Thursday, 17 July 2014

System Focus: The Evolution of the Voice in the Digital Landscape

Click here to read the third System Focus, which brings together a number of different strands in underground music under the theme of 'the voice in the digital landscape.' It was a chance to talk about some recent releases that had really intrigued me by Nima, Metallic Ghosts and Blank Banshee, as well as take a look at vocaloid culture and some of the uses to which these synthetic singers have been put, but there's loads in there.

You might say that the voice is the most human of all the elements in music. It comes from deep within our bodies, organically, ever since we came to be human, and indeed long before. It is probably the first musical instrument that we learned to recognise, and, since it is built into most of us, the first that we learn to use. Yet the voice is much more than just a sound, however primordial. It represents a person: their activity, agency, opinions, experience, their self-projection. In doing so, it differentiates itself from the environment around it, musical or cultural, either drawing power from this context or somehow standing against it. Or, most intriguingly, doing both at the same time...
  Roger Troutman of Zapp using a talkbox
There’s a tendency to regard the digital world as non-human, as encroaching on humanity, but I think that’s quite wrong. The internet is not just a landscape made up of technology, it is one made up of humanity. Like it or not, Facebook and Twitter are made of people, and of people’s voices in particular. People’s voices and the lives behind them reduced to assertions, opinions, arguments, anxieties, reduced to pieces of data, to samples—but sounding out nonetheless. And this landscape is reflected and explored in the music it produces, where the lines between the human and its technological environment are no longer clearly drawn...

The final tracks of both albums (called “Landscapes” on Spirit Sign) feature synthesised speech, as if completing a transition from human to machine, yet it’s set against some of Nima’s most elegant instrumental textures. At the end of SEE FEEL REEL, a voice almost obsessively repeats crypto-romantic refrains such as I’m… in love… with… the… digital age… over strings, before switching to breathy voice-like tones as if it were dissolving into air. Nima’s music certainly lives in the digital age, and all the elements within it expand to fill the enormous space that results...
Both musically and conceptually, the album suggests a dream cityscape as it might have appeared at the turn of the 1990s, a weird, multicoloured, postmodern union of the past and the future, where citizens of all professions glide beatifically down immaculate beige sidewalks past bright red fire stations, neo-1930s banking skyscrapers, parping bandstands, faux-eighteenth-century colleges, and green, green, lawns, all presided over by a moustachioed mayor who warmly greets his public at the exponential tree-planting and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. One of the crucial components of this digital landscape—now looking rather misplaced, both poignant and arrogant, in the post-recession era—is the voice. Fittingly, the vocals, and the human beings hinted at behind it, are just yet further objects swirling in the cityscape, forming its melodies, scatting ooh and aah or urging Work it! and Get down like feckless, automated cheerleaders. It’s a landscape we might recognize and enjoy with a little disquiet mixed in...
Metallic Ghosts' The City of Ableton

Sampling processes of all kinds appear in Blank Banshee’s album Blank Banshee 1, a masterwork of the new digital psychedelia, and it’s quite easy not to really notice that the album is filled with voices at every turn, much like its videos are filled with virtual beings, objects and environments. Despite the fact that these voices are pitched up, down and all around, they’re never more than virtual avatars of their owners: social media masks that are both freeing and constraining. Freeing in that they allow the voice to move to new places and be new people, constraining in that these surrogate people are not yet as infinitely flexible and free as they would like to think they are, and might still have an air of the uncanny about them. This double-edged nature of the human user in the modern digital playground, its mixture of strange new opportunities and dangers, might be why one of the tracks goes by the name “Anxiety Online...”

Blank Banshee's Blank Banshee 1
Voltex makes gorgeous footwork-like tracks from joyfully leaping vocaloids and stereophonically pingponging synths. Then there’s tac_ for whom vocaloids are a perfect element gently woven into dainty, elfin compositions. Another sound tac_ frequently uses is that of the mellotron, which in many ways is the forerunner of the vocaloid, being an analogue sample-based synthesiser where keys were attached to tape loops featuring recorded instruments such as strings and flutes (you might know it from the opening to “Strawberry Fields Forever”). Both dolls designed to emulate more organic musics, the vocaloid and mellotron complement one another not as fake, insufficient, robotic entities, but as toys that have run away to a miniature fantasy kingdom where they can now be loved only by history and nature...
Top Vocaloid Hatsune Miku


  1. Really enjoyed this, great to learn about some alternative vocaloid stuff going on. Surprised Kyoka didn't get a mention in the piece though! I thought Is Superpowered was a triumph in vocal experimentation, with that synthetic-organic vibe it's got.

  2. Ah yeah! I'd meant to include her, and she should have been in that roll coll of vocal experimenters. Beyond that tough, the remit of the column is mostly for online music. Good shout though.