Weekly Music Showcase #9: Hominum Ex Machina (Imogen Heap, Emily Hall, & Bon Iver)
November 20th, 2019
Alright it’s time to talk about robots. But not really. But kind of.
This week for the showcase, I want to take a look at not just one song or artist, but at a certain style of music. I don’t mean style in the sense of genre, but style in the sense that these three pieces share a similar attribute that I have found myself fascinated by over the last couple of years. The attribute in question is the use of electronics and vocoder to manipulate and harmonize the human voice, a trait of music that I want to call, Hominum ex Machina, or human from the machine.
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the history of this technique, and I’m sure there are other artists out there who have used vocoder or harmonizers in their music before, but today I want to look at three specific songs from three specific artists who have found a way to use electronics and the human voice in a variety of incredibly interesting ways. What I would like to do is go through each song and talk about its specific qualities that interest me, and then afterwards discuss the qualities they all share and why those qualities make this style of music so interesting to me.
Hide and Seek
The first song I want to talk about is the song that really got me interested in vocoded music in the first place (and the song that maybe popularized the technique), is Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek. Imogen Heap has always been someone who has experimented with electronics in her music, often pushing the boundaries and innovating on the technology more so than any other artist in her genre, to be fair, she is in a genre all her own at this point. She has even developed new electronic musical instruments such as her Mi-Mu gloves (or Imogen Heap gloves), which tie the movements of the human body and the sound of the human voice directly into parameters for making music, like harmony, melody, and even more production specific aspects like reverb, chorus or delay. If you are interested in seeing the kind of music she can make with these gloves, she recently did an NPR Tiny Desk concert using them (performing a version of Hide and Seek with them as well), and it is absolutely incredible.
Okay, now to talk more about Hide and Seek, or as some people know it, the mmm whatcha say song. From the first harmonized note of this song, there is a heaviness that settles in immediately. This heaviness is backed up by the incredibly evocative lyrics for sure (the song seems to be about a child’s experience with watching their parents divorce), but there is something about the combination of Heap’s breathy and gentle vocals mixed with this robotic and metallic harmony surrounding it. This is going to be a common theme as I move forward talking about the other two songs, but what fascinates me about this music is this idea of humanity being surrounded by the machine. Hide and Seek’s heaviness comes from this contrast, this duality. Not to mention, Heap uses a cavernous and almost unnatural reverb, adding to this sense of artificially created humanity. As well, in the moments between notes, you can hear a little ambient white noise which gives the music a sense of place and context, filling in the gaps between notes in the melody. In short, this is one of my favorite vocoded songs, primarily because Imogen Heap is able to create this incredibly emotionally stirring composition using human/artificial hybrid palette of color.
The next song I want to talk about is a composition from contemporary vocalist, Emily Hall, entitled Mantra. Emily Hall is a UK composer I became interested in for research composing my own album, Life Story (click on the tab above if you want more info), as her previous two albums, Folie a deux and Life Cycles both incorporate narrative into the structure of their composition. However, one of the first pieces of music I heard from Emily Hall was her composition for vocoder, voice, and synth entitled Mantra, off of her aforementioned album Folie a deux. This piece stands apart from other vocoded works I’ve come across, as it is written for two vocalists, each with a vocoder. The harmonic style is hypnotizing, being instantly entrancing and strangely beautiful. And not to mention, Hall’s playful use of rhythm with the words “I bow to you”, makes for a composition that feels very tightly written, complex, but also not in-accessible to listen to (I do recognize not every piece of art needs to be accessible, but that’s a topic for another blog post).I highly recommend listening to more of Emily Hall’s music.
The last song I want to talk about is from indie-folk band Bon Iver, their song 715-CREEKS. With me, Bon Iver felt like a band that I had always heard about, but didn’t really ever know what they were about. I don’t think CREEKS was even the first Bon Iver song I listened to, (I think that was 22, Over Soon), but when I heard 715-CREEKS for the first time it cemented my love for Bon Iver. CREEKS is unique in that it is (as far as I know), just singer and composer Justin Vernon, and a vocoder. No other added effects or anything. For that reason the song has such a raw quality to it, almost feeling unrefined in its performance. I think that’s what I love about the song though. There is a raw emotionality to Justin’s vocal performance here and an emotionality that becomes even more apparent if you look up any live performance, this song MATTERS to him.
