Voice, Performance, Technology: cross-media, cross-dressing, cross-species

by Hazel Smith

In the last blog I talked about the importance of voice for poetry: here I want to explore the impact of digital manipulation on voice and its incorporation into various kinds of poetry performance.

Through new technologies voices can be merged, multiplied and denaturalized (that is, made to sound non-human). The voice can be manipulated with regard to every parameter: pitch, timbre and rhythm, and in a way that creates a continuum between sound and speech. In addition computer-synthesized voices can be used. Although playing with the distinction between acoustic sound and speech was characteristic of a great deal of sound poetry, it is much easier to manipulate all the parameters, and reach the extremities of voice, with new technologies.

Digitally manipulated voices can form voicescapes: these consist of many different voices, some of which are digitally manipulated or computer generated. Voicescapes undo what is usually regarded as the one-to-one identity between a particular voice and a particular person. For example, the voices may be overlaid to create a dense tapestry of voices (sometimes versions of the same voice) that complement or quarrel with each other. A voicescape can also revamp the relationship between voice and place. A voice may seem to belong to several places at once, or to arise out of an ambiguous, incongruous, or virtual space.

This digital manipulation of the voice can have all sorts of interesting cultural effects. For example I have been interested in the past in the idea of ‘sonic cross-dressing’, that is, the way in which a female voice can be manipulated to sound male or a male voice female. But digital manipulation can also explore the continuum between male and female, including voice positions that are half-male, half-female: it can project transgendered positions. You can hear examples of this in some of my own work such as The Space of History [i]. This is on the PennSound site, which is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in voice and readings of poetry.

Some of the most striking examples of digital manipulation of the voice come in the work of poet-composers, that is people who straddle the line between poetry and music. Techniques such as sampling, granular synthesis (a type of sampling using tiny fragments of material), filtering, morphing and spatialising provide the means for extensive exploration of the voice and its relationship to identity and to the environment. In British musician-poet-performer Trevor Wishart’s Vox 5, a classic of this genre, chest and throat sounds are superimposed onto, juxtaposed with, and morphed into, environmental sounds.[ii] At times, in what now looks like an early example of ecopoetry, sounds cross the boundaries between species, for example, the human sounds seem like animal sounds, and there is a continuum among human, animal, environmental, and climate sounds. The vocal aspect of the piece projects the effort of coming into being: it struggles to articulate itself, and at one point we hear the traces of words, the beginnings of language. Vox 5 could be interpreted as an evocation of birth and the acquisition of language, or the birth of language itself.

Pamela Z is an African American composer-performer-multimedia artist-writer who engages with electronic processing of the voice and sampled sounds: her oeuvre is a mixture of singing, speaking, and multimedia elements, and every performance includes improvised elements. She moves between an operatic bel canto kind of singing and vocal techniques that extend normal singing. Amongst her technological battery, Z uses MAX/MSP, a computer platform for making, assembling and transforming sounds. She also utilises BodySynth technology that transforms the muscle motions involved in body gestures into digital data that can be used to control samplers and synthesisers.

Pamela Z performing: credit rubra (courtesy of Ars Electronica)

Z has a very eclectic attitude towards different traditions, including opera, non-western vocal traditions, computer music and poetry/sound poetry. She explores the possibilities of technology (often real-time processing of words and voice) to multiply, layer, process and sometimes denaturalise the voice. As a result she often creates voicescapes that are a dense polyphony of voices and different versions of ‘Pamela’. For example, her Bone Music[iii] consists of a solo singing line (with rhythmic accompaniment). It uses a digital delay system and also looping, so that whatever Z sings will be repeated later (and over and over again) with different iterations in every performance. She processes the voice, adding a considerable amount of reverberation to it, and also employs gesture to control the software. The singing explodes into a babble of electro-acoustically generated voices that grow to considerable intensity, forming a voicescape. The percussion is the sound of an empty five-gallon water bottle in three delay loops of varying lengths.

Z’s Gaijin which arose out of her residency in Japan in 1999, is a multimedia work that involves both live performance and electronic processing, and combines spoken text, music, and butoh performance.[iv] Gaijin, explores the experience of being foreign in Japan: that foreignness is made more acute by the fact that Z is African American.

