Hear Me Now: the implication and significance of the female composer’s voice as sound source in her electroacoustic music
The composition of electroacoustic music first and foremost requires the accumulation of an orchestra of sonic material for use in the final construction of the work. Much electroacoustic composition is of an abstract nature and audio sources may be chosen primarily for their sonic richness, complexity, and interest. However, audio materials may also be chosen for symbolic and thematic intent: the message of the piece and its creator demands that a certain sound source be used. In her writings about the role of the female voice in electroacoustic music, noted Dutch researcher Hannah Bosma has identified a variety of issues surrounding the compositional choices of those utilizing spoken and sung text in their work and illustrated the differences of use in relationship to the chosen vocalist’s gender. Bosma finds precedents for the primary roles of the male and female voice in noted works by Berio, Stockhausen, Dodge and others in both the cinematic and operatic genres. Interestingly, Bosma almost exclusively focuses upon the musical works of men in her studies so her fascinating work inspired me to explore an area which she has only briefly discussed: how women utilize the voice in electroacoustic music and more specifically whether their treatment of the female voice in any way differs from the treatment of the female voice by their male counterparts.
This subject also interests me as I am myself a composer of primarily text-based electroacoustic music and video works. In several instances I am the recorded female voice on the tape. After reading Bosma’s research, which is readily available on her website, I began to think about how I had used my own voice in my music and also why I had done so. The reasons range from the practical to the symbolic and will be discussed later in this paper. A question from an article reviewer about the music of Alice Shields (which I have researched extensively) got me thinking about other women who use their own voice in the creation of their music. The result is Hear Me Now, a discussion of a very small number of the many women who use their voice as the sound source and/or the vocal soloist for their electroacoustic works and how such creative use can contribute to an expanded conception of how the female voice could be utilized in the future in a variety of artistic genres.
Bosma references the work of feminist cinematic theorist Kaja Silverman, literary critic Catherine Clément, and musicologist Joke Dame when giving a thorough background in the traditional roles for which male and female voices have been used in film, opera, and vocal music in general. After studying the writings of the cited authors themselves, I developed a list of possible compositional uses of the voice in electroacoustic music. First, the voice can be used as a non-verbal expression of impotence. This is the traditional role assigned to the female voice in movies (the scream of Marion Crane in Psycho) and in opera (the “death aria” of Butterfly). Often the female victim is confined to an enclosed space as is Crane in the shower. Typical musical expressions of this role include non-linguistic text, melismatic singing, syllabic utterances and very high soprano vocalizations. In electroacoustic music this role is reinforced in works for voice and tape in which the soloist employs traditional operatic singing techniques with the tape acting as an accompaniment. Bosma notes that in this scenario the female singer is in a sense confined in a “box” created by the tape part which never stops and whose timing must be adhered to absolutely or the entire performance will fail. She also mentions that very few works have been created for male voice and tape (a notable exception to this is Olly Wilson’s hauntingly beautiful Sometimes for tenor and tape in which the male singer assumes the role of a tortured and powerless slave who is swallowed by electronic sound in a dramatic interpretation of the African-American spiritual). Another possible manifestation of this scenario is found in works for tape in which the sound source is the female voice – the women was in fact trapped and confined to the tape (an example of this using male voices is Tae Hong Park’s 1999 work, Omoni – an interesting side observation of the Park and Wilson works is that in both the men on tape are victims). A related role – that of the voice as non-linguistic sound source (with no associated impotence) is discussed further later.
A contrasting vocal role – usually assigned to men in the cinema – is that of the “voice-over”: an all-seeing and all-powerful commentator. Musical expressions of this role include spoken text and recitative singing. Interestingly, some of the most successful explorations of this role in electroacoustic music have been created by Laurie Anderson who has described herself as a “cultural ethnographer” and whose works generally are observations and commentaries on different aspects of American life. This is also a role I assume in many of my works. A closely related role is that of the narrator or storyteller who conveys information without judgment or insight but as merely a reporter of events.
A final potential vocal role is that of the vocal manipulator – in which the voice controls its environment and serves as the creative catalyst. In electroacoustic music this can be accomplished technologically in several ways. The Max/MSP application allows the performer to control various aspects of her digital accompaniment including timbre, tempo, and melodic and rhythmic materials through the nuances of her vocalizations. Additionally using the female voice as sound source for an electroacoustic piece can be interpreted similarly. Much manipulation of a woman’s voice on tape would symbolically “free her” as she would not be confined to singing conventions. However this can also be dangerous – giving the impression of being a victim again at the mercy of the composer’s razor blade.
