Stabat Mater (2011)

Stereo fixed audio

Duration: 13.15 minutes

Voices: Karen Chung, Reina Lam, Chiara Tomarelli

The Stabat Mater is a well known 13th-century Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary written in Latin that has been set to music several times. In this work, the religious meaning of the prayer is disregarded and the text is used as mere sound and rhythm.

The starting material of the piece is three female voices reading the hymn. The female voice has been chosen to subvert the customary use of the male voice in the Catholic mass. The selection of the readers, the reading instructions given, and the recording settings aim to generate a material whose variety follows not only from the different timbral qualities of the voices, but also from a principle of varying degrees of error. A first reading features an Italian who knows the Latin pronunciation (1). After familiarizing herself with the text, an American with no prior knowledge of Latin performs a second reading which is marked by her faulty pronunciation. A Chinese reader performs a third reading with no prior knowledge neither of Latin nor of the text; all interruptions to the flow of this reading and the pronunciation errors contribute to its character. Moreover, this voice is recorded over a low bandwidth internet connection Rome-Shanghai and the sound is thus subject to the imperfections of the transmission.

The material coming from the three readings is used in several ways, mostly focusing on the physical or perceptive interaction between voice and synthetic sound. Some musical processes driven by voice depend on machine recognition of fricative and plosive consonants, others on the mapping of certain features of the recorded voice to synthesizer controls. Another technique used is the deconstruction of the text at the level of the word, the syllable, and, when possible, the phoneme; the consequent processes of recombination use the intelligibility of the text or, for a listener unfamiliar with Latin, the perception of a fluid language as a compositional element.

(1) Here the right Latin pronunciation is assumed to be the current Italian one. Even if there is no certainty about the pronunciation at the time when Latin was currently spoken, the Italian one is chosen for the role of the Stabat Mater in the Roman Church.