The Extended Human Voice

The human voice is apparently the most ancient musical instrument, the most accessible for humans, and the most developed among all musical instruments.
A cappella singing has been part of most cultures since ancient times and it probably preceded spoken communication.

While the vocal cords are the primary tool for producing sounds using the voice, there are many other ways to produce vocal sounds. Using the voice as an instrument and exploring vocal techniques attracted composers, producers, sound artists and singers throughout music history. When it comes to the possibilities of the human voice, it seems that the sky is the limit.

I collected some A cappella pieces which use the voice in some very unique, creative and innovative ways.
Some of the pieces are for one or two voices, some for vocal ensembles, some are live performances while others are pre-recorded, processed or sampled.

Lux Aeterna for mixed choir, written by composer György Ligeti in 1966, is scored for 16 different parts, and the text – ‘Eternal Light’ in Latin – is a movement from the Catholic Requiem mass.
Here, the composer uses some of the same techniques typical to his orchestral music; the textures consist of long notes and micropolyphony, the harmony is made of clusters, and the main focus is on timbre.
After a few minutes of listening to this meditative piece, the voices lose their human identity, and become a mash of long sine wave—the same effect that happens to the instruments in his orchestral pieces, such as Atmospheres.
The instruments’ individual characters become blurred, then indistinguishable from one another. It seems that Ligeti intentionally makes instruments sound like voices and voices sound like instruments.Lux Aeterna is most famous for its use in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Nuits, adieux written by composer Kaija Saahiaro in 1991 has a text based on two different French sources: a part of a book by Jacques Roubaud which describes the night, and a fragment from Honoré de Balzac’s novel which is about farewell. The piece was written originally for vocal quartet with electronics, but five years later Saahiaro wrote a new version for mixed choir without electronics, in which the choir replaces the electronics by imitating effects such as reverb and delay. The piece uses extended vocal techniques in a fascinating way, including whispers, breathing sounds, speaking, mumbling, and a special use of consonants, especially unvoiced consonants.

Récitations is a set of pieces for solo female voice, written between 1977-78, by composer Georges Aperghis, who specialised in the field of experimental musical theatre.
In this piece, which combines spoken-word techniques with occasional singing, the text functions as the main source of the sound material. The score is open for interpretation by the performer, which has inspired a variety of performances that greatly differ from one another.
Also interesting is the visual arrangement of the score. Each movement has its own unique shape, as can be seen in Récitations No. 9:
Récitations No. 9 consists of one sentence in French:
Parfois je résiste à mon envie, parfois je lui cède. Pourquoi donc ce désir? (Sometimes I resist my longing, sometimes I give in to it. So why this desire?)The structure of this movement, as can be understood from the score’s arrangement, is accumulated. The movement begins with the very end of the text, which is constantly repeated, adding a syllable or a word, in reverse order, until the complete sentence is achieved.
The syllables and the words of this pattern are being performed in various vocal techniques, such as Sprechgesang, rhythmic breathing, singing, inhaling and exhaling, etc. Despite the repetition, the movement is very diverse due to the variety of vocal techniques.

The interdisciplinary artist Meredith Monk is primarily known for her vocal innovations, including a wide range of extended techniques, which she first developed in her solo performances prior to forming her own ensemble. Monk’s ground-breaking exploration of the voice as an instrument expands the boundaries of musical composition, creating landscapes of sound that unearth feelings, energies, and memories for which there are no words.

In many of her vocal works the main sound material is based on expressions such as laughing or crying, as well as exploring new possibilities of overtone singing, vowel repetitions all across the vocal range, bleating, and moaning.

Walking Song, the first piece in the album Volcano Songs (released in 1997), is a duet for two female voices with no lyrics, but singing-whispering of a melodic fragment with only vowels, in which silence breaks and breaths are significant components.

If this piece sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you watched The Big Lebowski more than once…

Pamela Z., another interdisciplinary artist, combines A cappella singing with electronics in her solo works.
She uses extended vocal techniques with traditional operatic and Bel Canto singing, and uses MAX/MSP and Isadora software along with custom MIDI controllers that allow her to manipulate her voice with physical gestures.The piece Breathing, one part of her Carbon Song Cycle, was originally written for a chamber ensemble of voice with electronics, bassoon, viola, cello and percussion.
In this video, Pamela Z performs a solo version of the piece with only voice and electronics.

Using real time recordings of what she performs live, Pamela Z creates layers and textures that ebb and flow during the performance.

Sounds of breathing in the background, tongue clicks, speaking and singing a repeated melody—all these are being processed, as the recorded material accompanies the live singing, and the live singing becomes the recorded material, on which she plays literally with her hands using the MIDI controllers.

The piece I chose to close this review with is a masterpiece that expresses the infinite possibilities of creation with voice: Medúlla, Björk’s fifth solo album, released in 2004.

All of the album’s 14 tracks consist solely of voices and express Björk’s endless inventiveness, as well as the varied possibilities of the human voice. The album features a range of vocal techniques such as beat-box, human trombone, Inuit throat singing, overtone singing, whistles, breaths, and groans, as well as occasional use of electronic effects.

The guest artists in this album are Mike Patton, Robert Wyatt, the throat singer Tanya Tagaq, the beat-boxers Rahzel (from The Roots), Shlomo and Dokaka, The Icelandic Choir and The London Choir. Beyoncé was also set to appear in the album, as Björk considered “the best voice in the world must be in an album made of just voices,” but she did not appear on the album in the end.

Other “guests” in the album are instruments that appear rarely: piano, a bass synthesizer, a gong and African percussion.

Some of the vocal parts replace instruments by imitating them, like beat-box instead of percussion or human trombone. There are also some new and unrecognisable sounds which are sometimes reminiscent of animals’ voices, like Tanya Tagaq’s Inuit throat singing in Pleasure Is All MineWho Is ItAncestors, and Mouth’s Cradle, the tut-tut sound in the beginning of Miðvikudags or the balloon-like effect or the cat’s yowling in the last song of the album, Triumph of a Heart.

This song also includes many layers of different textures in the background, most of them are made by the Japanese beat-boxer Dokaka. The overtone singing is a significant part of those background parts, which is done by nasal singing of vowels as well as high and fast singing of gibberish syllables.

The album includes a wide-scale use of electronic effects in which the vocals are processed, like the choir and the beat-box in Where Is The Line, the choir in Oceania, or Björk’s voice in Miðvikudags. An atmospheric haze dominates Desired Constellation, which was created from a sample of Björk singing the phrase “I’m not sure what to do with it” from her song Hidden Place.

Other effects are actually filters done in the simplest ways, like the megaphone that Mike Patton uses in Who Is It, or his palm he puts on his mouth in Pleasure Is All Mine.

This fascinating video is the making of the album. Watching it after listening to the entire album is a very inspiring experience!