Growing Chorus: Lyra Pramuk’s Fountain Reviewed

With a chorus of paralingual vocalisations, Lyra Pramuk's debut album, Fountain, approaches the uncanny presence of the voice, beyond language and signification, finds Ryan Diduck

Our ears are broad, but they are not democratic. Although most people can hear frequencies on a spectrum of around 20 Hertz to 20 Kilohertz, those that grab our immediate attention – the frequencies that particularly prick up our ears, proverbially speaking – are between 2 and 5 Kilohertz.

There are physiological reasons for this: the shape and depth of the ear canal; the miniature size of our ossicle bones which transmit waveforms from the air into the fluid-filled middle ear; hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.

2-5 Kilohertz also happens to be the sonic range that the human voice makes – the all-singing, all-speaking, always-articulating, ever-communicating voice. Of all the sounds we are able to hear, it seems we’re designed – hardwired – to hear ourselves best.

Fountain, the Berlin-based artist Lyra Pramuk’s captivating debut, is composed completely of sounds fashioned from her own voice. There are songs, some with words, but primarily there are extralinguistic utterances that are processed, augmented, deformed, and re-organised technologically to create timbres and textures that bear little resemblance to anything human-made. The result is a conceptual and smart album that also refreshingly succeeds as an aesthetic object.

Operating within strict methodological confines like this – I’m thinking of Matmos’s good humoured but corny laundry machine music – has pros and cons. It can play as schtick, or as an exercise rather than a fully realised work. The range of sounds that our vocal cords are capable of making – melodic or percussive, low or high pitched, harmonic or discordant – is necessarily narrow. Even with digital audio technology’s aid, la voix humaine can only be stretched and morphed and pitched so far. Pramuk’s pipes prove a versatile instrument, though, and provide the material for a cohesive, state-of-the-art artistic statement.

Mladen Dolar’s 2006 book A Voice and Nothing More is a fascinating philosophy of the voice and illuminating here. Dolar argues that the voice exists like a Venn diagram at the intersection of ourselves and each other, the body and language, but doesn’t belong properly to any of these: “We can say that the subject and the Other coincide in their common lack embodied by the voice,” Dolar writes, “and that ‘pure enunciation’ can be taken as the red thread which connects the linguistic and ethical aspects of the voice.”

It is clear that Pramuk is striving here for Dolar’s notion of “pure enunciation” – the inner voice; the voice of reason; the voice transcending meaning to convey some notion of universal truth; the voice unmoored from distinct and socially produced signifiers of identity; the voice in a sense rendered synthetic. It’s interesting to think that “voice” is also the word we use to talk about the sounds synthesizers make. Fountain echoes Brian Wilson’s elaborate choral arrangements, or Meredith Monk’s extended techniques. But Pramuk has managed to uncover new and interesting ways to further transcend the voice’s necessarily monophonic nature.

There are structural homologies to social media and viral communication implicit in making poly what was once mono. ‘Xeno’, a track which opens like an army of croaking frogs, transforms into a guttural drone that invokes a nauseating Tweetstorm, a bot militia reiterating some misleading message before mutating back into ambient media hum. “Gossip” more overtly draws these associations. The dangers inherent in technologically turning one voice into a chorus lend Fountain its cautionary political edge.

But it’s not all high theory. There are impish elements to this record, like the earworm lead single ‘Tendril’, that place it more in the playful lineage of ‘Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict’, or even Bobby McFerrin, than Pramuk’s previous collaborators Holly Herndon and Colin Self, and other notable vocal-manipulator contemporaries such as Maja Ratkje or Burial. If the world ever needed a bit of genuine don’t-worry-be-happy energy, it’s now.

While challenging intellectually, Fountain is also nothing less than a pleasing listen, like a delicate wine that opens over time. I might like to hear some more adventurous production techniques; it’s important to remember that presets and plugins themselves effectively generate algorithmic aesthetics, the equivalent of Instagram filters for sound. But there will be opportunity for that on Pramuk’s next release. These days, most music goes in one ear and out the other, if you’ll pardon the literal cliché. And I’ve found myself returning often to Fountain beyond my sense of critical obligation.

The reason I imagine we privilege the voice above all other sounds is not out of preference but necessity – equal parts hope and fear. We crave comprehension and are terrified to be misunderstood. We absolutely need to hear ourselves in each other, each other’s voices absolutely in our selves. We now have no choice but to use our voices to communicate and co-ordinate, to attempt and eventually to perfect a purely enunciative practice. Lyra Pramuk’s Fountain is a potent ritualistic text in praise of human vocality’s promise.

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