Mediated Presence

There's a knob on my portable speakers that says Presence: A review of selected works dealing with the voice, technology, and mediation

by Eugene Thacker

RLW - "Pullover" CD (Table of the Elements, Box 5524, Atlanta, GA, 30307; email:

Otomo Yoshihide - "The Night Before the Death of the Sampling Virus" CD (Extreme, PO Box 147, Preston 3072, Victoria, Australia;

Ubuweb: visual/concrete/sound poetry website (

There's a story that Sandy Stone tells in her book, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, about going to hear physicist Stephen Hawking give a talk one afternoon at the university of Santa Cruz. As is well known, Hawking has a debilitating condition which effectively paralyzes his entire body. He thus uses a device (a "Votrax allophone generator") to synthesize his speech based on his selection of words and phrases from a series of menus and, as Stone says:

Sitting, as he always does, in his wheelchair, utterly motionless, except for his fingers on the joystick of the laptop; and on the floor to one side of him is the PA system microphone, nuzzling into the Votrax's tiny loudspeaker...Exactly where, I say to myself, is Hawking?...In an important sense, Hawking doesn't stop being Hawking at the edge of his visible body. There is the obvious physical Hawking, vividly outlined by the way our social conditioning teaches us to see a person as a person. But a serious part of Hawking extends into the box in his lap. In mirror image, a serious part of that silicon and plastic assemblage in his lap extends into him as well...No box, no discourse...On the other hand, with the box his voice is auditory and simultaneously electric, in a radically different way from that of a person speaking into a microphone. Where does he stop? Where are his edges?(4-5)

As Stone states, more than just an issue of mediation-by-technology (someone's "real" voice transmitted via electronic media such as telephone, radio, microphone), the issue that hearing Hawking brings up concerns "boundary debates" of voices constituting and constituted by/through technology.

The issue of the voice is a particularly interesting one in itself because it always begs the question of the body particular to the voice (in contrast to the body/mouth from which the voice emanates). Anyone who's heard a sudden scream (of terror, of anger, of pleasure), subtle whispering, classical opera (whether a fan or not), vocal traditions from "other" cultures (e.g. the recent fascination with those traditions from Bulgaria and Tuva), or just a familiar voice (perhaps after a long absence, perhaps too soon, perhaps unexpectedly), can attest to the varied and peculiar affectivity that the voice may have. Like sounds from one's surroundings, machines, or instruments, voices can have that acoustic tactility which strikes something one can't help but to call immediacy (pleasurable, irritating, or numbing). But unlike rush hour traffic, rhythmic jackhammers, or drum machines, we tend to customarily regard the voice as a kind of trajectory extending directly from another person - and from another person's body. It's as if it's only the lack of visibility that keeps us from automatically regarding the voice as a part of our external anatomy as much as our arms, eyes, and legs are. This quality of the voice seems to be both invisible but tactile - and it's easy to speak about the voice in ways that bespeak its paradoxical status as an object: voices are variously smooth, round, soft, sharp, grating, heavy, delicate (but also airy, dynamic, muted, and of course silent). This is perhaps what Roland Barthes would refer to as the "grain of the voice," that quality of the voice (often his examples were Schubert's lieder) which rubs up against a person like an invisible wave.

Of course it's equally customary for musicians to regard their instruments (and this analogy can be extended more generally) as intimate parts of themselves, and at least since McLuhan the notion of technology as an "extension of the self" has become something almost taken for granted. Yet this is where things get especially interesting. Though numerous histories of music in the west outline the prevalence of the voice (especially early music), it has only been recently, with the growing influence of various technologies being developed, consumed, implemented, and creatively used in society, that the relationship between the voice and technology has occurred. And though there are certainly composers and performers who have focused on the voice (Yamantaka Eye, Meredith Monk, John Cage, Luciano Berio, Diamanda Galas, Arnold Schoenberg immediately come to mind), there is also a kind of wide genealogy of more intimate intersections between the voice and technology, which, provisionally, has important marking points with Varese's "Poeme electronique" and the early experiments of Pierre Schaeffer/Pierre Henry in the late 40s/50s. In both cases the voice was treated in conjunction with the then emerging electronic and magnetic tape media, respectively, often resulting in fascinatingly strange - and un-human - contortions and flights of the human voice.

