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Electronic Voice Phenomena conversation

11/01/12 Live

We're working with writers, performers and musicians on the theme of Electronic Voice Phenomena for our 2012 programme.  For us, this title evokes both the hauntological, mysterious, otherworldly nature of writing practice in the romantic sense - but also brings it into contact with glitch and generative techniques prevalent on the experimental scene today.

Here, Mark Leahy, Mark Greenwood and Nathan Jones respond to the theme in the run up to our EVP event at the Bluecoat in October.

Mark Leahy:
What first came into my mind, when I heard the title for this event, thinking about how it would relate to my practice, and before I had looked anything up, or done a search etc., were questions of emotional truth or falsity, emotional distance, questions of vocal authenticity. This arose from linking the popular perception of voice as closely allied to ‘self' and ‘identity', the human ability to recognise individual voices, and our attunement to minor modulations in vocal production. The intervention of the electronic into this field can both show particular vocal sonic traits (through analysis) and can construct vocal simulacra (through fabrication). The electronic recording, digitisation, transcription, visualisation or broadcast of the human voice can reveal certain unique or specific features (of individuals or of the species), and the assembly of recorded or generated sonic elements into a semblance of a voice can generate responses and provoke reactions related to the affects of listening to another person (and create disturbance when the artifice is discovered). The intersection of the voice and the electronic spun off questions around "who is speaking?", "what is someone's true voice?", "how do I know what I am listening to?", "where does emotion or feeling reside in the vocal product?" ...
The use of analysis of recorded voices as part of forensic or criminal investigation (in popular TV such as CSI Wherever for example) suggests there are traces of an individual in the vocal fabric (like fingerprints or iris patterns). These can be mapped, isolated and matched in order to ‘catch a thief' or ‘identify a killer'. Like signing a cheque or legal document the vocal trace we leave when we speak phrase is always the same, and yet not exactly the same. If the repetition is ‘too' close, too identical it will suggest forgery or artificial reproduction. Each time I write my signature it must be enough like the previous time (or any other instance of signing) to persuade the reader / recipient of authenticity. Each time I say a phrase it should sound ‘like me', yet, if it is too exact a match the listener may become suspicious, may become aware of something off or odd. There may be an uncanny affect.
The potential for an uncanny response may arise when a voice is perceived to be machine-like, or where someone is felt to be speaking in a voice that is not their own. There is a mismatch between what is seen and what is heard. This may parallel the use of non-diegetic sound in film and video where the visual and aural are out of synch or in opposition. This can be used by a drag performer who is seen here before me in a dingy bar with a cheap glitter ball and heavy make-up, but what I hear is Judy Garland or Marlene Dietrich. It can also be used to comic effect where the drag queen in her blonde wig and super-long eyelashes turns and says something in a deep male voice perhaps knocking back a heckler. There is also the sense in which the mismatch voice and body suggests that the body has been taken over, possessed, has become a channel for another persona, for another ‘self'. This is the uncanny affect of the medium who is spoken through by those on the other side, those whose voices we hear, voices of dead loved ones, or historical figures ... the image before me is of a middle-aged man with tinted hair and a maroon cardigan, and what I hear is the voice of my sister who died aged six.

