The 180º Voice

Jim Denley and Nick Ashwood interview Amanda Stewart. Recorded 24/03/2019, Hobart.


Stereo, Childhood, Composers and Notation.

AS: Well you’d better ask me things…

JD: [Laughs]

AS: I’ve actually thought to myself that i should reflect on what’s happened in relation to my vocal history, which i’ve never properly done. In some ways maybe it would be better to do this interview when i’ve thought about it more, or on the other hand not — as something spontaneous will come out.

[A kookaburra swoops down] He’s got a lizard, poor little lizard, arghh — oh no— oh well, good on ya mate!

JD: Pbbbbbbbbt… So can you go back to, is it the mid eighties? When you were constructing this electronic voice presumably you did poetry readings acoustically,

AS: mmm

JD: from my point of view the most profound, interesting and beautiful thing you’ve done is create this voice which is so adept in an electronic sphere (or field). Who was it? Arghh… Jon Smeathers’ reaction to seeing you play the other night was this revelation, coz he’d heard this Amanda Stewart electronic voice in the stereo spectrum of a CD, but he hadn’t realised the physicality of doing that and that it can occur live, so it was a shock. And it’s so simple, with this stereo pair and the good use of the PA system, but your body’s reaction to the microphones and the sonic field is so complex. When and how did you start developing that?

AS: Sometimes the antecedents of ideas can occur subconsciously, years before they actually manifest in a concrete way. I know that when i used to do acoustic performances they drew on a totally different range of techniques and muscles. Working in radio had a massive influence on how i listened to the voice, because you could manipulate the voice through editing and all sorts of processing i found that very interesting. When your day job is constantly dealing with the voice as a recorded object which gives it all sorts of other possibilities you can hear into the voice in totally different ways once it’s amplified or on tape. It’s almost like it’s got this plasticity, but it’s also an object unfolding in time, on tape or digitally.

I’d have to say that in my vocal work the influences of other musicians that i’ve observed and worked with have had the most important impact. When i saw you using stereo microphones at a performance at, i think it was COFA, years and years ago, (you did a solo performance with the flute), i was absolutely blown away. I’m pretty sure that’s where i got the idea to start using the stereo microphones. In the 80s i’d listened to quite a lot of extended vocals from work by Joan La Barbara and others, and in my poetry i’d been interested in the disjunction between oral and written forms of the English language, and how in the oral forms of language you’ve got this incredible richness which in many ways shares characteristics with music — dynamics, pitch, envelope, (there’s a huge overlap) i started to become interested in [pause] what the amplified voice does.

I always had this thing, you know, let’s analyse what the materials are that we’re working with. What is the nature of the voice? And i thought, well, the voice is an interesting phenomenon because it can range across language and music, and it’s got the ability to synthesise linguistic, musical, logical, emotional and psychoanalytic aspects of being human and so what happens if you start to dig into that? I became interested in how we listen to and how we classify the voice. So if someone’s doing acoustic extended vocals or even amplified vocals where is that culturally situated? We have a history of extended vocal technique. In the 80s i oscillated between wanting and not wanting to listen too much to extended vocal technique coz i didn’t want to be influenced by that i was trying to find my own niche, which i think is something that’s a really precious thing that artists can enjoy. ‘Why would i do this? What materials am i working with? What creativity can come from that?’ Rather than, say, if you just embody the cultural techniques or norms that are around you, i mean that can be fantastic too, maybe we all do that inevitably anyway…


God i’m really raving now — going all over the place [laughs]. I guess that’s the problem of not having analysed this stuff properly myself as yet.

JD: One thing you do do is spatialise the body. Voice is so associated with a particular body, but then what happens in its amplification, there’s this illusion that the sound comes from the space where the body is situated. But you do the opposite with a wide stereo spread, you’re often centre stage but projecting sound way to the left and way to the right and then cutting between those. So you take a voice and splice it in space, using the PA to disembody. So there’s a paradox in your work — everyone’s very aware of the physicality of producing the sound but you underline the fact that your gonna destroy the spatiality of the body.

AS: Very much so and i’ve ended up sticking with this very limited technique, and it does have a very particular function it will change in the room (which is exciting). But that’s why now i struggle, sometimes i think ‘oh shall i try a mono voice again?’ (in certain contexts). Because the 2 microphones create a lot of technical problems you can get phasing issues, (cause you’re meant to have the microphones crossed and i don’t have them crossed). What i like about it is that there’s a contradiction, on the one hand there is this embodiment still residual in this amplified voice, but at the same time it’s liberated it has a plasticity and sculptural aspect where the voice is suddenly released into a totally new context of listening. What’s exciting is you can get all these weird psychoacoustic effects which make us listen to the voice in a different way. What are our listening structures? How do our listening structures block out certain types of perceptual information? When you can release the voice into this stereo plasticity and where you get very fast, left/right movements if you splatter tiny fragments of phonemes across the stereo spectrum, they have a completely different ontology. What i’d try and do is get a complexity occurring, so sometimes i’m using quite fast material to try and get these psychoacoustic effects. It’s disorientating and i’ve become disorientated myself (which i really enjoy).

