paper presents a discussion of the motivations and
techniques used in the author's electroacoustic work
Sju. The piece is based on digital recordings
of a Swedish word that, in daily Swedish, is pronounced
in two distinctive ways, thereby presenting a real-life
sonic opposition ready for musical exploration.
This is related to the concept of sonological competence
(drawn from soundscape studies) since in both versions
the word is awkward to pronounce for non-Swedish speakers,
an issue stemming directly from the composer’s
first-hand experience with Swedish. The approach
used in the manipulation of these sounds is outlined,
especially the development of material around the
variations in noise attack which define the different
‘versions’ of the word, and the extrapolation
of the play between noise and speech into the larger
formal structure of a work.
Keywords Electroacoustic composition,
sonological competence, vocal sound, Swedish language,
(1999) is an electroacoustic work created with material
recorded while I was working in the studios of Elektroakustisk
Musik i Sverige (EMS), with the assistance of a Swedish
Institute guest scholarship. The piece is based
on the variable pronunciation of the Swedish word
'sju', the meaning of which is quite prosaic—the
number seven—but to my ear the sounds were immensely
interesting. There are two very distinct pronunciations
of ‘sju’, one is strictly correct 'pure'
Swedish, and another a more colloquial version, to
the extent that a speaker’s use of one or other
of these pronunciations could be taken as an indication
of social class (though I discovered in recording
different versions of it that there are also some
subtle in-between variants).
When I first arrived in Sweden two of the staff of
EMS used this ‘pure’ version of this word
as a fun Swedish competency test for me since there
is no truly equivalent sound in English. I did
not do so well in that test (!), but the elusive nature
of the sound, plus the realisation that there are
two quite contradictory sound shapes unified by a
common semantic meaning suggested the possibility
of an electroacoustic piece to me. The difference
in pronunciation is found in the initial brief noise
component of the word, and I recorded the different
versions with the assistance of a number of Swedish
people. Five of these are grouped in this sound
example, and the spectrogram is displayed in figure
1. The defining polarities of the 'sju' phenomenon
are heard in the distinction between the 'shh' and
'whh' attack transients, most clearly typified by
the first and last in this sequence, though several
versions are bracketed here to indicate the variance
within that basic distinction.
1 Spectrogram of five versions of the Swedish
on I had the idea that I may want to contextualise
whatever electroacoustic extensions of the sound that
might become possible with a sense of personalities
recurring or clustered through the work, and to that
end I ensured that I had a range of voice types, genders
and ages. In the recording sessions I asked
each of the participants (most of whom were musicians)
to speak the word in their own natural version, and
a number of them became absorbed in repetition of
the word, which also extended to some improvised play
on it, one instance of which is retained in the work
(at 1’28”). One
subject, a young boy who, when invited to play with
the word, produced a startling cadenza of speech-song
(discussed later). Overall, repetitions of this
kind provided me with a large number of minute sonic
variations for the word as produced by each speaker,
underlining a pre-compositional strategy which can
assist in giving suppleness and realism to repetition
in acousmatic music.
Language and sound issues
use of vocal sound sources in electroacoustic music
has obvious attractions: the enormous range of sound
types that can be produced and subtle inflections
within them, the potential to embrace language while
developing new morphological constructs, and the obvious
potential to develop ideas around the ‘humanity’
of the sounds themselves. But the voice also
has a useful potential to emulate non-vocal complex
sound shapes since noise, pitch and resonance can
be extensively and expressively modulated. In short,
human vocal sound presents a self-contained continuum
of representation and abstraction circumscribed by
the potential for language and the extreme flexibility
of the sound-producing mechanism itself. Vocal
sound production, even the semblance of it, invites
us to identify with and infer meaning from it because
of our reliance on linguistic and paralinguistic utterance
as a form of communication, as well as our conditioned
knowledge of involuntary utterance and the timbre
and gesture spaces defined by physically-defined factors
such as vowel formants and breathing patterns.
With ‘sju’ I encountered a clear distinction
between sounds whose intrinsic spectral complexity
made them worthy of development in a composition,
but which also drew me into a desire to ‘comprehend’
it better via the compositional process following
my attempts to accurately enunciate it.
a result, this became for me an issue of sonological
competence, a concept from the writing of Otto
Laske integrated into soundscape studies by R. Murray
Schafer. Schafer defines sonological competence
as the facility which 'unites impression with cognition
and makes it possible to formulate and express sonic
perceptions' (Schafer 1994: 274). In other words,
it is a measure of the bridge between the reception
of sound, comprehension of its structure and the mechanics
of its formation as expressed by, for instance, the
ability to repeat or mimic that sound. This
shifted to an issue of ‘performance’,
since I was also encountering a phonemic construct
outside of my linguistic experience.
