Much more than a musical instrument
Music and the human voice have always been in a good relationship. Since ancient Greece, words were taken and set to music. “[Without music,] even with words alone, something was missing. For the Greeks, the lyric in lyric poetry was literal: the verses were composed to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre.”¹
The majority of contemporary popular music is characterised by the use of voice as the main, leading, instrument. Besides, the ability of the human voice to “articulate, communicate ideas, create beautiful melodies, and translate human emotion into sounds is unmatched”.² There are almost endless ways in which the voice can be articulated — in terms of duration, rhythm, and pitch — to produce always new results.
Examples of how voice can be controlled, played as an instrument, and let free, are many. Below I will present — a list in no particular order and by no means exhaustive— a few examples dear to me that exemplify the multitude of was voice is used in contemporary music.
Trevor Wishart is a composer of orchestral and electroacoustic music whose fame is (partially) attributable to his innovative approach to composing with computers and the human voice. He is also a researcher on sonic arts, a developer, and a music educator.
“On the one hand the (human) voice is much more than a musical instrument. […] It reveals much about the speaker, from gender, age and health to attitude, mood and intention, and it also connects us with our Primate relatives. […] At the same time, apart from the computer itself, the voice is the richest sound-producing ‘instrument’ that we have, generating a vast variety of sounds from the stably pitched, to the entirely noisy, to complex rapidly-changing multiphonics or textures of grit and so on.” (Wishart, 2009)³
Prolific Venezuela-born experimental producer, Alejandro Ghersi (aka Arca) has made a name for himself “producing for heavyweights including FKA Twigs, Björk, and Kanye West, and through formidable solo recordings”⁴. In his latest self-titled music venture, Arca unveils his singing and does it with uncompromising fluency and violence.
“Ghersi’s voice is not perfect, but rather than polish out any blemishes, he works the flaws. His voice cracks, he breathes sharply and his lips smack; at one point you can hear what sounds like someone taking a sip of water.” (Miles Bowe, 2017)⁵
Examples obviously are not limited to Western culture. African music, and especially that of Pygmy groups, is mostly improvised over a “basic” tune. Pygmy music not only makes use of the voice as key instrument, but is characterised by a polyphonic “contrapuntal communal improvisation”⁶.
“The Mbenga [and Baka] Pygmy music is based on repetition of periods of equal length that each singer divides using different rhythmic figures specific to different songs. This creates endless variations not only of the same period repeated but of various performances of the same piece of music. As in some Balinese Gamelan music these patterns are based on a super-pattern which is never heard.” (Wikipedia)⁶
“Defined by the pure vocals and confessional lyrics of singer/songwriter Justin Vernon”⁷, Bon Iver never fails to astonish the public with their multilayered use of vocals and intimate lyrics. Vernon’s voice has become one of the most recognisable instruments in indie music.⁸
In 2016’s “22, A Million”, his voice is taken apart, recomposed, stretched, repitched, autotuned — yet, it still manages to maintain its authenticity and musical power.
“ About a decade ago, when Justin Vernon was recording the songs that became the band’s début album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” he realized that ranging just above his usual register made it easier to sing about memories that were otherwise too painful to recount. Vernon’s falsetto caused an obvious strain on his voice, making it sound weary and brittle. His recordings gave the impression of someone forcing himself to venture far outside his comfort zone; they communicated a sense of solitude and drift.” (Hua Hsu, 2016)⁸
Italian theorist, composer, musician, and teacher Luciano Berio is among the leading charcters in avant-garde music. “His style is notable for combining lyric and expressive musical qualities with the most advanced techniques of electronic and aleatory music.”⁹ Berio’s works on the human voice demonstrates boundary-pushing achievements in the way we perceive voice as music.
- Mendelsohn, D. (2015). Hearing Sappho. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/hearing-sappho.
- McMahon, J. (2018). The Human Voice as an Instrument for Language. [online] Listenandlearnaustralia.com.au. Available at: https://www.listenandlearnaustralia.com.au/blog/the-human-voice-as-an-instrument-for-language/.
- Milani, M. (2018). An interview with Trevor Wishart — pt.1. [online] Usoproject.blogspot.co.uk. Available at: http://usoproject.blogspot.co.uk/2009/01/interview-with-trevor-wishart-pt1.html.
- Mejia, P. (2017). After Collaborating With Björk and Releasing a Pair of Critically Acclaimed Solo Albums, Arca Finds His Voice. [online] Vulture.com. Available at: http://www.vulture.com/2017/04/bjrk-collaborator-arca-finds-his-voice-on-his-latest-album.html.
- Bowe, M. (2018). Arca finds his voice with an immaculate collection of grisly love songs. [online] FACT Magazine. Available at: http://www.factmag.com/2017/04/07/arca-self-titled-review/.
- En.wikipedia.org. Pygmy music. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmy_music.
- Margaret Reges, Rovi. Bon Iver. [online, Spotify bio] Available at: https://open.spotify.com/artist/4LEiUm1SRbFMgfqnQTwUbQ.
- Hsu, H. (2016). Bon Iver’s New Voice. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/03/bon-ivers-new-voice [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].
- Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Luciano Berio | Italian composer. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Luciano-Berio.
Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, multimedia artist, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.