Playing the Dead

Back in 2004, I was playing in a band I was with for many years, called BAiT. At the time, we were writing material for a new album under a new line-up. Our keyboard player, Nick, shared a love of Prog rock, and we were making efforts to write generally concise and melodic songs using a pallette of Prog instrumentation, with Andy using a Rickenbacker 4001 bass and Moog Taurus bass pedal sounds, and Nick making extensive use of his genuine vintage 1973 ARP Pro Soloist keyboard, virtual analogue synths, and, perhaps notably for the guts of the underlying keyboard texture, Mellotron samples.

For those unaware, the Mellotron was a kind of proto-sampler, developed by Streetly Electronics in Birmingham, England, comprising a keyboard which played individual tape recordings of recorded instruments (or voices, or musical segments) for up to eight seconds. They were a mainstay of Prog and are easily recognisable for their distinct sound.

During the course of writing one track for the album, at the time untitled, which we were working on as a group, Nick said something quite profound.

“Of course, you do realise that the people who played the actual instruments sampled on these tapes are probably dead now.”

His comment was latched on to and we instantly titled the song Playing The Dead, which gave us a concept around which to hang the song, and the lyrics for Andy, to whom the task of writing lyrics in group compositions generally fell.

The latest Star Wars film has seen a bit of a reaction in certain media about the use of the likeness of Peter Cushing, who played in the original Star Wars (A New Hope), but died in 1994. The assertion in the Guardian and Huffington Post is that the use of a CGI manipulation of Cushing is disrespectful. How exactly is this disrespectful, if Cushing’s family gave its blessing? And why do such objections not apply to listening to the vocal performances of now deceased singers?

Should we stop listening to dead singers out of respect? I imagine there were similar thoughts about capturing recorded human voices in the first place. Indeed, hearing Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinvil’s sound recordings from 1860 is a little eerie.

I’ve had a conversation a couple of times with people along the lines of how in the not-too-distant future, deceased artists will be able to be “resurrected”, thanks to technological developments.

In my head, I can conceive that we will be able to extract individual phonemes from an existing, isolated vocal performance of a now deceased singer and use these as part of a wholly original vocal performance in a new song. As technology improves, we will be able to refine this technique, synthesising missing phonemes and accurately altering pitch with ever-improving technology until the end result sounds authentic. Artists like Mike Oldfield have already made use of full voice synthesis, such as Vocaloid, but this still suffers from the “robotic” effect and remains unconvincing to the human ear, but this technology will inevitably improve dramatically.

Some may see this as weird, others will see it as disrespectful, but others still will see it as a yardstick against which we can see how these technologies are progressing.

And as uncomfortable as it may be to some, perhaps the idea of being able to interact with a level of AI in the guise of a deceased love one may actually provide a great deal of comfort for a lonely, old person in future.

Perhaps today’s great singers could oblige by providing recordings of themselves singing a range of words in different pitches to lay the groundwork for such a legacy. And if that seems odd, consider that as Freddie Mercury faced his own mortality, he was selflessly, and despite great suffering, busily recording vocal parts for his Queen bandmates, for songs he knew he would not hear completed.

For my part, I kind of look forward to a development which allows for a natural sounding synthesis of classic voices from the past and to hear these resurrected in new contexts. I see the recreation of a vocal part of a deceased person no more or less disrespectful than using a sound sample of them passing a bow across a string or blowing into a flute and I’m quite looking forward to future releases of long-deceased artists.

What finer tribute to their voices than making them alive and relevant again to future generations?