If we study the emergence of various dramatic forms and styles in the history of music theatre, we see that most of them became the cliches they are today as a consequence of the production machinery and the ideals of their times. The most prominent example for this must be classical opera, which relies on extreme stylization, grandeur, volume and exuberance to be able to overpower the sheer volume of a classical orchestra, and transmit a vocalized story all the way to the back row of a grand theater - without the use of electronic amplification.
One of the most interesting aspects of music theatre is the stylization of the human voice. Whereas classical opera emphasises volume, vibrato, tonal range and exaggerated emotional expression, many contemporary music theatre pieces play with electronic manipulation of real voices, through digital pitch shifting or physical 'hacking' of the vocal cavity. Excellent examples of this from the contemporary music realm are Simon Steen-Andersen's 'Buenos Aires' (2014) and Trond Reinholdtsen's 'Ø'-universe.
'Buenos Aires' makes use of a classic operatic theme, the descent into the underworld, in a contemporary staging. The use of pressured air, downpitched voices, computer generated voices and electrolarynxes as vocal devices in an operatic setting, plays with the appropriation of the operatic genre into the realm of home-built instruments, DIY-aesthetics and the fetishization of extended techniques prominent in much contemporary music from the last decade. In the friction between these frail and uncanny voices and the grandeur of the overarching theme, an interesting form of musical narration, that plays with several meta-layers of fiction and non-fiction emerges.
The 'Ø' universe by Trond Reinholdtsen playfully merges kitsch, pop culture, philosophical theory and references from literature and art history into a unique music-dramaturgical form derived from classical opera. The heavy stylization of the characters, both visually and sonically, opens up a psychological reading of the pieces which is based on signs and the subconscious organization of audiovisual archetypes. A frequent collaborator with Vegard Vinge and Ida Müller, Reinholdtsen shares many of the same artistic ideals, based in simplification, reduction and heavy stylization, to create a fictive universe that fascinates and impresses in its visionary grandeur, while remaining clearly underground and transgressive in its character.
As technology advances, new tools for synthesizing and rendering [human] voices are constantly developed. Vocaloids like 'Yamaha Vocaloid, Plogue Alter Ego, and text-to-speech devices such as the built-in mac text-to-speech or the AI-powered text-to speech generator speechify all have their impact on contemporary audio culture. The ability to synthesize a voice from pure text and pitch information, has become an invaluable tool for creating the audiovisual narrators of the virtual realm, as is shown in some of the examples below.
'The End' thematically explores the virtual artist and Yamaha Vocaloid voicebank Hatsune Miku's journey in questioning her own existence, life and death, in wake of future software deprecation. The opera has inspired many of the stylistic choices for AFTERLIFE, including many of the vibrant visual design choices, the narrative theme, and the use of vocaloids and auto-tune-like hardpitch aesthetics. The use of 3d animation and a synthesized voice to animate a virtual character in a virtual space, were adapted as basic building blocks for AFTERLIFE.
Oneohtrix Point Never's 'Animals' uses Plogue Chipspeech to narrate a story based in ecological crisis, virtuality and visceral corporality. The human tendency to link a vocal sound to an inner image of a body, is harnessed in order to give life to a story and a character which never has to be shown, yet feels emotionally present in the music.
In terms of vocal manipulation, it would be hard to argue against autotune being the most characteristic vocal effect on contemporary popular music today. Autotune is utilized as both an artistic tool, whose artefacts and glitches become part of an overall aesthetic, or used sparingly, and is obscured to correct vocal performances. As autotune in combination with for instance formant shifting and subtle detuning or doubling makes a human voice sound somewhat close to a computer created voice, autotune lends itself perfectly as a filter for the human voice to adapt into a virtual aesthetic.
The conceptual idea for AFTERLIFE's characters was that the main characters would use autotune and formant shifting for their sung vocals, whereas the NPC characters would each have their very characteristic voice, using either text-to-speech synthesis, pitch and formant manipulation of recorded vocals, or vocaloids. Vocaloids where dropped pretty early on in development, as we discovered it was better for the narrative to have the NPC characters mostly speak (with and without autotune) and not sing. This proved to be a more efficient way to get through the narrative and keep the pace of the piece going, and the singing characteristic was more interesting for the body-tracked characters which were performed in real-time. All the video examples above inspired the voices and the vocal style of AFTERLIFE. Inspired by opera and the works of Vegard Vinge & Ida Müller, we chose to bodily express the sung phrases in an overly emotional style, both to emphasize the connection between the real performers' and the virtual characters' bodies, but also to create a maximum of interplay and connection between narrative, sound and movement. The vocal performance is tightly interlocked and codependent with the harmonic, melodic, narrative and rhythmic structure of the underlying soundtrack, but there is still enough freedom for the performers to use the momentum of audience feedback, and each unique performance, to express themselves freely and exploratively in each scene. The allusion to opera and classical singing creates an interesting friction as it is embodied by a 3d-character, emphasizing the combination of elements from very contrasting places in time and in mediums, combined as an inherently contradictive and ambiguous music theatre form.
In the scene above, the characters shift fluently between sung and spoken styles. As the autotune effect is hard-tuning everything at maximum speed, the overall aesthetic character of the vocal performance is more or less constant, even if the style of input vocals varies. Because the characters' main sonic attributes are already defined by the setup, less effort has to be made to 'act' them out, and more effort can be focused on simply delivering the lines and singing the melodies effortlessly and exploratively.
The use of autotune and formant shifts can musically be likened to the use of masks in the pieces of Vegard Vinge & Ida Müller: As Vegard Vinge puts it, it works on the performer like a piece of 'armour', protecting them from both the pressure to deliver and the risk of ridicule, as the character is already so present by the form and setup provided, that no effort has to be made to enact anything psychologically by the performer. This shift in performing something, from a traditional focus on human virtuosity and expression, to a more contemporary focus on successful interfacing between the human and a medium, can be read as an allegory for the relationship that we as individuals and a society build with technology - and how the technology may afford [emotional] qualities that were only latent before. Borrowing another terminology from Vegard Vinge, the "Vodou possession" by the setup over the performer, and the use of 'armour' as 'spiritual protection', allows for a character's attributes to work on the performer on a subconscious level, and for the character to emerge effortlessly, as the performer simply spends more and more time within the setup. The performer is discovering the qualities they should portray, within the machinery they have become a part of, rather than making efforts to convince an audience of something being present which is clearly not.