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What did I just hear?

I mentioned in my previous blog post that I had recorded music at XPO North from local artists Keir Gibson and Gaelic group Whyte Both gave excellent performances and when I came to look at the recordings for patterns to work with I noted something different in the vocal styles.

Disclaimer – I am not, I have never been and will never be any kind of musical expert. I’m making a novice observation and exploration of musical styles based on a couple of recordings.

As explained in the last Aural Textiles project the visual of a sound recordings is familiar to most people in wave format. This shows the production of sound (frequency) at volume over a period of time.

Using Audacity software we change the presentation of this audio information into a Spectrogram which gives a chart showing time, sound (frequency) and intensity (amplitude). This alternative representation of the sound (audio) information gives pattern inspiration for the Aural Textiles project.

I was listening back to the recordings from XPO North and watching the images at the same time. First in Wavelength and then in Spectrogram. What was really interesting is that in Wave format the recordings look very similar. Basically vocal and music occurring over time, but my listening experience was picking up huge differences in the way that the artists were using their voices. When I changed to the Spectrogram setting I could see the difference in what I was hearing, which is pretty cool!

Keir Gibson recording

Whyte recording

The brightness in a Spectrogram shows a greater intensity. From the 2 images you should be able to see that both artists were hitting a similar vocal range, and obviously performing different songs, but one (Alasdair Whyte) is producing more intense sound than the other. This was even more impressive because in the stage set up both were using amplification but no vocal special effects pedals. Take a listen to both artists on You Tube and you’ll find some lovely songs.

What I was hearing and seeing on the Spectrogram was vocalist Alasdair Whyte produce a reverb like effect amplifying the intensity of his voice, but only using his chest muscles, vocal chords and lung capacity. Pretty impressive! This became clearer as I cleaned up the sound recording to remove background noise and them spliced the intense sounds together to examine the forming pattern.

Whyte recording - cleaned up and zoomed in

I mentioned this on social media to find out more about traditional Gaelic singing styles, as Alasdair is a Gaelic singer. I’m not a Gaelic speaker but members of my family are and I’m aware from this of the teaching of traditional musical styles that stays strong in the present day. So when I described what was happening some suggested I check out something called ‘Mouth Music’. Intriguing!

‘Mouth music’ or Puirt a Bheul as it is known in Gaelic is a way of making music without instruments. The tale is that this is from a time when traditional Scottish instruments such as the bagpipes were banned, however I couldn’t find a definitive answer to that.

Disclaimer – I’m also not a historian.

After listening to many lovely examples of Gaelic Puirt a Bheul on YouTube, I learned that this style is more commonly found in jolly jigs and dancing tunes. One of the songs I recognised from my daughters’ days in school was “Brochan Lom”. It will probably be familiar to you too if you’ve ever watched Whisky Galore! (If you haven’t watched that funny brilliant film stop now, go watch the film, come back. This rambling blog post will still be available on your return.)

So it’s not Puirt a Bheul that Alasdair is using here. As I kept listening I then remembered a workshop that I had been to around 2001/2 in Stirling by a collective group of classical Indian musicians called Tabula Rasa. In that workshop they talked about the main differences between European and Indian vocal styles. In European/Western singing the notes are clearly defined. It is clear when notes begin and end, and there is often a tiny pause between when singing scales. The most relatable example of this that I can think of is Julie Andrews in the wonderful Sound of Music singing Doh, Ray, Me. (Insert pause to rewatch Singalong Sound of Music DVD here.)

In classical Indian music the vocalist blends the notes together to move between frequency and pitch. Every area of India has it’s own vocal styles and rich musical history. Definitely go and explore some of these on You Tube they are an absolute joy. What I hope you notice in your listening experience is the focus on melody in the music and the skill of the performers in fluidly improvising. Notes blend together so scales don’t sounds line Doh,Rae Me but more like DooohhrrRRaaeemmMMee. This blending of notes is not poor technique but an extremely skilful and long practised method of precise vocal control that gives a luxurious depth to vocal performances with few accompanying instruments. To my extremely amateur ear it is this type of sound and resonance that was more similar to Alasdair's performance. Overall this type of minute vocal manipulation to change frequency and intensity using the body as an instrument has me completely awestruck and intrigued.

So I don’t yet have the answer to my question, what did I just hear? My next task is to track down some actual musicians to learn more about these traditional musical styles, and of course to see where that takes the design work that Carol and I will be producing.

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1 Comment

Cally Booker
Cally Booker
Aug 19, 2019

Ooh, this is like a detective story! What an interesting thread to follow...

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