Prattle & Babble – Arriving at ‘urtext’

“Do the languages of the adult retain anything of the infinitely varied babble from which they emerged? If they did, then it would be only an echo, since where there are languages, the infant’s prattle has long ago vanished, at least in the form it once had in the mouth of the child who could not yet speak. It would be only an echo, of another speech and of something other than speech: an echolalia, which guarded the memory of the indistinct and immemorial babble that, in being lost, allowed all languages to be.”

Daniel Heller-Roazen. Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language. New York: Zone Books, 2005. 11-12.

In late November of 2014 during the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, I had the pleasure of hosting friend, fellow composer/collaborator, and all around good guy Louis d’Heudieres. Louis arrived in Huddersfield well before the concert we planned to attend that evening and after a quick lunch we decided to engage in some attentive listening – a practice that I had been developing every other morning the previous three months with my flatmate, David Pocknee. In search for that elusive piece of music that is truly striking, captivating, and nearly paralyzing, I decided to play for Louis a recording of the very first piece of music I played for David when I moved in a few months prior – Shift, by the utterly mind-boggling (in the best sense possible!) composer/cellist, Franklin Cox. [1]

After the 14-minute tidal wave of multi-tracked cellos, the silence became pregnant with possibility…

Since the early days of my involvement with music, I have had friends that were interested in pushing the boundaries of sound. One of my earliest musical companions, a dear friend, Chad Latta, who introduced me to music composition in the first place, became almost obsessively fascinated with vocal multiphonics. We would wander around local wooded areas in Ohio talking about music and, for a period, developing our vocal multiphonics. Chad was especially fluent at producing multiphonics at the octave, whereas I was especially interested in the range of multiphonics I could produce using inward singing (what I would later understand through my encounter with Michael Edgerton’s vocal music/writing to be ingressive singing). [2]

Many years later, I was still captivated by the voice, and would often use it as a springboard for sketching my compositions regardless of whether or not they included the voice. Much to the dismay of my previous flatmates, and previous partners, I could often be heard working impromptu on my vocal fry, ingressive singing/multiphonics, singing/whistling multiphonics, various tongue clicks, and a whole host of other vocal sounds. These sounds had taken on a very personal resonance for me; they were not only sounds that fascinated me for their aural characteristics, but increasingly, sounds that defined my own identity if only through sheer repetition of utterance.

In 2011 I wrote a vocal solo piece that, in effect, utilized all of the sounds that I had been producing in my everyday life. For a long time I had wanted to find some kind of context, structure and form for these sounds that had become part of my personal identity, but which I was not yet able to synthesize in performance. It was through the craft of composition that I was able to place those sounds and by extension give them a performative space to exist. In many ways, I was using composition to enact a type of ventriloquism, as a way of getting myself out of myself and into the world through the medium of another performer.

The piece that I ended up composing was Various Terrains (degrees of separation) and was first performed by the musically sensitive and virtuosic vocalist, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, a vocalist I had meet during my studies at Bowling Green State University, and who was similarly interested in the sonic pallet afforded by alternative approaches towards vocal performance.

Fast forward back to November of 2014, in the postcoital-like silence of Shift, a constellation of associations begin to emerge in my mind. Franklin Cox is not only a phenomenal cellist/composer, but was also a teacher of mine for some time, and a voice in the back of my mind as I wrote Various Terrains in 2011. Include the fact that I had begun to explore the creative potential of an imitative performance practice [3] and it was only a short vocal improvisation’s distance from the end of Cox’s Shift to the beginning of my own Various Terrains.

Let me be clear: The end of Shift has an almost vocal-like wispiness to it, and after the recording had stopped playing and a aching period of silence transpired, I began to engage in a slightly imitative vocal improvisation – picking up from the end of Shift and shifting as it where through the constellation of associations detailed above, into a recording of Amanda singing Various Terrains. The entrance of Amanda that afternoon was initially unadorned, but while the recording of the second iteration [4] of the performance was playing I decided to vocally and sonically imitate the recording. After the full playback of Various Terrains had been complete, Louis and I relaxed our bodies, [5] and I played for him another recording that I considered tangentially related to the previous pieces/performance. The recording was of Sean Dowgray playing percussion in an imitative fashion along with a composed recording of infant vocalizations curated from Youtube. Thus ended the lunchtime fringe concert of HCMF// 2014.

