more about the Singing Machine
Version I

a photo of the first version of the Singing Machine
Version 1 (2010) with Yuichi Matsumoto and Yu Takahashi at IAMAS

How the project started

I started the Singing Machine project at the suggestion of the composer Masahiro Miwa.
The first version I made at the Institute for Advanced Media Arts and Sciences (IAMAS) in Japan. It uses an electrical buzzer to reproduce the sound of the larynx, similar to the device used by laryngectomy patients:
diagram of buzzer

Yuichi Matsumoto prepared the hardware and control software and Yu Takahashi taught the machine to sing Finita iam sunt proelia by Palestrina in four-part harmony (three of the voices were pre-recorded). While waiting for the hardware, I added S, T and F whistles, similar to those on my Talking Machine with a hand-operated bellows to supply the air.

Yu Takahashi is operating the bellows for the S, T and F sounds with Prof. Masahiro Miwa at the keyboard. This was not Standard Operating Procedure - the Singing Machine was normally controlled directly by a computer.

All this was a most promising start so, when I got back to Europe, I decided to make a second version.

Second version

Here the sound of the larynx is produced by an air-blown reed with adjustable pitch instead of a buzzer. Unlike the previous version, it does not make any attempt to pronounce consonants; just the vowel sounds. Furthermore there are just two positions for the lips: open - as for "ah", and narrow - as for "oo".

a photo of the reed with captions

Air blown reed with adjustable pitch

The effective length of the curved reed (brown) is adjusted by a roller running up and down and pressed against it by a spring. The spring is carried by a slider, driven by a motor. The idea comes from organ-building practice, where a fixed spring (without a roller) is used to fine-tune the pitch of the reed.

a photo of some of my mistakes Reed experiments

The round things at the top are holders for the reeds, in organ parlance, so I learnt, a kelch. The square one, (top right), is from my Talking Machine.

It took some experimentation with different kinds of material, shapes and thicknesses to find the right kind of reed. Here are some of my mistakes, most of them made of hammered brass, the traditional material.

The current version is a modest strip of polystyrene, 0.5 mm thick. (bottom left.)

a photo of the vocal tract
The vocal tract

The tongue is a cylinder of balsa wood with a 1 cm. hole through the middle. It moves up and down inside the mouth (a Plexiglas tube) to different positions to pronounce the vowels "ee", "eh", "oo", "aw" and "ah". When the tongue is in the "oo" position (about half way up) the lips close to form a narrow extended aperture like our pursed lips when we say "oo".

The reed mechanism provides the up-and-down movement for the slider that controls the pitch.

The tongue motor turns a balsa wood drum to raise and lower the tongue. The tongue and lips sometime have to move very fast so I made these parts out of balsa wood to reduce their mass.

The air valve controls the flow of air from the blower.

lips of the Singing Machine A close-up of the lips and mouth.

On the left the electro-magnet which closes the narrow lips to pronouce an "oo" sound. The hole through the lips is about 8 mm wide at its narrowest point but still wide enough to allow the chord that moves the tongue to pass freely.

a diagrammatic section through the blower The blower

A vacuum cleaner blower is cushioned in foam rubber and enclosed within two boxes which act as sound-proofing. The air passes through these boxes through many narrow holes that further reduce the noise.

The air pressure is regulated by a bellows (red) that is pulled closed with a spring. When the bellows inflates, a valve opens and spills the superfluous air. The valve can also be regulated by a vibrato motor.

The well-ventilated spaces above and below the blower contain a triac circuit that reduces the speed of the motor; the drivers for the stepping motors that control the tongue and the pitch of the reed; and a power supply.

side view with water gauge a side view of the vocal tract. Pressure gauge

Since the air pressure is critical, the machine is fitted with a pressure gauge, an S-shaped tube filled with water coloured with a florescent dye and a scale marked in centimeters. This is very useful when adjusting the speed of the blower and the opening of the valve in the bellows. This derives from organ-building practice where air pressure is traditionally measured in centimeters or inches of water.

The Singing Machine runs at 5 cm of water.

Ut Queant Laxis
Here are the instructions for singing the first line of this mediaeval hymn.
VOWELS determines the position of the tongue and lips.
NOTES controls the pitch of the reed.
AIR operates the air valve: open and closed.
CLOCK shows the time on the computer clock designated for the following event.
First the motors make their moves and then the program sits and waits until it is time for that next event. This way the tempo stays constant without having to worry too much about exactly how long it takes for the motors to complete their moves.
MISC: home. At the end of each line of the hymn the motors return to their reference points.
      'VOWELS   NOTES      AIR        CLOCK         MISC
                                      reset clock,    
       Oo,      C3,                   0.2", 
                                      reset clock,   
                           on,        1.2",    
       Eh,      D3,        on,        1.8",    
       Ah,      F3,                   2.4",   
                D3,        on,        3.0",    
       Ih,      E3,                   3.6",    
                D3,                   4.4",    
                           off,       reset clock,
                                      0.2",          home,
pitch diagram
A record of the pitches, resulting from the above code.

