Getting conversationally uncanny with Line Upon Line

With instruments and software that are both real and unreal, composer Mauricio Pauly and Line Upon Line Percussion will expand the ways audiences think about communication, musical or otherwise



Music is its own language — and that language can actually be kind of freaky at times.

Fream Ad Wall” is the season closer for Austin’s premiere percussionists, Line Upon Line. In recruiting the internationally-renowned composer Mauricio Pauly for the program, the ensemble is debuting a brand new commission and a drastically rearranged 2017 piece by Pauly. In the process, they’ll be bringing machines to life and performing alongside un-worldly visuals.

They’ll also be raising the dead.

“Something we really value as a group is being asked to do things that we’ve never been asked to do before…I feel like Mauricio is throwing the encyclopedia at us in terms of the amount of variety,” says Line Upon Line’s founding member Matt Teodori.

Born and raised in Costa Rica, Pauly is now a Vancouver-based composer working in the spaces of experimental chamber music. In using amplification and electronic instruments in his chamber pieces, Pauly is able to keep the intimacy and strength of performer-to-performer communication while still accessing a large and even eccentric dynamic range.

In the case of the performance’s first piece, HEYCAYODO, the sonic range of the composition becomes is especially unexpected with the inclusion of ghostly, but not entirely un-human sounds. This specially rearranged version of Pauly’s composition includes a variety of synths, amplified string instruments, and two voices: one synthetic and one deceased.

The technology behind the synthetic voice comes from a 2017 project by developer Neil Thapen, and his project called “Pink Trombone.” The program allows users to dictate what is essentially a virtual mouth, providing minute inputs to alter and activate the mechanical functions of human speech, including tongue control, soft palate usage, nasal cavity overtones, air intake, and more.

composer Mauricio Pauly
Composer Mauricio Pauly

Pauly’s lifelong collaborator, Gabriel Montagné (the other half of their project, Rosa Debe Cuidársele) untangled the program’s rat’s nest of a code so that it could be used via midi controllers for HECAYODO, replacing the original version’s need for a live singer. The resulting, half-alive voice, as controlled by Line Upon Line, is sure to make audiences’ lizard-brains tingle.

“At first, it’s pretty horrendous,” Pauly says, “and then very quickly it starts turning kind of real in a way that is even more horrendous because it’s so uncanny!”

The second voice used in HECAYODO’s is an actual human. Mostly.

Montagné, who also works in philosophy and cognitive sciences, at some point happened upon some tech with which the human voice could be emulated via neural networks, or, AI. One of the many ways that a voice could be produced was to feed the network raw audio and then, as a sort of key, a language.

“And so we fed it about six or seven hours of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer,” Pauly playfully declares.

The audio is from Borges’ Harvard Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, recorded between 1967–1968. In the lectures, Borges waxes philosophically about history, metaphors, and writing in his distinctly airy and macabre voice.

“At the time he was already fully blind and delivering these lectures by heart. Quoting all over the place and citing incredible passages.” Pauly says.

However, listeners won’t be hearing the exact words of Borges. Although Montagné and Pauly fed the neural network hours of Borges audio, they purposely left out an important part of speech recognition — the language key.

“The result includes all the clicks and coughs of the audio as assumed speech,” says Pauly. “So it’s a very lo-fi babbling by a long-dead old man, but you do get a poetic sense to the moment.”

The conversationally-incoherent vowels and consonants of Borges backtracks the performance of HECAYODO while the ensemble performs with amplified instrumentation and the re-engineered “Pink Trombone” code, making the piece just as much of an experiment of linguistics as it is concert music.

“Conversations are a part of our everyday life and we hear words all the time without thinking about it,” says Matt Teodori, “and then to have that be the focal point of a piece for an extended period of time, but you’re not using words and you’re communicating via this nano controller, it’s like something from the future!”

The second and titular piece of the evening, Fream Ad Wall, similarly explores themes of communication, but through a more mechanical “scoring for hardware,” as Pauly describes it.

“Here you touch this button, here you move this knob. Some of it is discrete, some of it relative. It’s a very blip-blop-bloop kind of piece.”

In this world-premiere commission for Line Upon Line, the ensemble functions mostly through midi-controlled instruments that are connected and interconnected through a computer. While performing, the ensemble will sample the sounds produced by their own instruments and alter the speed, pitching, and effects of the piece in real-time.

Visually, the score looks part-sheet music and part-hardware manual, but like any well-structured linguistic conversation, Fream Ad Wall’s sonic relationships present a dynamic musical discussion that you’ll be hard-pressed to hear anywhere else, especially in a chamber-sized setting.

Part of the score for composer Mauricio Pauly’s “Fream Ad Wall”

In discussing his proclivity for electronic chamber pieces, Mauricio reasons that “when you have a large ensemble, and particularly when you have a conductor, the dynamics are compromised by different forces. The amplification and the electronics is a way of keeping the performance ‘chamber,’ and are also a way to keep the performance in the hands of the performers,” he says.

“I like the idea of creating a large dynamic range, a broad palette of sounds and space suggestions, but I also like working with a limited amount of people that can communicate with each other and can drive the interpretation in the context of the moment.”

Both HECAYODO and Fream Ad Wall will feature two-channel video projections created by Gabriel Montagné. Like the artificial voices of HECAYODO,  Montagné’s computer-generated animations will emulate reality, but leave space for the uncanny to be felt. In using color and light to make images that are simultaneously both familiar and alien, viewers will be fantastically bewildered by what they’re seeing.

With instruments and software that are both real and unreal, Mauricio Pauly and Line Upon Line will expand the ways audiences think about communication, musical or otherwise.

“It feels like a very poignant picture of where we’re at and where things could go even within our lifetimes,” Teodori says.

“It is sort of a supremely bizarre experience to be having a conversation with someone through a nano-controller.”


Joshua Figueroa
Joshua Figueroa
Joshua Figueroa is a musicologist and arts writer from Santa Barbara, California. Now based in Austin, he splits his time between going out to eat too much and arguing about video games.

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