The ramifications of the spontaneous improvisation would not come into full focus until a few weeks weeks later, but after that experience with Louis, I knew that I had stumbled across something that I wanted to share with a larger audience of listeners. For myself, on a personal level, I discovered a way of using my previous work – work derived from my own vocal practices, albeit in less formally rigorous structures – as a kind of resonating force that activated (summoned?) some kind of oral/aural urtext in my own voice. I had also found a way of blending two forms of vocal material that I had for some time considered to be more similar than dissimilar – namely, the vocalizations of infants before they develop and establish language(s) with which to communicate, and a collection of vocal sounds that seemed to find a home in contemporary experimental vocal music practices. [6] Or rather, I had a sense that the utterances of infantile pre-lingual prattle – sounds that had not been limited or forgotten through the acquisition of language [7] – were closely associated with a range of almost post-lingual utterances found in contemporaneous treatments of the voice.

The improvisation also emerged from a body of writing I had been engaged with at the time situated within the field of sound-studies. In particular, I had become interested in the idea of re-soundings, “by all the vibrating entities in a space of all the vibrating entities in that space.” [8] At its most basic, I understood this idea as an extension of my exploration into imitative performance practices. Whereas the previous explorations of imitation usually took the form of visual, physical, and bodily imitation, this concept invites an understanding of human sounds as a response to and resonance with the vibrations that humans are capable of hearing/detecting. [9] The concept of re-sounding paired with the echolalic babble pointed at in the text by Heller-Roazen provided at the beginning of this article laid the conceptual grounds upon which the piece I would like to share here was established.

With very little idea of what to do after the experience in November, I decided that the best thing I could do to create the conditions for focusing my creativity was to schedule a performance. I quickly got in touch with fellow colleagues and curators at Huddersfield, Eleanor Cully and Stephen Harvey, and asked if I could perform in the second iteration of their fabulous concert series Soni[k]ab. To my delight, they agreed, and I set off to figure out what to do. My restrictions were simple: use both the recordings of Amanda and Sean, use my voice in an imitative fashion as a way of drawing connections and associations between the two forms of vocal material, and stage the performance within a context of listening as a way of emphasizing a form of re-sounding.

After a period of experimentation with the material and its staging, I had devised a simple listening/performance piece titled urtext. For me, urtext marks the culmination of a strand of research into the voice as an instrument, as a resonator of one’s environment [10], and an amplifier of personal identity. Far from being an end though, the realization of urtext has lead me to reconsider the place and function of the voice and listening as compositional tools. One of my current composition projects is exploring a compositional methodology where the voice is used in an improvisational manner as a generator of sonic material (sonic postcards), and in an almost oral-traditional-like way, as transference of sonic and structural intent. A collection of initial vocal improvisations can be heard on the following playlist.


[1] A recording of Shift has been uploaded to Youtube. Listen while you can.

[2] Just today in fact, I came across a this recording of Edgerton’s solo vocal piece, Anaphora  – a piece which has had a profound impact on how I imagine and hear the voice as both a producer of sound, and as an instrument in its own right.

[3] The imitative practice to which I refer is most evidenced in my compositions a kind of nostalgia and this is not natural.

[4] Various Terrains is performed three times with slight variation of order and tempo throughout the course of a program of music.

[5] Personally, my listening style was such that Klaus-Ernst Behne would possibly describe it a combination of concentrated, and vegetative. A concentrated listening style is one where the listener preferences closed eyes, and a vegetative listening style is one where the listener assumes a different body position. My preference for attentive listening around November tended to be eyes closed and in a seated position on the ground. See: Hargreaves, David J., Jonathan James Hargreaves, and Andrian C. North. “Imagination and creativity in music listening” IN Musical Imaginations: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Creativity, Performance, and Perception. Edited by David Hargreaves, Dorothy Miell, and Raymond MacDonaldNew York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 159.

[6]. Here I am thinking of vocal works by Luciano Berio, Jaap Blonk, Aaron Cassidy, George Crumb, Michael Edgerton, Evan Johnson, Gregory Ligeti, Liza Lim and others.

[7] Heller-Roazen, Daniel. Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language. New York: Zone Books, 2005. 9-10.

[8] Cusick, Suzanne G. “Acoustemology of detention in the ‘global war on terror’.” In Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience. Edited by Georgina Born. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 278.

[9] It is worth briefly mentioning that for the purposes of my own project, this reading is rather anthropocentric. A more nuanced account of this concept would expand on the possible re-soundings and resonances of the range of vibrations that are beyond our capacity for hearing.

[10] My engagement with Charlie Sdraulig’s few was especially formative in enhancing my appreciation of and sensitivity to surrounding sonic environments.

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