It is in this tradition that RLW, German composer Ralf Wehowsky, is working with Pullover, a series of pieces using only the voice as its source material. Wehowsky was a founding member of the experimental-industrial ensemble P16.D4 in the early 80s, and has since gone on to compose works under RLW that often deal with subtleties and nuances of sound emerging from silence and vice-versa. Pullover, composed in 1995, is a collaborative project, utilizing prose-poem texts written by Markus Caspers which were sent to a number of people to record in German (regardless of their native language). Among others, contributors include Jerome Noetinger, Francisco Lopez, Jim O'Rourke, David Grubbs, and Wehowsky himself. These recordings were used as source material and composed utilizing electro-acoustic techniques and technologies.

Even when we actually hear something more readily recognizable as a voice, RLW never lets us forget the process and processing of the source material, using everything from irregular cut-and-paste layering to the most extreme sonorous manipulations, which sound like your loudspeakers are in fact liquefying. Often the sounds are incredibly present - that is, they make no pretense of creating an illusory soundstage but literally come right out of, or rather, embody your loudspeakers. As if in ironic jest at the simulational technologies of audiophiles and surround-sound, the voices/sounds on Pullover make the space of the listener their "stage," emphasizing not only their materiality as electronically-inflected sounds, but also as voices, voices that are often unrecognizable as voices but whose presence you nevertheless register. All this is of course intelligently undermined by the compositional process RLW uses, stacking layer upon layer of mediation: the voices that are source material are not direct, "live" voices, but recordings themselves; the compositional techniques and process RLW uses often extend those recorded voices far beyond their "natural" capabilities; the treatments of the voice-recordings range from relatively recognizable speech in a disjointed polyphony to the production of electronic sounds using voice; in a significant way, the very "up front" feeling of many of the pieces highlights an important tension between the presence of the sounds and their re/presentation via electronic means.

Needless to say, the majority of the results on Pullover are far from sounding anything like a "normal" human voice, and this is one of the lessons to be gleaned from this CD: on the one hand you're left with a question similar to the one Stone brings up - where do the (recorded) voices end and the electronics begin? Do either the "original" voices, or traces of electronics & processing, ever disappear completely? On the other, a double coding takes place, where the voices provide support points for the resultant electro-accoustic sounds, and where those electronic, processed sounds form carriers for an integration between voice and technology.

If RLW orients his focus towards the sonic metamorphosis of voices that are continually in the process of processing (whether recorded or radically altered), a sampling project by turntable/sampling wizard Otomo Yoshihide (who heads the ensemble Ground Zero) a few years earlier takes up the issue of appropriating and sampling voices already in a given format. Cryptically entitled The Night Before the Death of the Sampling Virus, Yoshihide's CD proposes to "lay bare the act of sampling itself," using the human voice as found in Japanese culture (infused by both media and western influence) as the major thematic thread running through the 77 brief, aphoristic sample "viruses." Right from the start, one hears a test-tone, then cut to a Japanese male news reporter, then cut to a peculiarly dramatic dialogue between a man and a woman from a film, then cut to a solid mass of voice-generated noise by Boredoms frontman Eye - all this in the first minute or so. Though Yoshihide performs a variety of processing and manipulation to the samples, his main concern in terms of the voice is actually the contexts and possible (creative) uses of mediation (I've already violated Yoshihide's explicit wish that the CD should never, under any circumstances, be listened to simply straight through...). In other words, in developing a concept CD based on the act of sampling, the voice is taken as a context, as already mediated in a given situation. Voices aren't formed or performed specifically for the CD, but are taken out of other contexts (TV News or phone conversations in a movie), each with their own structures wherein voices perform. This is clearly evident in listening to the samples (Yoshihide encourges listening to the CD on random play, with the fast-forward button pressed, on repeat, with another CD, rubbed with grease, etc.), as well as the list in the liner notes. For each sample Yoshihide gives its source and context (e.g., TV News, film, CB radio, "boiled EP records," sitcoms, riots, porn flicks, instructional tapes, etc.) as well as the sampling-based equipment used (from low-tech cassette tapes and toy samplers to DAT and the Akai S-1000).

