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Human Voices (2022)

14 minutes - for amplified viol quartet & six vocal tract tubes

Performed by Science Ficta - March 26, 2022 - New York, USA.

Science Ficta:

Sydney ZumMallen, bass viol
Loren Ludwig, bass viol
Caroline Nicolas, bass viol
Liam Byrne, bass viol

Recorded by David Adamcyk

Program notes

In Harmonie Universelle, Marin Mersenne writes the following about the viol:

"If one were to judge musical instruments according to their ability to imitate the human voice, and if one were to esteem naturalness as the highest accomplishment, so I believe that one cannot deny the viol the first prize, because it can imitate the human voice in all its modulations, even in its most intimate nuances..."


Indeed, there used to be a tradition of viol writing that particularly underlined the instrument’s perceived likeness to the human voice, among which a popular work being Marin Marais’s Les Voix Humaines. My piece Human Voices (2022), dedicated to the gamba quartet Science Ficta, is meant as a present-day response to this humanistic endeavor.

Acting as a 21st century counterpart to Marais’s Les Voix Humaines, Human Voices aims to question what “naturalness” might encompass in regard to the human voice. In order to liken the ensemble’s sound to the human voice, I 3D printed six human vocal tract models that are each tuned to a different vowel shape (/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, /ə/)[1], and amplified the gamba quartet through these tubes. Therefore, the quartet’s acoustic sound would be physically filtered through these models, imbuing the live performance with a vocal quality.

I did not conceive Human Voices as a singing machine; but rather as a musical experiment in which the listener is continuously invited to ask: “Did I just hear a voice in there?” The music is ultimately intended to function from within the realm of the uncanny, from a liminal zone that borders the human and non-human, or the so-called natural and unnatural. The sudden occurrences of the human sonic image therefore behave as brief transgressions that disturb this distinction. The human voice, a feature that is regarded to be unique to us, becomes reduced to a material construct, thus emphasizing our own material nature in return.

[1] I greatly benefited from Takayuki Arai’s acoustic research for this piece. The 3D models for the tubes /a/, /e/, /i/, and /o/ were downloaded from his website I modeled the tubes /u/ and /ə/ myself based on Arai’s work. Many thanks to Takayuki Arai for giving me permission to use his models in my piece.

Trailer                                                       Vocal Tract Tube Trials

Art: Yugo Kohrogi

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