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Whispering room

John Cage visited an anechoic chamber and noted that in a room without sound, sounds of the body become very clear.

"There is no such thing as an empthy space or an empthy time. (...) For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."1

I early sketched situations which could form contrasts to the writing for full ensemble. A shadow situation could arise with whispering voices and electric tinnitus sounds. I made references to Gerard Grisey's work Jour, contre-jour (1978), 2 opening like a high tinnitus and deeper rumbling sounds, against occasional irregular heart beats and breaths.

Voices should be whispering, slowly or rapidly, with nervousness and interruptions. The singers could whisper extremely fast, and recorded whisperings could move to even more extreme speeds, into a suggested 'buzz of voices'.3 Associations move towards grasshoppers already present in the sound installation fragments.





One idea was to take the Cage situation literally and record sounds of a body in an anechoic chamber, though I ended up creating these whispering rooms by other means.

The sketches suggest sound phenomena which are difficult to notate, in transitional zones between the whispering voices and their digital transformations. Musical notation was set out to be an important tool for the project,4 though not necessarily the only tool. I decided to open these parts for whispering improvisations over extracts from Finnegans wake. The whispering voices can be manipulated in a multitude of ways approaching the imagined electric, nervous, bodily or artificial sounds.

Pages of the Joyce texts were recorded in studio by Song Circus,5 in 3 versions:


Example 49: Eva Bjerga Haugen improvising on Finnegans wake.

More than 100 fragments were made for the whispering rooms. While making these 100 versions, registers and synthesis methods were varied. These are some of the versions:

Example 50: Joyce text 2.

Example 51: Joyce text 12.


Example 52: Joyce text 14


Example 53: Joyce text 16.


Example 54: Joyce text 43.

Example 55: Joyce text 61.


Example 56: Joyce text 74.


Example 57: Joyce text 79.


Example 58: Joyce text 80.


Example 59: Joyce text 146.

Making 100 versions of an idea gives a possibility to experience variations in how the processing affect sounds, and gradually guide the results towards more precise textures. This is quite similar to practising an instrument.

The fragments of processed sounds randomly are triggered in a sound installation situation. Categories of fragments were:

The score suggested degrees of clarity, distortion or improvisation of the text. Song Circus chose to distribute ideas differently between the singers. Pages from Finnegans wake were held against the improvisation scores.

Detail of photo by Henrik Beck.


Example 60: AE Whispering room 9.


The live whispering voices went through additional live processing through MaxMsp:

Routings through these processings are done by matrixes, in different patterns for each Whispering room fragment. Variable routings, variable delays, filtering with variable degree of response and sine wave distortion, all contribute to unpredictable and continous high frequency textures from the whispering singers.

The whispering room sketches are principles rather than fixed materials, through improvisations and unpredictable processing. Results can approach the initial ideas or produce something new.



1 Cage, 1973, Silence, Lectures and writings by John Cage, p. 8.

2 http://www.ricordi.it/catalogue/products/jour-contre-jour/

3 Ruben Sverre Gjertsen, 2011, Between instrument and everyday sound, p. 5.

4 Ruben Sverre Gjertsen, 2011, Between instrument and everyday sound, p. 4.

5 http://songcircus.no/

6 pvscale in Csound: http://www.csounds.com/manual/html/pvscale.html

7 pvsblur in Csound: http://www.csounds.com/manual/html/pvsblur.html

8 pvsarp in Csound: http://www.csounds.com/manual/html/pvsarp.html

9 pvshift in Csound: http://www.csounds.com/manual/html/pvshift.html

10  The Csound opcodes pvcross, pvsmix and pvsfilter.

11 The MaxMsp gizmo~ object.

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