I’m delighted to be able to announce a major ongoing project with SANSARA choir. We’ll be giving its first performing at the Barbican’s Sound Unbound festival at St. Bartholemew the Great on Sunday 19th May.
The project is called ‘Vox Machina’. It “joins together vocal and electronic music in a project that investigates the relationships between humanity and technology. It presents the human voice as both autonomous and automated: natural vocal resonances are processed, manipulated and deconstructed to produce new musical textures and striking sound effects.”
As the project develops we hope to dig into the choral-electronic repertoire, a medium that is beautiful but somewhat under-exploited. To start with, I’ve produced a piece about dying.
Titled Ceasing, the work considers how we deal with death. To write it, I interviewed the singers of SANSARA about their experiences of death. This was a strange and moving process; I’m immensely grateful to the singers for their openness. Their stories have been integrated into the text of the piece, which I have written myself.
It starts with me rushing to the hospital to see my grandmother, only to arrive minutes after she died. Why did this upset me? She was unconscious, what did I really miss? This question provokes an investigation of what happens in the moments just before we die. Next, the singers’ stories emerged as a floating mass of overlaid text. This mass is fragmented, abstracted, and electronically decayed into a final stasis. The piece ends with crackling excerpts of our conversations that are gradually slowed down – an electronic rendering of the experience of time dilation at the moment of death.
I’ve designed some really fun electronics for this. Everything is based on vocal sounds, from whistling samples to formant-based wavetable synths. But it mostly relies on the live manipulation of voices, mainly using granular reverb and digital tape delays. I took a little video of that latter effect. It reverses one beat’s worth of music and plays it at a delay, slowing it down and speeding it up to create beautiful chords:
Overall, the piece follows a trajectory from a personal story to a generalised story to a kind of abstraction through the combined mass of the interviews. This is intended as an echo of the ideas of one of my favourite philosophers, Derek Parfit. Parfit writes about how our traditional idea of ourselves as individuals is mistaken. After he spends chapters breaking these ideas apart, he takes a step back. How should we think about ourselves, should the incoherence of our self-understanding worry us? He thinks not. Under the traditional view, he says:
[My] life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, [and] at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others. (Derek Partif, Reasons and Persons, Chapter 95)
For Parfit, after our death, while ‘there will be no-one living who will be me’, we can think about that somewhat differently:
'Though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences […] Some of these future experiences may be related to my present experiences in less direct ways. There will later be some memories about my life. And there may later be thoughts that are influenced by mine, or things done as the result of my advice. My death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations. This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me.’ (Ibid.)
One (simplified) way of understanding this: our personhood is more comprised of stories and relationships than we often grasp. Death makes these interrelations the most salient aspects of our remaining personhood. I hope that Ceasing can pick up some of those stories and present them anew.
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