Perfect Sound Forever


CHARLES DODGE on "Speech Songs"
(April 2000)

Though vocorders and voice-guitar devices became common in popular music in the '70's, Dodge was a pioneer of voice-sythesis experiments before any of that, as witnessed in his series of "Speech Songs" compositions (available on Any Resemblance Is Purely Coincidental on New Albion).

In the early days of computer music in the sixties, one of the few places to actually hear what you were doing was at the Bell Laboratories (in New Jersey).  In those days, it was a very special piece of equipment called the digital-analog converter that was used for that purpose.  Bell was a friendly benevolent monopoly at this stage.  The inventor of computer music, Max Matthews, was there.  He encouraged some of us who had access to university computers to make musical sound in digital form on the computers and to listen to it and convert it to a form that could be heard in his laboratory.

That lab was used in the daytime for speech research.  When you went there to listen to your music, you often heard speech research going on in the hall.  I was fascinated by that and was so struck how much more interesting were the sounds of synthesized speech which were made by the researchers were than the attempts at musical sounds that my friends and I were making.

At some point in the early '70's, I had the opportunity to work at the Bell Labs in the evening, after hours, in an attempt to make music using some of the software there that had been developed for speech research.  I had access to software written by a researching named Joseph Olive, who had a musical background and an interest in music composition.  With Matthews' permission and Olive's active help, I was able to go to Bell after the workers had gone home and use the same computers that were used for speech research for music.  That was the genesis of the speech synthesis techniques that were used in those pieces.

The poems themselves were sketches by Mark Strand, who was a friend of mine.  We were both teaching at the School of Arts at Columbia University at the time.  I asked him if he had any texts that I would be able to use and he suggested these.  He had a whole bunch of them which he read over the phone and I copied down a few of them.  I ended up using four of the surrealistic poems that he had written.

It was really fun to do it helped me discover... I'd never been able to write very effective vocal music and here was an opportunity to make music with words.  I was really attracted to that.  It wasn't singing in the usual sense.  It was making music out of the nature of speech itself.  With the early speech-synthesis computers, you could do two things: you could make the voice go faster or slower than the speed in which it was recorded at the same pitch or you could shift the pitch independent of the speech rhythm.  That was a kind of transformation that you couldn't make in the usual way of making tape music.  It was fascinating to put my hands on two ways of modifying sound that were completely, newly available.

I've always liked humor and had an attraction to the bizarre, the surreal.  These poems were almost dream-like in their take on reality.  So that made me feel very at home somehow.  This unreal voice taking about unreal life situations was a very congruent.  The voices are very cartoon-like and that really pleased me- I was very interested in pop art like Lichtenstein.  To make a cartoon-like voice, really struck a chord with the art at the time.  People would listen to this and just giggle.  It was really fun to be a part of that.

For "He Destroyed Her Image," I was interested in changing the tambre of the voice.  That reversal from looking outside to being inwardly confused in the poem, I tried to depict with the changes of tone quality in the voice, back and forth between a electronic phrase that sounds speech-like (you can understand the words) and an electronic phrase that's less speech-like (where you can't understand the words).  This happens even though the two the two have same pitch pattern.

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