“A voice means this,” writes Italo Calvino in his gorgeous and insightful short story A King Listens: “There is a living person, throat, chest, feelings, who sends into the air this voice, different from all other voices.” And this is Slovenian philosopher Mladen Dolar in a similar vein in A Voice and Nothing More: “The existence of a voice,” he argues, “always implies a subjectivity.” Clearly neither of them spent much time talking to Siri.
Funny how we persist in drawing a line between the voice and a real flesh-and-blood human subject. In a recent interview with FACT magazine, Laurel Halo had this to say on her thought process in relation to the vocals on new record Quarantine.
I started out with a ton of echo and reverb on [them], but it sounded supremely boring to me, so I was curious how they’d sound dry in the arrangements and got rid of most of the wetness. It ended up creating this amazing contrast effect, the vocals slicing through the mix, giving rhythmic contour to the tracks that was previously missing in delay haze. It was tempting to use autotune but I decided against it because there’s this brutal, sensual ugliness in the vocals uncorrected, and painfully human vocals made sense for this record.
Painfully human. A living person. Throat, chest, feelings. Sensual, ugly, uncorrected. I know what Halo’s getting at. The vocals on Quarantine certainly “slice through the mix.” There really is a presence and intimacy to them, particularly on a track like “Light and Space.” And they do stand out as a feature of the record compared with the decomposed and nearly voiceless dance tracks of 2011’s Hour Logic. But even still, I’m not buying it. It’s not the ‘humanity’ that makes this record, but precisely its problematization. To these ears, everything about Quarantine sounds positively posthuman. And moreover, that’s a crucial part of what makes it special.
Take a closer look at Halo’s logic, for instance. “I started out with a ton of echo and reverb […] It was tempting to use autotune,” she says, but then “I decided against it.” In what sense can we really say that the voice maps to humanity when humanity itself becomes just one of many possible production effects? When reverb and echo become so ordinary, so ubiquitous, so “boring,” in fact, that leaving one’s own voice untreated not only begins to register as innovative, but also requires genuine efforts at self-restraint? What is the status of the voice, in other words, when vocal science becomes the norm? When even an ‘original’ vocal track is treated exactly like a sample?
Besides, on plenty of the tracks on Quarantine, the vocals are treated. “Wow,” “Carcass,” and “Holoday,” which appear just after the midway point of the album, are probably the best examples in this respect. Together, they’re a veritable showcase in the power and potential of the technologized voice. First, we ride the tweaked-out voices on “Wow” like a (sine)wave, constantly peaking and subsiding. Then, on “Carcass” — maybe the album’s standout track, with its dark, padded bass and pulsing synth — the voice twinkles and sparkles without the slightest hint of the fleshiness suggested in the lyrics. And on “Holoday,” we hear voices plural: intermittent, dissected, diminished, distant in terms of both time and space — radio voices, perhaps, flickering in and out of channel-hopping focus through a fog of beautiful noise.
Even Halo’s name, intended to bring to mind the video game, suggests a subject always already technologized. And look at her website, too; it’s like she’s gone out of her way to efface herself. The text, at least, is virtually illegible. A full-color schematic diagram of US frequency allocations on the radio spectrum totally dominates.
Sonically, we hear something similar on “Years”: a deep drone that feels almost too loud in the mix, threatening to overwhelm or undermine Halo’s voice in the foreground. Actually, it’s not so much a drone as a post-industrial hum: the faint, dull throb of computing, refrigeration, strip lighting, generators. R. Murray Schafer calls this sort of thing a “keynote sound.” Even though it may not always be heard consciously, he says — even though one is able to learn not to listen to them — “the fact that it is ubiquitously there suggests the possibility of a deep and pervasive influence on our behaviour and moods. The keynote sounds of a given place are important because they help to outline the character of men living among them.” That drone is our keynote. And on Quarantine, it keeps returning. Halo keeps foregrounding it, insisting that we notice our embededness in a profoundly technologized world.
Both the album’s title — “Quarantine” — and many of the track names — “Airsick,” “Carcass,” “Tumor,” and “Nerve” — are suggestive of a body doomed to decay and constantly in need of supplementation: technical, chemical, medical, or otherwise. “The prosthesis is not a mere extension of the human body,” writes Bernard Stiegler in the first volume of Technics and Time; “it is constitution of this body qua ‘human’ […] It is not a ‘means’ for the human but its end.” We are irretrievably bound up with our ‘tools,’ in other words: co-extensive with the techniques that give our lives shape and meaning — always already synthetic.
Therefore, in spite of the interview in FACT, it’s hard to hear Quarantine as a “painfully human” record. Everything about it seems to point precisely in the opposite direction, toward a merging of man and machine. Posthumanism is nothing new in music, of course. Halo is totally indebted in this respect to a tradition that extends back through footwork and dubstep to Chicago and Detroit and on to Krawftwerk’s Düsseldorf. And in this sense, her recent move to Hyperdub makes total sense: a common heritage in cybotron. At the same time, though, Quarantine feels like something new flickering into being, some strange new cyborg in the process of being birthed: a frankenstein of pop, noise, ambient, industrial, and a ‘hypnagogic’ continuum that takes in the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never, Actress, Dean Blunt, and Inga Copeland, the new New Age and Not Not Fun.
I’m going to go out on a limb and call this an ‘important’ record: new territory being trod. Halo’s soundworld is deeply mediated by technology, media, and memory, but it refuses to be reducible to any of these things. It is neither nostalgic (in the way that some H-pop, chillwave, and most folk is, for instance) nor hopeful (like a lot of rave), nor, for that matter, especially fatalistic (Factory Floor, Throbbing Gristle). Instead, it’s conflicted, ambivalent, complex. It knows that this is the situation in which we find ourselves and sets out to explore it sonically. We are, after all, all cyborgs now.