‘No sweeter sound than my own name’ – Audio-Scores and Breathing

Beavan Flanagan and I recently caught up again to continue exploring and developing his new vocal piece, no sound sweeter than my own name. After our first meeting Beavan constructed a basic, algorithmically generated breathing score. The breathing score is an audio score that provides instructions to the performer for when to breath in and out.

From the mouth of Beavan:

I’ve recently been dealing with issues surrounding notation or perhaps more generally speaking, communication of information. Not wanting Michael to be visually – I’m going to say distracted, but I’m not sure if that’s the right word –  I’m trying to find ways to communicate information or instruction in a purely auditory fashion. This has led me to develop an exercise in controlling Michael’s breathing patterns. Using a simple set of audio instructions for breathing in and breathing out within different brackets of time, my first attempt at an audio score involved click tracks and specified numbers of beats for either breathing in or out. At Michael’s suggestion we experimented with different possibilities including: omitting the click track and beat number specification, and having myself verbally speaking aloud when to breath instead of the computer generated voice.

A collection of excerpts from our workshop.

From the mouth of Michael:

Reflecting back on the experience of reading these audio scores, I remember how acutely sensitive I was to the different forms of sonic instruction and their affect on my breathing. When I was listening to the first score that Beavan made with click tracks and a computer generated voice (which reminds me of 1960’s masculinity!) indicating the specified durations that I should be breathing in and out for I noticed a number of things.

1) I was using a lot of cognitive energy. It felt like I was receiving too much information relative to a ‘simple’ activity like breathing. The combination of a steady, unwavering pulse provided by the click track and the verbal/numeric information about how long to breath complicated the act of breathing in what felt was quite unnatural.

2) The indication of “0 (breaths) in” didn’t actually mean very much. This is because when I listened to the audio score I found it much more intuitive to listen to the number specification from the voice, enact my action after the verbal instruction, and continue breathing through the subsequent verbal instructions. Basically: I would hear “4 in”, start breathing in on the first pulse after the verbal instruction, and only after the next verbal instruction, start breathing in the opposite direction.

When we removed the numeric information and click track from the breathing score, my breaths in and out started to stabilize and it became much easier to naturally respond to the information. The score became something like an audio gate or switch. After working with that for some time, we wanted to explore the limits of these breathing durations. To expediate the process of editing the patch in which the score was running, Beavan took on the role of the score and gave me spoken “ins” and “outs” himself.

Although the main purpose of this exercise was to explore the limits of duration, we found that as a performer, I was incredibly sensitive to the vocal inflections of Beavan’s voice. If Beavan would say “in” with a slightly sharper and direct tone, my inward breath would be similarly sharp on the inhalation, and conversely, if the vocal delivery was relaxed and smooth, that would also be reflected in the quality of my breath.

If we are thinking of these audio scores as having relationships with written notations, we could understand these vocal inflections as similar to the function of articulation marks such as tenuto or accents and expressive markings. Moving forward, I am interested to continue exploring nuances of inflection as a way of subtly controlling and manipulating the sound of the composition.

An equally fascinating possibility we stumbled across was that of being able to compositionally move my breathing into different areas of “physical tessitura.” What I mean by this is that, in general, there is a kind of stability that emerges from my breathing when it occurs in a regular fashion without too many extremes of duration either in or out. However, if, for example, the score was to indicate that I breathe in for 5, out for 1, in for 5, out for 1, in for 5, etc. I would eventually be placed (or arrive) in a different area of physical comfort with respect to breathing. On a physical level, I would want to exhale to release the built-up pressure, but could also stay in the (somewhat strained) state for a period of time. The inverse is true where continually prompting me to breathe outwards more than inwards also places me in a different (also strained) physical tessitura.

After these breathing exercises, we briefly introduced pitch the equation of which you can listen to in the following video. The finding from this short exercise was the realization that it is possible to control the amount of ‘noise’ introduced into the pitched sound given how much I activate my nostrils (whether or not I allow air to flow through the nostrils).

more information on this project can be found @ the project’s hub


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