The excerpts from Gaijin include multiple layers of sonic, verbal, and visual material with the voice manifesting itself in different ways: in readings from a book about how to fit into Japanese culture; in a polyphonic rendering of the word ‘other’; in a performance of immigration requirements by Z, who puts herself in the visa document as its official voice and yet is clearly an addressee of it; in Z singing in Japanese enka style; and in visual and sonic renditions of the Japanese alphabet. The piece incorporates a great deal of found material that develops poetic resonances. For example, readings from the book about how to fit in range from very formal entries to one that suggest readers ‘talk about bitter experiences’. This could be interpreted to allude to repressed feelings that hover beneath the polite surface of Japanese society.

In my own performance collaborations I am also interested in in technological manipulation of the voice. Bird Migrants is a recent collaboration with musican Roger Dean for voice and electronics, commissioned by the ABC for the program Soundproof, and available for download on their website. [v] It is based on a poem ‘The Great Egret’ written for the Bimblebox 153 birds project. This is a developing project around the 153 bird species that have been recorded on the Bimblebox Nature Refuge in central western Queensland — the home of these birds, and the ecosystems that support them, is in the path of a proposed coal mine. [vi] Bird Migrants uses bird and environmental sounds, transformed voice samples (the words are often cut up or played backwards) and instruments. We have also performed a different version of the piece Bird Migrants 2, in live performance, with live as well as recorded voice. and visual transformations of text and related image.

An image from Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, Bird Migrants 2: credit, Hazel Smith

At the recent Transcultural Ecopoetics: Decolonising Australian Landscape poetry workshop at Sydney University, Stuart Cooke, in a most interesting talk, suggested that a new ecopoetics might be intermedia and also cross-species. Thinking about this made me realize that in Bird Migrants there is a kind of cross-species evocation of voice where bird sounds and human voice sounds cross-migrate. The poem was inspired by the wedding scene in Theo Angelopoulos’s film, The Suspended Step of the Stork, where a couple marry each other from the opposite banks of a river that flows through a divided country. The great egret grows out of the bride’s groom and the groom’s flag, which cross-fertilise in the river. The egret can be seen to represent the tragic history of the country, but also the longing for flight and freedom. [vii]

In another recent piece, Disappearing, a collaboration with Roger Dean and Greg White, four voices weave in and out of each other, often changing position within the sound space, sometimes partially ‘disappearing’ within each other or within sonic transformations of the voice.

For Disappearing, I performed and recorded the text, and Greg provided a series of acoustic transformations of the pre-recorded voices, removing much of the semantic material but retaining a strong impression of the voice, what Greg calls ‘the sonic footprint of the performer’. The text, together with the acoustic transformations of the voice, was rearranged, layered and mixed into a montage by Roger, who also provided extra sound. In performance of the piece, four loudspeakers are placed in the auditorium (two at the front, two at the back), so that the voices are situated at different points in space. The digital voices are also moved around the space from loudspeaker to loudspeaker. This spatial movement projects and supports the thematic aspects of the piece which explores death and disappearing (particularly political murder) round the world, including the disappeared in Chile and Argentina and the deportation of Jews in Romania.

However, I realised in writing this blog entry that Disappearing is also about voice in many of the senses I mentioned in my last blog. It is about the way poetic voice is always multiple rather than single; it contains ideas about the relationship between the voice to communication; it gives a voice to the politically and historically repressed or eliminated; and it also involves digital manipulation of the voice.

I look forward to many more experiments with voice in the future. Happy explorations of voice over the holidays!


[i] Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, The Space of History, PennSound, 2006, https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Smith-Hazel/Smith-Hazel_Dean-Roger_The-Space-of-History_2006.mp3

[ii] Trevor Wishart, Vox 5, Vox Cycle, CD, Virgin Classics, 1990. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y23kobWHs8M

[iii] Pamela Z, Bone Music, first conceived, 1996, Uploaded 2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FqquAXKHQ0

[iv] Pamela Z, Extracts from Gaijin, 2001, Uploaded 2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNW7oXfmjl8

[v] Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, Bird Migrants, Soundproof, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2014. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/soundproof/bird-migrants/5850898

[vi] Bimblebox Art Project, http://bimbleboxartproject.com/bimblebox-birds-printmaking-project/

[vii] Hazel Smith, Greg White Roger Dean, Disappearing, Electronic Overland, 2013 https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/electronic-overland/poem-hazel-smith-roger-dean-and-greg-white/