Joel Chadabe’s Singing Machine May 30, 1977

Joel Chadabe’s ‘Settings for Spirituals,’ which I heard on an Experimental Intermedia concert on May 15, combines a fine singer with an equally virtuosic machine, and both come out very well. They seem to be friends, and they really cooperate, making music as well as they can.

In this brand-new work, which was presented on tape, Irene Oliver sings five or six traditional spirituals in an expressive, traditional way, while an electronic tone tracks her up and down, note by note. The computer-controlled electronics apparatus is fully automatic. It works fast, sensing instantaneously where the soprano is going and how to follow her there, and sticks with her like a magnet. Certainly no unrehearsed second soprano could follow the melodies so accurately.

In the last song the machine is completely replaced by a traditional piano accompaniment, for reasons that I don’t quite understand. This seems a little like relieving a pitcher who has been pitching a no-hit game. But the piano accompaniment does provide a sharp contrast, and helps one to appreciate the imitative feats of the earlier electronic accompanist.

Chadabe’s machine is not merely a virtuoso imitator. It sometimes follows special rules of its own. In one song the electronic tone enters only when the soprano exceeds a certain volume level. In another the circuitry selects its own pitches, a few notes above or below the soprano. In another the machinery offers a completely independent accompaniment of quick notes, spread over a wide range, while the soprano continues smoothly in her normal register. In that case one is hard put to figure out exactly how the machinery is processing the vocal information and determining its path. But from the context, it is obvious that this too is an automatic process, and that the logic of the system is simply going beyond what the ear can decipher on first hearing.

Chadabe is not using a machine to characterize the villain, to stimulate a dialogue, to draw cartoons, or to allow us to pity the lifelessness of machines and feel superior to them. He treats his circuitry with great respect, allowing it to perform superhuman feats and impress us with its virtuosity and subtlety. At the same time, the human element comes off quite well, since Oliver’s large voice touches the spirituals at a soulful depth I have seldom heard except in recordings by Paul Robeson.

The ‘Settings for Spirituals’ shows us the best sides of both humans and machines, and the relationship between them becomes clear. We understand that the machine is necessarily dependent on Chadabe and his soprano, that it can do wonderful things well beyond human capabilities, that humans excel in other ways, that the two can work together beautifully, and that when we decry conflicts we see between the human and the mechanical, we are really just flailing at windmills.