When I went through the process of really learning how to mix my music for my album, and the process of how music is made behind the scenes, one of the first questions I had was about what to do with breaths. I’ve heard some music leave them in, some music take them out, and was slightly confused about what to do. I finally came across a compelling argument for leaving them in from a video by Rob Mayzes. Rob argued that the breath shouldn’t just be left in, but even bumped up slightly in the mix, as the breath in and out is where the emotion lies. This completely changed my perception to breathing in regards to mixing music, and with CREEKS I feel like Rob’s point is exemplified. Here, every breath in and out from Justin Vernon feels layered and heavy, and because the song has absolutely nothing in the background (no white noise like Hide and Seek, or synth like Mantra), every breath he takes is very present in the mix and emotionally felt, hard. In music like this, where the composition itself is so heavily draped in technology, it is all the more important to leave in the details that set the human apart from the machine. All in all, it feels somehow not enough to describe CREEKS as a piece of music, but more like a direct emotional outcry from Justin Vernon, and one made all the more powerful done from behind the glass screen of vocoded vocals.
Behind the Glass: The Human From the Machine
And from behind the glass is the best way I have found to articulate exactly why this sort of music is so compelling to me. There is an emotional complexity that comes from this duality of human emotion and machine precision. In the case of Hide and Seek, Imogen Heap takes the freedom of her vocoder and uses it to take her song to new creative and artistic places. She uses it like a superpower, something to wield and aid in her creative expression. Emily Hall’s use of vocoder in Mantra almost tips completely in favor of machine-like precision, with her rhythmic permutations and ethereal harmony. At first, the song feels cold as a result of the very compositional devices Hall uses, but eventually I realized that in spite of interesting and complex devices, there is a human quality to it all as if we are witnessing two robots become self-aware (and immediately handed vocoders).
With CREEKS, I feel this is one of my favorite examples of the opposite, a human screaming and struggling against the trappings of the machine. Vernon’s vocals are emotionally charged and raw due to the minimal production and lack of reverb, but are constrained by the limits of the vocoder he is using to create his performance. These limitations come in the literal sense, that the vocoder is limited to four-part harmony (at least at the time of him recording CREEKS), and in the metaphorical sense that there is an artificiality to the vocoded voices that can not be completely covered up or controlled. CREEKS, at its core, seems to be about the frustration that comes with being unable to communicate effectively through technology. If you watch the music video for the song, you will be surprised (or maybe not) to see that the entire video is not an elaborately shot production of a music video, but instead just an unbroken and uncut screen capture of a computer monitor with a simple text window open. The only moving elements to the video are the lyrics hastily typed across the screen, with Justin’s beautiful and emotional vocal ornamentations translated into simple but feverishly typed “OooooOoOoOoOoO”’s, on the monitor.
There is a beautiful tragedy to it all. As we advance with our technology as a society, we are able to achieve wonders that would have been thought centuries ago to be impossible, musically or otherwise. It is the double-edged sword of modern communication where we can be connected to anyone in the world with a simple click of a button on a computer screen, but are not directly connecting face-to-face with any human in the process. Is mass communication achieved at the loss of human connection? Maybe. Justin Vernon seems to think so, screaming out to the void with 715-CREEKS, only for his attempt to communicate himself to be simultaneously elevated musically and trapped by the vocoded harmony, with his pained, all too human, melodic cries eventually becoming so thoroughly mistranslated to come out the other side as just some "Ooh"’s on a computer monitor.
The irony of this failure of communication isn’t lost on me either as I type this out for my blog. I feel like I can edit this over and over again, get just the exact right words and the right way to say them, but at the end of the day this is still just a bunch of text on the screen. I know that this blog gives me the ability to reach more people than I normally could through the power of social media, but that ease of communication doesn’t compare to sitting with a friend and talking their ear off about vocoders and Bon Iver over coffee. But in the meantime, I have to trust that you on the other side of the screen will see past my typed words to the meaning behind them, to trust that from inside of my frustratingly wonderful machine you will see that I am human too.
Some more listening:
Woods - Bon Iver
O Superman - Laurie Anderson
Imogen Heap - NPR Tiny Desk
CREEKS - Bon Iver NPR Live
Haze - Amber Run
Minnesota, WI - Bon Iver
Holocene - Bon Iver
P.S. Might be branching out to other topics than just music in the next months, so stay with me on that! Also, I know I left out one of the biggest modern users of a vocoder/harmonizer, someone both revered and infamous in the jazz community right now and also someone who has a huge impact on the way I think about music. I’ll be talking about him next week.