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The Quietus Essay

Song Of The Digital Flesh: Vocal Manipulation & Our Cyborg Selves
Alex Borkowski , May 15th, 2014 02:54

The highly charged vocal manipulations of Holly Herndon, Katie Gately (pictured), Burial and The Knife, writes Alex Borkowski, are powerful expressions of our fast-evolving relationships with technology, space and our own bodies

In a recent article for e-flux, Hito Steyerl questions the assumption espoused by the term "post-internet age" that the internet is dead, asking how it died and whether anyone killed it. She proclaims instead that it has not died but exploded: "It is all over!" The internet is moving offline and offscreen – humans themselves are becoming Photoshop'd and world events take the fractured form of Wikipedia articles as they unfold. Yet these digital visions, while they remain very much alive, do not convert unscathed. They become twisted and malformed, as if algorithms pass through Google Translate when put into practice in real life. The world increasingly resembles a motherboard, as images are regurgitated in strange feedback loops - raining down from the digital cloud, bruising and bursting as they hit the material ground. Although Steyerl's work is primarily preoccupied with the realm of the visual, perhaps there is no more fertile ground for this new digital flesh to take root than in vocal music, since the recorded voice always encompasses an entanglement between technology and the human body: between the mouth of the singer and the ear of the listener, it is resized, reformatted and reborn.

Vocal manipulation itself is nothing too remarkable; voices across every genre of music, regardless how acoustic or naturalistic, are subject to post-production. Even radical distortions, chipmunk vocals and deep filters have trickled down from hardcore and rap into the mainstream. And many of these tactics, of course, predate the ubiquity of the digital. The pitched up and down vocal samples that are now regarded as a definitive aesthetic of hardcore and early jungle were born as a by product of the limitations of analogue time stretching. However, in recent years, the voice seems to have gravitated into a central position in much electronic music, re-assuming some of the emotive centrality traditionally occupied by a vocal melody.

The definitive example would have to be Burial's introspective tracks which, emerging from the embers of UK rave, enkindled a new affecting and inventive understanding of the voice in its manipulated form. Throughout his 2007 album Untrue, voices wax and wane through the beats, at times shimmering to the melodic forefront of the composition and at others ebbing back into the rhythmic haze. More than isolated sonic samples, the voice provides a subjective anchor, a point of identification, albeit an extremely slippery one. In 'Archangel', arguably the archetypal Burial track, the vocal line stretches and contracts within a single phrase; helium phonemes melt into pitched-down moans before fading away into sonic ether, as if dissolving between subjectivities with each syllable. The voice alludes to the possibility of a narrative, of a coherent singing body, but offers instead what Burial described in an interview with The Wire as "a night cry, an angel animal". He forms a viscous, genderless and alien subject, one that promises emotional depth but in a register we can only vaguely grasp.

Even in its manipulated form, Burial's music calls upon the powerful affective potential that is perhaps unique to the voice. We empathise with the ambiguous pain of this unidentifiable creature, even though it has no story and no face, because the voice as such provides some promise of authentic presence. Beyond the musical conventions of major and minor keys, swoops and glissandos, there is undeniably some additional elusive quality that attracts us to voices. Roland Barthes perhaps best describes this phenomena as "the grain … the very friction between the music and something else …" It provides the listener direct access to the body of the speaker or singer, surpassing any expressive or subjective intent and touching instead upon some physical, or even erotic, charge of the secret interior of their flesh. The electrified warble of 'Archangel''s sampled vocal line is so deeply moving, despite its remove from the original singer, that it confounds traditional logic of musical identification: a 21st century valence that deepens this long-standing mystery.

A few years on, artists are perhaps even more preoccupied with the enigma of the warped yet unshakable presence of the body evoked through vocal manipulation. Katie Gately's track 'Pipes', which was released via Blue Tapes last year, remains in some respects audibly indebted to the lineage of hardcore, containing compressed melodies that become driving pitched-up rhythms, as well more Burial-esque auratic fades. The track is composed of dozens of manipulated micro-melodies, which in some instances sharply cut back and forth, and in others relentlessly loop into thick sonic layers in a dizzying cacophony. While Burial, who it's worth noting remained emphatically anonymous in his formative years, used found vocal samples, nearly all of the sonic material is produced by Gately herself (with the exception of some brief snippets of lemurs, coyotes, and children crying, all of which are modified beyond identification). While 'Archangel''s viscous vocal line acts as a kind of mysterious surrogate for it's anonymous author, Gately is over-exposed; she is literally everywhere inside the composition. She is refracted into myriad voices, some of which are identifiable as her own soft soprano while others sound like completely non-human hisses, pulses and drones. To use Steyerl's terminology, she "is all over!": multiplied and warped in translation into a looping and halting techno-glossolalia, like voices whizzing and colliding in cyberspace. She becomes so omnipresent that she disappears, processed into oblivion.

To create her vocal tracks, Gately uses (among other things) a software application called Melodyne, which is marketed in many respects as a competitor of Auto-Tune. For Gately, it has become more than a post-production tool; it is a key device in her compositional method. She begins by humming and singing short improvised melodies into the software and then using it as a framework to free associate until an overall song structure emerges. Melodyne has also been applauded in reviews and online forums for the broader capabilities it offers as a creative tool. Rather than making pitch modifications in real time alongside a recording, it converts completed takes into a series of "audio blobs," a fascinatingly fleshy visual manifestation that can be shaped intuitively by the user. It's an abstraction that makes the voice strangely tactile. The application offers incredible precision, such as the ability to single out and adjust one off-key voice in a choir, or naturalistically adjust formants to make a voice sound male or female. It also makes visible and adjustable the vocal fluctuations that give the voice a desirable "human touch". Melodyne promises exactitude and intuitive sensitivity, treating the user simultaneously as a masseuse and a surgeon of sound.

