Synthrumentation, revisited: towards a new method of additively synthesising speech in acoustic instrumental contexts

Chen, A. (2022) Synthrumentation, revisited: towards a new method of additively synthesising speech in acoustic instrumental contexts. Masters thesis, Royal College of Music.


Synthrumentation is a term coined by composer Clarence Barlow to refer to his innovative, personal compositional practice of additively (re-)synthesising phonated speech sounds purely via means of acoustic instruments, i.e. without the presence of an actual human voice or electronics. I repurpose ‘synthrumentation’ as a general term (broadly referring to acoustic additive instrumental synthesis of all kinds), and detail a number of extant works utilising it, for the purposes of identifying potential trends and deficiencies within historical practice in terms of intent, pre-compositional procedure, and musical usage. It becomes clear that, amongst other things, the inharmonicity that part-constitutes both speech and other sounds has been largely overlooked in existing synthrumental practices, suggesting a fruitful area of new inquiry and potential basis for developing novel synthrumentation methods. With respect to the above review of synthrumental works ‘after the fact,’ I continue on to investigate various aspects of sonic material itself, prior to undergoing synthrumental processes, with a particular emphasis on human vocality, phonemes, formants and the characteristics of whispered speech. Finally, a new method of synthrumentation is devised, aiming to replicate whispered speech, particularly through the continuous formant bandwidths on which it is structured (as opposed to the discrete harmonic peaks of its phonated counterpart), with particular attention given to practical considerations and feasibility in live performance contexts. Resultant orchestrations and audio samples (recorded live by a group of violinists) are appended. Ultimately, the method proves to be successful in fulfilling its base aims, and resultant sounding synthrumentations are, superficially, sonically characteristic and impactful. However, further research is required to objectively determine their potential uses in musical contexts, broader aesthetic implications, and general efficacy.

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