There’s nothing like the moment when the disconnect appears between action and effect. It’s a moment that happens with live looping and live processing, when the audience becomes aware that the concept of cause and effect has shifted, sometimes subtly, sometimes aggressively. This uncanny valley of live electronically mediated performance varies by musician, technique, and instrument. In his early work with processed guitar, you could watch Christopher Willits play something you didn’t hear — and then wait for it to surface in the mix. Turntablist-watchers are used to distinguishing between when the DJ is playing and when the DJ is cueing something yet to be played.
This video shows Hatis Noit, the Japanese vocalist, in an excerpt from a longer performance on the music platform NTS. Noit records for Erased Tapes, which earlier this year releaed her recent EP, Illogical Dance, featuring a fantastic Matmos remix. In this video, she starts off elegantly insinuating vowel tones. At 12 seconds you see the sync between lips and sound. Some 20 seconds later, the sync is no longer self-evident. (Later still, a minute and a half in, the camera shows where Noit’s downard-cast gaze has been looking — at a pedal-controlled looper at her feet.) That moment at 20 seconds is the signal of intent. From there the vocals layer further. Noit moves from tone to melody to spoken to something nearly operatic. It all coalesces into a single piece, a performance that is both recorded and live in the same moment. When Noit plays with twin microphones held in her extended, intertwined arms it is a bit like the sleight of hand employed by sidewalk magicians. She is also telling the audience something: “There are several of me present.”
The video itself is edited in a manner that emphasizes the asynchronous matter of her style. The short gives an additional atmospheric, out-of-body nudge because the video opens with shots of her doing things that don’t involve performing at all, just lingering in a window with Erased Tapes founder Robert Raths, though all the while we already hear her voice.
Part of the beauty of using vocal sounds as the source for electronic music is simply just how far you can push the source tones and yet, to the human ear (which is so attuned through evolution to recognize the human voice), that vocal-ness remains self-evident. A case in point is “The Groan Machine” by Noise Jockey. It’s a layering of a dozen mouth utterances, each processed through a range of equipment listed in the accompanying note. The full breadth sounds are somehow both otherworldly (cast sweeps of white noise, thick stacks of elements, wide expanses of texture) and tellingly human.
Much of Lindsay Duncanson’s work up on Soundcloud employs voice as its primary sound source. There are gurgles and drones, thick densities of tone and sudden, glottal explosions among the myriad examples Duncanson has posted. At one moment the voice is a calming presence, and at another it is a fierce, antagonist. In both such situations the lack of actual verbal language serves different purposes, either prelapsarian in its bliss, or suggesting a mental rupture that has short-circuited rational thought.
One standout track of Duncanson’s combines looped bits of mouth noise with that of a brook — accomplished, judging by the accompanying photo and tags, on the popular Loopy app. This is the rare track amid this SoundCloud collection that has no harshness to it, no veering from calm to tension or splutter. Titled “StreamSound,” it combines a sweet melody, the sort of thing one might find oneself having been humming unconsciously, with the delicate, percussive noise of the waterway. The vocal tones build slowly, a held note, like a warm sine wave, underneath childlike snippets. The closest it gets to the harshness of many of the other tracks is when brook’s burbles, toward the end, are emphasized for their thump-like qualities, and then when the voice impersonates a flying insect, darting this way and that.
Electronic musicians searching for interesting sound sources need only look in the mirror. There they should easily find one of the most underutilized yet readily available tools: a mouth. Brona Martin explores the potentials for vocal processing made possible by digital audio software in her track “Lament.” Part of the processing here isn’t even electronic. It’s simply a matter of the tones that Martin elects to perform, from her soft breaths, to high choral o’s, to throaty gurgles, to occult moaning, just to give reference names to a few of the myriad sounds that make themselves heard in “Lament.”
Those sounds are, in turn, turned into other things entirely: a tender vowel stretched beyond its capacity, a breath set on mechanical loop, a warm utterance that dissipates into pure atmospherics — a hush, made soundscape. Some of the transformations, from severe insectoid noise to supple bell tones, leave behind entirely where it was that they originated. To Martin’s credit, this all comes together. “Lament” isn’t a parade of effects, or a survey of possibilities. Part of why the piece works is how it is all layered, lending congruences and a sense of verticality to the progression.
Emily Sprague patches her modular synthesizer, sets it running, and checks in on it hours, even days, later to figure out where the generative invention has meandered and matured, what strange familiar-yet-unfamiliar music it’s gotten up to. She initiated her relatively recent self-education by mainlining module manuals and studying the videos of a handful of people (notably Lightbath and r beny) whose aesthetic and approach appealed to her (i.e., largely ambient, if gently melodic, and lacking a fixed rhythm). She says she likes tap tempo, for the organic feel, and certain filters, for their ability to self-oscillate. She began to share videos of her own work in part to replenish the well from which she’d drawn, and also out of an awareness that modular synths are a male-dominated thing.
Here’s an early such video, from May 2016:
And here’s a gentle, burbling track from about a year ago:
These are just some of the things we learn in the excellent eighth episode of the Sound + Process podcast hosted by Dan Derks. Interspersed in the podcast are demos of the music that will appear on her forthcoming solo modular synth album. Sprague, who also is part of the folk-pop band Florist, talks about gaining fluency with patching by buying and selling modules, seeing what works for her and what doesn’t, and how warm and welcoming the synth community, in particular on the llllllll.co (also known as Lines) message board, has proved to be.
And after listening to Sprague speak for an hour, you also can check out some of her band Florist’s music, and hear that same voice sing. This track is “What I Wanted to Hold,” off the forthcoming Florist album If Blue Could Be Happiness, which is to be released on September 29, 2017:
• January 2, 2018: This day marks the 6th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto.
• February 7, 2018: Start of the semester for the course I teach on the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
• December 13, 2018: This day marked the 22nd anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• Ongoing: The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.
• My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury, is now in its second printing. It can be purchased at amazon.com, among other places.
The Disquiet Junto is an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making space in which restraints are used as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto. There is an FAQ. ... These are the 5 most recent weekly projects: