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The Decomposing Voice of Postmodern Music

Steven Connor

New Literary History, Volume 32, Number 3, Summer 2001, pp. 467-483 (Article)

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press


For additional information about this article

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The Decomposing Voice of
Postmodern Music
Steven Connor

Voice is a particular sound made by something

with a soul; for nothing which does not have a
soul has a voice.
Aristotle, De Anima 1

Flute and Lyre

estern music has been formed around the dissension be-
tween music and voice. On the one hand, the human voice
has provided the image of music itself, distilled, claried, and
personied. For the Greeks, the power of music is epitomized by the
gure of Orpheus, in whom singing and playing are powerfully recipro-
cal actions. The lyre of Orpheus and Apollo comes to be metonymic of
the voice itself; in the terms lyric and lyrical, the voice is represented
by the instrument designed to accompany it, which has nevertheless
been suffused with vocal tonality and action. And yet, there is also within
the history of Western music, a struggle between the voice and musical
sound as such. This struggle is encoded in the distinction between the
Orphic or Apollonian lyre and the ute of Pan or Dionysus. Wind
instruments come to be uniquely expressive of the voice because they
share the voices incapacity to play chords. Unable to organize sound
synchronically, the voice organizes it temporally, through the movement
of melody; but the openness to time of melody suggests the instability of
those xed relations of proportion which Greek musical theory be-
queathed to the West. When Apollo defeats Marsyas, it is a defeat of the
aberrant powers of the voice. The ute-voice represents the power of the
one to become many, moving ecstatically and unpredictably from place
to place, and sometimes inducing panic and disorientation. The
Apollonian lyre contains many voices, which it organizes synchronically.
The one-becoming-many of the ute is assimilated to and subordinated
by the image of the many-become-one represented by the lyre. Charles
Segal nds a feminized version of this process in Pindars twelfth Pythian
Ode, written in 490 b.c. for the annual ute contest which took place in
Delphi. The ode celebrates the fact that Athena, having rescued her

New Literary History, 2001, 32: 467483

468 new literary history

favorite, Perseus, from the Gorgon, invented the art of ute music, to
preserve and to neutralize the horrifying, bestial cries of the Gorgon:

she fashioned the music of utes

to imitate the piercing ululation
that came to her ears
from the erce jaws of Euryale.
It was the goddess who invented it for mortal men
and called it the many-headed melody 2

The aesthetic form of the ode, Segal concludes, is itself a victory over
Gorgonic dissonance; and the ode, like Athena, absorbs and neutralizes
this dissonance by incorporating it into a larger design, much as the
total musical and thematic structure of Mozarts Magic Flute absorbs and
neutralizes the screaming arpeggios of the vengeful Queen of the
Night (33).

Composing Voice

This argument between voice and music took another turn in the
eighteenth century in the musical quarrel of the ancients and moderns
enacted between Rameau and Rousseau. Rameau took the view that the
essence of music lay in harmonic proportion and relation. Although
harmonic theory derived from ancient sources in Pythagorean math-
ematics, it reached its summit in modern, scientic systems of harmonic
relationships, to which classical accounts of music such as Platos,
restricted as they are to considerations of melody, did not attain.
Rousseau, by contrast, championed the claims of melody over harmony,
and in the process rejected arguments for the superiority of the
moderns over the ancients. Since the form and essence of music derived
from the inections of passionate human speech, Plato and other
classical commentators on music were right to concentrate upon melos
rather than harmonia.3
Nineteenth-century music and music theory are conventionally thought
to be characterized by the repudiation of the voice and its claims by the
idea of instrumental or absolute music; both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche
see the voice as a vulgar and gratuitous excrescence in music. And yet
one must acknowledge that this apparent defeat of the voice is also
accompanied by a certain kind of enlargement of its power. For this is a
period governed by the idea of the composers identifying voice or style,
suffusing and stamping every work, no matter which particular voice
may mediate it. It is the nineteenth century that establishes the priority
the decomposing voice of postmodern music 469

of what Edward Cone calls the sense of the composers voice. It is not
only the symphony that can be sung, that can be recapitulated by a
single voice, that expresses the triumph of the lyrical. Opera represents,
not so much the cooperation of voice with score and scenario, as the
capture of the entire work of composition and performance by the act of
musicalized utterance, or enunciatory music. For Cone, in fact, opera or
song are only literalizations of the metaphor which governs all music,
whereby the music can be thought of as a form of purely symbolic
utterance, the utterance of that composite being, different for different
works, even if they are by the same composer, that Cone calls the
implicit persona of the composer.4 Discussing the relations between
composer, song, and accompaniment in a Schubert Lied, Cone employs
the analogy of the Christian trinity: The song as a whole is the
utterancethe creationof the complete musical persona. Like the
Father, this persona begets in the vocal persona a Son that embodies its
Word; and it produces in the accompaniment a Holy Spirit that speaks
to us directly, without the mediation of the Word (CV 18). With the
development of recording and amplication technologies at the end of
the nineteenth century, the division between classical or serious music
and mass music began to take shape. However, both modern mass music
and modernist music grew out of the encounter between the ideal of the
free, expressive, bodily voice, and the captured, manipulable, disembod-
ied voice of the phonograph and the telephone. The mass market in
sound and music that rapidly grew up through the twentieth century,
sustained by the technologies of amplication and reproduction, was
centered on the human voice. Even more important perhaps than the
gramophones power to store and propagate the human voice was the
power given by the microphone, which was the guarantee of the voices
integrity against the powers of music, which was now diminished to the
mere frame or occasion for the singer and his or her song. The voice
became a powerful and marketable commodity. Even nonvocal music
came to obey the law of the voice in mass popular music, as solo
instruments strove to impersonate the lyrical, expressive qualities of the
voice. In free-form jazz, for example, every instrument could become a
solo instrument. During the 1960s and 1970s, bands like Cream and The
Grateful Dead bemused a musical generation brought up on the three-
minute verse-and-chorus single with immensely long sets consisting
almost entirely of solos. Rather than dissolving the power of the voice,
this kind of playing generalized it. There was nothing that was not the
expression of voice; there was no background, no mere accompaniment.
It is for this reason that the electric guitar became the most important
instrument of mass music. The electric guitar represented the liberation
of the ute from the lyre. While the rhythm guitar played chords and
470 new literary history

riffs of ever greater simplicity and predictability, the lead guitar recapitu-
lated the traditional association between the voice and the violin. The
guitar merged with the players body, as the violin had been an
extension of the nineteenth-century virtuosos body. The style of lead
guitar playing emphasized linear melodic runs, characterized by
plangently wailing bent notes, which allowed the fretted divisions of
the instruments neck to be ignored. The cult of speed in guitar playing
aimed to establish the absolute continuity of the melodic line, as it were
disallowing any possibility of xed relations or proportions. The guitar
became a wind instrument whose player never had to pause for breath.
Not surprisingly, a whole range of musical effects arose to accentuate the
vocal character of the guitars sound, from the wah-wah pedal to
techniques for merging sounds articulated by the performers mouth
with the input from the guitar.
Faced with this absolute domination of voice in popular culture,
modernist or avant-garde music evolved a new form of the dialectic of
voice and music. As mass music came to depend upon the technological
replication of the individual, bodily voice, modernist music sought to
dissolve the traditional link between tonality and the voice. In classical
or art music, the voice was swallowed up into the now unearthly and
inaudible complexity of the work. In serial music, the composers voice
or style became inaudible and unvisualizable, a matter of the buried,
secret signature or coding of the works structure. The voice of the work
was precisely that, the voice of the work. Modernist music thus repudi-
ated the crasser aspects of technological Rousseauism, yet retained an
abstract sense of the organized and organizing voice that Edward Cone
posits as essential to all music. Indeed, Cones argument is best read not
as a general statement of musical aesthetics, but as an historically
symptomatic account of the ideal of modernist music, just as literary
New Criticism was a generalization of some of the demands and
principles of modernist poetry. Cones notion of the virtual voice of the
composed work is an abstract resolution of the differing claims of voice
and music as these had come to a crisis in modernism. Cone is uneasy
about modern music, and about electronic music in particular; but what
he says of the concerto might as well be said of the work of Schoenberg,
Webern, or even perhaps Stockhausen: One who achieves full identi-
cation with the complete persona of any complex work must not only
participate in the fortunes of each component persona, character, and
leading agent, but also experience, vividly and intimately, the course of
events produced by their relationships (CV 125).
This willingness to assimilate music to the operations of voice has
recently reappeared in Carolyn Abbates investigations of voice in
nineteenth-century opera. Where Cone assumes the existence of a
the decomposing voice of postmodern music 471

single voice, immanent in and actualized uniformly throughout the

musical work, Abbate sees opera as being structured by a multiplicity of
voices, appropriate to a Bakhtinian age allergic to the allegedly center-
ing and unifying powers of the voice. Abbate acknowledges, even more
frankly than Cone, the act of anthropomorphic guration that this
involves: I make a different, deliberately prosopopoeiac swerve; in
effect I endow certain isolated musical moments with faces, and so with
tongues and a special sonorous presence. I construct voices out of
sonorous discourse.5 Abbate appears to use the metaphor of utterance
to break open the idealized continuity of the work, to restore a
Rousseauian sense of gesture, occasion, and performative presence to
the abstract and ideal unication made available by the composite voice
of the work. In fact, however, it matters little whether the workings of the
musical work are represented in terms of the utterance of a single
immanent deity, or a multiplicity of divine presences. What matters is
the force of the metaphor, the willingness to construe the work in terms
of the idea of immaterialized utterance. This formulation may be seen as
the culmination of the long work of assimilating the voice to musical
process and structure, while simultaneously humanizing that idea of
musical process by construing it in terms of a sublimated and immateri-
alized voice. The less music comes to depend upon actual voices, the
more it comes to be thought of in terms of such ideal, abstract
In this sense there is a profound continuity between the vulgar
apotheosis of the voice to be found in mass popular music in the
twentieth century and those austere forms of modern or avant-garde
music which seem to refuse the voices seductive glamour or vulgarity.
The key work here would seem to be Schoenbergs Erwartung, a work in
which we must hear the passionate solo voice as at once unstructured
expressionist intensity and as a complex cooperation with the harmonic
structures of the piece. The voice allows the discovery of the new
apparently voiceless language of musical serialism. Erwartung is the
aring up of the voice at the very moment of its immaterialization.

Voicing Noise

This tendency within mass music to subordinate all musical sound to

the economy of utterance is challenged from within modernism by its
attention to insignicant, or nonmusical, noise. Perhaps the great
initiator of this tradition, which runs through the work of Edgard
Varse, Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Boulez, and John Cage, was the Italian
futurist Luigi Russolo, who called, in his manifesto of March 1913, for an
472 new literary history

art of noises that would liberate the musical possibilities of noise in

general, especially the diverse and unsynthesizable complexity of sound
in the city.6 Where modern popular culture employed phonographic
technology to construct wonderful facsimiles of the human voice,
modernist avant-garde music would develop a complementary capacity
of the phonographits capacity to record and reproduce, not merely
the sound of the voice, but the sounds of the world in general. Douglas
Kahn has argued that, in the process of opening music up to what
seemed farthest away from the expressive unity of voicethe accidental
noises of the worldthe modernist avant-garde was in fact working to
secure the powers of human utterance in general. The avant-garde,
from Luigi Russolo to John Cage, resolved to listen to the voice of
things; but in giving things a voice, they unwittingly assimilated aural
alterity to the economy of human utterance. It is perhaps easy to see how
this might be so of Luigi Russolo, who designed special noise instru-
ments that would allow the humming, booming, scraping, and roaring
of the world, especially the mechanical world, to be pitched and
harmonized. For, in making what was fundamentally disorganized or
percussive noise instrumental, Russolo follows the conventional model-
ling of instruments upon the operations of the human voice. His noise
machines as it were add a larynx to the accidental noises of the world. In
being given utterance, these noises are spoken through, becoming
another form of musical persona for the human. But Douglas Kahn
suggests that the same anthropomorphism is to be found even in the
work of John Cage, which claims to be able to make it possible to listen
to the sounds of the world without turning them into instruments, or
prosopopoeic mirrors of the human. Rather than drawing noise into
music through imitation, Cages notorious 433 aims to allow the world
to be heard in the act of refraining from making music. For Kahn, even
this gesture is appropriative:

The lateness of Cages modernism is in direct relation to the conservatism of

Western art music. He performed the last possible modernist renovation of
Western art music and thereby lled music up. After him there is no dividing
line between musical sound and ordinary sound because all sound becomes
music. . . . This collapse of sound into a problematic of musical sound betrays an
un-Cagean act of imposition at the very center of his philosophy. By saying that
sounds not intrinsically human should be thought of as music, he contradicts his

So, where mass culture saturates the audible and electromagnetic

frequency bands with the sound of the human voice, avant-garde
practice, by hearing inhuman sounds as a form of voicing, accommo-
the decomposing voice of postmodern music 473

dates those sounds to the human metaphor of voice. Kahns criticism

can easily generate innite regress, since the energy of its denunciation
derives from the very ideas and practices being denounced; the urge to
open human awareness and audition to the radically inhuman is bound
to keep stumbling on the guilty awareness that the very categories of the
inhuman are humanly determined. But who else but human beings
could have come up with the idea of the inhuman? For whom else could
the concept of the inhuman have force or allure?
Douglas Kahn believes that escaping the trap of enlarging the power
of utterance means separating the question of sound from the question
of music altogether. I think there may be evidence in the music of the
last two or three decades of other, more exible ways of construing the
relations between noise and voice.

Decomposing Voice
The analog form of sonorous capture made available by early phonog-
raphysounds literally inscribed into patterns of movement in the
grooves on gramophone discshas given way in the last two decades to
digital processes for encoding sound. Although analog capture offered
unexpectedly high levels of reproductive delity, it did not allow sound
to be manipulated with the ease and exibility that digital encoding
makes possible. The early practitioners of musique concrte had to work
literally with scissors and lengths of tape, and in their work with radio,
tape, and microphone, John Cage and William Burroughs both de-
pended upon a close relationship between the body and the physical
embodiment of the technology.8 This desire for the manual handling of
sound survives into the 1980s practice of scratching, which breaks
apart and reassembles the continuities of recorded music by the physical
manipulation of discs. Other, less obviously physical means of editing
sound, for example in the practices of over-dubbing that tape-recording
technology made possible in the 1960s, always had to struggle against
the law of degradation: the fact that re-recording an already-recorded
sound source always meant some loss of quality. Eventually, given
enough generations away from the master tape, the originating voice or
signal will be smothered in the murk of surface and mechanical noise.
Because it allows the production of exact facsimiles of a sound, once
it has been encoded, digital technology abolishes degradation. Once
rendered as bits, the sound signal remains available to be remixed and
reconstituted forever. It was inevitable that the seeming elimination of
sonorous decay would suggest the possibility of repairing imperfect
sound. CD technology encouraged the practice of returning to recordings
474 new literary history

made earlier in the history of phonography, and cleaning them up,

mechanically separating out the desired sound from what covered and
obscured itevery kind of background noise, crackle, distortionand
articially supplying those elements of the sound that had been lost in
the process of recording. Digital technology allows the remixer or
remasterer to act like Maxwells demon: the imaginary being who could
create energy from nothing by merely sorting information about energy
differentials among molecules. Once sound has become mere informa-
tion, the simple exercise of sorting that information results in qualitative
transformations and gains in value.
Given the domination of the voice in the popular music industry, it is
no surprise that this operation of remastering has been directed in
particular to the exercise of cleaning up the voices of great singers of the
past. But one can say that the ideal of the resurrection of the voice, by
removing it from its tomb of noise, underlies the digital manipulation of
musical sound in generaleven if it is the voice of Louis Armstrongs
trumpet or Rachmaninovs touch on the keys of the piano that are being
led back, Eurydice-like, from the realms of the dead. Music is given back
its present voice by being purged of the noise of time.
The problem, however, is that this kind of operation is founded on the
immaterialization of the voice. The voice is to be restored to itself, by
being freed from contamination. Voices are restored to themselves not
only by the removal from them of frequencies that do not belong to or
have not originated in the voice, but also by the amplication and
enhancement of the sound-features that do belong to it, in a kind of
auto-repair, or auditory skin-grafting. The result, in early examples of
digital remastering, was often a paradoxically and disturbingly dead or
inhuman sound. The voice could only be restored to itself, or raised
from the dead, it seems, by a process of immaterialization that itself
risked killing it. This process of digital immaterialization of the voice
comes at the end of a long and continuous history in which articulate
speech is separated from everything in the voice that reminds us of the
body.9 It is a process which extends at least as far back as the work of
Aristotle, who, as Frances Dyson observes in her brief history of the
emergence of the radio voice, not only distinguished the voices of
ensouled beings from the sounds produced by beings without souls, but
also distinguished internally between the ensouled or articulate sound
of meaningful speech, and the meaningless, soiled, unsouled sounds
that could also be produced by ensouled beingssuch as coughing and
But digital technology also makes possible a different kind of response
to the voice, both within music and beyond. Early phonography was
alarming, not so much because of the way in which it made it possible to
the decomposing voice of postmodern music 475

separate the voice from living beings, and therefore, as almost every
early commentator observed, to preserve it after death; but because of
the comminglings of voice and materiality that it seemed to effect. Early
commentators on the telephone and the phonograph could not help
reporting what they heard in terms of the machine itself speaking.
Having separated the voice from the materiality of the body, a long
technological struggle ensued to wrest the voice back from the material-
ity of the apparatus that had made this separation possible. The voice
had to be freed from interference; from the tinniness and metallic
tincture given to it by the nature of the reproducing and amplifying
apparatus, as well as from the crackle and whine of radio interference,
and from all the forms of background noise that the phonograph
recorded indiscriminately along with the sound of the voice, noise which
human beings are accustomed to ltering out.
The effort to clarify the voice by freeing it from noise went along with
the commodication of the voice in the gramophone industry, which, as
Jacques Attali has noted, quickly turned a phonographic technology
allowing for the circulation of voices in recording and playback into a
gramophonic technology in which only playback is possible, and in
which, rather than circulating, the voice is diffused and distributed.11
Commercial incentives (why would you pay to hear others music if you
could easily record your own?) converged here with technological
imperatives. The very ductility of the material that Edison used to record
the voice on his early cylinder phonographs meant that the quality of
the recorded voice began to decline after only a small number of
playbacks. Ensuring high delity and the possibility of unlimited
repetitions meant arresting those processes of degradation.
All of this dened a sonorous economy governed by the supreme
value of the voice at one extreme, and the pure emptiness, degradation,
or waste of noise at the other. This economy is driven by the need to
produce voice and the need to expel or excrete the waste product of
nonvocal noise. But this economy of the voice is geared around
production and consumption. A consequence of this is that the voices it
produces must be used up, in order to make way for new voices and new
products; it is necessary to the production of the voice that, despite the
apparent immortality of the voice guaranteed by high-delity sound, it
degrades through time into the waste condition of noise. The very
renewal of technologies provided one means of producing and dispos-
ing of waste products: thus 78s were replaced by vinyl long-playing
records; these were replaced in their turn by cassettes, which have given
way to CDs, which are in the process of giving way to digital audio tape.
But with the arrival of digital technology the inexorable march of time
through sonic entropy is halted and reversed; the river of time can start
476 new literary history

to swirl back upstream. All recorded voices will be able to be restored to

us. One striking result of this is the piling up of the very vocal waste that
we might have supposed would be eliminated forever. Voice was alive
because it was ephemeral; it belonged to a speaking moment. A voice
that can sound forever, which will never decay or be lost because it can
always be restored, threatens to turn into a kind of nondegradable
debris. Digital technology not only makes the long-dreamed-of immate-
riality of the voice a possibility, it also renders us increasingly aware of
the waste matter of the voice. This is assisted by the new intimacy of
production or transmission of sound on the one hand, and its recording
and manipulation on the other. If every transmitted sound is, at least in
principle, also a recorded sound, then the very living presence of the
voice becomes a kind of detritus.
Contemporary music can be seen anticipating and responding to this
hidden economy of degradation of the voice. During the early 1960s,
two composers who had begun experiments with electro-acoustic tech-
nology, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, became interested in
working with the human voice. What is striking here is how much that
musical encounter between voice and synthesized sound depended, for
both composers, upon a decomposition of the voice. Stockhausen has
spoken of his interest in consonantal melody, in using those elements of
speech which had previously been thought to have nothing musical
about them, presumably because, at least until the era of sound
recording, the consonants were the most fugitive and least capturable
elements of speech:

Traditionally in Western music noises have been taboo, and there are precise
reasons for this. It began from the time when staff notation was introduced, and
music could be notated in precise intervals for the rst time. Then it was mainly
vocal music, sung predominantly with vowels rather than consonants. If I sing a
melody of consonants now, people would say it isnt music: we have no tradition
of music composed in these sounds, and no notation for it. There you see how
narrow our concept of music is, from having excluded consonants, these

Stockhausens Gesang der Jnglige (195556) and Carr (195960), took

the form of elaborately engineered rapprochements of voices and
music. Having been chopped into manipulable fragments, voice-elements
became musical material. As Robin Maconie describes the process in
Gesang der Jnglige, For each sound component of spoken language
there exists a synthesized equivalent. . . . Thus a continuum between
electronic sound and vocal sound is established at every point between
the extremes of tone and voice.13 In his Momente of 1962, Stockhausen
the decomposing voice of postmodern music 477

elaborated a complex, semi-controlled coordination of three groups of

musical elements: what he called M-moments, in which melodic
characteristics predominated, K-moments (from Klang, sound), which
focused on timbres or sound-spectrums, and D-moments, which
involved emphasis on various kinds of musical duration. The piece also
included words, or word fragments, as Stockhausen himself describes: I
have used quite a lot of words and syllables, shouts that I have heard
from the public during performances of my music. Remarks like Stop
it!, Bis!, Ugly, Beautiful, Terrible!, or Be quietthese are all
incorporated, and I have indicated how these syllables should be
delivered, sometimes strictly in rhythm, sometimes chanted in church
style: Ug-ly, beau-ti-ful; ug-ly, beau-ti-ful (SM 7273). These fragments
are in one sense a decomposition of the voice; but they are a reconciling
or integrating decomposition. The vocal interruptions are woven into a
kind of musical counter-enunciation, which envelops and transforms
them, performatively healing the assault that they constitute, and in a
sense immunizing the work against them.
At around the same time, Luciano Berio was also beginning to turn
his attention to the voice. He worked with Umberto Eco on a study of
the overture section of the Sirens episode of Joyces Ulysses, which he
later developed, in collaboration with the remarkable singer Cathy
Berberian, into a tape piece called Thema. Like Stockhausen, Berio
begins by breaking up the voice, analyzing it into a number of phonetic
elements. These elements are then ordered and re-articulated, but in
musical rather than expressive or semantic terms, by combining them
with electronic sounds of various kinds. For his next electronic-vocal
project, Visage, Berio dispensed with an originating text altogether; or
rather he used as his text a remarkable repertoire of nonverbal
utterances and articulations generated by Cathy Berberian in the
recording studio. Only one word appears in the nal tape piece, the
whispered Italian word parole (words). The fact that nothing of what we
hear around it is a word in any sense makes it impossible to decide
whether the utterance of this word constitutes a claim that the
hypoarticulate shouts, stammerings, grunts, mumblings, whimpers,
screams, gusts of laughter, and other vocal gestures which we hear
throughout the piece are, in fact and after all, kinds of word, or
wordings; or whether it is meant to strip even the word parole of its
meaning in favor of the pure musicality of its utterance. The decompo-
sition of the voice into such articulatory elements or gestures appears to
neutralize the voice, making it a merely disposable resource to be
articulated with the range of electronic sounds that Berio generated for
the piece. In fact, the piece depends upon the sense of struggle between
the voice and the music; rst of all in the fact that the voice is so
478 new literary history

distinctively a particular voice, that of Cathy Berberian herself, and

secondly in the fact that it remains so stubbornly excessive to the music,
refusing to be simply read in musical terms, despite the long, loud,
electronic chord washes which swallow it up at the end. Visage is perhaps
best thought of as a kind of replay, in the age of electronic reproduction,
of the encounter between voice and music of Schoenbergs Erwartung.
Berio returned to the exploration of this excessive voice in a later
piece, Sequenza III, again written for Cathy Berberian. Berio describes in
an interview his attempts in Sequenza III to assimilate to the music the
disturbingly unmusical aspects of the voice:

I have always been very sensitive, perhaps overly so, to the excess of connotations
that the voice carries, whatever it is doing. From the grossest of noises to the
most delicate of singing, the voice always means something, always refers beyond
itself and creates a huge range of associations, cultural, musical, emotive,
physiological, or drawn from everyday life, etc. Classical vocal music, whose
implicit model was instrumental music, obviously transcended the bitumen of
everyday vocal behaviour. As has already been said many times, the voice of a
great classical singer is a bit like a signed instrument which, as soon as you have
nished playing, you put away in a case. It has nothing to do with the voice that
the great singer uses to communicate in everyday life.14

Berio attempted in Sequenza III both to intensify and to assimilate these

connotative elements of the voice, which now appear both as a kind of
unmanageable human opulence and as an ugly, indeterminate kind of
wastea bitumen, as his odd metaphor has it. His aim, he said, was to
assimilate and control not only every aspect of classical singing, but
also those aspects which, both because of acoustic considerations and
because they disturbed the message, had necessarily been excluded
from tonal music (TI 94). Paradoxically, in order to assimilate these
elements, Berio had to break them down. The voice that is heard is a
voice which has been fragmented, not electronically, but through acts of
verbal and phonetic analysis. These analyses at once make it possible,
confronting and exorcising the excessive connotations to limit the
voice, and allow the voice to retain its excessiveness, resisting the
process of musical articulation (TI 94). The ambivalence of the piece
depends upon the fact that the voice insists on its wild, unruly
singularity, even and especially in the condition of its disintegration.
The very multiplicity of vocal elements at work in the piece is what
constitutes its virtuoso characterso much so, as Berio remarked, that
there have been a number of sad occasions when Cathy was not
performing, on which I have been tempted to transcribe this work for
two or three voices (TI 96).
the decomposing voice of postmodern music 479

During the late 1960s, Steve Reich also became interested in explor-
ing the degradation of the voice. He undertook a series of experiments
with the musical possibilities of allowing two tape loops playing the same
sound to drift slowly out of phase with each other. Perhaps the most
remarkable outcome of these investigations is his 1966 piece Come Out.
The raw material of the tape was a sentence spoken by Daniel Hamm, a
victim of a police beating at a civil rights demonstration in Harlem. In
the course of explaining how he had to demonstrate his injury in order
to get medical treatment, Hamm said, I had to, like, open the bruise up
and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them. Steve Reich
took the words come out to show them, and created a series of tape
loops, which he played simultaneously. As the tapes lose synchronicity,
the words are decomposed and develop into a thickly compacted yet
highly complex and energetically mobile mass of sound. Unexpected
overtones and counter-rhythms are derived from the coming apart and
regathering of the sound of Hamms voice. Interestingly, the process
highlights in particular the slight distortions of Hamms voice that
derive from the interaction between the voice and the recording
mechanism in the piece of tape that forms Reichs source. Eventually the
articulate voice is lost altogether in a terrifying sonic swirl that we sense
is destined to go on thickening and ramifying for ever. The voice
dissolves into sound; but that sound is not mere noise, but rather the
sounding of voice in the very condition of degradation.
The piece is related to an earlier piece of 1965 which performed a
similar operation on a phrase from an evangelical sermon, Its Gonna
Rain, and a work of 1967 called Slow Motion Sound, which latter Reich
was never able to realize. The score for the piece is simply as follows:
Very gradually slow down a recorded sound to many times its original
length without changing its pitch or timbre at all.15 The point of the
exercise was to reveal the complex movements of pitch and timbre
within an utterance that do not get noticed in ordinary hearing because
they occur too fast, in something of the same way that a slowed-down
lm allows one to perceive movements that are not otherwise percep-
tible. In this case, the voice presents itself as a kind of innitely
extendable resource which will yield musical outcomes precisely to the
degree that it is decomposed and made unrecognizable as voice. Here,
as in Come Out, the voice is subjected to a form of technological assault
that destroys its qualities of continuity as voice, and reduces it to a kind
of rubble of endogenous noise, from which it nevertheless gathers a
kind of unsuspected music. Come Out is the most effective and provoca-
tive of the three pieces, because of the disturbing congruity between
what is being done to the voice and what the voice has begun by telling
480 new literary history

us about. The voice that describes the effect of a beating is itself

subjected to a horrifying kind of pulverization; the bleeding described is
reproduced in the effect of bleeding between the different loops of
sound. And yet the result is a new, dynamic synthesis of voice and
machine, which depends not upon the immaterialization of the voice,
but upon the mechanical rearticulation of its sheer, merely phenomenal
There is no simple, or sentimental, humanizing of the inhuman here,
and no simple restoration of continuity and articulation by shifting from
the actuality of voice to the immaterial voice of music. Reichs practice
here looks forward to some of the work of the radio and sound artist
Gregory Whitehead, who has spoken of his work with the voice in terms
that cohere suggestively with the thematics of wounding and healing
suggested in Come Out:

