Violinist Karen Bentley Pollick performs David A. Jaffe's "Impossible Animals" for Violin and Computer-Synthesized Voices (1989) at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama on March 11, 2010. For more info, visit jaffe.com and kbentley.com.
Impossible Animals is a fanciful exploration of the boundary between human and animal expression and behavior, and between the realms of nature and human imagination. An antiphonal interplay is set up between the live performer and the synthesized voices, with the violin assuming the role of narrator of an abstract story, while the computer voices serve as actors, taking on improbable voices of unthinkable animals, emoting in an unknown language. As the piece progresses, the violin takes on more and more animal characteristics. The "story" is concerned with animals seen while looking at clouds, and concludes with a description of a more familiar (though no less absurd) beast with its own special vocalization.
The synthesized voices were created using a mainframe computer at the Stanford University Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). It consists of a variety of grunts, exclamations and comments, including a half-human/half-bird vocalise, which represents a true hybrid between human and bird singing, as if a bird's brain had been transplanted inside a wildly-gifted human singer. It was produced by beginning with a recording of a Winter Wren and analyzing it using frequency domain tracking techniques developed by researcher Julius Smith. Using software written by the composer, frequency and amplitude trajectories were then extracted, segmented into individual "chirps" and tuned to the underlying harmonic background. In addition, the range was modified over time and the frequency axis was mapped onto an evolving set of vowels. Finally, the data was resynthesized, using human vocal synthesis, using a technique developed by researcher Xavier Rodet at IRCAM in Paris. The result is a new and greatly-transformed rendition of the original wren's song.