To hear a sound recording of the first verse of Ut queant laxis click here

Here is the documentation of a work for the machine composed by Masahiro Miwa and based on a specially commisioned poem by Sadakazu Fujii.

photo of Masahiro Miwa
Masahiro Miwa


( people vanish )
photo of Sadakazu Fujii
Sadakazu Fujii
Masahiro Miwa explained his dream of a legendary Giyakku people to the poet and scholar Sadakazu Fujii, (who is also known for his studies of ancient Ainu languages and culture.) Sadakazu Fujii elaborated on this legend and then wrote a poem around it that formed the basis of the performance with the Singing Machine.

A legend

by Masahiro Miwa

as retold by Sadakazu Fujii

From the myths of the Giyakku, an ethnic Russian people
once living in Hokkaido, now extinct.

Gravity caught the air and brought order into the world
The ancient plants and animals were created one by one.
The world was divided into two parts: the land of water and the land of fire.
Water sprang from the mountain tops.
Fire ran down in rivers burning all in its path.
When our forefathers ceased their wanderings seven eyes awaited them:
the two suns the whirlwind the tornado the fading purple flower 7
the jade pillow 8 and the coffin.

How does gravity divide the fire and water?
This is the time of chaos and the order of things has ceased.
A giant landslide will come in the sandpit where the children of the devil innocently play.

Words did not yet exist
But meanwhile language came from the Sutra 6

The epic poem created at that time consists of seven sounds.
There are sounds of want and there are sounds of plenty.

Like countries at war neighbouring words of the poem attack and retreat from each other.

When the shape of the land at last arose the poem of the seven sounds was sung louder and was sung by those living on nearby islands and soon it drowned the cries of the plunderers.
Children too must fight.
At the end of the foolish war all are dead.
What is the pleasure of dying?
The voice of the phoenix: "Do you not feel alone?"

the poem

by Sadakazu Fujii

The poem consists of seven stanzas, each of seven lines with seven syllables.
A further rule: syllables are not repeated in the same line.

It provides the vowels, diphthongs and pitches for the Singing Machine.

The morning of the evil god
thus destroyed
the beginning of the event
the example of arrogance
into the fire
crows tumble
chickens squawk
ma  Ga  tsu Bi  no  a   sa
ko  u   shi te  ho  ro  bu
ko  to  no  ha  Ji  ma  ri
o   Go  ri  no  ta  me  shi
hi  ni  mo  e   sa  ka  ri
no  ta  u   tsu ka  ra  su
sa  ke  Bu  ni  ua  to  ri
Slugs crawl
creeping over
the cooling cold
tsuchinoko 2 must turn
receive and drink
the slimy water
all living things
na  me  ku  ji  ra  ha  e
na  me  te  ha  i   Zu  ri
hi  ia  se  tsu me  ta  ku
ma  ua  re  tsu chi no  ko
he  Do  ro  no  mi  Zu  o
u   ke  te  no  mi  ho  se
i   ki  mo  no  su  Be  te
Disappearance of the land
division of the sea
hitonokiesari 1
sudden song
coffins sleep
fire beckons
spirits mumble
ri  ku  no  sho u   me  tsu
u   mi  no  sa  ku  re  tsu
hi  to  no  ki  e   sa  ri
hi  ra  me  ku  u   ta  no
hi  tsu Gi  ua  ne  mu  ru
mu  ka  e   Bi  ta  ra  shi
tsu Bu  ia  ku  mo  no  ra
Illusion blows
whirlwind of fire 3
morning tornado
a voice rises
the word ofAshura 4
Monju-Bodhisattva 5 speaks
Sutra 6 lamentation
ma  Bo  ro  shi ni  hu  ku
hi  no  ka  ma  i   ta  chi
a   sa  no  ta  tsu ma  ki
ko  e   ta  chi no  Bo  ri
a   shu ra  no  ko  to  Ba
mo  n   Ju  ua  ka  ta  ru
ka  na  shi mi  Do  kio u
The posy of purple flowers 7
fall in water
and open the way to dreams
pluck the flowers
hold the fire
grasp the core
young gods
mi  Zu  ni  chi ri  Bo  u
mu  ra  sa  ki  no  ta  Ba
iu  me  ji  ni  hi  ra  ku
su  e   tsu mu  ha  na  ka
Da  ki  shi me  io  hi  no
ro  shi n   te  Zu  ka  mi
o   sa  na  Ga  mi  ta  chi
A white wave far away
seen from the shore
life is a treasure
a jade pillow 8
the deepness of sleep
the smile of the gods
spirits awaken
shi ra  na  mi  to  o   ku
ki  shi be  ni  mi  e   te
i   no  chi Zo  ta  ka  ra
hi  su  i   no  ma  ku  ra
ne  mu  ru  hu  ka  sa  o
ka  mi  no  Bi  sho u   De
mo  no  ra  o   ki  Da  su
Children play
on their slide of fire
the burning tribe
still smoulders
cold fire
pray by the window
like a phoenix
a   so  Bu  ko  Do  mo  no
hi  no  su  be  ri  Da  i
mo  e   ru  ka  Zo  ku  no
na  o   mo  ku  su  Bu  ru
tsu me  ta  ki  ho  no  o
i   no  ru  ma  do  Go  shi
hu  shi cho u   no  Go  to
Footnotes to the legend and poem
  1. hitonokiesari: people vanish
  2. Tsuchinoko: a legendary snake
  3. a whirlwind of fire: a burning wind blown by evil spirits
  4. Monju-Bodhisattva: Lord of Wisdom, Voice of the Law - also the name of a sodium-cooled fast reactor in the Fukui prefecture.
  5. Ashura: God of Wrath
  6. Sutra: Buddhist scripture
  7. The fading purple flower: Spiderwort Tradescantia - the stamen hairs of some varieties fade to pink when exposed to ionising radiation.
  8. Jade pillow: once reserved to rulers of the Han dynasty.