[I]n the saturated buzz-world of electronic media, our voices are inscribed with
all kinds of phonies other than our own. The fact is, we cannot nd our voice
just by using it; we must be willing to cut it out of our throats, put it on the
autopsy table, isolate and savor the various quirks and pathologies, then stitch it
back together and see what happens . . . . [T]he problem of voicebodies (and
the hunger to become entangled with other voicebodies) could resolve itself
into the pure pleasure of speech in ruins. . . . Wounds can bleed or they can

More recent composers have responded in different ways to the sense

of radical ambivalence posed by the voice which is both rich resource
and sonic refuse. Trevor Wisharts work represents one of the most
sustained attempts to enlarge the conventional repertoire of the voice
with the noise, not just of inhuman sound, but also the noise compo-
nents of the voice itself. Wishart was at work from the 1980s onwards on
a sequence of voice pieces called Vox which extend the experiments with
the disarticulated voice conducted by Berio and Reich two decades
before. The Vox sequence grew out of a piece which Wishart wrote in
1980 called Anticredos, after a period of four years spent experimenting
with extended vocal techniques, techniques which are described in a
small, privately printed pamphlet entitled The Book of Lost Voices (1980).
Anticredos mimics the work of digital sampling technology in conducting
a kind of performative analysis of the voice. A single utterance, credos,
is taken apart and reassembled through processes of distortion, exag-
geration, amplication, and variation. But where the aim of digital CD
analysis is to restore the voice to itself, cleanly self-identical, Wishart aims
to create new and unexpected hybrids of voice and noise. At the center
of Wisharts work is the idea of the continuous transformability of
the decomposing voice of postmodern music 481

sounds into one another, which amounts to a refusal of the differences

between utterance and nonutterance, ensouled and unsouled articula-
tion. Although his allegiance is to the live voiceand he is a very
considerable vocal performer in his own rightWishart has worked
extensively with computerized sound. Where composers such as Stock-
hausen and Berio used the encounter of voice and machine as a way of
staging the struggle between the actuality of voice and the abstraction of
music, Wishart, like a number of contemporary composers and sound
artists, is sensitive to the ways in which virtual or synthesized sound
environments can dissolve this distinction: In the real physical world we
are able to say quite clearly that the sound of a metal bar falling to the
ground is not an utterance, whereas a sound produced by a being is. In
the virtual space of loudspeakers this sort of distinction may be difcult
to make. . . . We may, in fact, play with the utterances of a sound-
object.17 It is this communicability between utterance and accident,
voice and noise, that digital technologies are suggesting to a number of
contemporary sound artists. Robin Rimbaud, who works under the
name of Scanner, collects vocal detritus from the airwaves, using a
scanner that enables him to intercept telephone calls, and articulates
these voices into musical form. Roger Doyle has been at work for a
number of years on a project he calls Babel, which he describes as a
large-scale musical structure making use of many technologies and
music languages, with each piece of music being thought of as a room
or place within an enormous tower city.18 One of the supplements to
this work is an imaginary radio station, KBBL, the parodied output from
which makes up the rst of the two CDs which have so far appeared from
the Babel project. Two contrasting voices present two shows: the rst a
boisterous mid-Atlantic DJ who presents The Morning Show, the
second a languorous, rather menacing female voice who provides the
links for the Entertainment and Leisure Pursuits Show. These voices
mediate others: the sound of weather forecasts, competitions and
personal advertisments. The music played by the DJs ranges from
simple pastiche of contemporary drum n bass to a bizarre auditory lm
score called The Proposal, in which a conversation from a 1950s
melodrama is cut into, and cut across by, a rapid, sinisterly plinking
series of synthesized tone-runs. In the second CD, Chambers and Spirit
Levels, a range of different instrumental rooms within the virtual Tower
is constructed. These rooms are locations in which different instrumen-
talists are to be heard rehearsing or performing, amid various kinds of
background noise or interruptions from adjacent rooms. Mr. Bradys
Room is a piece devised for the Canadian guitarist Tim Brady. Squat
puts together a long performance by the clarinettist Cindy Cummings,
which exploits all the harshest timbral accidents and possibilities of the
482 new literary history