Denis Smalley suggests our perception of the proprioceptive
foundation to sounds derived from human agency is
part of our complete psychological response to hearing.
He proposes that we follow and interpret a sound's
energy and spectral shaping through time with the
potential to correlate this with muscular actions,
tensions and releases (Smalley 1997: 111-112).
This was certainly relevant to my interest in the
'sju' phenomenon since, in the games I had to play
trying to articulate it, I had difficulty matching
what I thought were the correct oral and vocal patterns
with a truly satisfactory sonic result.
another sense, the idea of sonological competence
offers one perspective on a question in electroacoustic
composition which is frequently posed informally,
but seldom satisfactorily answered: what is an 'interesting'
sound? Apart from being drawn to the way unvoiced
noise is modulated across the versions of the word,
its melding into a voiced pitch and the contradiction
inherent in its pronunciation by the Swedish people,
I was prompted to explore the qualities of these sounds
given the linguistic challenge it represented.
That is to say: this sound, beautiful in its fusion
of noise and pitch, seemed to hold an unattainable
sonic essence, and attempts to reproduce it simply
produced even more variants of it.
processing in Sju
notion of sonological competence was a formative factor
in the approach taken to the conception and development
of this piece, encouraging me to retain a certain
amount of source and contextual coherence throughout.
I was aiming to encourage a listener to gain some
sense of my confrontation with the pronunciation of
‘sju’ by virtue of the many variants used
and their electroacoustic extensions (a process which
might be thought of as a form of pragmatic analysis),
as well as tying this to the complicating factor of
the conflicting nature of the pronunciations as they
occur in reality. To a certain extent that influenced
the way processing techniques were employed, and the
range of sounds drawn on in the wider process of developing
and mixing materials. Initially, for instance,
I though of the possibility of elaborating on the
'tension' of the noise attack through the pasting
and overlapping of these into an unstable and skittish
‘enunciation’ (though this was not used
in the piece).
the main distinguishing feature of these sounds is
found in the noise attack to the word (typically in
the order of 150 milliseconds), I looked for a way
to extend these in time, so that the spectral variation
could be more fully appreciated and so that the more
extended sound shapes could contribute to longer and
overlapping phrases. From the perspective of
sonological competence this was also a way of expressing
the 'sju' phenomenon at a magnified and more comprehensible
rate of evolution than would be the case in normal
speech rhythm (especially for an uninitiated listener).
To this end, I 'stretched' edited clips of transient
using closely packed bands of low frequency comb filters
fed into a doppler effect algorithm rotating at just
above audio frequency, causing the noise output of
the comb filters to 'resonate' spatially, but elongating
the distinctive colour of each transient. In
particular, variations in doppler rotation frequency
introduced added textural vivacity to the resulting
sound shapes. In these two sound examples,
the ‘dry’ input and then ‘processed’
output are heard, the latter appearing from 0’46”
in the completed work.
production of these particular sounds was a pivotal
point in the composition process, since they retain
a clear generative relationship with the original
‘sju’ transients, but now have a continuous
morphological identity in their own right, perceptually
akin to a 'fluttertongue'. This 'flutter' sound
could therefore be the base of a new set of transformations
with a familial relationship derived from the new
morphology. In these examples, frequency shifting
is applied such that vocal formants are lost, weakening
the link with the original vocal transient, producing
a fresh group of sounds that are cognates of the 'flutter'
construction of a phrase that presents these cognates
in a continuous stream may give the impression of
sound-play constrained by the physical/behavioural
properties of the sounds or their imagined source.
This example, though not actually included in the
final work, is given to illustrate something of the
way my attempts to manipulate these materials evolved.
agree with Trevor Wishart’s assertion that it
is the perceived rather than generative relationships
amongst sounds that most significantly determine the
way we tend to construct musical relationships, since
the composer's knowledge of generative relationships
does not necessarily translate into audible connections
between sounds (Wishart 2000: 22-3). However,
the contextual associations created in composition
may enable groups of cognates to intersect and develop
in parallel while evidence of their generative relationship
is signalled. Two instances of this kind of
structural intersection in Sju are at 0’45”
and 1’34” - 1’39”. In
the first instance the spoken voice and flutter transformation
articulate the same transient, while in the second
example, the spoken and flutter versions are in contradiction.
specific influence of the sonological competence challenge
was the idea of creating a rapidly shifting palette
of sound derived from the noise colours themselves.
