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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2015


‘Synthrumentation’ is a technique for the resynthesis of speech with acoustic instruments developed by the composer Clarence Barlow in the early 1980s. Over the past decade instrumental speech synthesis has been thematised by a diverse range of composers (e.g. Peter Ablinger and Jonathan Harvey); however, Barlow's work is rarely accorded the credit it deserves for the pioneering role it played in this field. This article seeks to explain the basic mechanics of the synthrumentation technique and to demonstrate its practical application through an analysis of Barlow's ensemble piece Im Januar am Nil composed between 1981 and 1984. It should become apparent that Barlow never uses synthrumentation in its conceptually pure form, but rather its realisation is always integrated into an overarching musical context, which reflects Barlow's general approach to musical invention allowing different factors to interact.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 The score of Im Januar an Nil was originally published by Feedback Studio Verlag in Cologne. The company was reluctantly closed by its owner, Johannes Fritsch, shortly before his death in 2010. The decision regarding a new distributor of Barlow's work is currently under discussion.

2 See (accessed 23 August 2014).

3 See Gilbert Nouno, Arshia Cont and Grégoire Carpentier, ‘Making an Orchestra Speak’, (accessed 23 August 2014).

4 James Tenney's Three Indigenous Songs (1979) for two piccolos, alto flute, tuba (or bassoon) and two percussion must be mentioned here as an important predecessor. However, it is based on an approach that is conceptually clearly simpler and was moreover not realised with the help of a computer.

5 Barlow, Clarence, ‘On the Spectral Analysis of Speech for Subsequent Resynthesis by Acoustic Instruments’, in Festschrift Georg Heike, ed. Kröger, Bernd J. (Frankfurt a. M.: Hector, 1998), pp. 183–90Google Scholar, here 184.

6 A fast Fourier transform (FFT) calculates the spectral energy present at each partial of the fundamental frequency of the FFT, which is determined by dividing the sample rate by the FFT frame size in samples. This means that a single FFT only returns an accurate result when analysing exactly one cycle (or an integer multiple of cycles) of a tone, therefore most sound sources will produce a large amount of artefacts. To correct for this two or more overlapping FFTs are usually applied to the sample giving a much more accurate representation of the spectrum.

7 Cf. unpublished transcript of a lecture held at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, on 6 February 1998.

8 In this context the term ‘empty beats’ means beats on which no new note begins, and therefore is not equivalent to a rest. On the contrary, the notes of the melody are generally held until the entry of the next note.

9 Cf. Diethelm Zuckmantel, Der Riss in der Emailleurne: Über die strukturbildenden Prinzipien der Spiralmelodie in Klarenz Barlows “Im Januar am Nil”' (unpublished theoretical study submitted in support of a Diplom in Composition at the Robert Schumann Hochschule, Düsseldorf, 1987).

10 ‘Glue my grandmother's earliest ancestors onto the inside of an enamel urn.’

11 ‘Unknowingly the prototypical Norman took a hugely anglomaniacal Alemanian to be his wife, amen alleluia.’

12 ‘In January on the Nile, painting mummies.’

13 In terms of both the methods used as well as the obviously playful delight and inventiveness these linguistic games have unleashed, the generation of these sentences is reminiscent of the likewise self-imposed restrictions (‘constraintes’) seen in similar procedures associated with the literary group Oulipo (realised in its most radical form in Georges Perec's novel La Disparition, in which he deliberately avoided the letter ‘e’).

14 In order to be able to approximate the heterodyne frequencies resulting from ring modulation that do not fit into the equal tempered tuning of the piano, the tuning of the two saxophones has to be adjusted: saxophone one is tuned a twelfth-tone lower and saxophone two a sixth-tone lower.

15 In an unpublished transcript of a lecture held at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, on 6 February 1998.

16 This event relates to the title of the interlude (English: ‘The family bags’), which according to Barlow is a veiled reference to a not very well-liked colleague who was always carrying plastic bags around with him. At this point in the piece he is symbolically shot dead.