The four women discussed here – myself, Christine Baczewska, Alice Shields, and Pamela Z – illustrate only a small representation of the women using themselves as musical sound sources in their electroacoustic works, but each has taken one or more of the traditional vocal roles outlined above and utilized it in a way that provides an empowering element to her composition and an autobiographical insight into her creative process. This study provides an illustration of the overlap of the musicological with the theoretical where the origin of the sound source is directly related to the composer’s history and environment. Additionally the examination of the use of various musical and technological skills and practices to mold sound into an effective tool for controlling and co-opting the traditional western conception of gender can serve as an example to filmmakers, opera composers, and other creative artists in ways to utilize similar techniques for fresh and inventive results in other artistic genres.
An obvious illustration of this subversion of the traditional is found in the creation of my 1995 work Antigone’s Peace for videotape with electroacoustic soundtrack. I had begun using my own voice as a sound source in my work two years earlier with the creation of A Parable of Pre-existing Conditions for video and tape, a chronicle of my experiences as a cancer survivor almost inextricably mired in the United States health insurance system. Both Parable and Antigone are from my Full Circle trilogy, a CD-rom work about my cancer survivorship and the first examples of what I like to call “docu-art”; they are non-fictional pieces about my own life. In the case of Parable, since it had to do with my frustration about having to make career choices based on health insurance availability after having cancer, I wanted my voice to be the narration because the experience happened to me. I could have just written the text down and had an actor do it but that seemed rather silly. Why displace the experience from myself? I really felt that the piece would have more meaning if I were actually part of it; more meaning to myself and to the audience. The work was a deliberate act of exposure of myself and my inner feelings to others and would have been cheapened by using someone else.
In the case of Antigone, however, the subversion of the traditional female vocal role is more straightforward since the final video piece was actually a revision of an earlier operatic work with which I was discontent. Antigone’s Peace was originally written for mezzo-soprano (and brilliantly sung by University of Iowa’s Katherine Eberle-Fink), percussion, and MIDI keyboards and samples triggered using Max. It was intended as the starting point for an operatic setting of the Antigone tragedy and was essentially Antigone’s soliloquy as she is being lead to the cave where she will be buried alive as punishment. The lament taken directly from the Greek play itself is a catalog of the life experiences that Antigone will be denied by her early death and include motherhood, marriage, and physical love.
In further study of the piece after its composition and première I determined that the text provided an interesting parallel to what would have occurred in my own medical case should I not survive cancer. It was then that I decided to rework the piece and add my own voice to Dr. Eberle’s in a remix of the soundtrack. The video portion of the piece features women in the roles of mother and lover as well as epitaphs from women’s graves praising their roles in these capacities. By adding my voice to the mix I made Antigone’s story my own; the significant difference being that my story has a happy ending while the Greek heroine’s did not. I have turned the tables on the woman’s tragedy, making it a story of triumph rather than defeat. Interestingly Sophocles turns the tables himself in this story, making Antigone’s tragedy the catalyst of loss, despair, and defeat for those against her and granting her an extraordinary amount of power in her death.
Sound Example 1 (MP3) – A Parable of Pre-Existing Conditions (excerpt): voice used in classic voiceover/narrative style.
Sound Example 2 (MP3) –Antigone’s Peace (excerpt): with composer’s voice (“my doom”) mixed with singer’s voice putting personal imprint on piece)
The composer and singer Alice Shields strongly emphasizes the distinction between the use of the high soprano voice and the lower mezzo voice (which I used for Antigone) in terms of female characterizations in opera and directly relates this distinction to her own work. In our recent correspondance, Shields reminded me that “composers have typically written pathetic female roles to require singers with light timbre in high registers… in general, the more powerful the timbre of the female voice, the more non-pathetic the female roles”. She cites as examples of lyric and coloratura “victim” roles, mad Lucia of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and the previously mentioned Mimi from Butterfly. More ambiguous roles she adds, include Tosca (seductive-but-choosing-to-kill-herself-rather-than-be-captured) and Aida (powerful-but-eventually-dying-along-with-her-man), and are written for the spinto soprano, dramatico-spinto soprano or dramatic soprano range. Shields has made extensive study of gender roles and vocal ranges and has presented this research often in public including a speech on voice and emotion for the 2002 Santa Fe Opera première of Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin. (Love from Afar) Shields identifies herself and her self-written roles with the strong female characters typically reserved for the mezzo-soprano voice (her own vocal range). These include Ortrud of Lohengrin, Medea in Cavalli’s Il Giasone, and Ulrica of Un Ballo en Mascera and the composer has performed these roles. She adds that the dark and strong qualities of her voice are often used in her compositions. Interestingly Shields also emphasizes the liberating exhilaration of possessing such a voice. She shares that she had no idea that she had a good voice until she began studying singing while a graduate student in music composition. She delighted in the fact that she could incorporate some aspects of the characters she played on stage into her personal life becoming more powerful, dramatic, seductive and even scary. Having been raised to believe that she was clumsy, unattractive, weak, soft-voiced, and shy, operatic role-playing allowed her to step outside of the formerly circumscribed world in which she had lived. The composer also had been writing poetry and short plays since childhood so the voice in her work seemed essential for its completion.
