This chapter presents some reflections on the results and possible contributions of this artistic research project, in relation to the context of relevant fields and practices.
But before discussing context, it is necessary to define more precisely what the results of this project are.
In line with the originally formulated aim of developing an improvisational foundation based on the musicality of speech, the most important result of this project is the accumulated improvisational repertoire of musical possibilities coming out of this work. This is the combined know-how of how to go about turning this particular speech material into music, the intimate direct musical knowledge that slowly has been mapped out and internalized through repeated trials, rehearsals and performances, embodied as a reservoir of musical and instrumental possibilities and forming a foundation for exploring this area through improvisation.
As with other improvisational skills this embodied repertoire is partly tacit knowledge, but is observable and shareable through the documented process of its development and through the resulting improvised performances. The chapters on speech gestures as musical material, methods of abstraction, and performance methods in particular, present important parts of this development process. In addition, the reflection chapters also offer perspectives on the kind of possible meanings and insights that form a part of this tacit knowledge. Of the performances, it is particularly the solo performance from the final presentation of artistic results that best represents the aims and ideas contained in this project, and where this repertoire and improvisational foundation is best demonstrated. The sound installation and ensemble improvisation parts must be viewed as artistic experiments in this regard, as attempts at alternative uses of the resources mainly developed through the solo improvisation format, and not as final end goals of the project by and in themselves. However, what should be regarded as a part of the results is the particular performance concept and instrument system used for making and performing this music, as this work is tightly connected with the realization of the improvisational foundation and therefore an integral part of the particular way of making music developed in this project.
The results, then, consist of the improvisational repertoire of musical possibilities that has been developed, the performance concept and instrument used to realize these possibilities, and their realization into actual music as in the solo performance of the final presentation of artistic results in particular.
In epistemological terms, the actual knowledge produced by this artistic research would, in addition to all this practical artistic know-how, be the insights into the relation between spoken and musical interaction that this particular way of making music makes possible.
Readings and contexts
How do these results relate to a wider musical context?
As shown in the historical account sketched out in the background chapter, speech has been used in music in a great number of different ways and explored from many different perspectives. The universal character of both music and spoken language also means that the topics of this project can be associated with almost anything. The results can likewise be viewed from many different perspectives, each with its own context, from electroacoustic composition, to sound art, technological art, docu-music, sound poetry, free improvisation, musique concrete, interactive art, etc. Through the concept of different readings, I will try to build further on the context already established in the background chapter and show how the musical results might be related to several different fields and contexts.
In the context of composition based on speech, there are certain similarities in my project with the way many composers have approached speech as raw material, as sound structures which can be analysed, extracted and processed into musical forms. For instance, this includes the speech based music of some electroacoustic composers like Trevor Wishart and Paul Lansky, but also the more direct instrumental approach of Peter Ablinger in his voice transcriptions for piano as well as his ‘talking’ mechanical piano pieces. Wishart has actually a wider approach not only limited to speech but working with all aspects of the human voice, from the very granularity of the voice as raw sound material, to the concept of voice as identity for individuals or communities, to far beyond speech in the extreme possible expressive uses of the voice in his vocal pieces. He has also focused on phonetic characteristics of languages, as well as more traditional musical parameters like the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic features of speech, but still mainly within the very electroacoustic tradition of the raw sound material as sound objects for constructing a modernistic electroacoustic sound realm from scratch.
Lansky on the other hand has much more of a lyrical approach, often basing his speech-derived music on expressive readings of poems transposed onto formalized grids of well-tempered pitches, fixed tempi and quantized meters reminiscent of the recited prose-poetry popular (art)music of Laurie Anderson or Robert Ashley.
Ablinger also uses recordings directly as a musical source material, but instead of poetry performances he transcribes historical speeches and interviews with well-known artists and other celebrities into musical portraits for piano, choosing different styles of musical arrangement according to the historical and personal associations of the person portrayed. In addition to this particular focus on the personality of cultural icons and their stylistic associations, Ablinger has also stated that his work is about perception of reality, with the piano presenting a ‘phonorealistic’, analytical representation of reality (Ablinger, n.d.).
