Augmented Vocality: Recomposing the Sounds of Early Irish and Old Norse

Lead Research Organisation: Birmingham City University
Department Name: ADM Birmingham Conservatoire


Phrases such as 'the early medieval period' and 'the Viking age' are rich in imagery. For many people, these words conjure a mental landscape of swords, helmets, longboats and thatched huts. They form part of a shared cultural imagination that encompasses primary school projects, the historically-inspired fantasy world of Tolkien and popular series such as Vikings (2013-19) and The Last Kingdom (2015-). The legacy of such imagery in European fine arts is both deep-rooted and perennial, a fact that was highlighted by exhibitions such as the British Museum's Vikings (2014) and Celts: art and identity (2015-16). In contrast, the ephemeral nature of sound means that there is no clear legacy of the sonic past. When a language ceases to be spoken its literature becomes increasingly restricted to the scholars and specialists who have learned to read it. The focus shifts from performance and dissemination to translation and discussion. Texts that once existed as sonic artefacts of a vibrant oral tradition become fossilised in the silence of the printed page. The language loses its voice.

'Augmented Vocality: Recomposing the Sounds of Early Irish and Old Norse' proposes a novel programme of practice-based research and a methodology to analyse and explore the sounds of early medieval languages. Combining linguistic expertise with sophisticated voice processing technologies the project aims to give new life to early languages and help reclaim the oral quality at the heart of medieval literature. In particular, vocal music composition with live electronics is a powerful tool to develop new insights and reanimate texts from early languages for audiences well beyond the field of literary studies. The project focuses on two languages, Early Irish and Old Norse - both chosen for their particular sonic qualities and the richness of the surviving texts - and comprises three integrated strands:
Cataloguing and sampling of words and phonemes from selected texts;
Analysing the vocal samples to inform the development of voice processing and live electronics software;
Creation of musical compositions for voices, ensemble and live electronics in response to the original sounds and texts.

Each strand of the project will result in specific outputs, including:
Digital audio databases and sample libraries of Early Irish and Old Norse words and phonemes;
Vocal processing software tools adapted to the specific sounds of the chosen languages;
Live electronics software to support composition and performance with the vocal source material;
At least two musical compositions for one or more voices, ensemble and live electronics;
A project website with musical scores, recordings of performances, downloadable software and access to the digital audio databases;
Public concerts in partnership with three renowned music ensembles in the UK, Ireland and Norway;
Conference presentations and workshops in the UK, Ireland and Norway;
At least two peer reviewed journal articles.

As an interdisciplinary project, Augmented Vocality addresses the following research questions in the fields of linguistics and music technology, composition and performance:
How to design a digital audio database and a sample library of words and sounds from medieval languages?
How to develop voice processing techniques to respond to the specific sonic features of the source material?
How could words and sounds from a medieval language be used as a resource for musical composition?
How could live electronics help illuminate the meaning and the sonic qualities of medieval texts, words and sounds?
Is it possible to reclaim the oral nature of a medieval text in a contemporary music performance context?

Planned Impact

Augmented Vocality offers unparalleled opportunities for engagement with early medieval languages, music technology and music performance. The project's varied, accessible outcomes (as described in the Pathways to Impact) facilitate engagement with areas of knowledge that have often been difficult to access from outside academia. Key beneficiaries include those with specific interests in the project's three main strands of languages and literature, technology and music. However, engagement with any strand of Augmented Vocality will invariably result in contact with one or more of the project's constituent fields, further broadening the project's interdisciplinary outreach.

Augmented Vocality will provide intelligent, academically-rigorous audio databases for people who want to hear the sounds of Early Irish and Old Norse. The freely available, online databases will allow these language to be heard and studied in far greater detail than is currently possible with the often inaccurate, variable-quality amateur recordings that exist on platforms such as YouTube. The existence of YouTube recordings, and the popularity of television series including Vikings (2013-19) and the Netflix series The Last Kingdom (2015-), point to widespread interest in the cultures and languages that predate modern European states. Exhibitions such as the British Museum's Vikings (2014) and Celts: art and identity (2015-16) further highlight a popular fascination with early cultures, while also drawing attention to the ways in which institutional engagement with these cultures has tended to focus on visual art and literature rather than on recreation of the spoken word. The online audio databases of Augmented Vocality will make the sounds of Early Irish and Old Norse accessible to audiences beyond the relatively small number of university specialists. In addition to amateur linguists, historians and students, further beneficiaries of the audio databases (described in detail in the Pathways to Impact) include actors, and those involved in the heritage and tourism sectors.

Following the creation of audio databases of linguistic corpora, the development of new vocal processing software tools will be of particular interest to both amateurs and professionals engaged in software development and experimentation. New software developments will be presented at ICMC and NIME. The project will also serve as a template for developers who want to work on new software in response to specific collections of sounds. As Augmented Vocality's software tools are incorporated into the freely available Integra Live software, they will become available to the growing community of Integra Live users spread around the world (as evidenced by more than 30,000 downloads of Integra Live since 2010). Current users of Integra Live, who will benefit from software developments, include music and performance students, sound engineers, and amateur and professional performers.

Performers will also benefit from Augmented Vocality's musical compositions, which will be freely accessible to all via the project's website. For students of singing, the compositions' use of languages other than English will develop familiarity with the International Phonetic Alphabet. The compositions will also help performers to become accustomed to live electronics, empowering them to work with new technology. Live performances of the compositions, initially by project partners Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (Birmingham), BIT20 Ensemble (Bergen) and Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble (Belfast), will make musical outcomes accessible to regular concert-goers and new audiences in the UK and abroad.


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