Impossible Animals

Excerpt of a performance by Karen Bentley Pollick. Recorded 2009 at Universal Audio.

Impossible Animals
for computer-generated voices and one of the following: chorus, solo voices, winds, oboe, violin or trombone

Duration: 9' 

"Impossible Animals" was commissioned by the Hamilton College Choir. It is scored for live ensemble and a tape of computer-synthesized voices, created at the Stanford Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. There are several versions of this piece, all with computer-generated voices (four-channel recording; stereo version also available) and one of the following choices:

1. SATB Chorus(1986)
2. SATB solo voices (1989)
3. Violin (1989)
4. Oboe (1990)
5. Fute, clarinet, tenor saxophone, trombone and bassoon (1994)
6. SSATB solo voices (1995)
7. Trombone (2003)
8. Soprano and tenor voices (2016)

Click here to purchase Impossible Animals on iTunes. To order performance materials contact Terra Non Firma Press

The piece is a fanciful exploration of the boundary between human and animal expression and behavior, and between the realms of Nature and imagination. An antiphonal interplay is set up between the live ensemble and the synthesized voices, with the live instruments assuming the role of narrators of an abstract story, while the computer voices serve as actors, taking on improbable voices of unthinkable animals, and emote in an unknown language. The "story" is concerned with the lives of various imaginary animals seen when looking at the clouds, concluding with a description of a more familiar, though no less unlikely, beast ("...has an upright posture, has an opposable thumb...") with its own special vocalization.

One of the more novel aspects of the tape part is a half-human/half-bird vocalise, a true hybrid between human and bird singing, as if the brain of a Winter Wren had been transplanted inside a wildly-gifted human singer. It was produced by beginning with a recording of a Winter Wren and analyzing it using the PARSHL program (Julius Smith). Frequency and amplitude trajectories were then extracted, segmented into individual "chirps" and tuned to the underlying harmonic background using specially-written software. The range was modified over time and the frequency axis was mapped onto an evolving set of vowels. Finally, the data was resynthesized, using human vocal synthesis (Xavier Rodet), into a new and greatly-transformed rendition of the original wren's song.

The disconcerting combination of human and bird vocalizations is typical of the composer's interest in combining diverse seemingly-irreconcilable elements into a single musical context, manipulating the material in such a way as to bring out and resolve (or not) its inherent contrasts and contradictions. The result is a music that is both radically challenging on the one hand, and strangely reminiscent of past experience on the other. As in a cubist painting, a nose may be sideways, sticking out from the wrong side of the head, but its identification as a nose gives it an expressive power that an abstract shape would not have, while simultaneously setting up a rich network of associations with everyday life.

Radio Interview

Radio interview including discussion and performance of the choral version of "Impossible Animals."




Performance by Karen Bentley Pollick

Performance by the composer.