During my first semester I read about an acoustical phenomenon where when researchers divided up recorded speech so that each consonant and vowel sound was separated, and then played back the recorded speech with all of the parts in correct order, but with each sound reversed, listeners were unable to detect the reversal. I decided that it might be interesting to write a piece that would make people aware of this phenomenon by crossing the threshold of inaudible reversal and audible reversal. For my recorded speech, I decided to use the words of George W. Bush, because everything he says is so very backwards. I searched CNN.com for aiff files of Bush speaking and only found two good ones. One was him speaking about the ABM treaty, but my ex-wife was coincidentally working on a piece using the same piece of audio and didn't want me to use it. Instead, I used a short speech that George Bush gave on terrorism and destroying American culture. That semester, one of the students in MUSC 220 had used the same audio clip for a different sort of tape project. I had been thinking about the subtext of the speech since hearing that project and about how to make Bush's real message - his desire to destroy pop culture - clear. I started by playing the audio file with no change, and then divided it into grains 0.025 seconds long. I played those grains in order, but each grain was played backwards. I then doubled the grain size and repeated the process for several minutes until Bush's speech became indecipherable. At the same time, I took much shorter Bush phrases, first form the text and then from other texts with similar themes and ran them through the same process. Because those clips were much shorter, they became indecipherable in much less time. These co-processes made the main process clearer and highlighted the sub-text of Bush's speech. The speech was nominally about terrorism, but on repeated listening, it became clear that it was more about causing American culture to shift rightward, to criticize Hollywood and to push the idea of individual responsibility instead of socialized responsibility. Because of the repeating of the speech, which was gradually breaking down, the friendly experiencer was listening carefully, grasping at meaning. The subtext was brought to the surface in that way.
The second part of the piece uses this process but in reverse. I bought a book about lesbian separatist philosophy, Lesbian Philosophy: Explorations by Jeffner Allen, at a bookstore in New Haven. I then picked out four phrases related to violence and terror and specifically picked to annoy my ideologically post-feminist vocal talent. The ideas expressed were as radical as Bush's but from the opposite ideological spectrum. I run the algorithm in the opposite direction, because I take the opposite view of the words. Allen also talks about violence, terrorism and victim hood, but unlike Bush, everything she says is true and real. Her words are ultimately empowering to her reader, giving her readers freedom instead of taking it away. Her viewpoint is equally extremist, but exists in reaction to the sort of evil that Bush proposes. Each phrase went to it's own channel, one of four used in the piece. The sound started completely backwards and so was impossible to pick out meaning, but after a short while, the shortest phrase began to be understandable. I was surprised the way it was easy to focus on one sound among many as soon as words started to be decipherable.
I found that the second movement made the piece much more bearable. Listening to George Bush talk about destroying culture for five minutes made me very tense, but the soothing voice of Jessica Feldman reading about women uprising acted as an anecdote to Bush’s rhetoric. Also, it’s very easy for oppositional political pieces to fall into negativity. Allen’s words made the piece end on hopeful note. “Terror is negated through the freedom of my body” is the voice of sanity in opposition to Bush. We still know that destroying our liberties is not the answer to fear.
This piece was first performed at the end of the Fall 2003 semester, but I was running it on a different SuperCollider version than it was written for and so it crashed between the two sections, due to a now fixed SuperCollider crash-bug with Buffers. I performed the piece in its entirety for the first time at a house concert in the fall of 2004.
This piece was written with four-channel surround sound. In the first part, the main speech is sent out panned to the middle, but the short, highlighted phrases are sent only to their own speaker. In the second part, every phrase gets it's own speaker. Highlighted sounds and the final phrases get their own space this way. Two channel mixes only using panning were not successful.
