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Audiophiles: The hidden musicality of the human voice

Erica Mu

If you had to design music for a performance called Chinese Whispers, you might jump to some pretty familiar sounds – mandolin, bamboo flute, maybe a gong or two. But artist Rene Yung’sChinese Whispers isn’t that kind of a project. 

Part “investigative journalism” and part “epic poem,” the project includes a performance of Chinese American oral histories gathered along the route of the transcontinental railroad – stories that otherwise would have been forgotten. So when thinking about the soundscape for the project, both Yung and sound designer Jeremiah Moore wanted to break outside of the “Chinese box” and honor the material that they had – voices.

The approach is anything but traditional. Moore is taking recorded interviews with descendants of local Chinese settlers and applying a process called granular synthesis to their spoken words.

“It’s like taking a few milliseconds of sound, a kind of little window of sound – they call it grains – and then playing it back at a pitch,” Moore explains. “Then you can kind of scan through the sound, move the grain through the sound, and that’s where you’re hearing this almost syllabic quality.”

The result is something ethereal, musical, and oddly beautiful.

“We interpret language as language. But language is also sound,” says Moore. Take a word like “radio” and zoom into a few milliseconds of the word. You’ll discover a veritable universe of vowel sounds where the word “radio” disappears and gives way to “sonic, musical textures.” Pick a tiny, tiny slice of that audio, and you can actually manipulate its length and pitch, or loop it to create a new, musical entity.

Technically, these small slices or “grains” are too small to be called sounds, but our perception of their musicality changes depending on their length. For example, at five milliseconds, a grain sounds like a click. And at 10 or 20 milliseconds, you’ll hear a slice, or a blip of sound. Eventually, “it stops being a grain it starts being a sound clip or a sound object,” says Moore.

In the case of Chinese Whispers, Moore is taking phrases like “for some reason, I don’t remember him” – spoken by Frank Kwan, the last living resident of the Bay Area’s historic China Camp – and stretching this string of words into music. “Voices are a key piece of this show,” explains Moore. “And the idea was to build sonic soundscapes … that go into the background and influence the space, but it’s very underscore, at times perhaps so quiet that it’s more felt than heard.”

Chinese Whispers is a project based on memories that were passed on, and stories that might have been lost. It helps us read between the lines of history as it’s written. Through Moore’s sound design, we can also hear between the words.

You can hear Jeremiah Moore’s work in this Saturday’s performance of Chinese Whispers on the historic Balclutha, a sailing ship off Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco. Event starts at 2:30pm.

You can also listen to KALW’s feature on Chinese Whispers here.

Erica Mu is a reporter and producer for the "Hear Here: A Pop-Up Radio Project" in conjunction with KALW and the Association of Independents in Radio. Mu has reported on the serious side of health and the quirky side of arts, and she's also helped KALW pioneer the digital frontier as the news team’s web strategist and editor. Mu has also organized and directed KALW’s live storytelling events.