The human voice has had a curious history with electronic music. In many ways, electronic music has been one of the most popular musical movements not to have vocals at the foreground. Sure you have the fabled garage R&B cut-ups and house tracks with voiceovers talking about ‘back in the day’ and ‘real Detroit techno’. But the voice was used more like a musical instrument: a texture or sound rather the carrier of meaning. This is partly down to the context in which electronic music arose. Many of the early electronic pioneers were fascinating with robotics, AI and ‘the singularity’. Hence the voice, arguably the most human of sounds, became mechanised alongside the drum machines and Sci-Fi synthesisers. Music was the future, was instrumental.
But the voice-as-instrument is nothing new. Scat works as with non-semantic vocals delivery. Think of the passion in an Ella Fitzgerald freestyle solo or Shooby Taylor’s nonsensical ramblings. Here, it’s almost like words never mattered. We can derive just as much pleasure in the plosives and fricatives of the human voice without semantic content. In David Byrne’s book How Music Works, he describes a technique he uses known as ‘Emergent Storytelling’ in which he would sing emotive phonetics along to a backing-track, with the hope of capturing some instinctive vocal sounds or rhythms that he could later layer lyrics on top of. There are even (amusing) recordings of half-finished Talking Heads songs which never made it to the ‘lyric edit’, such as this.
But surely we must be careful not to overlook the importance of semantic content to singing. Protest music in particular almost necessities semantic content to carry its intended purpose (when was the last time you heard instrumental music at a protest?). Imagine a Björk record with no words. Surely lyrics enable that personal, warm, fuzzy feeling. The feeling so much electronic music is lacking. What are we left with if we are reduced to mere babbling, or the empty ‘hey’s and ‘yeah’s of chart pop? Can’t we do better?
In this episode of Stray Landings FM, we talk to Elsa Hewitt and Derek Piotr about the human voice and its relationship to music. Do words matter to music? Listen below:
Akziendz // Legacy Support
Elsa Hewitt // King of Nowhere
Hafida // [unknown]
Derek Piotr // Sky
Shooby Taylor // Lift Every Voice and Sing
Kalimankou Denkou // Yanka Rupkina