It has been necessary to develop some methods for sorting and thinking about the new material generated in this project. Early on I tried to conceptualize musical possibilities in terms of continua between opposites. For instance between the fluid continuous quality of speech and the discrete and clearly defined pitches and attacks of musical instruments like the piano, or between acoustic and mediated sound, vocal and instrumental etc. As a result musical ideas often took shape of transformations between such opposites.
However, I found that not all ideas are best thought of in terms of such opposites. What seemed to be common for many of the ways I was approaching speech was that they were different kinds of abstractions. That is related to the difficulty of listening to speech without focusing on the situation implied by the semantic content of the words – the persons speaking, the setting of time and place, and the story unfolding. In the early days of electroacoustic music, Pierre Schaeffer proposed a mode of “reduced listening” to focus listening on sounds as “objets sonores”, sound objects completely removed from any links to their cause or source (Schaeffer, 1966). That seems to be a particularly hard exercise when listening to speech sounds. To shift the focus towards the musical structures of speech, I felt it was necessary to introduce some kind of filter or veil to make the words less intelligible.
This led to methods for abstracting and stylizing conventional musical parameters like rhythm, melody, harmony etc., in addition to extracting gestural features like phrase durations, pauses, pulse etc. It is interesting how far speech can be abstracted this way, and still be recognizable as intentional communicative gestures.
Abstracted speech gesture example:
The limit of recognition seems to be when approaching static time, to the point when gestures are no longer recognized as such, and fade away perceptually as background static. However, I found that if the resulting music became too abstract for longer periods, it would soon lose the perceived connection to speech altogether, and appear just like any other kind of abstract-sound music. The topic of speech needed to be present in the music, and I found that the most interesting things happened when I managed to find a balance between recognition and abstraction so that the focus of perception is right on the edge between the semantic and the poetic. I started developing further methods for using unprocessed speech recordings, in such ways that their original sources, contexts and semantic contents become so fragmented and relativized that the result is perceived as abstracted or poetic sound structures, or sound objects in Schaeffer’s parlance. In that way the formal aspects can be kept in focus while the topic of speech is never lost.
So on the one hand it seems like speech gestures can be recognizable as communicative utterances even after radical transformation and abstraction. But also that sounds of perfectly intelligible speech can be organized in such a way that they are perceived as abstract sound collages while still being recognized as speech sounds.
Here is a brief description of various methods adopted for abstraction:
Filtering and smoothing of the contours of frequencies, amplitudes, spectrum, resolution, etc.
Stylization and ornamentation of melodic phrases and gestures: arpeggio, overlaps, pointillistic clouds/swarms, voice shadowing, choral doubling, counter-voices, rhythmical diminutions and augmentations, etc.
Abstraction by spatial distribution into different layers: foreground, background, frequency register, instrumentation/orchestration, etc.
Fragmentation and repetition of segments organized as collages. Like in poetry, alternative arrangement of words dissolves the narrative and places emphasis on sound qualities and formal associations.
Juxtaposition of different conversations in the same speech genre shifts focus to the common features of the genre, rather than each individual story.
Juxtaposition of different languages (same as above, but even more generalized)
Selection by function, using only specific parts of conversation (greeting, back-channeling, laughter etc.): focuses on specific kinds of interaction.
Schaeffer, P. (1966). Traité des objets musicaux. Paris: Le Seuil.
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