While Melodyne's primary imperative seems to be to smooth and perfect within the registers of naturalistic vocal production, Gately employs the programme to cultivate the imperfect qualities within the vocal track. She discusses some of the challenges of working on her laptop in her apartment, which necessitates standing next to her window and waiting for the traffic light to turn red before making a rapid fire vocal take in the 45 seconds of relative silence. "This rarely leads to natural, relaxed, solid performances," she says, "but it can lead to some colourful impulses! […] After a while, I realized it was okay to surrender myself to the flaws and see what they had to offer." With this in mind, each of the voices in 'Pipes' becomes the trace of an event, of a specific and singular instance of Gately's instinctual utterance. The off-kilter vocal melodies and audible breaths between hums remind us that, even through the distortions, this voice comes from a body.

This body within distortion comes to the fore in the work of Holly Herndon, whose 2012 album Movement stemmed from her desire to "find a fleshiness in digital music". This manifests nowhere more powerfully than in her track 'Breathe'. If Gately's voice is in pieces, Herndon presents the dissection in all its gory details. The piece is composed primarily of Herndon's laboured inhalations and exhalations; she makes music from non-linguistic excesses, scattering the bodily debris that is smoothed from more conventional vocal recordings. Each rattling breath becomes increasingly pixelated, as the most basic gesture of vocal production is flayed out into an electrified asthma attack. The piece operates as a sort of kinesiology of vocal production; her laptop becomes a surgical instrument, slicing the voice apart into its most microscopic gestures so as to investigate it without its anthropic guises of lyrics or melody. The voice becomes grainy in both a technological and Barthesian sense: a roughness produced by excessive presence. Herndon takes this process to such an extreme, conjuring the body at such close proximity that it's as if the pixels overtake the image; the body behind the voice can no longer be reassembled into a coherent whole. As listeners, we also find ourselves gasping - we empathetically hold our breath alongside the distressingly asphyxiated rhythms. The body behind this voice seems to possess a respiratory system built according to some logic other than our own.

This sort of re-crafting of the body through technology readily slips into the language of gender politics. Cyber-feminist Donna Haraway famously put forward that in the late 20th century, we are all cyborgs - the modification and dispersal of bodies through technology is an inextricable aspect of embodiment. Her techno-utopian vision saw the cyborg's hybridity as a model for the unravelling of hierarchical definitions of gender, species and subjectivity. Herndon has remarked that vocal manipulation offers a possible outlet to achieve this end. As her mezzo-soprano voice is pitched down to provide the deep, male-sounding exhales that underscore 'Breathe', or filtered into ambiguous, mechanical moans, the voice is freed from its gendered qualities. The practice of formant-shifting gender-bending is perhaps one of the most compelling hallmarks of the recent expressive approach to vocal manipulation. Although Burial's dark and mystical "half boy half girl" hybridisation might not have initially been intended as specific political commentary, their genderlessness is the primary marker of their otherness; it signals a possible break from the binary structures that dominate our society.

In some instances vocal manipulation has become a radical deconstructive strategy. The pitch-shifted and heavily filtered vocal tracks that permeate the work of The Knife, for instance, are pivotal in their critical stance against capitalist interventions and biases in popular music. According to the duo, their 2013 album Shaking The Habitual was heavily influenced by gender and queer theory. In the song 'Full Of Fire', Karin Dreijer Anderson's distinctive breathy groan seems to partake in a conversation with a pitched-down, darkly mechanised voice, distorted into an ominous gender neutrality. Melodic phrases are passed back and forth between the two, unsettling any notions of which one is the "original." The track closes with a voice noisily shifting through male and female registers in a tauntingly buzzing refrain of "let's talk about gender baby". This gender-play feeds into the duo's ongoing elusiveness and committed resistance to settling into a digestible pop group form. They provocatively refute our desire to situate one member as the vocal front-person or even, as was the case in the Shaking The Habitual tour, assign the voice to any one of the seven masked and unidentifiable bodies on stage who each took a turn at the microphone.

While the deconstructive potential of technology is inarguably powerful, I think that practises of vocal manipulation today are reflexive of something more complex than the type of hybridity offered by cyborgs. The menacing anonymity of The Knife feels more like a product of the deep web, voices scrambled and passed through proxy servers, than a utopian techno-fusion. They maintain the noisiness of spam attacks and pornographic sidebars that put to rest any claims that the digital is genderless, singing in new encoded and viral tongues. Herndon describes her use of vocal manipulation as a means of "expanding the emotional lexicon of vocal delivery," saying "I always think it is very strange that we continue to rely on the same effects from the last fifty years to communicate very new feelings." And indeed, the internet provides a fecund ground for entirely new, rapid-fire and reticular circuits of effect and desire: social media draws us into intertwined circuits of hyper-narcissism, our need for self-affirmation is dispersed to hundreds of acquaintances who might ‘"like" our pictures, and physical intimacy becomes halting Skype sex. A whole new register of feelings is born, re-moulding relationships and bodies around the compressed conditions of cyberspace as they migrate into materiality. This is perhaps what is expressed in flayed and pixelated voice: the fractured song of the digital flesh.