Mark Greenwood: I think it's very interesting, this unfolding of the electric voice in a range of media and locations. Sitting on the train I hear disembodied voices that override the volume of my i-pod, a strange and arbitrary overlapping of electric voices; one singing, the other giving instructions, indications and information. There is a clash of what may be termed as authoritative and poetic voices, crossovers between the two and vice versa reflections. One can imagine an individual in a studio recording single lines of scripted text that are then later cut up to function in a variety of ways, mirroring experimental approaches of assemblage and chance procedure in the generation of poetic texts. I am curious to this process where, for instance, a phrase such as ‘the next destination is ...' can be augmented to construct a list of statements, where place names are inserted seamlessly but still give a sense of automation and editing through clipping, inappropriate pitch or accentuation. Navigational systems such as tom toms also include this feature, where the voice remains impassive and cold and independent of situations and contexts. Electric voices are frequently used in travel; airports, train stations, bus depots. These locations could be described as non-places, where waiting and non-activity are accompanied by sterile voices that utter warnings, instructions, and announcements in calm, unbiased speech acts.
Mark Leahy refers to the simulacra and the fabricated. For me this raises questions around the mediation and mediatisation of the voice; at what point does it enter into chains of representation considering the voice's complex production via a complex system of muscles and organs, neurological response and recognition. I remember a Meredith Monk performance where the voice was used to mimic effects of digital processing, delays and reverbs and repetitive loops that phase in and out of synchronisation. Later Monk stated this as an intention, to show that the acoustic voice could replicate any form of digitisation, where effects originally used to enhance the voice are resisted and discarded in favour of the ‘real', the body and the self. Contrary to this I am reminded of Gary Numan's Are ‘Friends' Electric where the voice, despite only minor processing, becomes robotic and ‘futuristic' as it inhabits a soundscape of synthesisers and drum machines.
There is a discomfort and even horror of hearing one's voice in its electric form enabled through a variety of recording tools; where objection and abjection appear as immediate responses. I think it was Kristeva who said that this abjection arises when the body no longer recognises itself as internalised and belonging to the self, it becomes ‘other-ed', externalised and alien. Even though I am familiar with hearing my own voice in electronic form I still sense a recoil; a disturbance in its mediatised echo. It becomes unfamiliar and uncanny, a ghost in a crisis of cognition.
Returning ideas around media and location I am fascinated with ideas around radio and specifically CB radio or ‘hamming', where amateur operators are tested for their understanding of concepts in electronics and physics. Amateurs use the voice alongside text, image and data communication modes and have access to frequency allocations to enable communication across a city, a region, a country, a continent or the whole world while bypassing commercial networks. The voice becomes a signal that measures this efficiency, usually met with the contact of another voice.

Mark L:
Following from Mark Greenwood's comments on the experience of hearing one's voice recorded, played back, mediated, and the discomfort this can still provoke though we have had decades to get used to this concept. I wonder if there is a sense in which we feel revealed in the recorded voice, that the transmutation into analogue traces or digital data somehow strips away a layer, a cover or mask of some sort. Do we hear something hidden in the recorded voice? Does the shift to an electronic mode reveal something underneath or inside the vocal fabric? This can suggest a link to a lie detector, where the initial sense might be of something which analyses the texture of the verbal output, mapping and measuring the grain of the voice. In practice the ‘polygraph' works by analysing physical or physiological responses in the speaker, rather than details of the sonic or vocal product. The recording graphs heart rate, perspiration, breathing, and other variables; yet in some sense we may feel that the ‘lie' will leave a trace on the voice and that it is by controlling this that we can get away with something. This may be a Modernist conception of the voice, as composed of manifest and latent content, layered of the conscious and the unconscious expression of the speaker. It can link to a sense of the voice as subject to Freudian analysis, or hermeneutic uncovering. There is the sound we hear from the speaker, and the words they say, but there is behind this some other meaning or intention or content. And this is paralleled in the concept of the individual ‘voice'.
Culturally we assign a high value to the notion of the individual voice, the personal expression, the unique signature. This is emphasised in the arts where a writer's voice, a painter's signature, adds value to a product. This Modernist concept still operates across broad areas of culture, and links to specific models of ‘self' and of ‘identity'. This elevated cultural carries within it the possibility of a loss of value or a disappearance where the voice is felt to be ‘broken', lost, or damaged, or where it feels too close to another's voice. The listener may feel discomfort or unease hearing a voice that falls between persons, that is unstable, unsteady, without a home in a body, not belonging to a particular body. Such a voice may be unlike its speaker, be out of place or beside itself ...
The signature as an authenticating device has a particular history, linked to expanding literacy, and a particular legal system. It also has a particular place in art history, and the authentication of artworks. The signature substitutes for the person, it guarantees that person's having been there, warrants their presence at a time / place, the moment at which a mark was made on paper. (c.f. Jacques Derrida, ‘Signature Event Context' which discusses the substitution of the written mark for the present person; http://www.mcgill.ca/files/crclaw-discourse/Signature_Event_Context.pdf ) The vocal signature may appear less susceptible to displacement or substitution as it resides in/on the body, the speaking body, is made by the action of the tongue, the mouth, the teeth, the organs of that speaking body. It is this fleshy aspect of voice that is disturbed by the electronic, the skin and bone, the meat and sinew are dissolved into the electronic trace.

