Computers, Humans and ‘Daisies’: Becoming Machine through Voice.

This post commences with a brief video extract taken from the photo-essay that I wrote for the special issue of the TDPT journal (10.3: ‘What is New in Voice Training?’). I decided to share on the blog a different audio-visual standpoint on my work. In contemporary academia, the so-called ‘practice turn’ allows scholars to find new and creative ways to share their research. In this sense, Voice Studies has necessitated a vocal approach to dissemination, and performance training needs to be addressed inclusively. I felt the urge to ‘vocalise’ my project, therefore my blog-entry aims to embed voices in the discussion and to offer a different way of listening to it.

What if a computer, or a machine, could teach us to sing or talk? As part of my practice-as-research Ph.D., I tried to train myself to ‘sound’ as an artificial voice, with an unusual coach: the computer itself. From November 2017-April 2018, I worked on an experimental training of voice re-production, with the specific aim of inverting conventional approaches to the loop of vocal mimicry: normally, we shape artificial voices on the basis of ‘natural’ voices, making computers mimic humans. My idea was to reverse the process and investigate how humans could mimic computers. I decided to develop a training approach that started from artificial voices, exploring human-machine communication, as well as approaching performance training differently. This blog entry contains audio-visual documentation of this process and, further, it is designed to accompany the self-reflexive and contextual account that can be found in the photo-essay. With these documents, I explore the work undertaken, explain the pitfalls and frustrations involved in the process, and outline future possibilities for performing machines differently.

Becoming Machine – a brief collection of my screen recorded exercises

Screen-recorded, the first video shows the process of editing and recording through the DAWs – Digital Audio Workstations – Praat and Ableton Live. The plug-in Chipspeech was the primary tool for this research: it allowed me to digitally recreate the original IBM 704’ speech synthesis that sung ‘Daisy Bell’ in 1964. In the first part, I have included one of the exercises that I created. My wish was to mix digital and real-life training, so I devised mixed-sources exercises. In this case, I present my attempt to ‘be taught by the computer how to vocalise vowels. It is possible to see how I created the vowels on Chipspeech, how I tried to replicate them, and then how I filed my recordings on the computer and sorted them by frequency and in alphabetical order. Praat, the sound analysis DAW, was fundamental to investigate the files phonetically. At 01.45 the video shows the analysis and comparison between audio files – the letter ‘I’ for example – and the difference in frequencies.

The second part – starting at 03.13 – introduces the other approach I developed for my project. Ableton Live is on vertical mode; the top left column has a speech synthesis version of ‘Daisy Bell’, in each cell. The second column is empty, as well as the third, the fourth, the fifth, and the sixth columns. On the top right, the seventh column, in every cell, has my human-voice-produced version of ‘Daisy Bell’. As the video continues, I filled the empty cells in the empty columns with ‘new’ recordings that attempted to increase the ‘robot-ness’ feel in my voice. First by copying the speech synthesis, listening to it. Secondly, by adding ‘robot-ness’ to my voice as I was listening to my human recording. On the left, you can find recordings based on me trying to replicate the speech synthesis; on the right, recordings based on myself trying to emit a robotic version of ‘Daisy Bell’, while listening to the human version. The central columns are meant to be filled by ‘re-worked’ and improved versions of the recordings, after a close listening to the ones in the second and the sixth columns.

The second video is recorded with the front camera of my laptop. After a brief introduction of the work that I am about to do, I start vocalising what I understand as ‘human speech-synthesis’. I decided to upload this part to the blog to help the reader engage with my struggle of trying and failing. My intention was to show the numerous attempts through which I realised how hard—impossible, even—the project was, and to invite the viewer/listener to think how a human could look and feel while ‘becoming a machine’ through newly devised voice pedagogy. This video documents my training on two separate days: one at the beginning of the project, the other towards the end – and allows me and the reader (or viewer/listener) to notice the differences in my voice.

The three audio files that I have chosen among more than a hundred represent my two best attempts in recreating the speech synthesis version of the song – included here under the name Robot.

Robot

The file Struggle is probably the most important: in less than 2 seconds, it embodies the struggle of months repeating the first two syllabi of ‘Daisy Bell’.

Struggle

The third file, Robot-Human, is a comparison between me and the computer voice.

Robot-Human

This work invites and cultivates a different point of listening, and hopefully, provokes a discussion on how human practitioners might engage with computers, speech synthesis and robots. I hope that other practitioners are inspired to engage in a similar attempt, and share these attempts in vocally becoming a machine (perhaps as comments below). Will their struggle be the same as mine?

