Sound and Orchestration

As it has been established in earlier chapters, it is not the actual sound of the voice that has served as the primary musical material and focus of this project, but rather the underlying abstract gestural structures of speech prosody. But music has to sound, and initially I did not have any particular ideas about how my music based on these abstract gestures should actually sound. This part describes how the digital instrument system evolved into a coherent performance concept that eventually became the Orchestra of Speech.

What I experienced during early trials was that the choice of instruments and sound production tools can introduce very strong stylistic connotations, each with a very particular history and certain genre conventions. The use of commercial synthesizers for example, quickly frames the music as related to popular music. Improvising on acoustic instruments can easily be associated with genres like jazz, while certain synthesis techniques typical of computer music sounds very much like, well, typical computer music. I was searching for a way to avoid such clear stylistic markers. I was also looking for a way to relate the use of software tools and speech recordings to my practice as a keyboard performer, something that could point to the underlying theme of speech and music as well. The solution I found was to avoid the pure loudspeaker format normally used with computer-made electronic music, and instead bring the electronic recorded and synthesized sounds into the acoustic sound realm by using small contact loudspeakers (known as transducers or exciters), playing back plain or transformed speech sounds through physical objects. Such transducers are really just loudspeakers without the usual paper cone membrane attached, instead with its voice coil fixed directly onto another surface which then acts as the transducer’s membrane or resonator. When attached to an acoustic instrument, which is usually designed to have good resonance for its typical range of frequencies, the result is a distinctively acoustic sound quality with associations to instruments and music but still with enough fidelity to reveal the speech source if needed.

Video example of transducer testing:

This blend of electronic and acoustic sound worked so well for my purpose that I developed the idea further into a complete performance concept that includes a whole array of such instrument-attached transducers. The instruments that worked best were instruments with large resonating bodies or chambers that also in ordinary use depend on clear excitation signals to operate, such as drums, cymbals and stringed instruments with a music box (e.g. guitar) or sound board (piano). Wind instruments need a stable air pressure to sound, and I found that the resonance of the tube and bell was not enough to amplify and colour the sound from an exciter when mounted on the body or reed of a wind instrument. Alternatively, other resonant objects like scrap metal or buckets or other household objects could also have been used, but part of the idea was to create a musical framing for the recorded and synthesized speech sounds, so an ensemble of acoustic instruments was assembled and connected to a multichannel setup of exciters to form an “orchestra” of electro-acoustic loudspeaker-instruments.

In line with the compositional approach of analysing and arranging different features of speech into layers and using the overall metaphor of orchestration, I called this performance concept the Orchestra of Speech.

Video example: hybrid electroacoustic orchestra sound check

By bringing the digital instrument into the sound realm of acoustic instruments this way, a natural connection was established between these seemingly separate sound spaces, and it became possible to explore this whole extended sonic world ranging from recorded reality and complex synthesized digital and electronic sounds to the delicate details and physicality of real acoustic instruments, all within the format of a single integrated solo performance concept.

The use of acoustic instrument also provided a natural way to include the piano in performances. This was something that I from the outset did not even consider, but as this hybrid sound world was established I found that I could actually approach the music/speech continuum from both ends, playing speech-like phrases on the piano and creating music-like structures with the software instrument system at the same time, and even engage in meta-dialogues between speech and music.

In its current form, the hybrid electric-acoustic Orchestra of Speech setup have been organised as four sections of different instrument categories: strings, drums, cymbals as well as conventional loudspeakers, with four members in each group. The use of instrument groups makes it easy to orchestrate musical ideas using one instrument group at a time or combining different instrument groups. In combination with the conventional loudspeakers, this physical electroacoustic orchestra blurs the line between the electric and acoustic, between voice and instrument, and between virtual and real soundscapes. In this way, sound emerged as another important musical theme this project: how sound source and sound quality affects the framing, perception and meaning of sound. This is discussed further below in the chapter with reflections on perception. Before that, an account is given on how this instrument and performance concept was put to use, developing strategies for playing, improvising and making music with the ideas, approaches and materials presented above.

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