drum — the effect is also known as “singing ice.” It sounds at times, as well, like the reverberation of long thick metal cable. He is also recorded playing a (reportedly bright orange) vuvuzela to test the deep echo of one of the spaces he and Trelawny explore. Now I’d really like to hear what Jenssen could make of yoik and that choir.

There’s no embeddable player, but the broadcast is available for download and streaming at bbc.co.uk. More from Jennsen at biosphere. (Several people drew my attention to this BBC broadcast. Many thanks.)

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That Time I Interviewed Brian Eno in 1990

And John Cale, regarding their Wrong Way Up collaboration

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Twenty five years ago I stood on the rooftop of the Diva hotel in San Francisco and interviewed Brian Eno while a photographer did his best to take advantage of the light.

We were there to discuss Wrong Way Up, the album Eno had just released with John Cale of the Velvet Underground. I was on assignment for Down Beat magazine, and the article appeared in the January 1991 issue. I’ve just now uploaded it to Disquiet.com, backdating it to the original publication — hence this small note of its (re)appearance.

The record is a lot of fun, but apparently the daggers depicted on the cover were appropriate, as neither Eno nor Cale came away from it with warm feelings. Said Cale, whom I interviewed by phone:

“With Brian, I think what happened is that he would listen to what you said, but he really didn’t have much patience with it. His idea of listening to what you said was eventually, you know, slam the door and come out with a solution. I haven’t figured out yet what Brian’s notion of cooperation, or collaboration, is.”

Read the full piece: “Reconcilable Differences.” If I can track down my tapes of the interviews, I’ll transcribe them and post them, too.

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Realtime Sonification

A KQED interview with Mahmoud Hashemi about Listen to Wikipedia

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Someone adds an entry about a cooking magazine from the 1950s? Boom …

Someone corrects the release date in the discography of James Taylor? Bleep …

Someone undoes a spelling correction in an entry about an undersecretary from a mid-century U.S. presidential administration? Bong …

Audible tones and expanding, colored circles are used in tandem to announce changes to the vast collaborative encyclopedia thanks to the great online tool Listen to Wikipedia (listen.hatnote.com), one of the best examples of realtime sonification on the web. Developed by Stephen LaPorte and Mahmoud Hashemi, it’s the subject of a short recent interview from radio station KQED. The conversation with Hashemi goes into the background of the tool. He talks about the software’s actions, and how it serves both as an expression of Wikipedia and as a response to the economic focus of Silicon Valley.

There’s something very pleasing and centering about the placid surveillance of Listen to Wikipedia, all that communal and often rancorous activity transformed into dulcet tones. Sometimes I just let it run on a side screen as I work. Sometimes I also run this pure geographic visualizer, at rcmap.hatnote.com:

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Up at the top of this post is a sample still frame of Listen to Wikipedia in action. Here is an example of the sort of realtime information that Listen to Wikipedia parses:

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This documentation summarizes how the sounds and related images of Listen to Wikipedia correlate with actual edits:

Bells indicate additions and string plucks indicate subtractions. Pitch changes according to the size of the edit; the larger the edit, the deeper the note. Green circles show edits from unregistered contributors, and purple circles mark edits performed by automated bots.

Here’s a short video of Listen to Wikipedia in action:

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/kqed. The KQED story was produced by Sam Harnett, of the podcast The World According to Sound (theworldaccordingtosound.org). Check out Listen to Wikipedia at listen.hatnote.com. It’s also available as a free iOS app (itunes.apple.com).

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