“Vocoder” (2018) on anòmia
Vocoders are conventionally categorized as a type of voice codec that analyzes and synthesizes the human voice signal for audio data compression, multiplexing, voice encryption, transmission over long distances, simple voice transformation, and more. A portmanteau of “voice” and “encoder,” the technology converts an acoustic signal into a coded form, the complexities and processes of which are articulated by composer Jack Callahan (die Reihe) in his new piece and 12-inch record Vocoder. An “exercise in creating as self-contained a piece as possible, using as little material as possible,” the piece asserts a necessary compositional process through the use of the vocoder, gaining further nuance through the technology’s spectral presence and recognizable sound as it has been heard in the electronic music of the 20th and 21st centuries. If the simple act of hearing implies a medium for sound, Vocodersucceeds in positing the ever-contemporary project of demonstrating how the use of a medium, a technology, and, more generally, the use of text all reflexively suggest a fundamentality of sound as well. These two poles — that of a text and that of a sound — indeed inform the basis for the project of composition and the role of the composer, as Callahan is keenly aware of.
Callahan performs under the moniker “die Reihe,” named after Stockhausen’s mid-century composition journal published between 1955 and 1962 devoted to contemporary music, a context I described when reviewing Luke Moldof and Peter Ablinger’s split LP, released by Callahan’s label Bánh Mì Verlag in 2017. Perhaps more readily than any of the releases he has put out on his label, Callahan’s own music under die Reihe exaggerates a precise execution of a compositional approach or technique, which is employed in Vocoder as Callahan speaking through a phase vocoder created in Max/MSP (and Shure SM57 microphone) that is altered in different ways across seven discrete sections. In reviewing Vocoder, I’ll write a bit about the context and conceptual background of Callahan’s project and discuss briefly some of the techniques involved throughout the seven discrete sections of the piece.
I’m hesitant to call Callahan a minimalist, despite the fact that he works with simple forms, limited scales, and generally reduced materials. Instead, I’ve started referring to him as “the turnt formalist of Ridgewood, Queens” — his work is turnt, as in it is often being “turned” away from staid notions of the forms they employ (Trap Studies, Housed, Music Demonstration); they are turnt in a fashion that is excessively excited or prepared for the “current event,” that event being the production of new music. Callahan’s work is formalist purely by way of how it is often preoccupied in discussing its form as an implicit aspect of the piece; and, as a result, his work proceeds in a more apparently logical way than most minimalists, often using formulas, permutations, and predictable sequences that allow his work to be defined by their method, a tactic recalling the work of composer Tom Johnson (e.g., “An Hour For Piano,” or “Triple Threat”), as well as his mentor, the Wandelweiser Group composer Jürg Frey.
Indeed, in “Section III” of Vocoder, Callahan states “one of the most important aspects of this piece is how the text both explains how the piece functions and itself generates the piece.” As such, Vocoder sits within a canon of text-sound works and Fluxus word pieces, but not necessarily in the way these works led to developments in conceptual poetry (vis-à-vis Dick Higgins or Alison Knowles) or anti-art (Henry Flynt). Rather, the text of Vocoder functions more formally and paradigmatically in the way it has led to developments in musiccomposition — more akin to Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room, where the composer records the sound of their speaking voice only to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room eventually reinforce themselves as the original text. Whereas formally Vocoder contains more wayward text, humor, and altogether abandon than Lucier would ever have it, similar to Lucier, Vocoder would seem to be a piece that needs no further explanation. Both pieces begin by stating in plain English exactly what they are going to happen and why. In Lucier’s case, this was a radical notion at the time (1969) and one that spawned a whole school of compositional activity in the United States and England. Somehow, even still in 2018, this seems no less radical within the context of “experimental” electronic music as it exists in the emergent youth, noise, dance, and DIY scenes of America — as well as global SoundCloud culture — Callahan’s immediate contexts.
Vocoder is the most clearly rendered version of Callahan’s formalism yet; it critiques and extends our contemporary infatuation with the devices and technologies of dance music, specifically how they are rendered in contemporary composition. The piece has an austerity of style and presentation that is a result of his preoccupation with the blurring of form and method — including the resultant manipulation of the conflict between these two terms within the objective use of language. Callahan uses this instructional language as the actual score of the piece. In this way, Vocoder recalls the work of John Baldessari, specifically his Text Paintings. The piece relates to how the conceptual artist decided the solution was to remove his own hand from the construction of the image and to employ a commercial, lifeless style so that the text would impact the viewer without distractions. The music of Vocoder, then, is the text of Vocoder, and the resultant sonic manipulations are a direct manifestation of the articulation of the text. This is the piece: “an exercise in creating as self-contained a piece as possible, using as little material as possible while still maintaining a certain level of interest and coherence.” Musically, it’s relatively pleasurable to listen to how each section errantly slips from the domain of language to that of harmony, specifically within the more complicated sections with more sonic density, such as “Section II” and “Section V,” which both feature a split vocal signal processed by two different vocoders hard panned left and right that randomly switch positions with each other, or the particularly harmonic four-note saw wave chords of “Section VI.”
Despite the record’s immediate facticity and primacy of text, its overall sound is a deeply vibrant spectrum of the apparent tones the vocoder technology is capable of producing. Between Callahan’s jaunty deadpan and the various cybernetic manipulations of the discrete sections, there’s also the potential to “tune out” the actual words of the piece to arrive at an altogether psychedelic listening experience. In “Section I,” the repetitive gargle of the frequency-rich carrier signal saw wave at 52hz invites a trance-like, early minimalist drone — a tonality made even more listenable through the precision and clarity of the gesture at play. Likewise, the immediate humor of “Section IV” eventually gives way to pure enjoyment, as the oscillating, slewed pitches turn into acrobatic glissandos that leap and smooth out like smart riffs. The rich B minor pentatonic scale on display in “Section VI” is a clarion tonal voicing of the records overall sound palette — bright, resonant, expressive, yet controlled and carefully measured. The record’s Side B also contains two matter-of-fact dance remixes by DJ Swag and Morgan Jefferson, friends of Callahan that “apply” the raw sound at work on side A.
Overall, the enthusiastic sparing of text and music on Vocoder is a brilliant display of their interdependency. The tension between the two also highlights the fraught role of the composer in rendering text as music or, conversely, music as a cultural, readable, or cogent text. Like the technology of the vocoder itself, a sound signal is often encoded as a cultural or readable signification of the original signal for ease of transmission and consumption in the listener. In lieu of hearing a sound “as is,” we often render the original sound as a representational textual image of the sound to consume it more efficiently, to consume it socially, relationally, and within a network of symbolism. As our listening has become encoded by the complex functions of sound in our daily lives — and the entangled webs of relevant meanings and metaphors sounds often contain — our listening is done in a highly accelerated manner mediated by newer technologies and expanded formats even still. Callahan’s Vocoder is a crucial document for how this is playing out in 2018’s cultural landscape, particularly as we witness established contexts for new music, noise music, and dance music collapse into immanent heaps of exhausted, but nonetheless deeply meaningful music. As a composer, Callahan’s work isolates, emphasizes, questions, and demonstrably attempts to surpass the problem of this collapse as a form of musical activism — returning to probe language and expression as sonic materials, and technology, in this case the vocoder, as a micropolitical technique for structural reform in our listening and in our composing of music.
-Nick James Scavo