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ELO 2015: The End(s) of Electronic Literature

Live Performance, Voicescapes, and Remixing the Under Language: Sounds and Voices at the End(s) of Electronic Literature

Friday, August 7 • 09:00 - 10:30 (Sydneshaugen skole: Auditorium Q)

This panel responds to the conference theme: “The end(s) of electronic literature” with three approaches, in theory and practice, for the use of sound as the basis for new forms of electronic literature. 

These approaches are sound composition for intermedia, digital manipulation of the voice in new media writing, and remixing the under language of pioneering works of electronic literature. Each panel participant will present and discuss one of these different approaches.

Historically, sound has been overlooked, or worse, ignored, as a component of electronic literature. The “end(s)” of e-lit explored in this panel may provide new and interesting opportunities, however, to investigate and ameliorate this oversight.

In brief, this panel argues that live coding and live algorithms for generative text and sound, along with digital manipulation of voice, offer new approaches to new media writing. These can also be mixed or remixed with previous content and/or techniques to provide new forms of e-literature. 

Remixing the Under Language

John Barber (Washington State University Vancouver)

Where the other two presentations in this proposed panel discuss the potentials live coding of sound and digital voice manipulation may allow for live performances of electronic literature, this presentation speaks to the remixing of existent sounds of pioneering works.

Pioneering e-literature works by Stuart Moulthrop (Sc4nda1 in New Media [2012], Radio Salience[2007], and Under Language [2007]) and Jeremy Hight (38 North 118 West [2003]) relied on sound for their effective realization. Hight’s locative narrative, for example, depended entirely on sound to connect the physical locations of its telling and restore a past dismissed by urban change. Moulthrop’s Under Language generated combinations of ten-line poems, and allowed users to mix provided sounds, thus completing the poems.

One “end” of electronic literature may be to reconsider remixing aural artifacts from works of electronic literature to provide new sound narratives that are at once faithful to their heritage and also indicative of sound as a creative element involved in the construction and manipulation of space and experience in performance contexts that are both immersive and interactive.

This supposition, along with those of my colleagues (live in-performance coding of sound and digital voice manipulation), may point to new “ends of e-lit” where computer technology becomes integral to the making or remixing of sound elements in electronic literature, providing, to borrow from Moulthrop, an “under language,” the language of computer programming that is inseparable from the work. The result: new narrative approaches that reconsider sound as an important and integral affordance of future forms of electronic literature: web-based, or live interactive intermedia works of electronic literature where the reader/user/participant remixes the textual and audio contents as desired. 

Such combinatorial practices have been difficult to achieve previously because of transmission bandwidth restrictions. As a result, sound was often limited to background, transition, or contextual cues. Again, we might use Moulthrop’s term, “under language.” Future works, given a more robust web environment, may remix the under language, sound(s), more prominently, more interestingly, more flexibly to promote forms of electronic literature that are at once global and local, social and individual, universal and customizable. 


Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge.

Smith, H. 1999. “Sonic writing and sonic cross-dressing: gender, language, voice and technology”. In Musics and Feminisms edited by S. Macarthur and C. Poynton, 129-134. Sydney, Australian Music Centre.

Smith, H. 2009. “The voice in computer music and its relationship to place, identity, and community”. In The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music, edited by R. Dean. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, H. and R. T. Dean. 2003. “Voicescapes and sonic structures in the creation of sound technodrama”. Performance Research 8(1): 112-123. 

Digital Manipulation of the Voice in New Media Writing

Hazel Smith (University of Western Sydney)

The concept of voice has been used in critical writing about poetry in multiple ways: as the distinctive presence of the poet in the text, as the means by which oppressed minorities can speak their position, and as a means of communication in performance and sonic poetry. All these types of voice can be present in electronic texts, from on-screen words to spoken voices on a soundtrack. 

However, new technologies bring unique possibilities for the manipulation of the voice. Such possibilities seem underexplored in e-literature, and are also somewhat neglected in the critical literature about new media writing. Through digital technologies, voices can be merged, multiplied and denaturalized. The voice can be transformed with regard to every parameter: pitch, timbre and rhythm. Such manipulation can create a continuum between sound and speech, and a synergy between the human and the posthuman.

