Gisbert Watty performs Fan-Fair, Hamburg 2021

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What is a voice? And don’t gender me.

Lost on you by LP:



The human voice has a special place in the desire and enjoyment of musicians and listeners. For me, there are voices, like the one you’ve just heard, that strike exactly the right note. That is to say, I feel deeply touched by this voice of Laura Pergolizzi, better known in the popular music world as L.P. Having a love for music might be a Freudian sublimation, but my emotional reaction to L.P.’s singing is probably closer to an auditory fetish. Not that I really care, because I’m not going to stop listening to this voice until its intoxicating effect has dissipated, and that won’t happen in a hurry.

I’m not the only one who derives pleasure from this song called Lost on You: more than 165 million views for this YouTube clip alone. And it does not take long to find comments about L.P.’s voice online. Here are some examples:

The bluesy artist’s unique vocal timbre, equally able to muster a powerful vibrato and a Cinderella-esque whistle, pulling from pop and Bob Dylan’s nasally delivery, struck a particular chord with “Lost on You,” a song about the dissolution of a relationship with her girlfriend. (1)

With alternately howling and forlorn rough-edged vocals delivering bracingly open lyrics, L.P. has invited comparisons to, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, Gwen Stefani. (2)

Her insanely high and haunting vocals have been compared to Janice Joplin and Florence Welch … of Florence and the Machine. (3)

The tortured grit in L.P.’s voice on “Lost on You” is reminiscent of the gravelly Johnny Cash. (4)

It is worth noting that all of these comments, while trying to express the uniqueness of L.P.’s voice, resort to comparisons with other popular singers. This is not an accident but symptomatic of what I’m trying to explore in this short paper. Namely, the issue of sound colour, also known as tone colour and timbre. Most non-musicians are familiar with the musical categories or parameters of melody, harmony, and rhythm, but even trained musicians often have only a limited set of words available to describe the timbral quality of sound. Sure, as we just heard, there are adjectives such as gritty, nasal, and gravelly, and we talk about smooth vs grainy sounds, or dark vs bright sounds, but in the end, there remains a residue that cannot be fully captured by language. We can circumscribe the vocal sound of a singer, but this is nothing like hearing the actual voice. Hence, we resort to comparisons with equally unique voices. These comparisons do not diminish the distinctiveness of a given voice but rather confirm the reality of vocal singularities.

Vocal timbre is a complex category, and it has been pointed out that ‘the perception of musical timbre, for its part, intricate and poorly understood, must be related to discrete pitch perception, since it also involves a cognitive construction based in parts on blends of frequencies.’ (5) Oliver Sacks has the following to say about timbre:

The timbre of a sound is influenced by all sorts of factors, including the frequencies of harmonics or overtones and the onset, rise and decay of acoustic waveforms. The ability to maintain a sense of timbre constancy is a multileveled and extremely complex process in the auditory brain that may have some analogies with color constancy – indeed, the language of color is often applied to timbre, which is sometimes referred to as a “sound colour” or “tone color”. (6)

Daniel Levitin points out that timbre ‘is the most important and ecologically relevant feature of auditory events.’ He explains that ‘timbral discrimination is so acute in humans that most of us can recognise hundreds of different voices. We can even tell whether someone close to us – our mother, our spouse – is happy or sad, healthy or coming down with a cold, based on the timbre of that voice.’ (7)

Even more striking is the recent discovery that being able to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar vocal sounds is something that already develops inside the womb. A two-country study conducted in 2013 supports ‘the hypothesis that language experienced in utero affects vowel perception’. The study concludes that ‘the ambient language to which foetuses are exposed in the womb starts to affect their perception of their native language at a phonetic level’ and that ‘this can be measured shortly after birth by differences in responding to familiar vs. unfamiliar sounds.’ (8)

And yet, even with all the existing neuroscience and the compelling research into the brain’s processing of auditory events, little is known about the neurological mechanisms responsible for voice recognition. Neuroscientists have begun to map out pitch recognition, but the mechanism by which musicians, and possibly some listeners, can discern musical intervals, that is, the distance between two pitches, is still unclear. (9) According to Levitin, ‘there is evidence that the brain responds to […] harmonic sounds with synchronous neural firings […] creating a neural basis for the coherence of these sounds’, (10) but given that the specific timbre of a human voice is made up of a whole spectrum of simultaneous sound waves that combine into a distinctive sound quality, it is easy to see how far away we are from explaining how the brain processes this complex set of sensory data.

So, if neuroscience cannot fully explain what musicians and many listeners already know, maybe a simple look at our everyday language has something to offer. We can say that L.P.’s voice has that special something, which makes her voice so desirable to her listeners. In German, the special something finds it literal translation in ‘das besondere Etwas’. And the French equivalent is the ‘je ne sais quoi’ – the ‘I don’t know what’, which more openly acknowledges our frequent inability to name what actually matters the most. The inability to name the special quality of something or someone desirable can be associated with Jacques Lacan’s objet a – the object cause of desire. (11) The objet a is the special quality of L.P.’s vocal timbre that causes me to desire her voice. I can look for words that can circumscribe the special quality of her voice, but these words have no hope of replacing the experience of listening. What remains elusive is the special something, the precious property contained in L.P.’s vocal timbre that causes me to find her voice desirable.

