[spectre] New podcast: INTERRUPTIONS #13. The inhuman voice, a mix by Genís Segarra

Radio Web MACBA rwm2008 at gmail.com
Mon Jul 8 13:45:08 CEST 2013

*New podcast: INTERRUPTIONS #13 The inhuman voice, curated by Genís Segarra*

Since the late eighteenth century, speech therapists, linguists,
entrepreneurs, artists and musicians have nurtured the dream of emulating
human speech. In this mix, Genís Segarra offers a personal overview of a
subject that fascinates him, with the story of voice synthesis as a
narrative thread.

Link: http://rwm.macba.cat/en/curatorial/genis_segarra_inhuman_voice/capsula

Text and playlist:


There is a long history of mankind's attempts to build a machine capable of
reproducing human speech. Some of the inventors who embarked on this quest
where driven by curiosity – speech therapists and linguists interested for
scientific purposes, for example –, while others were entrepreneurs with an
eye to business opportunities. The first talking machines date from the
late eighteenth century, and many theoretical advances were made during the
nineteenth century. But the turning point came with the emergence of
electronics in the twentieth century. You can hear an example at 20'35'' of
this selection: a demonstration of the Voder (Voice Operator Demonstrator)
at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

The arrival of computers and microchips led to speech synthesis machines
being marketed by companies like Bell Systems, Votrax, General Instrument,
IBM and SAM, who developed them with the aim of replacing human beings in
communications. At 27'38'' you can hear the first computer that ordered a
pizza by phone. 'Domino? I want to order a pizza, a large pizza, pepperoni
and mushrooms', the machine says. Although it is fair to point out that the
experiment failed, given that the Domino employee hung up on the computer.
At 31'17'' you can hear the first videogame that included a synthesised
voice: an arcade shoot 'em up called Stratovox.

The mix includes several examples of talking software and microchips, but
I've also thrown in songs that have used similar technology creatively:
from German group Kraftwerk to the Japanese phenomenon of virtual singers.
You will also hear songs that use a vocoder, an instrument that does not
generate a human voice but can analyse the harmonics of a voice and then
modulate it in another sound. This means that it can make any source of
sound 'talk' or 'sing'. The vocoder was invented with the same aim in mind:
to synthesise the human voice. Although it has now been superseded by chips
that can generate vowels and consonants, artists and musicians have
developed and used the vocoder in order to stand in for human beings. One
of the first machines that achieved this effect was the Sonovox, which
Disney used in 1941 as the voice of Casey Jr., the train engine in Dumbo.
In this mix you can hear Casey's cheery 'All aboard!' at 17'01'' and listen
to him chant 'I think I can' as he struggles to climb uphill at 27'01''.
The Sonovox was first used on a record in 1947, in the children's book
Sparky's Magic Piano, in which a little boy discovers that his piano can
talk and play itself. The voice of the piano was created with a Sonovox
that transformed piano notes into a human voice. At 13'59'' you can hear
the fragment in which Sparky discovers that his piano can talk.

At the other extreme in terms of time and technology, the situation is much
the same: at 13'18'' you can hear a grand piano being 'played' by a
computer-controlled mechanical system which manages to make the piano
recite the Declaration of the International Environmental Criminal Court, a
work created by the composer Peter Ablinger with the help of a software
programme that assigns vowels and consonants to different combinations of
piano keys. Throughout the mix, you will hear vocoders and computers
talking and singing. I've included several examples in which I've used
vocoders or speech synthesisers in my own works with the groups Astrud and
Hidrogenesse. There are also samples taken from a voice synthesiser
competition held at the 2007 INTERSPEECH Conferences, in which participants
had to make their programmes sing 'The Synthesizer Song'. Several
universities and companies participated in the competition and demonstrated
their systems.

Previous installments of this series:
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