In contrast to these compositional ways of using speech as musical material, I have approached speech not as raw sound material, expressive poetry or personal voice portraits, but as forming conversations, as utterances within specific social contexts where the particular phrasings and musical features are not just personal attributes or independent acoustic shapes but point to the gestural meaning of sound in a particular social situation, in the same way that musical gestures aquire certain meanings and communicative functions when used in improvised interplay. My choice of using speech genres as a focal point for the exploration of this gestural meaning has at least one parallel in Luciano Berio’s piece A-ronne, where the performance of a poem is subjected to the changing meanings caused by various “vocal situations and different expressive characters” (Berio, 1974). But as a composition for vocal performers, his piece is a performative staging of these situations and characters, composed as stereotypical expressions that end up in a very theatrical performance. In my view, such theatrical speech genres have additional layers of very different meanings from the real-life genres they attempt to represent, and this is exactly the kind of staged theatrical result I have tried to avoid in this project, and the reason for basing the whole project on recordings of real-life conversations rather than enacted dialogues.
There is also a relevant but completely different technological reading of the results of this project, experiencing the music primarily in terms of instrument development and themes like technological art and human/machine interaction. One relevant context in this regard is the field and community of modern day luthiers, engaged in creating new interesting musical instruments and interfaces, often in relation to new technologies. Relevant references in this field are digital musical instrument systems for improvising, such as the ImproSculpt instrument and the later cross-adaptive live processing techniques developed by Øyvind Brandtsegg (Brandtsegg, n.d., 2007; Brandtsegg, Saue, & Lazzarini, 2018), or the corpus based concatenative synthesis instrument developed by Diemo Schwarz (Schwarz, Beller, Verbrugghe, & Britton, 2006), to name but a few. More specifically related to speech are the many kinds of voice- or speech-based instrument systems mentioned in the background chapter, such as the spatial-gestural play with voice samples in the instruments developed through Grégory Beller’s Synekine project (Beller, 2014), the voice-accordion of Perry Cook (Cook & Lieder, 2000), Sidney Fels’ work on digital voice modeling and gestural voice synthesis control (Fels, Pritchard, & Lenters, 2009), amongst others. With my use of the acoustic piano as an integral part and focal point of the instrument system, this luthier context extends to a category of so-called augmented, expanded or hybrid instruments – usually traditional acoustic instruments that are extended with various technological means to broaden musical possibilities and playing techniques. Examples on such instruments include the electronically enhanced HYPER(sonal) piano project of Morten Qvenild, the Electrumpet of Hans Leeuw, the magnetic resonator piano of Andrew McPherson, as well as the Strophonion of vocal performer Alex Nowitz, to name a few. Further, this project’s use of transducers and orchestration of physical electroacoustic objects (or subjects rather) forms a parallel to pieces like Alvin Lucier’s Music for Solo Performer, where he used sonification of his brain waves played through loudspeakers placed on acoustic percussion instruments. The move beyond conventional loudspeakers in this project is perhaps also influenced by the general current ‘hacker’ and ‘maker’ trends of building physical musical contraptions, made possible by the increasing availability and ease of use of cheap and lightweight microcontrollers, advanced electronics and emerging technologies like robotics and machine learning etc.
In relation to this technological context, it is clear that this project is also about developing new means of musical expression, but in addition to this technological side it has the explicit aim of exploring a particular musical material coming from outside the realm of the instrument itself, in a way that goes beyond the mere instrument-inventor approach. Even though the instrument part is crucial in the project as the main method and tool for actually realizing the music, the project is not just about the possibilities of this particular instrument, but what it can reveal about the speech/music relationship.
Musique concrete: ‘reality’ as music
With this project’s use of real-life recordings and the emphasis on authentic situations, there is also a possible reading in connection to a genre of music called Musique Concrete. This genre emerged as the antithesis to the highly abstract electronic music created in early years of electroacoustic music studios. In contrast to these artificially synthesised sounds, this concrete music was instead based on recordings of reality, from ambient soundscapes, machine sounds and traffic, and human activity like speech and conversation. One relevant reference in this regard is the music of Luc Ferrari, which often plays with gradual transitions between realistic documentaristic field recordings and subtle musical treatment and transformation of these soundscapes based on the musical associations and possibilities they offer.
This play with reality, and the musical perception and analysis of that reality, is something that also plays a part in this project, and which also can be linked to the focus on perception of reality in the music of Ablinger as described above. But the intention and content of this reality is very different – the music of Ferrari often revolves around very site-specific field recordings, creating narratives of particular places and times, or in the case of the piece Far West News, taking the almost journalistic form of a radio travelogue from a trip across the American south-west. In contrast to this, I have tried to erase all explicit references to specific times and places, and instead sought the common features and the generality of expressions linked to certain types of social relations and interaction, to see how this relates to the wordless non-referential but presence-based interaction of improvised music. Which brings us to the context of improvised music.
