A Posthuman Voice: Vocal Aesthetic and Identity in 2000s Witch House

Tuesday, Feb 21, 2023

12:00 p.m. - 13:00 p.m.


Since the 1960s, technological advances in music production have allowed the human voice – particularly the female voice – to become a vehicle for sonic experimentation. Pioneering women in early electronic music (e.g. Ruth White) manipulate their own voices to blur partitions between organic human and synthetic “other”. As technology progresses and becomes more accessible, creative opportunities arise where organic and synthetic boundaries are further obscured, creating particular musical moments – or entire genres – that challenge perceptions of where the human voice ends and the mechanized other begins. 

In this presentation, I consider how philosophies of posthumanism and cyborgfeminism work in tandem with musical theories of timbre and production to assess how the boundaries between the female voice and musical machine have eroded over the last two decades. My case studies include woman-fronted Witch House groups where the vocal production might lead the listener to question not only the relationship between organic and synthetic, but also the vocalic body as a whole (Chion 1983; Connor 2000). Such approaches to recent electronic music reveal posthumanist tendencies that lead one to reconsider Cartesian-based Humanist dualisms including organism/machine, physical/nonphysical, and cognizant/incognizant (Grosz 1994; Wajcman 2004; Braidotti 2019). By emphasizing these obscured dualisms in Witch House music, two specific production techniques arise: the first being where the vocals are heavily masked by filtering effects that impart a marked ambiguity to gendered conjectures in vocal delivery (Kane 2014; Eidsheim 2020); the second blurs listener perceptions of the vocalizer’s gender identity and humanness through machine-based musical elements that impose control over the vocal delivery through gating that places the voice in a markedly synthetic realm. These categories are further compounded by the Witch House aesthetic that tends to mask artists’ identities in both album art and live performance, leaving the listener additional leeway to formulate their own conceptions of the vocalic body based on the genre’s minimalized organic elements. From a posthumanist evaluation, as the female voice becomes inextricably blended into the musical machine, the singing persona’s identity is not compromised, per say, but instead is allowed to ascend beyond conventional Western Enlightenment binaries substantiated on patriarchal systems.

Tyler Osborne

Tyler Osborne earned his Ph.D in music theory from the University of Oregon in 2020. His research on Fanny Hensel and nineteenth century Formenlehre has appeared in Music Theory Spectrum, Music Theory Online, and Oxford University Press’s The Songs of Fanny Hensel. In addition to nineteenth-century music, he researches intersections of philosophy and recent popular music, specifically posthumanist readings of EDM and death metal. Tyler currently is an adjunct professor of music theory at University of Oregon by day and a bartender by night.