My first exposure to “experimental” vocal music was hearing French singer Tamia Valmont’s 1978 recording of First Polyphony. It became a late night staple on the radio show I hosted at UBC in the 80s. It was otherworldly to me at the time. Valmont was a jazz vocalist combining studio tape manipulation and effects with extended vocal techniques and ritual vocal traditions from around the world to forge something new, something powerful and chilling.
Then came Greek-American singer Diamanda Galas whose Plague Mass was a searing and theatrical exploration of the torments and ecstasies of the soul during the AIDS crisis. I was taken by a show at San Francisco’s Kennel Club in 1990 where she performed topless, splattered with blood and only a mic and small processing unit between her and the standing room only crowd. She melted the place with her voice, setting, for me the benchmark for an artist directly connecting with a live audience with the most fundamental means; her voice.
More recently, Canadians with their ear to the ground cannot have missed the flourishing career of Tanya Tagaq whose visceral and transcendent singing stems from the rich ancient heritage of Inuit throat singing, brought forward with the aid of a superb cast of collaborators and excellent production.
But there is another voice emerging from the wilderness that is not only deeply aware of these singers’ contributions to this rarified field, but aims to strike out in entirely new ways, embracing some powerful technological tools. Her name is Andrea Young.
Andrea hails from Armstrong BC, a north Okanagan town that Wikipedia search will tell you is best known for mass produced cheddar, a Nickleback-y rock band called Cold Driven, a Curling Gold Medalist Paralympian, and a porn actress named Shyla. Well, Wikipedia is going to need an update on that soon.
Vancouver New Music brought Andrea to town in November of 2016 to present EXO/ENDO, a multi-media work centred around Andrea’s voice and involving a mix of American and local improvising musicians including Vancouver-based cellist Marina Hasselberg and bassist Braden Diotte.
What is EXO/ENDO? To quote Young: “the piece focuses on the release and absorption of sound – where sound is a furnace and fuel for the expression of internal desire, external rage and temper – internalized and externalized in the progression of vibrations produced from the voice that exit through the machine and into the body of the receiving audience members.” Well, that description certainly piqued my interest.
We had the opportunity to chat during rehearsals on the day of the performance and follow-up via e-mail.
MM: Can you tell me about the technology you use to process your voice? What does it do and how is it different from tools singers used to use?
Andrea: I use a software/hardware sound design environment made by Symbolic Sound. The digital signal processor is called a Pacarana and produces a distinct, high-quality sound with extensive real-time processing capabilities. The hardware is controlled by software called Kyma which includes unique algorithms with unlimited, individualized live sound design possibilities.
I’ve developed a personalized voice interface – a live analysis of voice which extracts individual features that can control any parameter of electronic sound. Combined with more common concepts of vocal signal processing, and spectral analysis, the voice becomes an amplified, processed and re-synthesized voice, as well as a re-purposed sound-controlling voice enabled through feature extraction and data-driven live electronics. The combination of all of this with the highly nuanced art of singing completes the instrument.
I can’t speak for others as I don’t model my work on anyone else’s relationship to technology. But for me, the depth of this interface offers me years of experimentation, and I’m interested in this depth rather than a more common approach to voice and electronics which largely results in “effects”.
MM: Arriving here (at the CBC rehearsal space) it’s clear the group assembled represented a diversity of influences and experience.
Andrea: EXO/ENDO is 100 percent about working with people who contribute with a great diversity of musical backgrounds. Our training ranges from contemporary classical, rock, (and roll), noise bands and things like that. We are all as expressive and nuanced in our respective backgrounds as classical musicians so we’re trying to fuse these forces by offering our interpretive skills to a similar variety of composers. The absolute peak of any concert music lay in the subtleties you can achieve live. And it’s great to have conceptual art inclusive of people who are trained in different genres. So while I’m more of an academic, my impulse and passions are in line with those of any musicians working in any genre.
MM: What’s it about for you personally, outside of the formal aspects of making this kind of music?
Andrea: I love making sound that is extreme, expressive and immediate and surprising to myself. And I get to learn how to make highly crafted sounds that come to express things I never knew about myself. The thing about being a singer is that you often battle a presence of yourself in the music. I’m interested in being taken away. So when I approach electronics you don’t hear much of me singing. It’s completely infused in the whole.
MM: Can you give me an example of how you meld the visual presentation with the music?
Andrea: There’s a part in EXO/ENDO that is about heat and fire, a blaze where you have to claw your way out of a forest. It’s both literal and metaphorical and the visual designers have made a grove of trees by hanging screens at different depths on the stage so the images hit my face and the screens ahead of and behind me so I look like I’m in among the trees. At other times the whole surface looks like embers aglow after a fire. The visuals are there to help immerse you completely as you go down into the sound hole.
MM: You speak of the “gendering of the voice” and I think I know what you’re getting at. Something to do with how we have an incredible ability to transform male or female voices with technology so that gender becomes indistinguishable and fluid. I’m sure there are people writing essays on this that move far away from discussing the actual music being made and there are certainly examples in popular music where there’s some “gender play” with singing styles but how do you approach this?
Andrea: There are quite a few bands that use formant shifting (electronically changing the brightness of the vowels, basically without changing the pitch). There are quick techniques to do that but what you get are these cartoonish sounds that we’re so attuned to hearing. These are the “effects” I referred to before. So I work hard to build a voice that’s neither feminine nor masculine and I also use a lot of noise with the voice. You can vocode noise mixed with a formant shifter and combine about 4 layers to get something outside of a clichéd sound, which is very important for me. But you don’t want to sound like a monster…or a man or a woman. It’s like becoming a being or a beast. That’s how it sounds to me so I really find there’s a gorgeous feeling when you can sing in a range and manner that your physical body can’t manage. Its freedom for me and I love it.
MM: Do you know when you’re on the edge of the voice becoming too abstract?
Andrea: I’ve pushed that boundary in my music From the last four years of experimentation I’ve found my experiments have gone either too far or not far enough nothing that found the perfect balance nobody can tell I’m singing if it goes too far and then it lapses into cliché if it doesn’t go far enough. Now I can achieve fluid motion where, in one phrase, I go all the way across the fence and back again so that you can hear the voice clear as day then transforming until you can’t recognize it anymore. Then I bring it back again so in one breath I can cross the whole terrain. I’m at that point now and I’m ready to get this music going. I think I’ve found that voice.
MM: Are you fond of Armstrong? Can you see people in rural BC embracing what you do?
Andrea: I am fond of Armstrong! I love the Okanagan and particularly the farmland. The communities in rural BC are intelligent and creative, and I’ve been part of a few productions which quickly made me realize that these audiences are tough! While I would expect that audiences would be interested, I am not sure if it would be “embraced”. I am still working on warming up my tone, so to speak. I would hope that in time, my music will be embraced by communities in rural BC.
Stand by, Wikipedia!