The final presentation of artistic results from this project took place in Verkstedhallen in Trondheim on November 15, 2017. This event featured the “Orchestra of Speech” performance concept in three different versions, each of which invites different modes of listening and presents different approaches to form, time, sound and interaction. I organised the room with a grand piano in the centre, loudspeakers in the corners, and all the transducer-instruments hanging from the ceiling so that the audience could move around during the first installation part and take a seat wherever comfortable during the performances afterwards. During the ensemble performance, the additional musicians were placed along the walls, surrounding the audience with acoustic sound and making them part of the event as a social experience as well.
The first part of this concert featured the “orchestra of speech”-concept as a self-playing installation. I wanted to make a sound installation version of this performance concept in order to shift the focus away from the expectation of narrative and dramaturgy that comes into play whenever a performer enters the stage. An installation allows listeners to move around and structure their own experience, both in time, as well as in space in relation to the orchestra as an entity in the room.
Technically, the installation is controlled by scripting cue-lists, handling all aspects of playback and orchestration otherwise performed live. The micro-compositions presented by these scripts revolve around one musical idea at a time, usually for about five to eight minutes before changing.
The installation also features a way for the audience to interact with the speech material. An analogue telephone set connected to the system rings from time to time, inviting members of the audience to pick up the phone and interact with the orchestra through speech. The phone conversation as a social phenomenon is special in that it is the only commonplace experience where we communicate and interpret solely by voice. As such it seemed interesting to be able to interact with the otherwise disembodied recorded voices through the familiar interface of an old telephone, provoking nonsensical but somehow musically probable responses from the system.
Even though the installation format invites other readings than the conventional concert situation, I still think of this primarily as music and not as conceptual sound art. The use of a telephone in particular might seem like a way of staging a very theatrical situation. My intention however, was primarily to facilitate the curious experience of interacting with this speech/music-machine through one’s voice, with speech recordings played back into the telephone receiver and simultaneously orchestrated as musical phrases on the speaker-instrument orchestra. This experience can also be related to our future prospects (and fears) of having to communicate with machines that apparently understand the underlying emotional communicative layers of speech as well.
The use of a telephone set also creates an interesting situation for the remaining spectators who are unable to hear the voice in the telephone receiver. From their point of view, the exchange looks almost like a dialogue between the speaker and the orchestra, as a kind of meta-dialogue between speech and music with an old telephone acting as the literal line of communication.
Excerpts from the sound installation (1 hour reduced to 8 min):
The next part of the performance presented the “orchestra of speech” system as a solo instrument. This has been the main format throughout the project development. In the solo setup, the software system is complemented with a piano, used both as a musical counterpart in the overall orchestral texture but also as musical input for the system. Used this way, the piano can trigger responses and act as a dialogical partner for the artificial orchestra, which in turn can explore the whole continuum between the discrete stylized musical structures of the piano and the continuous flowing gestures of speech.
Video: Alice Winnberg
With this performance I feel that I finally have reached the level of control where I succeed in integrating my practice as a performer and improviser with all the new ideas developed throughout this project. I think this performance sums up the project nicely and manages to convey the topics that have been central to the project: the connection between conversation and improvisation; the musical character of speech genres; soundscape and sound sources as meaningful; and the many interrelations of speech and music in general.
The last part of this concert was an ensemble improvisation, exploring how this performance concept might work in a musical discourse together with other improvising musicians. In this experiment, I wanted to bring the speech material back into a dialogical setting that could perhaps also draw attention to musical ensemble improvisation as a fundamentally social situation. The added ensemble consisted of three vocalists, all with optional microphones and one with additional electronics, and three acoustic instruments – acoustic drums, cello and contrabass. This instrumentation was chosen to mirror the project’s existing themes of acoustic/electronic, vocal/instrumental and in extension of that – speech/music.
Video: Alice Winnberg. Performers: Daniel Formo (piano and electronics); Heidi Skjerve (vocals); Tone Åse (vocals and electronics); Sissel Vera Pettersen (vocals); Marianne Baudouin Lie (cello); Michael Francis Duch (bass); Ola Djupvik (drums).
Even though the solo format has been the main performance concept during the development of this project, I think it was also interesting to see what happened when expanded into a larger ensemble. Both conceptually, as a dialogical parallel to the interplay going on in the recorded conversations, but also musically how this changes the resulting music.
In this improvised ensemble performance, the focus clearly shifted towards a more diverse improvisational discourse featuring more musical subjects. Some of the musicians reported that it was very interesting to engage in new kinds of interplay, not only with the other performers but also with the voices and sounds embodied in the speaker-instrument hybrids of the orchestra system. Another interesting change was the increased blending and merging of sounds and soundscapes, blurring the line between electric, acoustic, virtual and physical sound, to the point where it sometimes was hard to discern where sounds were coming from.
Most of these musicians had previously been involved in my project, either in performances or studio experiments, but this was the first time gathered as a larger ensemble. This is perhaps why the performance at times had a tentative, searching character, with less clear direction than the solo performance. That is only natural for a first performance, as any encounter in unchartered territory. Nevertheless, I think it opens up a great field of opportunities for further exploration.
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