Shields gives as examples of her own writing for her stronger mezzo voice her role of Coyote from the 1987 electronic opera Shaman and the supernatural role of the Medium in the 1992 work Mass for the Dead. She also cites the roles of The Woman and The Seaweed (both sung by composer) from the 1994 electronic opera Apocalypse as similar strong female characters. A more recent work, The Mud Oratorio, an hour-long commissioned piece for modern dance premièred by Dance Alloy of Pittsburgh in 2003, also has a strong female vocal role of the Narrator which is performed by the composer.
Apocalypse is particularly interesting because the piece employs Shields in so many different ways. She is first and foremost the author of the story and the creator of its music. She is also the choreographer of the piece which was staged for live performance with movement patterns from the Hindu Bharata Natyam dance drama. Shields has done extensive training in this South Indian classical form and now utilizes the Bharata Natyam metrical cycles and text in much of her work. All of the live and electroacoustic voices of the opera are the composer’s own with the exception of a few scenes with the male character Shiva and one involving the electric guitarist performing some sound effects. In addition to the narrative voices, Shields also created and recorded a variety of “bird” and “sea lion” vocal effects.
To paraphrase the composers’ own program notes, Apocalypse tells the story of “the Woman” who travels from conception to birth then to her meeting and initiation by the Goddess who Shields has named “the Seaweed.” Utilizing phrases based on the Bhagavad Gita, the Seaweed teaches the Woman empathy, emotional attachment, and reverence for all life preparing Her to meet the male god Shiva. The opera culminates with the ritualized union of Shiva and the Woman combining spirit and matter, mind and energy, asceticism and sensuality.
Apocalypse began as a playful improvisation on an original text between Shields and colleague Daria Semegen one evening at Semegen’s home in Stony Brook, New York. The two women began tossing verse phrases back and forth giving the composer the idea of using a call-and-response technique for much of the work. During the First Greeting scene, Shields sings a solo line and is then answered by a chorus. This chorus is actually multi-tracked recordings of the composer herself. The same “composer as chorus” effect is used near the beginning of the On a Dark Mountain scene and throughout other parts of the opera. When one listens to the entire piece, Shield’s remarkable versatility as both a musician and an engineer is constantly evident. Shields uses English, classical Greek, Gaelic, and Sanskrit in her text, adding yet another layer of complexity to the work.
Sound Example 3 (MP3) – Study for voice and tape (1968; excerpt). Recorded voice and poem: Alice Shields, an early example of a more traditional aria-like use of her voice.
Sound Example 4 (MP3) – Apocalypse (1993; excerpt), “First Greeting”. Singer: Alice Shields. Voice still used operatically but magnified in presence.
Sound Example 5 (MP3) – Apocalypse, “On a Dark Mountain”. Singer: Alice Shields.
By listening to these examples it becomes obvious how chorusing, pitch modulation, and other electronic effects are being employed especially in the later work to make the composer’s already powerful voice even more so. Additionally in Apocalyse, the voice takes on a certain gender ambiguity and acquires the all-knowing, omnipotent quality discussed earlier in connection with popular male film roles. Shield’s singing and vocal processing also allow her to continue to transcend the constraints she felt she had upon her as a child. Thus the opera singer further empowers herself by taking maximum advantage of her gift in the compositional realm.
Personally I particularly enjoy Shield’s music because of the obvious joy she takes in her gorgeous and powerful voice and how she has used both her vocal and compositional gifts to contribute to the ongoing discussion about women’s roles in opera. Shield’s works for me serve as a particularly fine commentary on Catherine Clément’s Opera, or the undoing of Women. After reading Clément’s book, one can listen to Shield’s electroacoustic music and say, “See, this is how it should be done!”