    As can be seen from these footnotes, the legend and poem are a parable of technological hubris and its punishment by the gods.

    The translations and footnotes on this page are by Yumiko Urae


My Singing Machine sings in Giyakku.

Giyakku is the legendary singing language of the legendary Giyakku people. It is a dialect of Japanese. Briefly, it consists of the vowels: eh ee oo ah oh. These 5 vowels and a variety of diphthongs are sung at 13 different pitches, from C2 to C3, providing a total of 109 Japanese syllables. Capital letters are sung with an upward glissando.

For example, the Japanese title, hitonokiesari, (hi-to-no-ki-e-sa-ri) is sung in Giyakku as

hi    ee E   
to    oh B
no    oh C#
ki    ee D#
e     eh D#
sa    ah F
ri    ee A#
The Singing Machine singing the word hitonokiesari: recording

Stage layout

stage layout drawing
The Singing Machine and my sound installation Ein Ton with members of the Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin / Chamber Ensemble for New Music, Berlin (KNM)

On the left, the Singing Machine with four percussionists playing "consonant pipes". In the centre, my sound installation Ein Ton, (three pipes tuned to almost the same pitch, providing a throbbing drone.) On the right: flute, oboe, clarinette, bass clarinet and trombone..


hitonokiesari - people vanish

The Giyakku disappeared during the surpression of the short-lived Republic of Ezo (1869). The only survivor is said to have been a young man who was apprenticed to a master carpenter in Tokyo and built a hand-operated singing machine to preserve the memory of his race and culture. This fabled machine survives only as a drawing.

line drawing of the original singing machine

Where Are You? by NOHE NOSHE - Eleni Poulou and Petr Step Kišur
inspired by phrases from the Singing Machine was released February 19, 2019.
The Singing Machine is very popular and is relatively easy to transport. It has been shown at the University of Arts / Music, Tokyo; at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin; at the Stadgalerie Saarbrücken and in many other places.

From the 18th November. to the 18th December. 2021 it was shown in Rennes, Brittany in a group show about the voice: Le Voile du Palais The soft palate organised by Le Bon Accueil.
Gert Aertsen (BE), Aaron Martin & Melissa Dubbin (USA), Julien Nédélec (FR),
Aleksander Kolkowski & Loré Lixenberg (UK), Martin Riches (UK/DE),
Mathilde Lavenne (FR), Rainier Lericolais (FR), Richard Marnier (FR), VOID (BE)

"In Le Voile du Palais a selection of contemporary artists, inspired by the works of J. Verne, G. Leroux, H. de Balzac, A. Rimbaud and J. Cocteau, explored the relationship of the voice to technology: the voice as an organic technology of the body and recording as a mechanical technology of the voice."     Damien Simon, curator
This was a great context for showing the Singing Machine and they also made a very clear video of it: The video can be seen on Vimeo

to index           to biography          to speaking machines
a space