It was early in the 1980s I first heard compositions incorporating found recordings of the human voice. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by David Byrne and Brian Eno used everything from outtakes of a radio call-in show to a recording of an exorcism played back at different speeds and put through a variety of effects to create a collection of odd and highly affecting music. They weren’t the only musicians working in this field at the time and while I’ve come across a few other examples of this type of work since, not many have impressed me as much as that first recording.
Until I heard the re-release of Jocelyn Pook’s Untold Things on Real World Gold, an imprint of Real World Records, I had pretty much given up on hearing anything in this style that would be as moving and inspiring as My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. In fact, the pieces on this recording are far more than just manipulated vocal samples set to music. Each of the 13 tracks here are complete compositions where the vocals, whether found or recorded live, are only one of the instruments Pook employs to create her multi-textured and intricate pieces of music instead of being the focal point.
In most forms of music where vocals are employed, they are usually what the song or piece is built around. From your standard pop song to opera or choral pieces, the music serves to accent the story or themes the vocals are expressing. Whether an electric guitar solo or a full orchestra, the music provides an emotional context for the lyrics. The challenge for a composer looking to employ the voice in a different capacity is to find ways to overcome his or her audiences’ expectations when it comes to the role of vocals in a piece of music. The majority of us are conditioned by experience to separate the voice from accompaniment to discern the lyrics being sung.
When a composer inserts found vocal tracks from cultures and languages other than their own, they redefine the role of the voice in the composition. Once they realize the lyrics are being sung in a language they don’t understand, the listener will lose the impetus to distinguish between voice and instruments. While this is one method Pook employs in this collection of pieces, it’s not the only technique she uses to make voice part of her sound palette. On some tracks lyrics are reversed, while on others she has made up languages for her vocalists to employ.
Pook is a classically-trained musician and composer with experience in creating music for ballet, theatre and film, most famously the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. So these pieces aren’t the slapdash creation of somebody just fooling around with a mixing board and tape loops. Each one is carefully constructed and arranged and works on both an emotional and intellectual level. For while the various sounds might stir certain feelings within her audience, their careful juxtaposition will also ensure they pause to consider what is causing the emotional reaction.
The opening track of the disc, “Dionysus”, is named for the Greek god most often associated with unbridled emotions and generally letting loose. However, as well as being the god of wine, he was also honoured with annual theatre festivals in ancient Athens. While some of these plays would have been ribald comedies, the more serious tragedies with their moral lessons would have been staged as well. Still, the majority of listeners would associate Dionysus with his wilder aspect and be surprised by the subdued nature of the piece. With its close to ethereal vocals (Melanie Pappenheim) sung over muted strings (Jackie Norrie, Sally Herbert, Kelly McCusker violin, Pook viola and keyboards, Caroline Lavelle cello and Jub bass) and keyboards, it makes one think perhaps there is more to this god than we first thought.
Emotionally the piece evokes a kind of wistfulness in the listener created by the note of yearning we hear in the combination of voice and instruments. However, if we stop and think about what we know about the god in question, instead of being carried away by the emotion suggested by the music, we pause and wonder what it has to do with the song’s subject. Why does a song about the most earthy of gods resound with echoes of loneliness? Pook is urging us to consider there might be more to Dionysus than we’ve been led to believe by popular interpretations.
Previously when I’ve heard compositions which employ found vocal tracks it’s been relatively easy to distinguish between them and the original music. That’s not always the case with Pook’s work. When you listen to track 10, “Calls, Cries And Clamours”, you’ll have a hard time telling the vocal sample from “Boat Song” sung by Hoang Oanh from the original material Pook created with vocalist Melanie Pappenheim. While in this instance the vocals are prominent in the mix, like all the other tracks on the disc they are simply one more instrument. Even better is the fact we don’t even have the distraction of hearing something obviously “foreign” in the mix. We can simply sit back and let the music wash over us and think about the implications of the title.
The three words of the title all refer to three types of sound. While the first two specifically refer to vocal sounds, the third implies noise of a generally loud and confused nature. While the song isn’t what you’d call loud by any means, it does create the impression of a number of different sounds being listened to at once. It’s as if you were eavesdropping on a variety of conversations being carried on in different languages. What you’re listening to may not be loud, but it’s certainly confusing because you can’t understand anything of what’s being said. Even if you could speak one of the languages, the confusion of hearing more than one at a time would make comprehension next to impossible.
Yet in spite of this there is also a certain harmony and beauty to the way the different sounds being made by the voices and musical instruments come together. It’s a very simple lesson in how diversity does not necessarily mean disharmony. Language is used to communicate ideas no matter if it’s French, English or Arabic. On the surface they sound different, but if we stop trying to discern meaning in what’s being said, we begin to hear how they harmonize.
The music on Unknown Things is both beautiful to listen to and fascinating to think about. Composer Jocelyn Pook has taken elements of Western composition and mixed it with both found vocal tracks and her own linguistic inventions to make intriguing and inventive pieces of music. While the songs all have an obvious emotional appeal, they are intriguing and interesting enough to trigger an intellectual response as well. There are very few composers capable of doing both at once. On its own this would make checking her work out worth your while, but the music is also a pleasure to listen to, which makes it twice as valuable.