This was influenced by the assumption that a difficult-to-pronounce
word is even more difficult when repeated, or tossed
off in the course of a sentence.
In order to electroacoustically model an imaginary
version of that condition, I used an asynchronous
granulation technique, whereby a continuous file comprised
of many different versions of the 'sju' transient
spliced together was created, and a new sound file
constructed by sampling and reassembling chunks out
of that. Texturally this 'sampling within the
sample' creates rhythmic play around the different
noise colours that form a cluster of sonic cognates
of related provenance, but with varying outward contour.
This attempts to articulate a ‘variation space’
for the sound, in itself an analogy and extension
of the linguistic dilemma of the ‘sju’
long 'grains' are used here (up to about 350 milliseconds)
I regard this as a form of randomised mixing/editing
rather than 'granular synthesis' and the length of
grain was influenced by the motivation to maintain
recognition of the variance amongst the noise attacks.
But as 'mixing', this approach also was catalyst for
the interleaving of the original vocal sounds with
processed versions. The generating morphology
of the granular process is, in effect, separate from
the sounds themselves (defined by the limits and density
of grain length). Thus the textural patterns
created by this process can project into wider forms
of musical development when transformational variants
are injected into the mixing/editing process (in this
case the 'flutter' sounds previously described).
Some of the clearest examples of material developed
in this way are found in the work at 4'12'-4'52"
concentration of different noise spectra led to mixing
these with other sounds that had relatively superficial
relationship with the vocal sounds at the purely sonic,
rather than the contextual or even transformational
level. In this example, the 'sju' attack transients
are mixed with samples from ice skaters recorded in
Stockholm's Kungsträdgården (from 6’12”),
again mixed and edited using asynchronous grains of
up to 350ms. The sonic 'links' which guided
me in this case were the dynamic surges and the spectral
shaping of the ice skating sounds (which can easily
be imitated through shifts in vowel formant), and
this is anticipated at 6’00” in the lengthening
of the ‘flutter’ envelopes at that point.
instance of this kind of sonic free association is
in the use of a sample of whispering resonated (physically)
through a flute, for example at 3’07”.
Here the flute/voice sound is used to add spectral
complexity to a granular mix similar to the example
above, by imposing the granular mix's amplitude envelope
onto that of the voice/flute. This process of
allowing a dynamic pattern to function as a transferable
rhythmic identity through a structure is one I have
used extensively in acousmatic composition.
of the consequences of intensive studio listening
is a heightened sensitivity to the character and subtleties
of materials constantly being re-auditioned, which
can result in a tendency to begin hearing sounds developed
in the studio ‘inside’ sounds encountered
in day-to-day experience, and vice versa. In
making the sorts of sound links outlined above I was
to a large extent attempting to objectify sound associations
of that kind.
synchronous granulation variant of 'sampling within
the sample' was also used in Sju, with comparatively
long grain lengths, reconstructed at low density,
producing a reconstituted sound file that resembles
'snapshots' of the file's evolution in time.
It was used to process the entire word 'sju', as performed
by the youngest of my participants in the recording
sessions, a small boy named Fivos. Fivos's extraordinary
extemporisation on the word was textured using a gradual
increase in 'grain' density. The morphology
of the transformation is such that the word is disjointed
to begin with, becomes more coherent, and then overlaps
to produce a tight delay/phase effect. The key
idea for me here is that of coherence: there is level
of continuity within the vocal sound that a listener
(drawing on their general experience of vocal sound
shapes) might vicariously interpret as 'whole' or
'truncated' (in Sju, this would also hopefully
be confirmed by context, since the word has already
been presented in its entirety several times).
In this example, that aspect of contextual meaning
gives the dynamic shape of the transformational morphology
an additional significance beyond that of simply an
'accelerating rhythm approaching iteration'.