clarinet, with disturbing voices, sometimes murmuring just below the

level of audibility, sometimes rising to screams and yells. Voice and
music come together in Cummingss extraordinary technique of voiced
playing, in which she sings through the clarinet at the same time as she
plays with reed and keys. The music is both accompaniment to and
anatagonist of this strained, strangulated song. The effect is to assert the
indissoluble mutuality of body, voice, and instrument in the very
moment and manner of their reciprocal mutilation.
Not surprisingly, the agonistic encounter between voice and machine,
between richness and detritus, has also passed across into live vocal style:
for example in the automated, pitilessly de-melodized vocal styles of rap
and hip-hop, or in the visceral performance styles of vocalists like
Diamanda Galas, Shelley Hirsch, and Phil Minton. In some areas of
performance art and composition, the very immateriality of new tech-
nology, which seems to be making composing an entirely silent process,
conducted with a screen and a computer keyboard, has produced a
fascination with the auditory technology which it supplants, driven by
the urge to desublimate or violently to reembody voice through the very
apparatuses employed for its disembodiment. The Australian artist
Lucas Abel extended the 80s fashion for scratching into a gramophonic
theatre of cruelty by wiring his VW van up so that it becomes an
electroacoustic instrument, using needles and even knives to play
records; and, by wearing an electrostatic glove provided with needles at
the ngers, actually turning himself into a gramophone, a living
apparatus for relaying noise as voice.
In all of this work, the relations between voice, music, and machine
are being transformed in newly complex ways, which make the hitherto
unassailable distinctions between the idealized, immaterial voice of
musical utterance and the unruly, excremental noise of technological
culture hard to sustain. The efforts to separate voice from noise, or to
reclaim voice from noise, which seems to have characterized earlier
phases of music in this century, have yielded place to a much more
complex and dynamic sonorous and musical economy, characterized by
rapid exchanges of meaning and libidinal charge between living voice
and dead noise, integrity and cut-up, event and echo.19

University of London


1 Aristotle, De Anima, Books II and III, tr. D. W. Hamlyn (Oxford, 1993), p. 32.
2 Frank J. Nisetich, Pindars Victory Odes (Baltimore, 1980); quoted in Charles Segal, The
Gorgon and the Nightingale: The Voice of Female Lament and Pindars Twelfth Pythian
the decomposing voice of postmodern music 483

Ode, in Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, ed. Leslie C. Dunn
and Nancy A. Jones (Cambridge, 1994), p. 22; hereafter cited in text.
3 This quarrel between the proponents of primitive voice and modern harmonic systems
is discussed in Carl Dahlhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music, tr. Roger Lustig (Chicago, 1989),
pp. 4657.
4 Edward T. Cone, The Composers Voice (Berkeley, 1974), p. 160; hereafter cited in text as
5 Carolyn Abbate, Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century
(Princeton, 1991), p. xiii.
6 Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noises, tr. Barclay Brown (New York, 1986).
7 Douglas Kahn, Track Organology, in Critical Issues in Electronic Media, ed. Simon
Penny (Albany, N.Y., 1995), p. 208.
8 See Frances Dyson, The Ear That Would Hear Sounds in Themselves: John Cage
19351965 and Robin Lydenberg, Sound Identity Fading Out: William Burroughs Tape
Experiments, in Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, ed. Douglas Kahn
and Gregory Whitehead (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), pp. 373407, 40937.
9 The philosophical history of the cleaning up of the voice is discussed in David
Applebaums Voice (Albany, N.Y., 1990).
10 Frances Dyson, The Genealogy of the Radio Voice, in Radio Rethink: Art, Sound and
Transmission, ed. Daina Augaitis and Dan Lander (Banff, 1994), pp. 16799, esp. 17475.
11 Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, tr. Brian Massumi (Manchester,
1985), pp. 90101.
12 Karlheinz Stockhausen, Stockhausen on Music: Lectures and Interviews, ed. Robin
Maconie (London, 1991), p. 109; hereafter cited in text as SM.
13 Robin Maconie, The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1990), p. 59.
14 Luciano Berio, Two Interviews With Rossana Dalmonte and Blint Andrs Varga, tr. and
ed. David Ormond-Smith (New York, 1985), p. 94; hereafter cited in text as TI.
15 Steve Reich, Writings About Music (Halifax, 1974), p. 14.
16 Radio Play Is No Place: A Conversation Between Jrme Noetinger and Gregory
Whitehead, TDR: The Drama Review, 40 (1996), 100101.
17 Trevor Wishart, On Sonic Art (York, 1985), p. 135.
18 Roger Doyle, sleeve notes to the CD Babel (World Serpent, 2000). See too John L.
Walters, Rising High, The Wire, 166 (1997), 3233.
19 I have explored different aspects of the cultural phenomenology of noise in
contemporary culture in the following: Feel the Noise: Excess, Affect and the Acoustic,
in Emotion in Postmodernism, ed. Gerhard Hoffmann and Alfred Hornung (Heidelberg,
1997), pp. 14762; and Noise, a series of radio programs broadcast 2428 February 1997 on
British BBC Radio 3, a transcript of which is available on the World Wide Web at the
following URL: <>