Improvisation as dialogue
A context that might not be the most obvious judged just from the appearance of the performance concept itself, but which is actually most in line with the performative approach in this project, is that of free improvisation, where the music is not based to any particular genre but created and shaped through improvised musical discourse. Free improvisation refers here to improvisation as a method and not a particular genre, in the tradition that George Lewis has categorised as the eurological perspective (Lewis, 1996), as opposed to the afrological perspective of the much more politically charged free jazz movement with its roots in the civil rights issues of 1960’s America.
In his thesis From Small Signs to Great Form, improviser and saxophonist Njål Ølnes goes to great lengths to show how the dialogical communication in free improvisation actually works in practice, analysing in minute detail how musical signs or gestures are used in the collective development and shaping of larger forms, of musical gestalts (Ølnes, 2016). The aural approach that Ølnes emphasizes as a fundamental aspect of improvisation is also central in this project, approaching and interacting with speech gestures primarily by ear and with the immediacy that this approach provides, just like one does in spoken conversation.
From an overall perspective, the situation occurring when musicians improvise together can obviously result in a multitude of different musical outcomes, music that does not by any means have to resemble a conversation or dialogue. All the semiotic potential of any sound structure is available for the musicians to create music that can sound like anything and “be about” anything. Yet, the situation itself, improvising something together with others by means of sound in real time, is fundamentally the same as in any spontaneous conversation, even if cause and expression is totally different. As the work of Ølnes shows, improvising musicians make statements with sound, and one way or another have to relate to their own and other musician(s) utterances (and not relating is also an act of communication in that regard). The same apply to structural aspects of improvisation, including the continuous negotiation of what it is about and in which direction it should go, with past experiences influencing the expectations of what can happen and how it will develop. The difference of course being that with music there is an aesthetic purpose and public framing that dictates certain kinds of roles and modes of interaction. Nevertheless, it is still a social situation where musicians have to relate both to the audience and to their fellow musicians’ sounding utterances to interpret intentions and ideas. Therein, I think, lies the similarity to spoken conversation and the possibility of experiencing improvised music as dialogically meaningful, as the exchange and collective development of musical ideas.
This is one reason for why I think it is interesting – as set out in the aims described in the background chapter – to juxtapose musical imprints of spoken conversation with improvised musical interaction, highlighting these similarities and the implicit discourse apparent in improvisation.
Beyond this general dialogical aspect of improvisation, there are also more direct references in the work of several improvisers that also have introduced varying degrees of speech or speech-like sounds in their music, like for instance the invented poetic languages in Sidsel Endresen’s vocal improvisations or the multitude of approaches to speech and song used in the performances of the composer, performer and improviser Maja Ratkje. A more direct link to sound poetry and Dadaism can also be found in the vocal improvisations of Jaap Blonk. Text and sound poetry is also present in the work of pianist Sten Sandell, who has explored speech as an integral part of instrumental improvisation in a performative exploration of the space between text, voice and music (Sandell, 2011, 2013).
The way the present project differs from these performative approaches, is perhaps most distinct in the explicit focus on everyday conversations as the actual musical material, shifting the focus away from the expressive performer on stage to the dynamics and expressivity of everyday spoken interaction. This introduces a very different framing, opening the closed abstract musical reality of the performance space to the trivial experiences of everyday life.
With the presentation of a sound installation, in addition to the already latent conceptual implications of using documentaristic recordings, another possible reading could be to view this as sound art. There are different opinions of the boundaries between sound art and music, but sound art is here understood as the sonic version of conceptual art which historically is more related to the conceptual tradition of visual arts than with music.
This connection to sound art is perhaps the least relevant for this project. As described in the chapter reflectiing on sources and concepts, an overall conceptual approach was considered but effectively abandoned in this project as it so clearly conflicted with the focus on the here-and-now of the improvised situation and the musical reality that is manifested through this situation. Other, more formal concepts like the use of speech genres are still present, but play a lesser role in the overall picture and does not make it into sound art in my opinion.
Contexts – conclusion
As this review of different possible readings of the musical results shows, the music might be experienced in very different terms depending on the particular focus of the listener, each perspective relating to different sets of relevant references, expectations and contexts. The multidisciplinary nature of the project makes all of these contexts relevant to some extent, so there will not be only one correct reading. Still, as this review shows, some are more relevant than others.