About the author: I was born in Italy in 1990. I am a Ph. D. student, a musician, a trained actor, a DJ, and a comedian. My field of interest moves between voice, artificial voice, voice training, hauntology, posthumanism, HRI and HAAI. I am currently a PhD student at the University of Exeter working on a project on analysing the Posthuman Condition through voice, looking at the differences between artificial voices and natural voices in Performance Practices. My work with voices echoes in my musical project called Mr Everett, where we investigate human and machine communication through voice, comedy, and dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiyrp4qXTdc

Practise, process, and preach: An intercultural embodied approach to understanding ornamentation

Dr Charulatha Mani

As a performing vocalist, my primary lens to review, analyse and contribute to any field of musical activity has been my vocal practice. However, reconsidering my embedded practice of Karnatik vocal music of South India and its culturally contingent qualities in the light of global voice literatureburgeoning theories, and other lateral practices of colleagues, across historical and current contexts, has always proven to be one way through which I have acquired a considered view of the situatedness of my practice in the broader global domain of music-making and music education.

In my essai titled ‘Approaching Italian gorgie through Karnatik brigha: an essaion intercultural vocal transmission’ published as part of the TDPT special issue ‘What is New in Voice Training?’ I have adopted a similar strategy in weaving a narrative that factors-in a broad spectrum of subject matters; however, my intention was to funnel them into the receptacle of intercultural vocal pedagogy for the present. The unique strand of Italian vocal ornamentation of the 16th and 17th centuries, the gorgie; a typical style of vocal ornamentation that draws heavily on diminutions, brigha;theories of embodied cognition and physiovocal empathy; and the current global landscape of music education that is fast-embracing diversity, equity and inclusion, all find place in this essai.I have drawn on and reflected upon the views of students in describing the ways in which I taught strategies to unleash the gorgie on a group of student-performers of Early Opera, by adopting an imitative reconstruction of the Karnatik brigha. A lost vocal tradition from the Early Modern period is regarded in the essai through the lens of a currently alive, yet ancient, tradition from South Asia, Karnatik vocal music. This approach to pedagogy draws heavily on my doctoral research, ‘Hybridising Karnatik Music and Early Opera: A journey through voice, word, and gesture,’ wherein I have established the commonalities between vocal styles of early music and Karnatik music, from both physiognomic and technical perspectives. I expect that the outcome of this teaching exercise might legitimise non-traditional ways of approaching Western classical music training, while also decolonising music education by challenging established premises from a position of diversity and agency in voicing.

The media, ‘Researching ornamentation in Monteverdi’s Possente Spirto through reflective practice’ is shared above and is an excerpt from my practice-based exploration of gorgie from a brigha perspective. It derives from cross-modal approaches to music cognition and transmission, including an acknowledgement of the affective states induced in the body during vocalisation, musically contingent and cultural-semiotic gestures, visually rich historical scores, and my own reflections. Through practice, I demonstrate that the vocalising body processes visual, gestural, kinaesthetic parameters conveyed by music by directly correlating these sensorial experiences to the vocal practice that it is familiar with, thereby establishing a linkage – between techniques across styles and times. It was this personal experience that I used as evidence to transmit gorgie training in a way that is useful to the Early Opera students, using Karnatik brigha as a conduit. Practitioners and educators may engage with this media by acknowledging their own vocal experiences as they behold the visual, gestural, and aural parameters that unfold before them. Such acknowledgement would be the first step to then engage with students across these very parameters. In doing so, newer modalities and approaches to voice training could experientially unfold.

The contributor Dr Charulatha Mani is a well-established vocal performer / researcher / educator with primary expertise in Karnatik music of South India. She recently received her PhD on intercultural intersections between 17th century Italian Opera and Karnatik Music from Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. She loves to challenge convention and is an active scholar in the fields of voice studies, artistic research in music, historical and comparative musicology, and critical cultural studies. She currently manages the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, Brisbane, Australia.

The act of listening: Gardzienice’s mutuality practice and The ACTing Voice – a multimodal presentation

The following audiovisual documentation was taken during the ACT International Voice and Performance Residency in Centro Anidra, Italy (10-27 September 2018), directed by Anna-Helena McLean. Designed as a complement and integral partner to the essai ‘The act of listening: Gardzienice’s mutuality practice and The ACTing Voice,’ this multi-modal publication is an experiment, working within the form afforded by the TDPT special issue 10:3 ‘What is new in voice training?’ to seek new approaches to practice-based research.

