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Embracing Overload: Discussing "...most of Us..." for solo voice

Updated: Aug 5, 2023



Background

Inherently, the voice is a complex, non-linear system which can experience large, explosive shifts when responding to minute adjustments [1]. It is a physiological system defined by discrete parameters such as, intensity of airflow through the glottis, tension of the vocal folds, torso tension, and nasality. The identity of a vocal sound can be defined as the result of a specific selection of these parameters activated within specific values and ratios. This being said, traditional vocal performance practices are collections of a specific set of sounds which, through pedagogy, come to constitute the identity of a given genre. For example, operatic singing requires different physiological states than jazz singing.

When a vocalist looks at a score and sees a pitch, a specific physical alignment is being symbolized. There is a specific relationship of parameters which need to be achieved in order to produce that pitch. Through practice and entrenchment within a specific paradigm, these physical relationships become muscle memory and work in concert during performance. These are the performer’s techniques, habitualized physical alignments, through which they express themselves musically.

These habits are formed as the individual interacts with and adapts to their peers, teachers, musical history, and culture. A stylistic language, which pre-exists the performer, becomes valued and strived for. Consider the example of bel canto singing. This technique is less an expression of the performer-as-creative-individual, but more an expression of a historical paradigm. The technique is a practiced alignment of physical structures which have been valued by society at large and organized into a musical idiom. This idiom is then taught to other vocalists. Even when performers are afforded creative license to embellish their performance, they must do so within specific limitations (a specific type of vibrato characterized by the style, a specific collection of pitches to improvise with, etc).

Every style of vocal performance is a narrow collection of learned physical habits. I posit that composers can utilize extreme complexity as a means to unground the performer from these learned habits, resulting in unstable yet individualistic sounds. Through baroque physical actions and maximum degrees of cognitive load, the performer is deterritorialized from learned sense-making devices. They find themselves reterritorialized on unfamiliar ground which they must explore and re-adapt to in realtime. They perform from a vulnerable space where they must confront material so complex that it foregrounds, and expresses, their physical limitations, traits, and perceptual inabilities.

In …most of Us… [2] learned habits and conscious intent are subverted as the performer’s vocal apparatus is separated into its discrete parts [3]. For instance, air pressure, throat phonation, inhalation vs. exhalation, pitch, tongue position, and oral cavity shape are treated as individual instruments progressing independently from one another. Their traditional learned relationships, which normally afford performers a mental-map to rely upon during performance, are severed.


The following is a discussion of the conceptual basis of and practical reaction to my composition ...most of Us… I will be exploring the following questions and offering my hypotheses and experimental findings:

1) How does parametric polyphony effect the performer’s cognitive load?


2) Do differences in level of cognitive load result in noticeable differences in performance?


3) How does a performer approach learning this material, and can a definitive, stable version of this piece be arrived at?


Parametric Polyphony and Cognitive Load


With the voice being a self-organizing system influenced by various dimensions, namely historical, cultural, technological, biological, and cognitive dimensions, it is useful to view it, and consequently the role of parametric polyphony, through the lens of Dynamical Systems Theory (DST). As a performer goes about learning a piece, a type of “phase transition” [4] is occurring. Here, the landscape of the system, how its stable equilibria and attractors are defined and related, are changed. For instance, something which was at first unstable and uncomfortable to perform can become stable, comfortable, and repeatable. This process unfolds due to goal directed practice. [5]


However, in the context of parametric polyphony the notation does not communicate a concrete goal but rather expresses the flow of physical activity over time. The score is not reflective of the resultant sound but rather presents a choreographic ideal which is (often) physically impossible to perform exactly as written. With the absence of a defined sonic or choreographic goal, a heightened awareness of the body is called upon as the performer navigates the score in realtime, responding to the feedback of their instrument and body.


Parametric polyphony is presented through a dense, abstracted notation [6]. The process of perceiving, decoding, and assimilating the notated actions burdens the performer with an overwhelming cognitive load. They are unable to process and realize the totality of what is written; what their attention focuses on (i.e., what becomes performed) is influenced by their experienced psychophysical state. Thus, every performance will be different, making it highly unlikely for the performer to arrive at a concrete realization to define as a “goal”.


This absence of a telos leaves the performer in a prolonged state of intense potential; an infinite working-towards. This is the intent of parametric polyphony. Researchers Stephen and Dixon [7] document a spike in entropy before the “a-ha” moment in which a phase transition is completed, when the moment of understanding is experienced. Parametric polyphony is a mechanism which prevents this “a-ha” moment from materializing. It isolates and extends the normally preceding entropic “spike” to create the environment in which …most of Us… inhabits.

Evolutionarily, survival depended on an individual’s ability to rapidly, smoothly, and accurately gather critical information from immediate surroundings and process a response to selected stimuli when warranted. By overwhelming the performer with information and expanding the entropic spike, a chasm between what is seen on the page, and what the performer does is widened. A cognitive dissonance due to awareness of their constant failure to collect, process, and faithfully perform what is on the page, becomes foregrounded. The typically conscious, goal-oriented, modus operandi is abandoned and the performer necessarily assumes an urgent, survival-oriented state in which any expressed physical actions are reflexive adaptations to the existing psychophysical environment.

This is similar to the way some plant roots, when presented with various paths, will opt to follow the path providing access to water. While plants can interpret which direction they need to grow in order to maintain or maximize survival, they cannot measure or assign quantitative value to these impulses. When performers enter this mindset, there is ideally no conscious, aesthetic shaping of the performance, but rather an essential survivalist desire to persist, thereby defaulting performative control to organic, realtime perceptive and physical responses. These responses take the form of inorganic [8] combinations within their vocal apparatus and the expression of their unique physicality and limitations.

I argue that the severity of cognitive load and its resultant overload, is directly related to the degree and nature of parametric polyphony. The level of cognitive strain, experienced by the performer, can be predicted and controlled as a compositional device through adjustments in parametric polyphony. This was the underlying compositional consideration I was working with during the composing process.


Concepts in Practice



There are sections in the piece where all parameters are separated and progress independently, sharing no "normal" or "traditional" relation to one another. In these situations, entropy is high and cognitive load is capped out. These areas are defined by unstable sounds, temporal density, and visual intensity [9]. In our first rehearsal, vocalist Rose Hegele had approached these sections by marking tentative alignments in her score. Despite these alignments, stability remained elusive. As expected (and preferred) the performed result varied each attempt. Rose reported that these alignment markings acted as efficient temporal markers, acting as moments or goals to mark important events.

It is interesting that Rose started with this tactic. It is a clear implementation of her habitualized method with which she approaches new pieces. A method which she has no doubt acquired, developed, and modified through her years in conservatory and prior performance experience with the Western canon. When confronted with this new, unfamiliar notational system, her first instinct was to apply what she knows; attempt to probe the unknown with her hard-won sense-making techniques. When these techniques were inefficient, adaptation became imperative.

On the other hand, there are sections where parameters are left coupled together, or proceed with a similar morphology, resulting in a diminished cognitive load. In these moments, the relationship between what is on the page and what is performed is stabilized. Traditional performance habits are more useful in these sections. Cognitive bandwidth is also freed up to allow for more conscious, emotional expression to be inflected on the performance. Rose was able to effect more control and consistency in these moments. I was very surprised to experience how effective these moments are in the context of the piece. There is a moment [10] where, after a barrage of incomprehensible text, a clear phrase is heard. Not only is semantic meaning finally expressed, it is expressed in a more confident manner which clearly effected the sonic character of the vocalizations. As an audience member, my attention was re-engaged and my interests heightened. Rose expressed that these moments were characterized by a sense of relief and allowed her more of an opportunity to utilize her learned performance habits.


Failure as Identity



The level of cognitive load defines the momentary environment in which the performer is acting. In the intense states, the performer must adapt in realtime often arriving at novel physical contortions. They are engaged in a “dynamic interactivity” [11], an unfolding feedback loop between embodied mind and environment (the embodied mind being the totality of the individual, their past, heritage, cultural biases, musical training, health, sensitivity, fitness, cognitive ability, etc). Through density of notation, parametric polyphony, and novelty of movements, traditional performance practice is eschewed and rendered inefficient as a different, virtual aspect of the performer is called upon. The formation of new relationships between parameters is necessitated. An overwhelming cognitive load leads to adaptation. This adaptation is guided by the unconscious, yet integral, physical identity of the performer.