If we step back from the contexts and related fields discussed above and take a critical look at some underlying assumptions in this project, one aspect that really should be problematized it is its use of recordings. The very performance concept itself is based on a paradox of wanting to explore the ephemeral presence-based prosodic phenomena of everyday conversation by way of improvisation, but in order to avoid acted or staged conversation, doing so using recordings of past conversations. This obvious paradox of using recordings to study real time interaction can seem like trying to square the circle. The most intuitive way to explore speech in improvised music would be like Sten Sandell, to seamlessly integrate the act of speaking into the action repertoire of the instrumentalist improviser. Likewise, the most intuitive way to make music based on recordings would be by way of electroacoustic composition, staying both in the same temporal domain as well as the same medium of recorded sound. But with my particular interest in the dynamics of everyday conversation and their obvious parallels to musical improvisation, I found that developing some way of improvising with this recorded source material was the only way I could explore this connection without at the same time ending up with theatrical drama performances, which would be the result if I had to rely on performers enacting these conversations. That is why exploring how to integrate the musical exploration of everyday speech in a performance concept based on improvisation became one of the central aims in this artistic research project.
As is clear from the above discussion of contexts, this artistic research project is not situated within one homogenous field, and so its contributions cannot be defined in relation to one single context.
With regards to the context of instruments, the system demonstrates an alternative way of using speech than many existing instruments based on voice synthesis in a more traditional direct gesture-to-sound instrument paradigm, as well as the more general-purpose sampler-instruments frequently used with speech sounds by many vocal performers. Theoretically, this instrument could also be used with other sources such as animal sounds or other phenomena, but many of the analysis parameters (such as segmentation based on syllables etc.) and other functions of the system in general have been made specifically to deal with the particular features of speech, so the system would not seem like a good tool for working with other sound sources.
From the perspective of improvisation, I believe this project represents a novel way of introducing musical material that is sourced from recordings, in such a way that its parts and features become a main content of the improvised discourse.
Recordings have of course been used in improvised music before with samplers, turntables or computers, but in this project recorded speech have played a much more fundamental part for shaping the music and providing the raw material and structures for creating layers and arrangements of new musical structures that goes beyond the mere use of recordings as aural quotes.
On the other hand, the topic of composition has not been the main focus in this project, but to the degree that the approaches to making music from speech through improvisation in this project also can inform compositional practices, I believe that for instance some of the ways that machine learning has been used to reorganise speech segments in musical ways can represent an interesting example also for this field.
But if we return to the fundamentally cross-disciplinary nature of this project, with its implied connection to linguistics, improvisation, different technologies and compositional approaches, and contemplate the paradox described above – how even the performance concept’s foundation represents an attempted merging of very different musical practices. Has this worked out in practice then, have I managed to find a way to overcome this paradoxical starting point?
It was not a given that this would work, but I believe that the results clearly demonstrate a convincing way of doing this, a way that has proved a productive and interesting new approach for making music. As described in the reflections on instrument development, this was achieved largely by two factors – by making an interactive instrument system for playing with speech recordings that also was responsive to sound input, and by developing an appropriate hybrid electric-acoustic performance concept that merged the different sonic realms of recorded speech and electronic and acoustic instrumental sound. This made it possible to place the piano at the centre of this exploration and yet base the whole concept on recorded speech, and the music created in this project is a direct result of these developments.
In terms of innovation, I believe that it is precisely these solutions to the paradoxical combination of employing electronic processing of speech recordings in an acoustic improvised setting that represents the main contribution of this project. These results show one model for how this can work in practice, a model that can be of value as a reference for further related work of artistic explorations into the multi-disciplinary field of mixing technology, linguistics, speech, music, improvisation and interaction..
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Ablinger, P. (n.d.). Voices and Piano program note. Retrieved December 1, 2017, from http://ablinger.mur.at/docs/voices_engl_dt.pdf
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Lewis, G. E. (1996). Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives. Black Music Research Journal, 16(1), 91–122. http://doi.org/10.2307/779379
Sandell, S. (2011). Music inside the Language [CD]. Steninge, Sweden: LJ Records.
Sandell, S. (2013). På insidan av tystnaden : en undersökning. (Doctoral thesis). Konstnärliga fakulteten, Göteborgs universitet, Göteborg.
Ølnes, N. (2016). From Small Signs to Great Form – Analysis of the musical interplay in free improvisation, using the tools of Aural Sonology. Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo. Retrieved from https://brage.bibsys.no/xmlui/handle/11250/2381966
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