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Section 2: Voice

The composer’s initial idea was to focus on the voice in the first movement of ZAB. Eventually, the attention was directed more towards the other sound complexes, and towards gesture. It became more important for Boivin to explore the relationship between the instrument and the performer, and to open up for new instrumental discoveries. The voice of the performer is of course separated from the instrument. And it is particularly difficult to write for the voice, and a blend of voice and instrument, in a piece of instrumental music. Several ways were explored prior to ZAB, especially within instrumental theatre. Boivin’s writing is close to the way Jacob Druckman uses the voice in Valentine, his monumental piece for solo double bass from 1969, and, on the other hand, very different from Tom Johnson manner of employing spoken words, or traditional storytelling, in his work Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass (1975).

The percussive “cough”

The voice is usually integrated into sound of the instrumental techniques when it adds to the timbre of the sounds created on the bass. The most frequently used sound of the voice in ZAB is the percussive “cough”, a soft contraction of the diaphragm that should create a sound similar to a dump, yet articulated percussive stroke. In example 2.1 it is combined with finger percussion on the front body of the instrument. A good mix of the sounds is achieved by striking towards the middle of the body, where the sound has a more deep and dark resonance. The line that sometimes follows a percussive “cough” indicates a prolonged sound. It is important to project an equal amount of energy also in the sustained sounds.

Ex. 2.1. Integrated sounds of percussion and voice. ZAB, page 3, second system.

Whispered text and breathing sounds

Boivin asks only for a few spoken words. These are to be whispered so that it is not the understanding of the text that is of importance, but the articulation and timbral colour which is added to the percussive sounds. He suggests that the short text phrases should be decided on and practised beforehand, since it is easy to loose the timing and precision between voice and instrument when improvising the text. The short text must also evoke positive and exiting feelings with the performer, so it is important to choose a very personal story that brings back good memories. Example 2.2 shows the passage from the first movement where short, whispered text phrases are mixed with percussive sounds played on the front edge of the shoulders of the bass. Other vocal sounds in this example are the sustained audible intake and release of air that resembles electronic white noise, and the percussive “cough”.

Ex. 2.2. Whispered text, breathing sounds and muted sound combined with percussive techniques. ZAB, page 5, first system.

Voiced onomatopoeia

The piece contains a few really loud passages, which are filled with energy. Here, the voiced onomatopoeia “must be considered as a complement to percussion (in terms of energy)”, as the composer writes in his Explanation of signs. The rhythm in example 2.3 has a heavy, accentuated downbeat in the vocal lines, with different accentuations in each line. Note that the voice is scored both over and under the staffs of musical notation.

Ex. 2.3. An explosive combination of voice and percussive sounds. ZAB, page 15, second system.