In the context of the work (2'44") this acceleration
heralds a new version of the ‘flutter’
morphology, emphasising the gathering of momentum.
use what are essentially algorithmic procedures like
this to construct new sound formations for which I
could not necessarily predict the outcome. However,
because the algorithmic process is not a sonic entity,
nor something legitimating the design of the music
itself, I always apply a critical ear to the results,
modifying these where a musical intention makes it
necessary (either through tweaking the processing
parameters or through the editing or reshaping of
some specific feature of the sounds). By a musical
intention I mean factors such as the nature of the
rhythmic shaping of the material (especially with
a view to its potential role as an element in the
dynamic evolution of the music’s flow) and the
extent to which source recognition of a sound might
be retained or recontextualised. In the final
event I feel my primary relationship to be with my
sound materials, to the extent that the technological
methods used to construct a new sound become of secondary
importance to the actual sonic qualities themselves.
In working with natural sound samples drawn from real-world
experiences and situations, the potential for the
sound source to carry meaning—contextual, metaphorical,
linguistic—remains very central to the way I
tend to direct and explore the potentials of sound
processing. In reality, of course, it is the
interaction of processing artefacts and the intrinsic
features of the sounds themselves that fully determine
the evolution of the materials. It is from this
perspective that I regard the relationship between
signal processing method and sound file as not existing
in arbitrary relationships but ones where the intrinsic
structure of sound and the shaping tendencies of the
processing structures must relate to articulate an
essential idea or view of a sound.
Structure and context
most salient sounding feature common to all the versions
of the word 'sju' is its subdivision into consonant
and vowel (unvoiced and voiced) components, and the
overriding musical context created from the ‘sju’
sound is a dislocation of these two elements. In developing
the overall structure of the piece this basic distinction
between consonant and vowel parts of the word was
kept in mind as a general polarity of noise and pitch.
The noise aspect provided material for the main audibly
'developmental' part of the piece such as the passage
3'00" - 3'35", which presents a comparatively
saturated clustering of noise shapes, progressively
dissipating to a solo 'sju' transient. The motion
of noise into pitch as a generative model was also
a consideration, for example at 1'39" - 2'08"
where the mixing of many noise-bands might be thought
of as a highly embellished version of the noise-pitch
transition. Pitched resonance provides more
long-range underpinning of texture, and also articulates
phrase structures in conjunction noise-based rhythmic
and textural play, for example at 4’48”.
the end of the work, the vowel-like resonances and
attack transients are reintegrated to some extent.
I found that ‘flutter’ noise attacks developed
from one person could be edited alongside the purely
vowel component of the word as spoken by another,
allowing the word 'sju' to be resynthesised from two
processed components (6'56"-7'06").
In fact this kind of mix-and-match reconstruction
is quite plausible even with unprocessed components.
Sju the original context is reinforced through
the statements of the complete word, which are constructed
to highlight the contradictory pronunciations, as
well as some of the sense of ‘play’ with
the sound of the word that was captured in recording.
Examples are found in the passages at 39"-45",
1'21"-1'32", 2'44"-2'53", 4'05"-4'12"
Sju attempts to evoke and musically amplify
aspects of a very specific linguistic encounter, it
also underlines fundamental aspects of the innovative
potentials of the electroacoustic medium itself.
Since sound recording has provided us with the resources
to capture real-world sounds intact, study and manipulate
them in a state suspension out of real-time (or, perhaps
more significantly, out-of ‘performance’)
we have a means of investigating, through sound, something
of the substance of our experience in a very direct
way—the ways we listen as well as the ways we
communicate. The sheer act of turning the microphone
towards cultural and environmental phenomena can provide
the materials which, by virtue of their permanence
as sound documents, may encourage ever more intense
and questioning listening—both in and out of
the studio. While the many facets of computer-enabled
transformation are fundamental to the development
of digital sound art, the groundwork formed by natural
sounds themselves and the networks of representation
and association we derive from them must constitute
one of the strongest forces underlying electroacoustic
music’s potential as vibrant and meaningful
is dedicated to everyone at EMS Stockholm, with special
thanks to Inger, Göran, Paulina and her composition
class, Perikles and Fivos..
complete version of Sju can be found on New
Zealand Sonic Arts 2000 at www.waikato.ac.nz/humanities/music/nzsonicart1.shtml
R. Murray 1994. The Soundscape: The
Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World.
Rochester, Vermont: Destiny.
Denis 1997. Spectromorphology: Explaining
Sound Shapes.Organised Sound, 2:2, 97, 107-126
Barry 1994. Acoustic Communication.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Trevor 2000. Sonic Composition in Tongues of
Fire Computer Music Journal
25:2 S00, 22-30
J. 2000. Sju (1999) In
New Zealand Sonic Art (2000) [CD recording].
Hamilton: Music Department, University of Waikato.