In 1958 John Cage composed "Aria",
for a voice of any range.
This piece is dedicated to Cathy Berberian, one
of the most talented voices in 20th century. However this
composition has become an obligatory stage for a singer who is
interested in contemporary music.
The first thing that one can notice is the
particular but at the same time simple musical notation traceable
in the score: a sequence of curved lines each one roughly
describing (1) the
pitch path requested for the emission of sound (see fig. 1). It's
a relative pitch: the position of the curve on the sheet does not
involve a frequency relation with previous or followings curves
but simply points out a "change of state" and a time
(time runs ideally from left to right).
Moreover, through different colors placed on
the curves, the score prescribes to the interpreter a timbre
change. The different timbres are not predetermined by Cage on the
score but chosen by the performer during the rehearsals.
Cathy Berberian, for example, chose in this
In the score there are also black squares that
indicate noisy events (with an undetermined pitch). The text,
pronounced according to the intonation suggested by the curves,
contains vowels, consonants, words and phrases in five different
languages: Armenian, Russian, English, French and Italian. This is
the complete text:
In the recorded version that we wanted to
analyze Paul Hillier is helped by six singers, for a total of
seven performers: everyone manages one or more timbres.
With the WaveSurfer software (version 1.8.2)
written by Jonas Beskow and Kare Sjolander has been possible to
analyze a fragment from the "Aria" recording performed
by Paul Hillier with the Theatre of Voices (2).
This fragment lasts approximatively 1' 13'' and
is taken by the "John Cage: Litany for the Whale"
compact disc (Harmonia Mundi 907187). Wavesurfer described the
pitch contour following these specifications:
The obtained results, if compared with the
score page regarding the analyzed fragment, show the extreme
performance exactness by the Theatre of Voices.
score page regarding the analyzed fragment.
WaveSurfer. Above there is the time-amplitude representation.
Below the pitch contour.
It's easy to notice how the heights profile
reconstructed by WaveSurfer is similar to the curved lines traced
by Cage's hand. Observe the likeness between the second curve from
left on the score and the pitch contour delimited by marker number
2 on WaveSurfer. See also the likeness between the fourth curve
from left on the score and the pitch contour delimited by marker
number 4 on WaveSurfer. Finally is also noticeable the likeness
between the first curve from right on the score and the pitch
contour delimited by marker number 12.
After the pitch contour we also analyzed the
formantic profiles of the various voices.
First of all it's necessary to point out that
in the analyzed fragment all 7 performers are involved.
According to the WaveSurfer markers and to the
curves on the score, we can say that:
the first curve is relative to the first female
the second and third curves are relative to the
first male voice: 1(M);
the fourth curve is relative to the second male
the fifth curve is relative to the third male
the sixth curve is relative to the second and
third female voices: 2-3(F-F);
the seventh curve is relative to the second
female voice: 2(F);
the eighth curve is relative in part to the
fourth female voice 4(F) and in part to the second male voice
the ninth curve is relative in part to the
fourth male voice 4(M) and in part to the second and third female
the tenth curve is once again relative to the
second female voice: 2(F);
the eleventh curve is once again relative to
the first male voice: 1(M);
the twelfth curve is once again relative to the
first female voice: 1(F).
This is, resuming, the order of the entries:
1(F) 1(M) 1(M) 2(M) 3(M) 2-3(F-F) 2(F) 4(M)
2(M) 4(M) 2-3(F-F) 2(F) 1(M) 1(F).
Reconstruction of this order has been possible
also through the analysis conducted on the first four formants of
the voice of each performer.
formant of the different voices.
Fig.4: second formant of the different
Fig.5: third formant of the different
Fig.6: fourth formant of the different
In figure 3 the red profile indicates the
variation in time of the first formant frequency.
The blue profile on figure 4 indicates,
instead, the variation in time of the second formant frequency.
And so on: the brown on figure 5 refers to
third formant and the black on figure 6 refers to the fourth.
All the graphics here transcribed indicate on
the x axis the time in frames 10 ms long; on the y axis the
frequency in Hz. They have been produced through the TclTk script
"Pitch And Formant Viewer", written by Lorenzo Seno.
This script translates in bidimensional plots a series of formants
and pitch contour data included respectively in .frm and .f0 files
generated through the TclTk "SNACK" package.
Moreover the "Pitch And Formant
Viewer" interface allows, for every formant, to limit the
frequency bandwidth (BW%) relevant for the graphic realization: a
good way to eliminate from the graphic not so relevant data.
Compare the timing of figures 3,4,5 and 6 with
the timing of figure 2 to detect the belongings of a formantic
profile to one of the 7 voices involved in the recording.
(1) But a better approximation
than that of a five-line staff! - [back to
(2) A group of singers,
including the composer Terry Riley. - [back to
Walter Cianciusi (2005)