With the electronica wave in full swing, Yoshihide's CD presents an interesting anomaly in the way sampling is approached. Unlike much recent sampling-based music, where samples are used transparently or invisibly as building-blocks (nearly all forms of dance music utilize this logic, with drum'n'bass forming at times the more self-reflexive branch) or simply as ornamentation (since the more interesting examples when industrial music first began citing film-bytes decorative sampling has gone mainstream), Yoshihide's CD is just sampling...but of course sampling is never or can never be "just itself"; it is always something else, if anything (a sample is always a sample of something). The samples on Yoshihide's CD are indeed infectiously frustrating and fascinating because they get at a primary tension in the sampling act: in many ways sampling is about creating a context for decontextualizing, and by doing so recontextualizing. You can't simply listen to the Sampling Virus CD as pure sound or sonorism; you're always reminded of context by the various signs of a media-based intercultural codification (the particular vocal inflections of a TV News reporter, a police officer, a porn star, a comedian, a political group demonstration). Conversely, though numerous musical sources are sampled (from TV jingles to traditional Asian vocal music), none of the 77 samples really form whole musical pieces, let alone songs. What you end up with are strange and awkward (and this awkwardness, though not calculated, is by no means accidental) sound objects that are free-floating (decontextualized), but which never totally efface their previous context (recontextualized). But more than that, these sound objects are also voices, situated in a performance according to a given media-cultural code (the dramatic film, TV sitcom). In parallel to RLW, Yoshihide's sampled voices are also doubly coded, but in slightly different ways: first, as voices occurring and performing in a specific cultural media format, and secondly, as voices processed doubly (through their originary context, say, in TV, and through their being strategically sampled by Yoshihide). In a sense then, Yoshihide's sampling project restores the strangeness of the human voice, but in a new format which also simultaneously comments on its banality. The voices of a culture's everyday media-saturated world are formed into an inquiry on the possible death of the human voice (behind those techno-cultural codifications and recognitions; the voice that is never just a voice but always a voice performing according to a given context), as well as its strangeness despite or because of those same contexts.

There's no lack of strange voices at the ubuweb site, an archive utilizing web technologies (primarily RealAudio) to present visual and sound poetry. Ubuweb is a much needed site on the web for the simple reason that long before the cultural prevalence of the web and consumer accessibility of the home computer, poet/artists such as Apollinaire, Marinetti, Schwitters, during the 1913-30s, and Gromringer, Bense, the de Campos brothers, Chopin, and the Lettrists, during the post-war period, were each in their different ways exploring poetry as a material and physical medium, often finding that the sliding between word and image, word and sound - not unlike hieroglyphics, or, in a more contemporary sense, semiotics - was a very smooth one. To document this (anti-)tradition of approaching the poem, or word, as an object, as a concrete object, with a body capable of innumerable transformations, is one of the very positive projects which the ubuweb site succeeds at. Found here are early shaped poems from Renaissance English poets, as well as names from the avant-garde and 60s (the pieces by Apollinaire, Cage, Augusto de Campos, Chopin, Kolar, Schwitters, Solt, and Shohashiro are especially good). There is also a nice selection of contemporary works, often utilizing the computer in some way (from word processing to computer graphics; I especially enjoyed Johanna Drucker's pieces, referencing 19th century drawing as well as graphic design). Not to miss also is their "found/insane" archive of pieces from the city or the asylum. However, for my purposes here, the section on sound poetry provided an interesting opportunity to further think about the voice-technology relationship as more and more cultural activity gradually discovers the web.