In the spring of 2005, I began experimenting with spatialization algorithms. I found that it was acceptable to mix the piece down to two channels using virtual locations for each of the four original channels. I wrote a Class Library to compute phase changes, delay and amplitude differences between the virtual locations and the actual, physical speakers. Using this created enough perception of space to compensate for not actually having all four speakers. I did this because I want to be able to play my pieces easily and without extra hardware. If I can run all of my pieces using only a stereo speaker arrangement, I can use just the line out of my laptop and a very basic mixing board. This greatly simplifies setup and increases the number of venues with suitable equipment. It also makes it possible to create a CD recording.
State of Disunion
I made another piece with George Bush’s voice in the spring of 2004. I took his weekly radio address from right before the State of the Union address. Approximately half the speech was made of up lies about Iraq. The second half was lies about domestic issues. (Our economy has been turning around for so long now, it must be dizzy.) I started by playing the file straight and then slowly added a sine-tone that was phase modulated with the same file. The sine was 480 Hz, a multiple of 60 Hz, the rate at which AC power oscillates in the United States. The second sound creeps up slowly and being an octave of AC power makes it hard to hear at first. The friendly experiencer often confuses the sound for buzz from electric lights or other appliances nearby. Then, near the end of Bush's war lies, I fade out the straight sound file, leaving just the modulated version. At that point, explosive noises come in. I use them mostly because I thought that he kept talking about bombs, so I should include some bomb sounds. Then I play phase modulated just ratios over him. The ratios are 17/19, 19/19, 21/19, 23/19, which is an otonal series high up in a tuning lattice.
The results I got out were loud and of a different character than I expected. There was massive peaking, but SuperCollider uses floating point numbers for audio, not integers, so it didn't clip like digital distortion normally clips, say on DATs or CDs. I tried in vain to find the error, but decided I liked the sounds and left them as they were. A side effect of this is that it was tricky to record the output straight to disk, since 16 bit linear aiff files use integers. Eventually, I discovered a typo in the SynthDef and fixed it, but it didn't sound as good anymore, so I undid the repair. The peaking and distortion gives it it's character and seems ironically appropriate given the subject matter.
I'm not sure what the piece is about really. The explosives are kind of heavy-handed and I'm not sure about them. But I don't know what, if anything, the other non-Bush sounds might mean. When I played this during my fall 2004 composition seminar, Alvin Lucier commented that political pieces run the risk of being heavy-handed. People like this piece, though, so I'm keeping it.
I first played it at Open Mic Night at It’s Only Natural Restaurant, where it was enthusiastically received. Since then I’ve played it at 21 Grand in Oakland California. It works well as a piece to bridge tonal content to word content.
Further Bush Ideas
As I wrote my first Bush piece, the timbres of his voice began to fascinate me. His inflections are almost musical. While I disagree with nearly everything he says, he says it in a beautiful manner. Obviously, as he was born and raised in Connecticut everything about his speech patterns and elocution has been learned in adulthood. He is very talented and must have a fantastic elocution coach. His voice has the musical timbres of the south and the drawl of Texas. His speechwriter's careful word choices coupled with his pan-heartland accent make him seem immediately trustworthy.
I kept on with Bush's voice projects, including working on a tape piece with him saying "terrorist" over and over again, from different speaking engagements. The inflections are amazing and I'd like to do something with them, and especially with the phrase" in fact what the terrorists have done is caused to take an assessment of what's important" from my first Bush piece. Steve Reich’s piece Different Trains has violins playing the inflections of the vocal field recordings. Robert Ashley's operas also make extensive use of inflection, replying on inflection rather than using pitch much of the time. I was thinking about how to do this, but there was another problem causing me to slow my efforts. I was hoping that Bush would be voted out of office in November, alas. This would have instantly made any Bush vocal projects obsolete. Clinton also had a beautiful voice, but few people would currently care if I started manipulating him saying "I did not have an affair with that woman." or anything else he said. Shortly thereafter, I discovered Ann Coulter.
This post is not Creative Commons. It is Copyright 2005 Celeste Hutchins. All Right Reserved.