Sources and concept

Early on in this project I considered using live speech as musical input during performances – readings, poetic improvisations, acting, or perhaps other kinds of staged speech. However, I quickly became more interested in the interplay going on in everyday conversations off stage, without the implications of performing before an audience. As described in the background chapter, I have chosen to use speech genres as one of the main perspectives on the musical content of such conversations. To explore variations in speech genres I needed to gather recordings from a broad range of different situations, like intimate conversations, formal and informal dialogues, quarrels, public encounters, interrogation, negotiation, confessions etc.

After doing some tentative recordings of my own, I realized that I would not get my self into all these situations with a microphone and recorder very easily, and started to search for a wider range of recordings available elsewhere. During that search I listened to a lot of different recorded speech, and I was often struck by how sensitive perception is to subtle nuances in character. For instance, at some point I thought that actors ought to be experts at speech genres, but when listening to recordings of acting on screen, on stage, from radio drama, improvised theatre etc., I experienced that these acted situations also constitute their own speech genres, differing slightly from what we would expect if they were “for real”. We expect acting to conform to these acted genres, which is part of the message that it is just fiction after all, even though it sounds real. Perhaps this ability to discern authenticity and sincerity from a staged performance is linked to our extremely social nature and obsessive preoccupation with what other people are thinking, feeling and planning. We are experts interpreting speech intonation and figuring out if that laughter was authentic or acted, if that excuse was really heartfelt or just courtesy.

As a side note to my decision to focus on real conversations as material, it must be said that I later also found it interesting to use recordings of highly emotive speech by actors making dramatized stereotypes of different emotions. While not sounding convincing at all, they nevertheless had a kind of poetic quality. Perhaps in the way they sounded stylized, they actually came closer to poetry and music.

Conceptual framing: a search for the non-specific situation

The decision to use authentic conversations as sources meant that I would have to use recordings instead of live speech on stage. Those recordings have to come from somewhere. Speech can potentially be sourced from anywhere in the sphere of human activity, so this somewhere can potentially bring all sorts of new perspectives into the mix.

This is where the question of a conceptual framing came in, with which I grappled for a while. I discussed this issue in a blog post titled “A search for the non-specific situation, but as this topic is quite important for the overall account of this project I include this discussion almost unaltered here:

My first aim was to gather a wide range of speech genres that would be starting points for musical explorations. When working on this I felt the need for an overall concept regarding which recordings to use. An idea about from where and when these conversations took place that could emerge as a theme throughout the project.

This set me off in many different directions. One of the first useable sources I found was a series of reality television. Though from a narrow demographic selection, this material included a wide range of different speech genres both formal and informal, happy, angry, sad, personal, public, leisurely etc. The participants were recorded day and night for a long period of time, and a bit into the season they seemed to act quite natural even in this unnatural setting. This is also probably why this material have been used for linguistic research on natural speech as well. The conceptual framing of a popular culture TV show was, however, not what I was looking for.

Another concept I looked into was the politics of power, searching for, and listening to, covert and private recordings of conversations by people in powerful positions. But away from the public spotlight, these people tend to sound very commonplace, very much the opposite of what we get from acted portrayals of such people on screen. This can perhaps be viewed as a parallel to what Hanna Arendt famously described as the “banality of evil”, in the sense that even though people in such powerful positions can potentially affect the lives of millions of others, the sound of them speaking is as trivial as any other everyday conversation.


When looking at possible sources I also constantly ran into the typical anthropological problem of how to observe and record authentic situations without affecting them by the presence of a microphone.

This led me to consider surveillance recordings as a possible source of authentic situations. Apart from the obvious ethical considerations I thought this approach could also become an interesting topic in itself, providing a conceptual frame for the musical explorations and also a relevant comment to the trend of more surveillance and interception of mass communications that we see in society today.

I contacted the Stasi Archive in Berlin and got permission to obtain and use actual surveillance recordings that agents at the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit recorded in East Germany during the 1980s. But when trying to use this material in my music it became clear that the connotations and the strong context made it far too powerful to use the way I had intended. The context simply took over and made it all about living in a surveillance state and the music became secondary. While this was clearly very interesting in it self, it was an entirely different project than the one I was working on.

To continue with the musical exploration of speech I instead sought to gather a wide range of less historically specific recordings. From different public sources like radio and television, linguistic databases of recorded natural speech, as well as making some recordings of my own.

When working with this diverse material over time, it became evident that while for instance the reality-TV recordings were very rich in expression, the things that worked best in practice was the least recognisable sources. Especially in ensemble settings when I was improvising with another performer, such easily identifiable sources with a common popular cultural reference from mass media really seemed to stick out and conflict with the on-going musical discourse. I had an exchange with my main supervisor Øyvind Brandtsegg about these issues:

Daniel: It seems to be a problem when bringing too much contextualized content into an otherwise non-contextualized musical situation, especially when improvising with another musician. It takes the focus away from what is happening musically.
On the other hand, I also feel a need to have a consistent selection of material constituting a conceptual framing of the project.