As with their other archives, ubuweb's sound poetry include essentials from the early part of the century, such as pieces by Apollinaire, Cocteau, Marinetti, Duchamp, and others working during the 50s and 60s (Burroughs, Gysin, Cage, MacLow, etc.). I'd like to take two particular examples of sound pieces for the relationship that is set up between them. The first is a well-known reference-book for voice, Kurt Schwitters' "Ursonata" from the early 20s (though several recordings were made by Schwitters). Along with Berlin Dadaist Raoul Hausmann's vocal experiments, the Schwitters piece for voice remains one of the most extensive treatises on the body of the voice and its many forms. As if he had asynchronously attached a linguistic EEG to his voice, Schwitters had composed a "score" for the Ursonata, made of up rough measures and trails of phonetic script. In going over the score (available in the recent translated collection of Schwitters' work, PPPPP, ed. Rothenberg & Joris), one can almost feel the contours of the sounds as they form in the mouth, and Schwitters' performance certainly lives up to such sound sculpture. Short, machine-gun syllables are dotted out in incessant repetition with subtle changes, then in a flurry the voice drops then rises in an arch over a single letter, slowly morphing into the outer shape or edge of a syllable. What makes the Schwitters piece so fascinating is that it is always a performing voice, in the act of embodying itself (as sound, as phoeneme, as syllable, as pitch). The voice's body is of course then anything but static, or even corporeal, but continuously presented as a fluidity being stretched, re/formed.

However for Schwitters it was primarily the performing of the voice, more than the recording of it, which dictated the priority for his vocal experiments - the then emerging technology of available acoustic reproduction was a means and for the most part a tool for documentation. It is for this reason that Henri Chopin's pieces, particularly "Hoppa Bock" and "Vibrespace" (recorded in 1970 and 63, respectively), form an interesting parallel to the Ursonata. Even more than the musique concrete composers associated with French Radio during the 50s and 60s, Chopin has constantly focused - either with phonetic poetry or sound poetry - on the voice as a template for a wide range of expression. Like the pioneering work of Schwitters, Chopin is also concerned with the varied shapes and sonic bodies of the voice; unlike Schwitters - that is, having a different techno-cultural-historical context from Schwitters - Chopin was also constantly looking into how the voice is affected, as well as how it triggers affect, across different media and technologies. Visual/concrete poetry, graphic design, performance, and electro-acoustic music all provided ways for Chopin to see what happens to the voice in a type of trans-media environment; questions as to what happens to the voice as it re/presents itself graphically, or in performance, or in speech without words, without linguistics, or when a compressor or filter cuts out a certain portion of the vocal wavelength. As the examples at the ubuweb site show, Chopin's sound pieces often result in sonorous, ethereal, and highly ambiguous sonic states. "Hoppa Bock" sounds almost like a field recording in a park, though not really; the immersion, not only of voice treated electro-acoustically, but of that voice enmeshed in other processed sounds creates a dense, wave-like movement through which something like a recognizable voice (breathing, inhaling, whispering) almost crystallizes, though incompletely, which is partly what makes these pieces so facinating. The voice is sonically dispersed in a way that makes it non-local but present in a way that looks forward to RLW's pieces.

Of course, framing all of these sound poetry works is the medium of the internet and the web itself. Ubuweb uses RealAudio to feed the sound data through phone line (they give you a choice of 14.4 or 28.8 modem) and played using RealPlayer (which can be downloaded from their website). In a case of Benjamin-gone-paranoid, what one hears when listening to, say, Apollinaire's "Le Pont Mirabeau" of 1912, is a temporarily downloaded version (which is of course all data) of an early, static-muffling, pre-tape recording (itself a performance of an originary poem). And as Benjamin has suggested, the point is less to develop anxiety about immanent mediation (and specifically the dissapation of the immediacy or presence of voice) than how to reflexively, critically, and creatively work within surroundings in which the opposition between natural and artificial, the body and technology, are no longer tenable, constructive, or interesting binaries. Ubuweb, in presenting an archive of early examples exploring the limits of media and genre, and doing so in the context of the web, have provided one possible base from which to take up the issue of the performing voice and the voice's body (Barthes' grain of the voice) interfacing in complex ways with new web technologies such as RealAudio and Shockwave. Hopefully such presentations in multimedia environments will be taken up by poets, composers, and hypermedia performers.

P.S. - visitors to ubuweb should be sure to hear two other treats: Cecil Taylor's "Chinampas" and the quirky barotone counterpoint version of "Round Midnight" by David Moss.