Crossword Canon

by Gabriella Solti

zounds 4Performing Crossword Canon – Saturday, August 9, 2014 at Forest City Gallery as part of the program HEAR HERE 09 featuring 8 experimental acts from Ontario and Quebec. This particular Hear Hear, guest curated by Chris Myhr, has been titled Zounds!!

Crossword Canon is a quartet for four voices for “unmusical” performers using a simple instructional score. The score is a linearized crossword, and the “song” is a sequence of words repeated multiple times; each performer reciting the words with a steady rhythm, pitch and volume adding occasional short improvisations with the mouth where the score calls for it. 

This work was inspired by scientific research. Diana Deutsch, a perceptual and cognitive psychologist and a prominent researcher of the psychology of music at the University of California, San Diego, demonstrated in her research that the human brain’s dominant perception of words is musical, but our desire to find meaning in a sequence of words suppresses this recognition.

However, if someone repeats the same sentence multiple times with the same pitch, rhythm and volume, a listener’s brain will soon interpret it as a song. This phenomenon is called the speech-to-song illusion, and it is even more prominent if the repeated words do not form a meaningful sentence. Crossword Canon exploits this phenomenon.

Solti-score-mezzoscore for mezzo soprano

Solti-score-soprano1score for first soprano

Solti-score-soprano2score for second soprano

Solti-score-bass_or_baritonescore for bass or baritone

Crossword Canon is based on a crossword that I flattened out (linearized). I picked simple words from the crossword that are easy to pronounce. I devised a simple notation system that references elements of a crossword such as using squares to represent a beat which is equivalent with a syllable. I also used shaded squares to represent volume. Crossword Canon is for the human voice for four performers:  2 female sopranos, one mezzo soprano and one male bass or baritone. 

It is 2 minutes long which is easy to determine from the score as the score indicates that 1 square is 1 beat and 1 minute is 40 beats. There are 80 squares altogether on the score thus the duration is 2 minutes. The 40 beats were determined based on the fact that counting aloud from 1 to 40 in a steady, slow rhythm is one minute altogether and everyone can easily comprehend and follow such a rhythm.

The pitch (how high or low the voice) should be steady for the whole duration of the piece.  It is intentionally not determined in advance but to be chosen together by the performers before the performance to make sure each one of them is comfortable with it and does not strain their voice.

Improvisation is a fun part of the piece and offers variety and surprise to the listeners and an opportunity for the performers to express their individuality. The improvisation can be anything that uses the mouth or voice such as whistling, giggling, laughing, yawning, producing a popping sound or a trill and much more.

This piece can be performed by any four volunteers, “unmusical” performers, from the audience without rehearsal. To eliminate performance anxiety, performers usually appreciate if the composer indicates to each one with a hand gesture when they start. After that, they are very comfortable on their own.

This piece is best to be performed by people who never studied music. Those who are musically trained often can’t imagine that something interesting can come out from such a simple piece (but it does!) and they try to bend the rules. They add complex changes in pitch and vibrating and trilling the individual syllables which ruin the piece’s intended effect.