So if you break that down and analyse what’s going on with the way our listening’s being reconfigured, a very simple example is if you make, say, the sound ‘A’ into the left hand side and ‘T’ in the right so this is bringing it under the microscope you can read those 2 sounds musically in relation to either their relative pitch, envelope, volume, timbre, their relation in time to each other etc. or hear the two sounds as an abstraction of the word ‘At’. When we hear a sequence of sounds, the brain will try and classify those sounds and their relation culturally — is that language? Is that music? What type? What form of cultural discourse or listening field do those sounds seem to conform to or generate? And somehow the real-time spatialisation highlights this ambiguity and has the ability to challenge and allow reflection on our internalised listening structures and assumptions.

I’ve always been interested in the relationship between language and music, and on the whole i think they’re really very separate structures in terms of the way they trigger the human, um, because there’s something very essential about the voice. We’ve all got a voice — we’re using it with language all the time — we’re often unconscious of the incredible richness of extended vocals within language and also how they signify. We’re often unconscious of the complexity of oral grammars which are operating within our speech structures. I think that’s one of my main interests, trying to throw up how we perceive the voice culturally in terms of these different distinctions, and that’s one reason that i struggle with the idea of mono or acoustic — for me that references the history of extended vocal technique and we instantly bring a particular cultural reading to that. There are residues of the wonderful vocalists of the C20th, or popular music — where you have the most virtuosic and diverse types of vocal uses.

I was worried about the decorative aspect of being a female vocalist, it has all this baggage around it. There’s a whole cultural thing about the female as the diva, the hysteric, the emotional body. The other thing i love about stereo is that even though there’s an expressive element there, because it’s being abstracted, it’s not just expressionist. That’s one thing that used to drive me crazy — being read through an expressive or a decorative lens. So it’s like, ‘oh here’s my vocal gymnastics’. Well why? You-know? Ok, well sometimes listening to the most amazing vocalist you’re just transfixed by this otherness. Üte Wasserman, for instance has a fabulous facility of being very unpretentious about these unbelievable sounds and worlds that she’s able to create. But coming from a language background, at that time, i thought, ‘Well what can i bring to the world of extended vocal technique?’ I can bring an investigation into language structures and going into the minutiae of extended vocal techniques in oral grammars. Also if you chisel into phonemes and other tiny sounds — amplification allows you to do this — even if you’ve got the most brilliant vocal technique in the world, it’s difficult acoustically to be able to reference tiny sounds accurately, these subliminal sounds in language there’s so much information in tiny fragments of a larger vocal continuum.

When i was a kid i spent years singing, mimicking records and whistling. By the time i was 10 or 11 i had decided that that was what i wanted to do — writing and singing. But my grandmother was paying for piano lessons and i wasn’t allowed to do singing, so i got really pissed-off and rebelled against the piano, refused to practice and eventually gave it up. When i started to meet musicians in my early 20s, some of my poetry work utilised some oral techniques and some composers became interested in it. Warren Burt was the first person i tried improvisation with, i think, or maybe it was Rae Marcellino – hard to remember — anyway, i remember that Richard Vella took me into the conservatorium, and said ‘You should notate your poems more accurately’. So we went into the computer and i read one of my more orally informed poems. This score came out which had all these parameters mapped, and i looked at this thing and thought, why would i do this? Do i want someone else to slavishly perform my work exactly like i’d do it? Well if they’d want to do that, these days we’ve got the tape recorder. It seemed tautological.

NA: That’s what David Ahern says in that interview — the tape recorder is becoming the score.

AS: Oh did he? And then that’s the most accurate score you can get. So then i thought, well actually i’m not interested in accurately notating every sound parameter of this work. Surely what’s interesting about a score is the latitude for interpretation. So i decided i didn’t want to accurately notate that oral aspect, i wanted to look at the disjunction between the oral and the written and approach the idea of notation in a different way.

And then i met you and Rik in the mid 80s. [Addressing Nick] Jim would come into the ABC and we’d do these vocal sessions, where we’d usually just end up in hysterical laughter — it was so much fun

NA: so this was in the 80s?

AS: Yeah, so i’d go down in my lunch hour we’d meet down in one of the studios, probably not meant to say this

JD: i think it’s OK now

[All laugh]

AS: It was like my childhood dream of wanting to be involved in a musical, as well as a poetic world. I felt so lucky, i was so inspired by these wonderful musicians and composers. I don’t think i would have gone anywhere near doing extended vocals without the wonderful influences and opportunities to play with people like Jim and Warren and…

To be continued.