Grains of Voices
- Åke Parmerud
- Year of composition: 1994-95
- Duration: 31:11
- Instrumentation: stereo fixed medium
- Commission: Sveriges Radio
We all live on the same planet, but it is indeed a scattered world. The difference in culture, language, history, religion and welfare are sometimes overwhelming when travelling between different nations and regions of the world. Still, people of all nations and races share the same basic needs, hopes, joys and sorrows. Wherever there are people, the sound of the human voice will fill the air, expressing their emotions through talking, laughing, crying or singing depending on time and place. The sound of the voice is a striking symbol of the unity of mankind, and the sound of music is called “the universal language of the world.”
The idea to make Grains of Voices was born as I was asked to make a musicdramatic piece for the Swedish Radio. I decided to make a composition concerning the human voice, its symbolic implications and its musical applications. I have always been fascinated by the richness and variation of voices I’ve heard during trips to different places in the world. Children’s voices, young and aging voices all possess unique qualities in different regions of the world. I had a vision of making a piece of sonic art that would reflect and explore all possible aspects of sound emanating from all thinkable (and unthinkable) voices from all around the world. My aim was to create an image of the voice, symbolizing the unity of a complex world where ethnic, cultural and idiomatic ideals melted into a new form. In a sense like a large, wild and unrestrained piece of vocal graffiti.
I wanted the voices to be captured at “the source” and not come from preexisting recordings, since one important aspect of the idea was to make my own experiences and relations to the people and cultures “behind” the sounds a part of the compositional process. For this reason I set out for a journey around the world to record the sounds of the human voice. On practical as well as economical grounds, I could not visit all the nations and places I wanted. The piece far from covers all of the world’s immense diversity of vocal expression, but hopefully the concept comes through anyway.
I was from the very beginning planning to let the journey and all the random events that would occur along the way work as a natural “borderline” that I would have to relate to later in the process. The people I met would say or sing whatever they wanted and I would simply record them as our ways crossed. Consequently, when I later returned to Sweden and was looking for some western opera voices, I asked the artists themselves to decide what they wanted to sing. This way I did not (with a few exceptions) control what went into the composition, only what came out. Furthermore I didn’t want to put the sounding material together with a traditional collage technique, but rather use modern means of digital audio processing and mixing together with a new composing strategy to shape the different voices into a multilayered, cross-cultural hybrid piece of sonic art.
The field recordings were done between February and May 1994 and resulted in close to 20 hours of recorded material. Additional material was recorded in Sweden during the summer and autumn of ’94, and basic editing and processing of selected material was done from May to October ’94. There are, however, parts in the piece that not only make use of field recordings. There are instances where I have used archive recordings or recordings from television and radio. The actual composing, sound processing and mixing was done in periods between September ’94 to July ’95 with the major part of the work done from February to June ’95.
In this piece I am not acting like a traditional composer in the sense of one who invents new melodies, harmonies or rhythms. Instead I am creating relations between recorded sounds in such a way that a sense of meaning and musical logic may be projected in the mind of the listener.
Thus the listener is forced to “travel” through large portions of the piece, making his or her way through the sometimes very dense weave of voices. Since the piece contains songs and words not only from different cultures but also from different regions within each culture (like street market voices combined with songs from a wedding party) there will at times be portions of the piece which may seem meaningful to one listener but not to another. Or rather, the level of meaning will change depending on who is listening and when. From a lingual point of view the piece is clearly biased towards English. I felt this to be necessary in order to maintain the dramaturgical continuity of the composition.
The piece is composed as a continuous flow where movement-like “islands” of thematic ideas and voices are formed. The opening of the piece uses the biblical words of Genesis where “darkness” and “light” have been substituted with “silence” and “sound,” giving the first chaotic section its symbolic character. In this section the piece literally explodes throwing hundreds of voices and characters towards the listener.
The second part of the piece has the theme of memories of childhood in the form of lullabies and children’s songs from different countries combined with answers to two questions: “What is the voice?” and “What is music?”
The next “island” carries the theme of prayers through the combination of the provocative poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the evening prayer of an old Hindu woman, a Balinese and a Fijian priest, and finally a New Delhi citizens right demonstration.
In a rather short section a new theme of time and memories is projected through the poetry and voices of dead poets like Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Herman Hesse, Philip K Dick and Dylan Thomas.
This section leads to a long movement in witch the theme of musical drama is explored. The western classical opera meets modern improvised caricatures of itself, Balinese shadow plays and the classical Tibetan style of opera singing.
The last section of the piece is born as a slow transformation from dramatic to ritual music. Rain songs and aboriginal chanting, Fijian war songs and the agressive preaching of reverend Billy Graham meet fragments of North American popular culture in the form of cut-up commercials and rock clichés ending in a chaotic sound reminiscent of the beginning.
The apocalyptic finale of the piece where God (seemingly tired of all the shouting and noise) with a mighty roar proclaims silence, may, of course, be understood in its most obvious biblical sense as the dooming of the world. I prefer, however, to think of silence not as the opposite of life and light, but rather as the symbol of peace.
Grains of Voices was realized in 1994-95 at the composer’s studio in Gothenburg (Sweden) and premiered on October 27, 1997 at the Dag Hammarskjöld Auditorium of the Headquarters of the United Nations in New York City (USA). The piece was commissioned by Sveriges Radio — the Swedish radio. •• Field-recorded voices: Venezuela: Eduardo Kusnir; Fiji: Leow Sevu, Sikeli Tavaga, Aisake Matarara, Amani Bogileka, Nemani Raikuna, Mariah Yanu; Australia: Simon Tipungwuti, Francis-Xavier Tipungwuti and their wifes; India, Tibet: Tashi Dhundup, Lobsang Choephel, Sherab Wangmo, Tsering Wangmo, Tsering Youdon, Joginder Gill, Raj Gopal and monks from the Namgyal monastary of Dharamsala; Bali: Anar Agung Gede Oka, Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai, Ida Ayomade Rai, Ida Ayu Kti, Ketut Nesa, Anak Agung Gede Alit and many, many others in all these places whose names I could not take notes of. Vocal improvisations by: Erik Lindman, Marie Selander. Opera parts sung by: Ingalill Rask Nyström and Astrid Pernille Hartmann. Recitation: Paul Pignon and Anna Wennström. Archive material from Biblioteca nacional de Venezuela and Sveriges Radio. Special thanks to: the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation, the Swedish embassies of Caracas (Venezuela) and New Delhi (India), the Swedish general consulates of Suva (Fiji) and Bangkok (Thailand), Nemani Raikuna, Varo, Lance Bennet, Bahrat Sharma, Kathy Barnes, Ida Bagus Tilem, Josefine Melander, and Anders Blomqvist.
- October 27, 1997, Concert, Dag Hammarskjöld Auditorium — Headquarters of the United Nations, New York City (New York, USA)