Nathan Jones: I have to step sideways into this conversation while looking back (a contorted figure enters like a corkscrew!). As with so much of programming with Mercy - especially in the context of a paradoxical 'Arts for All' agenda - I recall this theme, and particularly the name of this event, was conceived as a 'way in' for audience. The way-in operates in two ways, both of which find reflection in the composition and performance process - hopefully the name Electronic Voice Phenomena, and its associations of human, supernatural and digital, is illusive enough to be original and enticing; but also, perhaps more importantly, I think the 'electrical' implications act to placate some anxieties around performed poetry.
So, do an audience, who might reasonably feel 'horror' at the prospect of being shut in a room with the heightened language and relentless, knowing voice of the writer - perhaps feeling that they are to be weighed in the judgement of this voice - feel assured by the implied 'distance' of electronic mediation? I think here about my neighbours preferring to communicate on contentious matters via email or telephone, rather than have me approaching them in the hallway. The way we bridle at someone talking loudly on a phone in the seat next to us, but gladly listen to, and process, pointless information over the Tannoy. Also, in popular media, a link here to the move away from intimate form (and content) in indie-pop music, towards this euphoric 'epic' mode, where every live performance becomes larger-than-live, more dispersed, almost cloud-like, but made of light - seemingly aiming for a kind of mass 'electrification' or the collective 'spine-tingle' of a festival audience (even when played into the kitchen on a mono speaker, an echo of this aim remains). So there is a programming, where I'd say it's more acceptable for everyone if we include this mediation, filtering and dispersion. Bascially less awkward and risky - a thought here about the 7-second broadcast delay, and the safety of the livingroom. But then - as this is inevitably our role - how can we subvert that anticipation in the audience? But then, how has our subversion been anticipated and taken away from us by the need to 'reach' audiences?
Can the intimate 'signature' voice, in the context of a society where so much is mediated, act as a barrier to people's connection to the 'matter' of the work? Up close, are we distracted by the fur on her face, and deflected from her prettiness? How far can this be taken - is a disembodied voice, the voice of the radio, the voice-over on film, actually more easy to listen to and 'be with' than the person? Is the promise more pleasurable than the exchange? And then, can we find a way to 'be more there' - more challenging, forcing intimacy - using processing. Or are we at our most challenging in our rawest form?
Why then? She is there, but she's already displaced from her role and raised up to the point of becoming a hologram of a human. Where do the boundaries lie, what does she have to speak about, how should she speak, and where should she stand, for you to feel comfortable with in her 'bare' vocal presence? At what point would you prefer it if she went over there and used the microphone? When she begins to sing, for sure, but perhaps also if she plans on wishing you a happy birthday, or speaking about your own work?
As artists we certainly see the displacement implied in the processing of our voice as a liberation. To know you're not having to overload or intimidate the audience with the 'full dose' of your presence, perhaps - but in several cases, I think the liberation comes from the displacement being just significant enough to take it out the other side of that valley of 'uncanny' experiencing of ones own voice. Here I have the image of the body liberated within the dream.

Regarding this I can mention a work Mercy are commissioning from performance artist Victoria Gray, where she's pitched her vocal down in a tiny way. This effect, although the audience certainly won't notice, acts to distance the voice from Victoria, so she can 'handle' it (in this case, literally, as she will be carrying this voice around in a resonating vase for several hours). I really like the frission here with your discussion of the artist 'signature', as if Victoria is clinging to her own presence within the work. Framing, clinging to, and surrounded also by this aural signature.
Its a short step then, once the body has been freed from the voice, to think about how the manifest and latent 'layers' in a voice can be 'pulled apart' - and how writing, speaking and authorship can be peeled away from each other in a performance context. I have the image here of an unwieldy object that is made sleek or sharpened at one end by pealing and whittling at it, or perhaps a statue revealed from a mass of complex sedimentary material.
In the piece I'm planning for the EVP event I will try to present a fabrication of this 'complex mass', reversing the electronic narrowing and hewing of the emotional voice in performance. Here I can related more specifically to this ham radio metaphor. So in a performance environment dense with voice and incidental, intellectual and emotional-representations of voice and composition, then we have each audience member operating in the way of a receiver, a 'subjective objection' process going on, as they alter the bandwidth, tune in, turn up, refining the messages down into something that is audible, or perhaps cutting across the sediment to reveal an abstracted image on its plane.