You are invited to witness a series of brief encounters, spanning exercises in progress, actors in rehearsal and interviews with international workshop participants as well as McLean. The films on their own offer practice-based insights, and together with the essai gain epistemological contextualisation from McLean’s experiential standpoint as a musician, actor and researcher. The enquiry is centred around the way McLean has been evolving the practice she discovered as a principal member in Gardzienice (2000-2007). Now director of her own approach to music theatre and devising, called the ACT (Actor – Chorus – Text) Ensemble Practice, McLean’s text and film trace the development of the practice and its relevance to voice work, embodied voice and vocal extension through a ‘physiovocal’ approach (see Thomaidis 2014), based on McLean’s re-imagining of the core Gardzienice principles of mutuality and musicality. The films allude to new physiovocal exercises including the musicality of the spine, harmonics, interval modulation, body resonators and the physiovocal alphabet in the director’s drive to ‘listen to’, navigate and address the actors’ process in order to extend vocal possibilities and enable more nuance and sensitivity to text.

Clip 1 (Leading with) Mutuality

Clip 2 The act of listening

Clip 3 Extending the voice

Clip 4 Physiovocality

Clip 5 Body resonators

Clip 6 The acting voice

Clip 7 Physiovocal scoring

Credits

Research advisor/support: Demetris Zavros

Film: Federico Torre

Media editors: Jesse Embury and Sid Sawant

Collaborating actors and participants: Robert Schein Bogdanovic, Rosie Clark, Eleanor Debreu, Kaeridwyn Eftelya, Andrea Foa, Ola Forman, Caroline Gatt, Amelia Gibbs, Emily Jane Grant, Wanning Jen, Louise Parr, Dylan-Donovan Sebaoun, Susanna Wilson.

Location: Centro Anidra, Borzonasca, Genova, Italy.

Reference

Thomaidis, K. 2014 Singing from stones: physiovocality and Gardzienice’s theatre of musicality. In: D. Symonds and M. Taylor, eds. Gestures of music theater: the performativity of song and dance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 242-258.

Finding one’s teaching identity through change and innovation in Voice Training

Many voice teachers might consider developing new teaching practices and methods in voice training in actor training environments as a daunting prospect. In my own training, both as an actor and as a voice teacher, the received practices and philosophies of renowned voice and speech practitioners were passed on to me by my teachers, studied carefully through their books, and then embedded and repeated through my physical practice as an actor, and in my MA Voice Studies Teacher Training. Their specialist technical approaches and philosophies remained unquestioned in their efficacy in serving the needs or abilities of all (including those who may not fit within an assumed normative model of cognitive style). These specialist practitioners’ voice training methods are formed through years of experience in teaching the subject, with extensive knowledge of vocal anatomy, voice production and acting approaches, and are commonly Anglo-Western in origin. Some individuals’ methods have emerged over time to be singled out and followed by others, requiring further learning and practice in becoming expert in their particular techniques. For example, many voice teachers in the US, UK and Australia identify themselves as Linklater, Fitzmaurice or Lessac Practitioners (and are certified as such through specialised training). Alternatively, there are those who choose to follow the Cicely Berry, Patsy Rodenburg, Barbara Houseman, Clifford Turner, or David Carey methods (amongst others); all are commonly endorsed and practised in Western actor training.

Speaking from my own experience as a voice teacher, for some years my ownership of the work was demonstrated through my study of the exercises and range of these voice experts’ methods and repeating them slavishly in my own teaching. (In my case, voice teaching includes vocal development, speech, articulation, reading of the written text, expression of the self, and an ability to transform through voice and speech/accent characterisation). However, in frequently encountering acting students with dyslexia, I have observed that some of the commonly taught methods (although highly effective with many students) do not allow or facilitate a flexible response to the mixed learning styles and needs of individuals with Specific Learning Differences/Disabilities met within a student cohort. My esteem for the renowned practitioners and acceptance of their knowledge and expertise had restricted me from thinking for myself within the circumstances of my own teaching, and my noting of the struggles of some of the SpLD, neurodiverse students. As Carr and Kemmis point out, ‘much teacher action is the product of custom, habit […] which constrain action in ways that the teachers themselves do not recognise’ (1986, p. 189). In my copying of ‘good teaching’ and aligning my teaching identity with others’ practice, I did not ask myself: what kind of teacher am I? What knowledge do I value? Why do I teach this way? How might I break away from teaching methods that reinforce the dominant perspectives privileging some ableist groups over others? How can I ensure my teaching practice does not disable those who process differently?