Øyvind: This is an Interesting issue that is somehow central to your project.

Daniel: Yes, it is an important question for the whole project. Have been contemplating this from the very start, but up until now it has been more pressing to get things to work technically and musically.

Øyvind: Are you perhaps looking for some way of staging of the music? A context that provides a direction but at the same time freedom?

Daniel: Yes, some sort of anchor point, framing or approach that clearly defines a field within which I can operate freely.

Øyvind: has this to do with the literary content, situation, mood, setting, or also that the dialogue is bound in time?

Daniel: I think it probably has most to do with the connections to the concrete reality of any recognisable persons, and the context that this imposes on the music.

Øyvind: Is this comparable to the content of lyrics in vocal music? Or the stories that are told in spoken word music? (Laurie Anderson, Golden Palominos med Nicole Blackman, etc)

Daniel: Yes, me and (fellow performer) Tone Åse talked about that and she felt the same about using written texts in an improvised setting, and would often choose the most abstract texts for this reason. I think this is more of a problem in improvised music where the music is already about the live interaction of musical ideas, than in a composition that already relates to the textual content.

Øyvind: Do you need one solution for this or could you do different things for different musical results?

Daniel: No, not necessarily one final solution. Different pieces and musical settings could use different solutions.

Øyvind: What is it about ensemble improvisation that makes this problem more precarious?

Daniel: Perhaps improvised musical dialogues seek to establish a common formal language that creates its own abstract context, and when bringing in material with an external context pointing outside the time and space of here and now, this creates a conflict of what we are dealing with.

So, to conclude – what I am looking for, I think, is something that can represent the idea about generalised social situations, without being so specific that one gets involved in the individual stories. At the same time I feel that it has to be a sort of consequence, an overall idea or concept that makes clear why I am using this or that source, but without taking over as the sole content of the music.
Using the Stasi surveillance recordings introduced too much context, in effect taking over as content. To record conversations myself could have been preferable conceptually, but that would result in a very narrow range selection of languages and situations. And what would the subject be? A self-centred portrait of me and my close environment?

One possible solution is to mix a large number of less recognisable sources. There is still no overall theme or conceptual content other than the diversity of language and expression, but if the main subject is the generality of language and music then this is perhaps how it has to be. The diversity of human experience would be the overall concept.

Another way to look at this question of conceptuality is that the focus on speech genres already is a concept that dictates what kind of material I need to use, and that additional conceptual framings would ultimately conflict with this concept of generality. This is above all a formal concept, one that fits well with my fundamentally formalistic approach to music. This is also why I think of this project primarily as music and not as sound art.

Sources

In speech-based music, the process of collecting and recording material can sometimes be the very starting point and raison d’être for a musical piece, making up a large part of the work. For the piece “Encounters in the Republic of Heaven”, Trevor Wishart reportedly spent a year just establishing contacts and recording local sources, and then an additional 18 months cleaning and cataloguing the recordings (Wishart, 2012, p.136). In contrast, I did not know what kind of material I needed for this project until I was far into the process. Investigating what would work as material, and exploring the particular effects of using this or that kind of source, became integral parts of the research process of this project.

What turned out to work best in practice was to use a mix of many different sources. My own recordings, community recordings, clips from reality-TV, linguistic corpora, surveillance recordings, court recordings, telephone recordings, radio broadcasts and documentaries.

These are only some of the sources I have explored:

Santa Barbara Corpus (linguistic corpus of natural speech)
Big Brother television series (TV Norge 2001)
CallFriend and CallHome (linguistic corpora of telephone conversations)
archive.org (community recordings, field recordings, sermons)
talkbank.org (collection of many different linguistic speech corpora)
BBC podcast – “the listening project” (recorded community dialogues)
Various news broadcasts
ATCOSIM (Air Traffic Controllers simulation speech corpus)
Emotive speech corpora (Emovo, EmoDB, Ryersons)
Supreme Court of the US archive
Najonalbiblioteket (National Library of Norway)
Stasi surveillance recordings
Watergate covert recordings from the Nixon Library
Emergency telephone recordings (linguistic corpora of emergency calls)

One of the most interesting sources to use was telephone conversations. A phone call usually has a clear closed form with a definitive beginning, middle and end, reminiscent of (western) narrative musical forms. It is also the main reference for interacting by means of the voice alone. As the voice through the receiver is the sole medium of communication, and no body language or other visual cues are available, the prosody, intonation and speech genre become very important aspects of the interpretation. This is also why I chose to use a real telephone for the sound installation at the final presentation of artistic results. Perhaps this particular mode of communication has the potential to be made into an overall conceptual framing in future works.


References

Wishart, T. (2012). Sound Composition. Orpheus the Pantomime.


← Previous page: Instrument and performance Next page: Perception