The Cyborg Voice

Changing your own voice with your own hands

As a singer-songwriter for electronic music, Imogen Heap was inspired with the idea for music to be produced through hand gestures, and thus came the birth of the mi.mu gloves. Whilst they were originally restricted to sounds from a computer software, now the gloves can be applied to the voice and other analogous musical instruments. Ariana Grande is one of the first few artists in pop music to use these gloves in live vocal performances.

“There are some questions about the voice and technology that do not go away. What happens, for example, when the distinction between the human voice and the voice of the machine is blurred? Can we still distinguish between genuine and synthetic affect? Should we? Can we still distinguish between uniqueness of an individual’s voice and the social and cultural determinations that shape its performance? Should we even try to do so?” – Neumark et al. 2010

Cybernetics v Organic?

The relationship between the ‘cybernetic’ and the ‘organic’ is often conceived as that of opposition in Western cultures. We have a tendency trying to put things into one of the two categories. However, exploring engagements of human intimacy with external technologies offers a different attitude towards the two concepts (Parkhurst 2012). The arrival of the microphone in the 1920s encouraged the innovation of new vocal techniques and musical styles (e.g. ‘microphone singing’) (Lockheart 2003). Still, the boundary between the ‘organic’ voice and the technological microphone was not compromised. This is possibly due to the primary function it being restricted to volume amplification, a relatively minimal modification of ‘natural’ projection of the voice. With the mi.mu gloves, this modification is made much more explicit.

“And, listening to amplified and distorted voices, we can sense the undecidability, tensions, and ambiguity that subtend the normally coherent voice. Complex and paradoxical, voice once more calls out for theoretical and artistic exploration.” – Neumark et al. 2010

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Figure 1 Mathematical model of feelings of uncanniness induced by various human and non-human objects (Mori 1970)

Uncanny Aesthetics

When Ariana Grande tested out her voice with the gloves in the video, the man sitting next to the computer panel was struck with awe – her digitalized voice was uncanny. Aesthetics is understood as, not only the theory of beauty, but also the theory of the qualities of feeling. Whether positive or negative, uncanniness is a feeling based on intellectual uncertainty (Freud 2003). A mathematical model by Mori (1970) represents how this feeling is culturally constructed between the human likeness of a non-human object and a person’s sense of familiarity towards it (Figure 1). Such cultural constructions of uncanniness can be shifted. In other words, the collective conceptions of what is aesthetically comfortable (and normalized) can change through cultural revolutions (no matter how big or small) in society (Gould 1997). Whilst Western media portrays high-tech developments to be replacing traditional ways of life, robotics culture in Japan takes on a more positive concept of integrating such advanced technologies with those ‘organic’ conventions. Technology allows for the continuity and enhancement, rather than the disruption of traditional values (Šabanović 2014).

Using technology in and on the human body can be seen as a way of feeling the world. The term ‘cyborg’ is more a matter of perspective rather than definition. The human-technology interaction becomes less of an offense against sacred bodily space, and more of an emotively aesthetic experiment. In other words, human engagement with external technologies is a creative way to attempt emotional perspective via different scales (Parkhurst 2012). As Imogen Heap arrived at the revelation of her gloves, she reflects: “I wasn’t looking for control, I was looking for freedom” in producing and performing music.

Here is a TED talk of her summarizing her journey in developing the mi.mu gloves and a demonstration of their usage:

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Freud, S. (2003) The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books.

Gould, S. J. (1997) Seeing Eye to Eye, through a Glass Clearly. Pp. 57-76 in Gould, S. J. (ed.) Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History. New York: Harmony Books.

Lockheart, P. (2003) A History of Early Microphone Singing, 1925-1939: American Mainstream Popular Singing at the Advent of Electronic Microphone Amplification. Popular Music and Society 26(3): 367-385.

Mori, M. (1970) The Uncanny Valley. Energy 7(4): 33-35.

Neumark, N., Gibson, R., van Leeuwen, T. (2010) Voice: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media. USA: MIT Press.

Parkhurst, A. (2012) Becoming Cyborgian: Procrastinating the Singularity. The New Bioethics 18(1): 68-80.

Šabanović, S. (2014) Inventing Japan’s ‘robotics culture’: The repeated assembly of science, technology, and culture in social robotics. Social Studies of Science 44(3): 342-367.

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