Composer Kristina Warren channels vocal technology into art

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Kristina Warren performs solo on the Abacus, a next-generation musical instrument she designed. Photo by Amy Jackson Kristina Warren performs solo on the Abacus, a next-generation musical instrument she designed. Photo by Amy Jackson

The human voice is an extraordinary thing.

Even the softest, quietest sound is no small feat to produce. Here’s how it works: The lungs pump air through the trachea (windpipe) and into the larynx, where the vocal cords are located. The air makes the vocal folds—multilayered folds of tissue—vibrate, and they alternately trap and release air. Each release billows a small puff of air into the pharynx; each puff is the beginning of a sound wave that’s enhanced as it travels through the pharynx and out through the mouth.

Everything from how much air is pushed from the lungs, to the shape of the vocal folds and the mouth, affect how a voice sounds.

But the voice is not just extraordinary in its physical function. It’s used to communicate, to yell for help when we’re scared, to cry when we’re sad, to let someone know that we’re angry. We use our voice to sing “Happy Birthday,” soothe fussy babies and yelp with joy at good news. An indicator of individuality and identity, we want our unique voices to be heard, both literally and figuratively. 

Kristina Warren
May 4
UVA Chapel

Kristina Warren, a trained singer working on a doctorate in composition and computer technologies at UVA, knows plenty of techniques to control, expand and explore her range, how to exploit the texture, the quality and the weight of her voice. But at some point, she found those techniques limiting. There’s more to the voice, she says, than hitting certain notes.

While studying both science and music as an undergraduate at Duke University, Warren became interested in digital sound. Inspired by loop pedals commonly used for guitar and keyboards, Warren began experimenting with digital manipulation of the voice, using computer software linked to a microphone to change how she sounded. Tired of constantly stepping back and forth between the microphone and the computer or MIDI controller on stage, Warren decided to combine the two into a single instrument, one she created herself and named the Abacus.

The Abacus allows Kristina Warren to dig deeply into what the voice can do when combined with electronics and stretch it into new emotional and sonic territory.

On her website, Warren describes the Abacus as consisting of “eight toggles, two LEDs, one potentiometer and one Arduino Teensy, all molded in thermoplastic, which is shaped around a basic mic clip. It communicates with MaxMSP via USB connection and serial protocol.” Or, in short, the instrument, which looks like a souped-up microphone, is a series of toggles and knobs wired to a tiny circuit board that’s connected to a computer and controlled by software. Warren programs the software prior to performing or recording, giving each knob a particular sound or effect—like reverb, pitch, legato, staccato. When she sings into the mic and flips the switch programmed for reverb, the reverb (the persistence of a sound after it’s produced) effect will be applied to the audio signal coming out of the microphone.

The innovative Abacus was a semi-finalist in this year’s Margaret Guthman New Musical Instrument Competition held at Georgia Tech—the annual event seeks to identify “the world’s next generation of musical instruments.”

Warren keeps the software programming simple to focus on the feeling of the performance and less on controlling her arsenal of modular sounds. She likens the software to a box of Legos, where each sound effect available in the software is like a brick. When she’s programming, she’s building a Lego castle without the directions. The next time she programs the Abacus, she can dismantle that entirely and build a new castle, or perhaps a house, or use its windows in a space station. She can move the bricks around as she chooses.

The Abacus allows Warren to dig deeply into what the voice can do when combined with electronics and stretch it into new emotional and sonic territory.

She might sing a melody, then take a tiny part of that melody and loop or stretch it, perhaps granulate it so that it sounds cyborg-esque, not quite human. She might screech, or shriek—like a blues singer might shriek to emphasize emotion, but Warren will filter it to extend over a period of time, then filter it again to sound deep and rumbly.

Warren knows her music is unusual and she sometimes asks a lot of her listeners—on occasion, she says people have told her they’ve felt scared or anxious—and while she’s sensitive to that, her intent is to change how we think about singing and voice capability, moving away from beauty and toward “finding another metric of sonic quality.”

To Warren, the voice is about more than Maria Callas’ arias and Freddie Mercury’s falsetto. Even mundane sounds, such as throat-clearing, or “ugly” sounds like screeching and blubbering, can be beautiful if we’re open to perceiving them that way.

“A lot of singing has to do with conveying beauty in one way or another,” says Warren, who points out that singers—female singers especially—are expected to sound “good” or have “pretty” voices. But “beauty is a cage,” she says. “I can do a lot of cool, novel sounds that aren’t necessarily beautiful but are interesting in other ways.”

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