Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Spectre of the Voice in Dead Tech

I was listening to the above track by Kreem, alias of Belleville two Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, a few days ago and it struck me that the digital voice as keyboard instrument has had a curious life cycle.

When music like this first emerged (and I imagine the more prescient stuff predates it- thinking of The Art of Noise and Yello, which were thought of as the truly cutting edge at the time), the sound of a voice processed through digital synthesis must have sounded truly uncanny.  It was dabbling, almost mystically for those unfamiliar with digital synthesis, with something acoustic and morphing it into something mechanized. Not only that, but the source material had also historically been centrally attached to our idea of the essence of humanity.

"The Voice", still a predominant model of the existential essentialism intrinsic to identity, was perhaps a relic from when we were more of a sound culture than a visual culture.  But when more things were identifiable from sonic frequencies rather than visual stimuli, the only thing that could be trusted was one's own voice.  And here it was, not only being reproduced, but being actualized without any relation to the source whatsoever.  An artificial voice, too crude to be mistaken for a corporeal person, but undeniably human in tone and texture.

As time passed and keyboards with this basic function became affordable and widespread, the sound became less state-of-the-art and more commonplace, even cheesy.  It phased out for a while and then, around the last few years of the naughts, it reemerged in underground music in a big way.

To the newer generation, who grew up without these sounds as readily accessible motifs, this perversion of the voice once again sounded uncanny.  After passing through a long period of hi-fi where studio science could stretch the voice way beyond its capabilities, into the realm of the cyborgian while still retaining an "organic" feel (the prevalence of vocoders/autotunes being the most explicit examples), short vocal presets played instrumentally on keyboards sounded weird and unfathomable, more immediately expressive than anything you could do in Live or Reason.  The use of these sounds was also uncanny in that it was resurrecting a dead art; the sound had completely dropped from awareness on the cultural radar, only as a memory in forgotten hits and anecdotal futurism from days past. The technology itself was as much a spectre as the so-called ghost voice haunting the machine.  As such, both had serious potential to attack our fine-tuned point-click sensibilities.

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