Machinefabriek’s With Voices brings Rutger Zuydervelt’s use of cassette recorders, tone generators, radios and other audio ephemera to the front line. In this latest work, the Dutch composer builds a sound world around a set of varying vocals, with contributors being Peter Broderick, Marissa Nadler, Richard Youngs, Chantal Acda (Sleepingdog), and Terence Hannum (Locrian). Using the voice as an instrument instead of ‘a vehicle of lyrical content’ gives the music free reign. This time, along with experimental textures and spluttering electronics, the voice is brought into the experimental arena. The voice is the dominating factor in a pop song (the vocalist is the leader, and they want you to know it), but its prominence is something of a rarity in experimental circles. If lyrics show up at all, they sit in the background, and the overall textures take the limelight.
With Voices sounds weirdly futuristic, but at the same time it’s a very human album, too, thanks to its centralizing concentration on the voice and its impressive range of tones. Sighs, utterings, and the more concrete pronunciations of spoken poetry and verse are all embedded into the album, and the meeting of these two very distinct worlds both divides and connects the music. The short-circuited voices act as a premonition, giving one a sneak peek into the AI of the future, a step on from Alexa or Cortana. The voice shuts down and is in need of a charge, and then it reboots back up, restarting even after the plug’s been pulled. Ever-morphing drones with dark edges pull the vocal into its matrix, but the original output ensures a certain independence from the drone even as the sound-world lingers on in the background.
The voice inflates the piece, and it becomes an expansive, abstract work. And while Zuydervelt’s music has always been sharply creative, it’s even more evident here. Some of the voices sound like they should be human, but something’s missing. Subject and context are meaningless here, and that’s so liberating. Zuydervelt’s intention was to do exactly that: he liberates the voice. The tones became unpredictable, the verse-chorus-verse structure of song revoked. The glitching sounds and smeared drones produce a sentience with two faces; a robot displaying human emotion. Its disjointed, jerking motion of the head and its unblinking gaze somehow feels off, sending the mind into a pit of nausea and unease. Because, for the most part, the background drones don’t entertain sunflowers and unicorns, but are instead lovers of hard rain and the dark, neo-noir of Blade Runner or neon advertising.
The future is a second away from its fruition, and the voices are sometimes obscured in the bubble of technological progress. The stuttering could also represent the disintegration of language and face-to-face social communication. Technology is always advancing, but, as on the London Underground, most commuters glue themselves to their smartphones instead of engaging in conversation. Ironically, these devices bring a kind of connection, but there’s a larger disconnection between people because of them, the voice remaining silent and unused while the fingers do all the work, tapping at a little screen and sending a text as a means of dialogue. The voice, when needed, becomes a stuttering thing thanks to its dependence on social media updates. This record is proof that Machinefabriek has much more to say.