A Voice for All Seasons

Published in C. Lane, ed. Playing with Words, CRISAP/RGAP, 2008.

For the nearly 40 years that I have been composing electroacoustic music, the one constant that runs through my work seems to be the use of the human voice in all of its varied roles and guises. I have written works for singers, solo and in operatic roles, as well as speaking voices, and have used voice and text as source material in probably about half of my pieces. I did not begin “electronic music” composition as it was then called until I was a graduate student at the University of British Columbia in 1969, and my first piece dating from that year was called Children, scored for soprano and electronic tape, and based on poems by e. e. cummings. This was a series of miniatures, lyrical in style, where the naivety and innocence of the texts seemed appropriate to the limited studio resources (Buchla and Moog synthesizers with a few tape recorders) that were at my disposal. I also wrote a paper on the role of the voice in electronic music for a graduate course I was taking as I devoured every work that used the human voice to anchor the bewildering array of electronic possibilities that had been developed in the previous 20 years. And by the end of my studies in 1971, I had adapted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous tale of The Little Prince for my first one-act opera. Innocence and naivety abounded.

Of course this does not explain why I gravitated towards voice and text in the first place. As a child I was a voracious reader, and was as enthralled by performances of Shakespeare’s plays at Stratford, Ontario and as presented by their touring company, as I was by classical music concerts and broadcasts. As an undergraduate student of physics and math at Queen’s University, I had the good fortune of having an inspiring teacher of modern literature, a student of Northrop Frye we were told, in the one humanities course we were allowed to have, and he opened up the intoxicating world of modern poetry to me. I even attempted some sophomoric verses myself, now hopefully lost, and during the magical summer of 1967’s Montreal Expo I attended my first operas. Little did I imagine that I would be creatively exploring the possibilities raised by these experiences for the rest of my life.

While doing post-graduate study at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht in 1971-73, where I encountered both the sophistication of the analog studio and the humble beginnings of computer music synthesis and composition, the two works I realized were my first (and last) commission from the CBC, She, A Solo, for mezzo-soprano and electronic tape, and tapes for an opera called Gilgamesh, based on a libretto supplied by a Vancouver writer, William Miranda. In both pieces, vocal material was used alongside electronic sounds as the main source material for the tape parts, probably as a result of my wanting to enlarge the sense of human psychological drama within a larger than life electronic soundscape. I was particularly inspired by the epic story of Gilgamesh, creator of the first city, and his journey to alter the death of the man he loved, Enkidu, the portrayal of which resulted in my first computer music work, The Journey to the Gods (1973), using the then new technique of frequency modulation synthesis that John Chowning has showed me. She, A Solo did not use a text, except for some confused fragments of banal conversation in the first part, but instead created a non-verbal language that portrayed a strong female persona, initially battered by the (electronic) world, who escapes to a self-indulgent solo, and then re-integrates herself into the soundscape using a constructed language of vocalisations. The piece was performed by one of the leading mezzo’s of the day, Phyllis Mailing, who I recorded and mixed for my first LP, Sonic Landscapes, a performance that I recently re-issued on CD. It established a pattern of my working with committed solo performers as a practical creative avenue, as opposed to the opaque world of opera that to this day I have not been able to break into in any significant way.