In attempting to meet the needs of those students with dyslexia, through a close observation, I utilised the methodology of case study, in capturing the lived experience of individuals with dyslexia. The requirement of a fluent ability to read aloud in the acting of a complex text is a key component of many text-centred units of study within the curriculum of actor training in both conservatoires and universities (especially in the study of Shakespeare and the acting of classical texts). Crucially, through the methodology of action research, through trials of experimental practice with my dyslexic acting students, and through discussion and reflection on the outcomes, I began to discover my own teaching identity and construct my own methods of enabling and freeing the students’ vocal expression, building their accuracy of word, while nurturing their latent talents. The nature of action research, wherein a problem is identified, and possible solutions imagined and action taken with an evaluation of outcomes (McNiff 2013) provided an opportunity to explore practical changes in my teaching with my dyslexic students. As any mistakes are regarded as valuable findings for reflection and prompts for future changes, action research removes the fear of failure, thereby allowing tentative steps of confidence in devising new practices and a self-authorship, for both student and teacher.

My book ‘Teaching Strategies for Neurodiversity and Dyslexia in Actor Training: Sensing Shakespeare’ (2019) has set out six new teaching strategies. Through my explorations, aiming to support individuals with dyslexia, I also discovered my authentic voice as a teacher in furthering the development of adaptable acting, voice and speech training strategies. In a brief dissemination of content, I present two pivotal statements made by two of my acting students assessed as dyslexic:

‘For me, as a dyslexic, Shakespeare is very accommodating. It has taken me eleven years of struggle to come to realize, because of my dyslexia, I understand things through image and metaphor. Shakespeare’s writing clicks in my head the way numbers click for a mathematician’. (Fred, acting student with dyslexia)

‘As soon as a text is presented to me, my guard instantly levers up due to fear and lack of confidence. I am instantly terrified I am going to embarrass myself because of my reading ability and because I cannot analyse what I have read afterwards’. (Phoebe, acting student with dyslexia)

These statements encapsulate many of the issues explored within my book and, for those who teach, they generate questions, opening channels for discussion, reflection and action amongst teaching communities. These questions include:

• What do we need to do to understand the specific needs of individuals, (such as Fred and Phoebe quoted above) so we might free and enhance their capabilities?

• How might we scrutinize our own teaching practice, ensuring that our values and pedagogical choices are ethical and socially just, while fostering the abilities of every individual?

These are the kinds of questions that interest me and that I have engaged with in the book and still form the core of my practice. In particular, I have investigated how the building of visual and kinaesthetic constructs can facilitate some acting students with dyslexia in their reading, speaking, comprehension and acting of Shakespeare’s text, and how such epistemic tools can be utilized in voice and acting classes. The questions I have explored include:

• How might the articulation of acting students with dyslexia, (related to clarity of thought and the words), be assisted through drawing, artwork, and the physicalisation of symbols associated with the meaning of the written text?

• What is the role of embodied cognition and multi-sensory processing in accessing the written text, and retaining the information for those with dyslexia?

• How does imagery act as a mnemonic device and expressive interpreter for those with dyslexia?

• How can Stanislavski’s physical actions support neurodiverse approaches to text?

• How might interpretive mnemonics and distributed cognition lead to a voiced autonomy in those with dyslexia?

In practice, these are complex questions, which require research, time, and practical study in teaching and working with individual students as co-researchers. The nature of dyslexia is indeed slippery when trying to define and address its characteristics (Elliot & Grigorenko 2014). Its impact on the voice, communication, self- confidence, working memory and emotions produces enduring challenges in tackling these factors effectively when teaching individuals with dyslexia. Such challenges and questions influence my approaches in voice and actor training, and I continue to endeavour to answer them through conscious observations, trials of practice and responsive changes.

References

Carr. W. & Kemmis, S. (1986).Becoming Critical. London: RoutledgeFarmer.

Elliott, J. C. & Grigorenko, E. (2014). The Dyslexia Debate. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McNiff, J. (2013). Action Research, 3rd ed. London: Routledge.

Whitfield, P. (2019). Teaching Strategies for Neurodiversity and Dyslexia in Actor Training. New York: Routledge.

Biography Dr Petronilla Whitfield is Associate Professor in Voice and Acting on the Acting (Hons) degree at the Arts University  Bournemouth. She holds a PhD in Arts Pedagogy from Warwick University and an MA in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Trained originally as an actor at Arts Educational Schools, she was a professional actor for twenty years. A teacher of voice and acting at leading British training institutions and universities, Petronilla has presented her research and work with dyslexic acting students at conferences in the UK and in the USA, and her work has been published in several peer reviewed journals, including TDPT (2017), Research in Drama Education (RiDE 2016), and The Voice and Speech Trainers’ Review (2015 & 2009). Other writing includes a chapter in ‘Using Art as Research in Learning and Teaching’ (ed. R. Prior, 2018) and a monograph ‘Teaching Strategies for Neurodiversity and Dyslexia in Actor Training: Sensing Shakespeare’ (Routledge 2019).