by Helen Thorington

For Erik Belgum, the appeal of creating audio for a work entitled PHON:E:ME must have been instantaneous. For over 15 years he has created prose narratives, using compositional techniques from avant-garde music, and audio/soundtext works that have focused almost exclusively on speech.

For instance, in a short 1994-1995 piece called Blabbermouth, composed for the radio art series New American Radio, he created a "speech synthesizer" out of the phonemes of his own voice. Blabbermouth begins with a wash of sound and gradually transforms into random linear combinations, then into a semblance of words, and finally into actual English words.

Belgum's recent approach to speech--and one he has used most successfully in Network Congestion: Still Life with Artificially Constructed Psychobabble--revolves around the idea of resonance. As Belgum wrote in a recent email,

Resonance with its beautifully suited literary, musical, acoustic and linguistic (phonetic) connotations, seems to me a very rich resource and strangely absent from much Western music, at least absent as a parameter that composers consider to be on par with pitch and rhythm.
And it is a particularly valuable resource if you are working with speech. As Belgum notes, resonance is the life blood of speech: It turns "s" into "sh", an "e" into "I"; it makes dipthongs possible. It puts "the wow in 'wow.'" It is what makes speech work.

Belgum uses resonance as a parameter in Net Congestion in much the same way a songwriter uses pitch or a percussionist uses rhythm.

He also makes use of recording technology as an extension of the articulatory organs of speech. Distortion extends fricatives and voiced sounds. Phase vocoding extends breath support. Filters extend the resonance of nasal and oral cavities. The PHON:E:ME soundtrack re:mix plays with them all.

If, like me, you do not have a fast modem, but hear your sound as it comes over a phone line and a 28.8 Kbps or 33.6 Kbps modem and is reconstructed by your RealPlayer, you may yearn for some help in understanding Belgum's text. I did. But then, this is a work bearing the title Net Congestion, and it is made to be heard in this way--as a linear piece in which breaks between sounds, particularly in the opening sections, play an important role. My first audition took place while I was reading Amerika's text. I had clicked my browser, relegating the RealAudio information box to the background of my desktop. I didn't know until I brought it forward again to listen more closely that many of the kisses and pops and silences were not composed directly into the work but were there thanks to net congestion and the efforts of the RealPlayer to minimize lost or temporarily missing packets of sound. This gives added and I'm sure intended meaning to the author's name as it appears on the Real Audio information box: "being reconfigured." Each time buffering occurs, Belgum's piece is reconfigured. What you hear is not what I hear. It is a different composition every time it is played, authored as it is by Belgum and the ever-changing net environment.

Listen carefully! In addition to percussion and other musical and musicalized sounds, altered as described above, you will hear phonemes transform into words, messages delivered, critical commentary made, and unless I miss my guess, multiple narrations told simultaneously. A lot of very careful thought has gone into this work.

Helen Thorington
New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc.