Vol. 25 Issue 4 Reviews
David Mahler: Hearing Voices
Compact disc, Tzadik TZ 7064, 2001; available from Tzadik, 61 East Eighth Street, P.M.B. 126, New York, New York 10003, USA; electronic mail tzadik@tzadik.com; World Wide Web www.tzadik.com/.

Reviewed by Steven M. Miller
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

Since language and the human voice have long inspired composers of diverse musical genres, it should come as no surprise that they are the common elements among the four individual pieces on this disc. David Mahler’s Hearing Voices uses language and voice as basic elements out of which to forge entirely new sonic and textual worlds. It is a tour de force of digital editing techniques—often in micro-detail—by an unsung master of analog tape music. All four of the pieces included, The Priest From Cape Breton, A Chorale That Ludvig Lindeman Wrote, Wagnerian Opera, and Who I Just Adored, take recordings of voices, from interviews with the composer, and shape, sculpt, and cajole the voices into sonic flights of fancy. Each of the pieces takes the voice of a single artist as the raw material from which the composer creates a sort of homage to him or her, evoking some element(s) that he finds significant in their work. While the second and third pieces focus on the use of language, the first and fourth explore more intimately the sonic possibilities of the human voice itself.

Infused with his usual grace and sense of gentle humor, the four pieces on the disc represent the composer’s first foray into digital recording media. Like much of his earlier analog tape music, these pieces rely more on fine-scale editing and mixing procedures than signal processing. In fact, the only integral use of processing is limited to the piece Wagnerian Opera, in the form of pitch shifting to delineate individual characters created from a single voice. In the liner notes, the composer refers to this in terms of his interest in “letting the digital medium speak in its own voice.” While I’m not sure that digital signal processing is any less an accurate depiction of the voice of the digital medium than editing and mixing, it is, in any case, the compositional voice of Mr. Mahler that comes through loud and clear.

The Priest From Cape Breton, featuring the voice of dancer Sandy Silva, creates a sonic evocation of dancing feet from the words, phrases, fragments, and phonemes of her narrative description. Structured in ten sections, the piece generally focuses on the deconstruction of short phrases, sometimes overlaid in shifting layers, into small sonic kaleidoscopes. A painstaking yet subtle attention to detail is evident in the multitudes of individual micro-edits, creating shifting patterns of phonemes, rhythmic ostinati, and timbral variations. Taken as a whole, the ten sections create a unified set of textural variations on the dancer’s voice while evoking the sound of her feet.

In A Chorale That Ludvig Lindeman Wrote, the voice of composer Tom Peterson provides the timbral material as well as the pitches—an octave and a half of quarter-tones—with which Mr. Mahler weaves melodic fragments into and around the heavily edited interview. Reflecting the speaking mannerisms of the subject in the same quarter-tone system which he himself has used extensively for much of his own music is a subtle stroke of brilliance which Mr. Mahler executes deftly and with his characteristic humor.

Populating an imaginary discussion group on the subject of the title, Wagnerian Opera creates a dialogue among “historical” as well as make-believe characters. All of the characters’ voices are constructed from the voice and words of novelist Mathew Stadler. Punctuating the conversation is the sound of a typewriter derived from the novelist’s voice, as well as the sound of an ill-fated bee. Again, attention to detail in manual editing and mixing procedures in tandem with a keen appreciation of language and humor creates a work of quiet charm and technical virtuosity.

The final piece on the disc, Who I Just Adored, is the most abstract of the four. Taking off from visual artist Sherry Markovitz’s use of animal imagery, the composer constructs a faux soundscape of animals, insects, and birds. With the only textual content being names and descriptions of various animals, the bulk of the work is devoted to a shifting field of “animal noises” set against a changing pattern of location ambiences. Perhaps due to the less concrete nature (pardon the puns) of the piece, it is the least engaging of the four. Clearly, interplay of language and sonic texture is the composer’s forte. This piece suffers, if only slightly, from the lack of a narrative text onto which the composer works his skill.

All in all, this collection of pieces demonstrates that Mr. Mahler has lost none of his skill, verve, humor, and sense of artistic playfulness in the move to digital media. While the composer himself in the liner notes admits to feeling more than a little unease in the brave new world of computer-based audio tools, the actual musical results belie none of it. This disc is strong evidence of a seasoned composer having found a “new voice.”