Australian Voice Portraits

Posted Tuesday October 7, 2008 by John Gunders in |

I recently became aware of a project by QUT academic Dr Robert Davidson, in which he takes recordings of short speeches of notable figures and distils the unintended “melodies” that come with the rhythm and intonation of the presentation, and then sets the speech to music performed by his five-piece ensemble, Topology. He calls this project Australian Voice Portraits, and says it is “an attempt to find some distinctive Australian music”.

This seems to be a follow up to a similar project that involved Topology and jazz ensemble, Loops:

We wanted to hear Churchill, Hitler, Einstein, Mao, Diana, Gandhi, Bush (and many others) singing, but without using any electronic trickery to do so. It has been a constant source of surprise and delight to find that, if one looks carefully, clear patterns emerge—including pulse and tonality—in every speech. Each speaker uses idiosyncratic melodic phrases, scales and rhythms. All one has to do is find these patterns and emphasise them with appropriate accompaniment—the motivic and harmonic unity composers are always striving for is already there, built in to the speech.

The links between a culture’s music and speech styles become very obvious when one works in this way. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech slides so naturally into a gospel style. Malcolm X speaks how John Coltrane plays. Winston Churchill’s lilting rhythms would not be out of place in “Teddy Bear’s Picnic”. And when Bill Clinton lies about Monica Lewinsky, it fits effortlessly with his favourite Fleetwood Mac song.

From Sound and Fury by Robert Davidson.

The resulting work was called Airwaves: 100 Years of Radio (released either in 2001, 2005, or 2006, depending on which website you read). Davidson’s collaborator Jonathan Dimond describes the music as:

a new technique using characteristic intonation patterns of a person’s speech to make melody. The band plays music designed to emphasise this melody, so that when Bill Clinton talks about “that woman”, it sounds like he’s singing. The result is a new kind of opera.

See Dimond’s website here.

This is an intriguing idea that sounds slightly bizarre when described like this, so I would urge you to go to the Topology website and listen to some of the samples—maybe even buy it (no, I’m not getting commission).

My personal favourite: Martin Luther King.

Your Comments

  1. Robert Davidson writes:

    Posted: 7 10 2008 - 02:56 | Permanent link to this comment

  2. Matthew Smith writes:

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