Back in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University in 1973, I pursued both soundscape studies with the World Soundscape Project and the development of the POD and later PODX computer music system. However, I also began a friendship with Vancouver writer Norbert Ruebsaat whose aurally evocative poetry I greatly admired. We collaborated on a piece for mezzo soprano and tape, Love Songs, which utilized his poetry, and more significantly I used his reading of his poem, The Blind Man, in 1979 as the theme and sonic material for a text-soundscape work of the same title, composed on commission in the studios of the Groupe de Musique Experimentale de Bourges. As always, it was a case of “prima le parole, doppo la musica” not as a hierarchy between words and music, but as a realization that when the words sounded right to me in a musical manner, the sonic elaboration of them followed easily. Norbert’s poetry admirably combined a lean modern aesthetic with an aural sensitivity that I could not find in others of his generation, and so it was a fortunate coincidence that Hildegard Westerkamp, his partner at the time, and I could collaborate with him on a variety of works. The Blind Man also established an approach that I have followed since which is to use the words (or the instrumental sources when that is the case) as raw sonic materials, and to elaborate them in a manner which expands on their content. The extraction of the sibilant sounds in the text, for instance, portrayed the sound of wind in the poem, whose evanescence is compared to the blind man in his darkness, while the isolated consonants portrayed the tapping of his cane hitting unseen objects. The rich bell sounds from Salzburg cathedral and the spoken loops similarly undergo processes that reduce them (via filtering and gating) while keeping them present (“already it has come and is leaving again” the poet says of the wind).

When the world of digital granular synthesis opened up for me after 1986, the first work used synthetic grains (Riverrun) but the second (The Wings of Nike) and many subsequent pieces, used phonemes and other bits of text, enlarging them until it seemed one became immersed inside their complexity. Song of Songs (1992), in particular, seems to me to be a seminal work where everything is based on voices. It includes the singing voice of the Italian monk, the text from the Song of Solomon (read by Norbert Ruebsaat and Thecla Schiphorst) whose inflected contours are mirrored in the instrumental lines, and the voices of birds and insects which when time-stretched start to fuse with their human counterparts, thereby dramatizing the underlying metaphor of the riches of the natural world being compared to the beauties of a lover, and vice versa — culture and nature entwined in an eternal dance. Sensuality and sexuality seem to come to the fore as expressed by the voice.

My four most recent CD’s present many of the themes in vocal composition that are too numerous to be dealt with here in any detail. Even the soundscape themed Islands CD indulges in Italian poetry during the sensual Italian afternoon soundscape of La Sera di Benevento. The companion CD from 2001, Twin Souls, is a collection of electroacoustic compositions that incorporate texts that deal with various gender issues. Some, but not all, refer to same sex relationships; others leave the identity of "the other" to the listener's interpretation. In all cases I have gravitated toward lyric poetry that expresses the human desire for this other being, whether a "mirror image", an idealized partner, or a complementary "opposite". In the first two works, Wings of Fire for cello and tape (based on a poem by Joy Kirstin) and Androgyne, Mon Amour for double bass and tape (based on poetry by Tennessee Williams) the instruments themselves are personified as the lover to whom the poetry is addressed. In the excerpts from my opera Powers of Two, these relationships are dramatized on stage. In each piece, the disembodied electroacoustic element takes on the role of creating in the listener’s mind a personal version of the "twin soul". The entire opera, that was recorded and presented on a double CD a few years later, is a much more extensive and specifically theatrical working out of this idea, and significantly most of the 8-channel soundscape in which the characters are immersed is based on spoken and sung material that has been digitally processed and extended. The texts sung by the singers are examples of lyric poetry written between the 12th and early 20th centuries that I have assembled and augmented (including Norbert Ruebsaat’s inspired translations of Rilke).

Most recently, my Spirit Journies CD brings together many of the themes I have been describing into a set of four works, each drawn from a different cultural tradition. The two that are most associated with Western culture, Temple  and Prospero’s Voyage, evoke the sacred and secular traditions respectively with an imaginary choral performance in an Italian cathedral, and Shakespeare’s Prospero in the process of leaving his island. However, the most innovative of these pieces is arguably The Shaman Ascending, which is inspired by Inuit throat singing from Canada’s arctic region and which takes a resonant bass voice (that of Vancouver singer Derrick Christian), assembles short fragments into a rapid rhythmic chant and spins these fragments around the listener in an 8-channel format at speeds such that the acoustic space is in a state of constant vibration. Out of these textures, and those created by granular time-stretching of the voice, the inner harmonics begin to emerge, symbolizing the “ascent” of the shaman in search of spiritual ecstasy. When optimally performed, the piece creates an acoustic space where the voice is the space and the listener is immersed within that vocal space.