An analogue delay line, definitely not in SuperCollider (photo credit)

For the final blog post of my SoundMakers residency, I’m going to outline some of the technical details of how my SuperCollider patch for Longuement me sui tenus works. The functionality is the same for each of the four singers, with each having his or her own independent “patch” running within SuperCollider. The only difference is that the singers are panned differently across the stereo field.

I’ve provided a diagram that outlines what happens as the vocalists sing: the mic sends the signal to an input “synth,” which then passes it to the delay line and to the end limiter. The delays are created by the spawner independently of the input source, and they pass their signal to the limiter, where it is combined with the original and outputted to the speakers.

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A collection of microphones (photo credit)

Once I settled on the “prepared voice” concept for my SoundMakers commission, I had to figure out how to make it a musical reality. I had tested a few simple delay lines, but they weren’t great: I was either getting mechanical-sounding echoes or washy reverb. I needed something that blended more completely with the acoustic component of the voice.

To be able to fine tune my delay patch however, I first needed some kind of vocal synth. After all it would be hard to figure out if I was going in the right direction if I didn’t have a voice-like sound to plug into it. I could tune the patch to a certain extent using my own singing voice, but that wasn’t going to tell me if the patch works in a polyphonic setting—I needed either four singers at my beck and call, or a synthesizer patch with the appropriate acoustic characteristics.

In the past I’ve controlled SuperCollider from Sibelius using MIDI signals, so I set out to do the same here: I would build a vocal synth in SuperCollider that I could feed into my “prepared voice” patch, as triggered by Sibelius, and that would allow me to hear the combined effect of polyphonic vocal phrases with delay.

However in order for this vocal synth to be of any use, it had to have basic timbral similarities to the voice. What I didn’t want was one of those awful choral “ooh” or “aah” patches you find on most keyboards.

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Choir Psallite Deo (Photo Credit)

For the January installment of my SoundMakers residency, I want to write about setting words to music. The piece I wrote for SoundStreams posed some interesting text-setting challenges, given the fact that it’s in Old French and every word echoes for 5–10 seconds after being sung. Text setting is an area where composers often miss the point, so I’m going to look at some of the key considerations involved, and then I’ll describe how those play out in a piece like Longuement me sui tenus.

Too many composers treat text setting like part making: an obligatory chore you have to do when you’re working with singers, but not an integral part of the compositional process. That’s a huge lost opportunity. Words are special, and people hear them differently from other elements in music. They need to be treated the same way you would treat rhythm or harmony or phrasing. Done right, text setting can infuse your music with complexity and meaning you wouldn’t get from sound alone. (This is, after all, the only way to explain the appeal of most of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre.) Done wrong, text setting distracts from the piece, makes your singers look awkward, and covers up the interesting bits in the music.

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Gentrification in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood. (photo credit)

Living in San Francisco, you can’t avoid the anti-gentrification rants—and my fellow artists are some of the loudest participants. The Mission District, once a bohemian enclave, has become astronomically expensive and a playground for obnoxious Tech Bros. Longstanding arts organizations in SoMa and the Tenderloin have had to relocate or shut down to make room for new luxury apartments, to the point that the city is considering a tax on new development to subsidize nonprofits. Shady landlords find underhanded ways to evict rent-controlled tenants and sell the properties at a handsome profit. Even formerly unredeemable neighborhoods of Oakland have started to succumb to baby strollers, designer boutiques, and rising rents. All the while, artists and the poor get pushed out, and any last remnant of cultural life goes along with them. Or so the story goes.

In reality, gentrification has an artistic upside, even when you factor in all that bad stuff. Gentrification is not just about the disneyfication of formerly quirky neighborhoods at the expense of anything unique or original. Read on ››

Photo CC by Anthony Kelly, posted to Flickr

I ended my last SoundMakers post by discussing how John Cage’s prepared piano studies influenced the approach I took to processing the voice in Longuement me sui tenus. Here, I want to go into a little more detail on how the electronics changed the type of vocal writing I used.

Writing for voice is not like writing for most other instruments, largely because each voice is unique. Singers take liberties with a score that other musicians wouldn’t in order to make the music work for their vocal chords. This isn’t a criticism—it’s one of the things I love the most about working with vocalists. However, it also means that I need to have that in mind when I “prepare” their voices digitally: even though I am changing the fundamental characteristics of the sound, I have to preserve the singers’ ability to adapt the piece to their individual voices.

Vibrato and tessitura

The first question to address was the role of vibrato, since the audio patch wraps every sound in a long, echo-y blanket of resonance, like a piano with the damper pedal down. This is the opposite of virtually every normal singing scenario, where the problem is usually a lack of resonance, not too much. I therefore had to decide how much, if any, vibrato would be appropriate for the piece. A lot of composers have a general aversion to sung vibrato, but I’m not one of those.

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