The innate physical system of the performer acts as a fingerprint, a unique set of physical features that fundamentally embellishes performed sounds with identifying information. All movements made by a body are influenced by the body itself. Therefore the existing physicality of the performer is largely responsible for the quality and feasibility of a given expression. Recent studies suggest that individual performers can be consistently identified solely by observed physical variations in “motion and timing parameters” [12] occurring during performance. These performance hallmarks are the result of “non-deliberate, subjective and consistent motion variations…which [have] been shown to be sufficient to accurately identify a performer above chance level. Such variability is influenced by both biomechanics and cognitive factors in both space and time” [13].


Participants in this study had no prior musical training and were tasked with learning a collection of melodies on a MIDI piano. During routine check-ins, participants were asked to perform the melodies. The MIDI information of each performance was captured. It is only naturally that the participants made mistakes. What interests me is that the observers found that they could identify individual participants, above a chance level, based on the type of mistake. With these mistakes ("motion variances") being “non-deliberate” yet “consistent,” it is apparent that each participant's unique physical fingerprint affected their performances in a fundamental, pronounced, and observable manner. The affects (i.e., mistakes) resulted in the detection of an individual identity, one that was not consciously pursued, but rather expressed through the activation of organic physical programming as the participant, experiencing a large cognitive load, responded to their environment. The participants did not intend to make a mistake but nevertheless communicated an aspect of their identity.


I like to think of failure not as a negative occurrence, something to be avoided, but as a positive occurrence, something that says: "this is me." In concert music, failure is relegated to the practice room and its potential as a means of identity expression is ignored. Pieces like ...most of Us... attempt to foreground failure not in a sadistic or cynical sense but in a vibrant celebration of identity.

 

Notes:


[1] Edgerton, Michael Edward. The Extra-normal Voice. 2014.

[2] My 2018 composition for solo voice, premiered by soprano Rose Hegele. The performance can be heard here: https://soundcloud.com/ryancarraher/most-of-us-ryan-carraher

[3] This technique will be referred to as “parametric polyphony” for the remainder of this post.

[4] Van der Schyff, et al. pp. 8

[5] Ibid.

[6] For a clearer understanding, see the score and performance notes of …most of Us…

[7] Stephen, D.G., Dixon, J.A. 2009.

[8] Here, “inorganic” is used in a Deleuzian sense referring to a structure that is being pulled towards the Body without Organs. A new, fluid series of unceasing relationships as opposed to a crystalized system of connections.

[9] Performers of this work tend to take gasp-like breaths, sway back and forth, adjust their footing (sometimes quite violently), and display intense focus on the score.

[10] In the last system on the second page of the score, the phrase “inner children” is allowed to be performed uninhibited.

[11] Van der Schyff, et al. pp. 8

[12] Caramiaux et al.

[13] Ibid.


 

Sources:


Caramiaux, Baptiste., Bevilacqua, Frédéric., Palmer, Caroline., Wanderley, Marcelo. “Individuality in Piano Performance Depends on Skill Learning,” 4th International Conference on Movement Computing MOCO 17, Jun 2017, London, United Kingdom. pp.1 - 7, 2017, Proceedings of 4th International Conference on Movement Computing. <10.1145/3077981.3078046>. <hal-01577872>


Edgerton, Michael Edward. “The Extra-Normal Voice,” in The Oxford Handbook of Singing, edited by Graham Welch, David M. Howard & John Nix. 2014.


Stephen, D.G., Dixon, J.A. “The Self-Organization of Insight: Entropy, Action, and Cognition,” in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, no. 25 (2009): 1811-32.


Van der Schyff, Dylan., Schiavio, Andrea., Walton, Ashley., Velardo, Valerio., Chemero, Anthony. “Musical Creativity and the Embodied Mind: Exploring the Possibilities of 4E Cognition and Dynamical Systems Theory,” in Music & Science, Vol. 1 (2018): 1-18.

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