Posts Tagged ‘prepared voice’


  • Instrumentation: SATB, SuperCollider
  • Duration: 16'00
  • Commissioned by SoundStreams Canada

Program Notes

An ensemble of four unaccompanied singers is not a particularly common arrangement nowadays, but it just happens to have been one of the most popular configurations of medieval Europe. Therefore, when I started on Longuement me sui tenus, I decided to use a text by 14th-century French composer/poet Guillaume de Machaut as the genesis for my piece. Machaut has long been one of my favourites, and I was happy to have an excuse to work with his words. The text of my piece is drawn from his song Le lay de bonne esperance and is sung in Old French.

However, I purposefully chose not to listen to Machaut’s piece before starting on mine, and I haven’t included any of his musical materials. I also haven’t used the text in its original form: instead, I cut it up into fragments that draw out alternate meanings, even going so far as to dig up reference texts on medieval French grammar so I could adjust some of the phrases and conjugate verbs differently. Putting materials in new contexts is a longstanding interest of mine, so I wanted to go beyond simply setting his text to music. Instead I set out to reinvent the lyrics—to use his voice but tell a different story altogether.

Similarly, I wanted to transform the ensemble of singers into something beyond the everyday a cappella group. To do this, I built an electronic patch in SuperCollider that creates an ever-shifting “sustain pedal” of sorts for each singer. Then, as I composed, I used the patch to test every phrase of music, painstakingly verifying that I was treating the combination of “singer + sustain pedal” as a single instrument, not just slapping sound effects onto regular vocal music after the fact.

As such, I think of this piece as having been written for “prepared voice,” analogous to John Cage’s prepared piano. Cage put pieces of material into the piano strings, listened to the sounds they made, and then composed something expressly designed for the new, alien sonorities that wafted from his soundboard. I took a similar approach with the prepared vocal sounds in this piece, such that the fused sonority of voice with electronics is integral to the conception of the musical lines.

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. (more…)