This technological manipulation of the voice can also have considerable cultural consequences. For example, the performativity of gender – the idea that gender is, as Judith Butler argues, in part only the repetition of acts consistent with that gender (Butler 1990) – can be foregrounded through the process of “sonic cross-dressing” of the voice (Smith 1999). “Sonic cross-dressing” involves digital (or occasionally performance) manipulation of the voice so that the gender is inverted: a male voice sounds female; a female voice sounds male. It can also explore the continuum between male and female: transgendered voice positions that are half-male, half-female. This process unpicks the relationship between voice and body, and denaturalises it. It is also, in theory, possible to manipulate ethnicity in similar ways, by synthesizing different voices, to create cross-cultural speaking positions.

Digitally manipulated voices can form voicescapes: a term Roger Dean and I have formerly constructed for multidimensional and multidirectional projections of the voice into space (Smith and Dean 2003). A voicescape consists of multiple voices, some of which are digitally manipulated or computer generated. The voicescape can problematize the one-to-one relationship between a particular voice and a particular identity. For example, the same voice may be densely overlaid so that different versions of it quarrel with each other.

The voicescape also problematizes the relationship between voice and place. As postmodern geographers such as Steve Pile, David Harvey and Doreen Massey have suggested, place is not bounded and fixed, but fluid and dynamic. This is highlighted in recent globalisation and cosmopolitanism theory that stresses the breakdown of the nation state. Through digital manipulation the relationship between voice and place can be emphasized, or alternatively problematized and reconstructed. A voice may seem to belong to several locales at once, or to arise out of an ambiguous, incongruous, or virtual space.

The paper will draw on examples from electronic literature, and will also allude to other spheres, such as computer music, in which digital manipulation of the voice has been developed (Smith 2009). It will feature some pieces from the work of the sound and multimedia group, austraLYSIS, who have particularly focused on digital manipulation of the voice.

Sound Composition for Intermedia

Roger Dean (University of Western Sydney)

In general, e-literature has probably neglected or underplayed the possible roles of sound in work for web or other rich media platforms. Notable early exceptions include John Cayley, Mark Amerika and Jim Andrews.

Even in 1997, when Hazel Smith, Greg White and I were commissioned to make WordStuffs, a hypermedia piece with words, sound and image, and even when the whole file was required by the commission to fit on a (1Mb) floppy disc (!), we were able to produce simple sonic interactivity that permitted up to four separate sound streams to be manipulated by a user simultaneously, and some to possess algorithmic variability. The work still functions on the website of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. MIDI, and the use of the musical instrument samples embedded within Quicktime (and now AUDLS), allowed economies of data size that afforded this possibility.

Our second major intermedia work, Walking the Faultlines, published on CD-ROM in the first anthology of multimedia works released by the International Computer Music Association, was much more lavish in digital size and flexibility. Nowadays such issues of size constraint are reduced, though not removed (audio and video compression are still required, and multi-channel audio and video remain rare because of transmission bandwidth). Other format issues and browser wars restrict some possibilities, for example, some contemporary browsers do not readily work with MIDI musical instruments. On the other hand, the AudioAPI and other platforms permit local sonic transformation on a user’s computer, controlled by composed algorithms within the work, or open to user control.

So the assumption behind my talk will be that virtually all technical issues, and channel multiplicity limitations, can be overcome given commitment (on the part of both author and user). After surveying some sonic features of instrumental, environmental, and vocal components of digital music of relevance to e-lit, the talk will then consider live algorithms as components not only of web-interactive works, but also live-performable intermedia works. 

E-lit has again arguably underestimated the potential of live performance. Thus besides live algorithms, I am also using live coding of sound, and increasingly of text. This started with our web- and performance works Instabilities I and II. Live coding indicates constructing code during the performance. There seems to have been relatively little such work in the e-lit field, though there is now a solid, if small, body of live coding sound practitioners. I will discuss and illustrate its potential, as I point to the future outlook for sound in multimedia writing.

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