Continuing along psychoanalytical lines, it does not take long to arrive at questions about my mother’s voice or the voice of someone else close to me. At the risk of committing a Freudian negation: my mother’s voice is nothing like L.P.’s voice, nor I can’t think of anyone else who sounds exactly like L.P. In fact, I’m relieved that this is the case because, at some level, I resist losing the singularity of L.P.’s timbre. But even if I did find someone in my personal live sounding like L.P., this would still not explain the singer’s broader popularity.

I suspect that music’s widely accepted capacity of being expressive of emotion might have something to do with the appeal of L.P.’s ‘Lost on You’. Furthermore, some singers might have a greater ability to imbue their singing with emotional import than others. In any case, the uniqueness and complexity of vocal timbre plays a major part in adding to the expressive pallet of a singer. In fact, I doubt whether the song performed by another singer would have the same impact.

Beyond timbre, it might also be worth considering the persona and stage presence of L.P. Popular media has commented on her androgynous appearance and her sexual orientation makes her a cultural ambassador of the LGBTI community. Gender non-compliance in popular music resonates with L.P.’s appearance, and this places L.P. in a tradition that can be traced back to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Popular culture is generally welcoming of gender diversity and this is reflective of a wider trend to challenge the traditional gender binary. As any biologist can attest, the traditional binary is not even anchored in nature, that is, the idea of two sexes is simplistic because different sexually dimorphic traits do not always align within the same person and therefore biologists speak of a spectrum rather than a binary. (12)

The question of gender in the context of the human voice is complex because, as most of us would know, some women speak with low voices and some men with high voices. In music, too, high and low voices are not always associated with male or female. For example, a counter-tenor sings in the alto range and a female inuk throat-singer like Tanya Tagaq is able to produce incredibly low vocal sounds in the lowest part of the bass range. Pitch alone cannot be a marker of gender. Rather, pitch can be suggestive of gender and there is a statistical probability that a man has a lower voice than a woman, but pitch and gender are not immutably linked. Given that timbre is made up of multiple pitch frequencies, the issue of gender in relation to the sound colour of a human voice is even more intricate and would merit a PhD project in its own right.

To conclude, I’d like to come back once more to the experience of being touched by another person’s voice, which turns out be quite a literal touch. At first this might seem counter-intuitive as we tend to locate the familiar voice in the person that is producing the vocal sound. And yet, the other’s voice physically travels inside our body through our ears and it can even remain there. Daniel Levitin explains that familiar voices become part of our body at a neural level because our brains develop circuitry associated with the voices of others.’ (13) A familiar voice is hardwired into our brain. A desired voice becomes anatomically part of us. We embody the voices we love.

List of references

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Do Animals Dream of Slaughterhouses?

A compilation of materials about animal rights for the Festival Camino Contro Corrente, November 1-3, 2018.


Compiled by Thomas Reiner from a YouTube video by Slavoj Žižek, an arrangement of ∆’s Arrival in Nara, and images depicting animals.

Part 1


Hi everyone and welcome to this performance about animals.

I’m thinking about my occasional consumption of meat, which is at odds with my compassion for animals. And maybe this compassion for animals is little more than wishful thinking.

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek has spoken about animal rights, and the following is an excerpt of what he had to say:

‘We ask a simple question: “can they, the animals, suffer?” Human industry alone is continuously causing immense suffering of animals, which is systematically disavowed.

Not only laboratory experiments but special regimes to produce eggs and milk, like turning artificial light on and off to shorten or lengthen the day, use of hormones, and so on. Pigs, who are half-blind and barely able to walk, just fattened fast to be slaughtered, and so on and so on.

All of us know what goes on here, but this knowledge has to be neutralised so that we can act as if we don’t know.

One of the ways to facilitate this ignorance is the Cartesian notion of animal-machine. Cartesians were warning people against compassion with animals.

The idea is that when we see an animal emitting sounds of pain, we should always bear in mind that these sounds do not express any real inner feeling. Animals do not have souls; they are just sounds generated by a complex mechanism of muscles, bones, fluids and so on, that you can clearly see through dissection.

The problem is that the notion of animal-machine quickly ends up in La Mettrie’s notion of L’Homme Machine,[1] of human being as a machine. If you are a fully committed neurobiologist, exactly the same claim can be made about sounds and gestures emitted by humans when they are in pain. There is no separate interior domain of soul, where the pain is really made.

So, what should we do here? What if – and that’s my proposal – the perplexity of the human looking at the cat, this perplexity in the tortured animal’s gaze, is the perplexity aroused by the monstrosity of the human being itself?

What if, in the abyss of the wounded animal’s gaze, we see there reflected our own monstrosity?

I’m not trying to convince you of some New Age attitude of, you know, “in the animal gaze we see how animals feel the same as us, understand us”, and then you end up with all this bullshit of “trees secretly talk among themselves”, and so on.

What I’m saying is that if you turn around the perspective, and ask not what it means for you, this gaze of the frightened animal, but simply what do you see in the animal’s gaze. I think you will see your own monstrosity.

You see precisely that which philosophers don’t want to see. In short, you see what Freud called ‘death drive’.

You see that excessive violence of which good philosophers were aware.

For example, just briefly, Immanuel Kant has a wonderful text on education, where he provides his famous definition of what is man: man is an animal who needs a master.[2] And then he explains why. He says that there is a kind of wild, irrational excess of violent freedom in man, which animals don’t have. This is why animals don’t need education.

So, Kant is here very precise: he’s not saying that it’s the nature in man, which has to be educated, it’s precisely – let’s call it a nature turned against itself – an excess of wild freedom. And maybe this is what animals see in us.’

So much for Žižek.

I hope we can all agree that animals are sentient creatures.

As a sentient species, we humans share this planet with other sentient species.

If Žižek is right about our own monstrosity reflected in the gaze of an animal, then there is work to be done.

Work, initially, in the sense of reflecting on our disavowal of the suffering we cause to animals.

Coming to terms with this disavowal can be the first step towards acting more compassionately, that is, acting in a way that reduces the suffering of animals.

In my case, this means eating less meat and trying not to buy meat that is mass-produced. For me, this also means replacing cow’s milk with almond milk and avoiding mass-produced cheese.

My vegan and vegetarian friends will probably encourage me to go further than that.

For me, I’m taking steps in the direction of compassion.



[1] Julien Offray de La Mettrie, L’Homme Machine (1747).

[2] Immanuel Kant, Über Pädagogik (1803).


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The Real – 13 October 2017

A live recording of ‘The Real’, the 2nd movement of ‘Lacan: Ein Lehrstück’, arranged for the Monash Art Ensemble conducted by Paul Grabowsky with Jessica Aszodi and Tristram Williams as soloists. 13 October 2017, Music Auditorium, Monash University.


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Alexandra Kollontai at Festival Camino Contro Corrente 2017

Alexandra Kollontai, a new work for speaker, soprano and ensemble, based on the autobiography of Soviet revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai, will be premiered on Saturday, October 28, 2017 at the Municipal Theater of Camino al Tagliamento
in the concert titled Materiale Suono by the Ensemble L’arsenale conducted by Filippo Perocco. The event is part of Festival Camino Contro Corrente 2017, “The October Revolution”, which will take place in Camino al Tagliamento from 27th to 29th October 2017.


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The Real – 2017

On Friday 13 October 2017, 8pm, Jessica Aszodi and Tristram Williams will join Paul Grabowsky’s Monash Art Ensemble to perform ‘The Real’, which is an arrangement of the 2nd movement of Lacan: Ein Lehrstück.

Music Auditorium, Monash University, Monash Performing Arts Centre, Building 68, Clayton Campus.

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Bucharest 2017

Tamara Smolyar performs Seven Variations on Tuireamh Mhic Finín Dhuibh on Monday 22 May, in case you are up for a trip to Rumania this month. Octavian Simu and Max Packer have each contributed a variation. The original tune is a lament that dates from the death of Sylvester Ó Suilleabháin, who was thrown from his horse in 1809. To make matters worse, the lament is in the dark and dissonant Locrian mode.

Bucharest 2017.png

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Re-sound: Sublating the Symbol

Another album of Australian work by some of my wonderfully talented colleagues.
Please order directly from Ars PublicaCD cover Sublating the Symbol.

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Sweet Spots at Deutsche Oper Berlin

So the time has come to talk about Berlin 2016.

Jaslyn Robertson, Ralph Whiteoak and I will have works performed at the Deutsche Oper Berlin on November 14 later this year. The performance group is the State Youth Ensemble New Music Berlin conducted by my dear colleague and friend Jobst Liebrecht. This post is an early invitation for all my friends in Europe and of course also for my Australian friends who might hang out in Berlin at that time.

The youth ensemble will present the first performances of the newly commissioned works by Jaslyn and Ralph and perform Sweet Spots, my chamber concertino for contrabass clarinet, which was commissioned in 2006 by the Alaskan new music organisation CrossSound and premiered with Kevin Schempf as soloist.

Deutsche Oper Berlin

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How to identify musical intervals: a two-step method

two-step method

Here is something for beginning musicians to learn identify musical intervals from music notation. I have collaborated on this text with the wonderfully talented illustrator and designer Tahl Swieca, whose quirky drawings add a cheeky charm to this publication. It is available from Ars Publica.

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