Charles Dodge: Speech Songs
Charles Dodge was another early computer musician who got in on the speech synthesis game. Born in Iowa in 1942 he was in his early twenties when he first became interested in the possibilities of computer music. As a graduate student at Columbia University he studied composition under Richard Hervig, Chou Wen-chung, and the electronic musician Otto Luening. When he met Godfrey Winham of at Princeton University, he began to think seriously about composing his own works with computers. Winham was an influential music theorist whose wife was a singer whose wife Bethany Beadslee was the voice for much new music, including Milton Babbit’s Philomel.
In the sixties Bell Labs was one of the very few places computer music was being made, and it was one of the few places to go to hear how it sounded. Max Matthews encouraged musicians who were making music on university computers to come to Bell Labs to convert it into sound, in the evening after the primary work at the Labs was finished. Charles Dodge was one of these composers, and when he came to listen to his work he became mesmerized by the fascinating sounds of the speech research going on down the hall, and often thought it was more interesting than the sounds he’d created using the computer.
In the early 70s he had the opportunity to create some new works at Bell Labs with access to programs written by Dr. Joseph Olive for speech synthesis. Olive was a leading researcher in the area of text-to-speech. Olive was one of those people who had an intense mathematical mind. He had received a physics PhD from the University of Chicago, but he was also interested in music.
With help from Olive and some poems written and given to him by his friend Mark Strand, Dodge went about creating Speech Songs. He writes, “I'd never been able to write very effective vocal music and here was an opportunity to make music with words. I was really attracted to that. It wasn't singing in the usual sense. It was making music out of the nature of speech itself. With the early speech-synthesis computers, you could do two things: you could make the voice go faster or slower than the speed in which it was recorded at the same pitch or you could shift the pitch independent of the speech rhythm. That was a kind of transformation that you couldn't make in the usual way of making tape music. It was fascinating to put my hands on two ways of modifying sound that were completely, newly available.”
To synthesize the electronic voices for the poems he used called speech-by-analysis. Only words that had put into the computer before using an an analog-to-digital converter could be synthesized. The recorded speech is analyzed by the computer to pull out the various parameters from the spoken word in short segments. Then speech can be recreated by the artificial voice using the same parameters as had been analyzed. For musical purposes, though, those parameters can be altered to change aspects of the sound such as shifting the pitch contour of a phrase or word into a melodic line. Change the speed without altering the pitch is another possibility. Formants and resonance are other aspects that can be changed by the programmer-composer.
The poems themselves are humorous and surrealistic, and the way the artificial voice reads them adds to the effect. Dodge was specifically interested in humor, because as he wrote in the liner notes, “Laughter at new music concerts, especially in New York, is rare these days.” He was delighted when audience members laughed at his creation. For a type of music that is so often cerebral and conceptual, its good when some belly laughs can be had.
Another piece on the album, The Story of Our Lives, also used techniques of speech synthesis. In this case instead of replacing the recorded human with an artificial voice, they changed the program so that it took from a bank of 64 sine tones that glissandoed at different rates. To create the effect of more than one voice being heard at a time, the different voices were mixed together on the digital computer.
Speech Songs came out in 1972 and in 1978 he put together a he made a recording of the radio In Casando by Samuel Beckett, where the musical aspect was two computer synthesized audio channels. This was also when he founded the center for computer music at CUNY’s Brooklyn College and began teaching for their graduate program. His 1970 composition, Earth’s Magnetic Field will be explored in chapter 8 of this book.
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Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory: Telecommunications, Electronic Music, and the Voice of the Ether.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.