Ancient Persian poetry through a vocoder

by wijeratneworks

This July 12th I appear again at the Halifax Jazz Festival, certainly one of my favourite musical forums for creative expression and appreciative audiences. I am proud that ‘my city’ can create such a wonderful, artistic atmosphere in this annual event, that also capitalizes on the fact that Nova Scotia is a darn great place to spend the summer. Ah yes, the Haligonian Summer. Heaven knows we wait long enough for it. Bring on the warm waterfront vibe!

I am debuting my new electro-acoustic project, that I still haven’t found a name for (yikes, suggestions please, our publicity people need the name yesterday). I’ll be on keys, and I’m putting together a wikid little band whose featured artist is a both a top Canadian DJ and one of the great turntablists of the world: Skratch Bastid. I’m so looking forward to working with him.

I’ve decided to write three large, contrasting pieces for the set. Totally new territory for me since I’m putting together samples that DJ Skratch Bastid will hopefully enjoy scratching the crap out of. The acoustic instruments on stage will play over and around this. For the first piece, entitled TSIMO (right now can’t be bothered to explain the convoluted ‘why’), I’ve chosen to set a quatrain from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, as translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Killer lyrics, if you ask me:

I sent my soul through the invisible, 
some letter of that after-life to spell,
and by and by my soul return’d to me, 
and answer’d: “I myself am heav’n and hell”

For the coda (conclusion) of TSIMO, I don’t particularly want to inflict people with my singing, so instead I went through several steps to create an alternative sound that would still communicate the text:

  • Firstly, I recorded myself speaking the text in my best Sir-Laurence-Olivier-Shakespearean-soliloquy voice (or Sir Ben Kingsley, if you prefer someone who can orate as well and is still alive. By the way, his On Point interview is fantastic).
  • Secondly, I took my software scissors to it and chopped up the whole poem into very short phrases.
  • Thirdly, I had to synchronize the phrases, even individual words and syllables, to a click-track running at the tempo of the song (120BPM). This is a painstaking and time-consuming process that also includes time-stretching certain vowel sounds to fit the click-track. This is all done to make the vocals, well, ‘cook’. Nothing whatsoever to do with cuisine, but frankly I can’t think of a better verb for sounds that lock right into a groove . A great film that has crisp cuts akin to the rhythms of a great piece of music, has editing that ‘cooks’.
  • Finally – the fun part – I fed the vocal samples through a software vocoder, making me sound as though I’ve been turned into an android that speaks in harmonic tones. I had to pick the harmonic tones. They’re actually chords from a Schubert string quartet. This is what I ended up with:

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The main thing to bear in mind, when listening to a ‘mock-up’ for a show like this, is that it is only a condensed exposition of material that will ultimately be embellished live in various ways. Notably, all ‘loops’ which repeat, such as ‘heaven and hell’, will most likely be scratched many times over by our esteemed DJ. Which means that a recorded 2-minute coda will probably double or triple in length in live performance.