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Sound installation, 1989-1991

While I was voicing the pipes for a mechanical organ I noticed that when they were playing incorrectly they would sometimes make sounds quite similar to human speech. I wondered if it would be possible to make special speaking pipes and whether it would be possible to make them talk.

The result was the Talking Machine – an acoustic speech synthe­sizer. The speech sounds are produced using a flow of air and resonators just as in natural speech. The machine has 32 pipes, each one a simplified version of the human vocal tract. They repro­duce the spaces which are formed in the mouth, nose and throat when we speak. The pipes are built according to measurements of X-Ray photographs taken of a person speaking. The valves which control the flow of air are operated by a computer.

I was fully aware of the historical connections. The first work I stu­died was Farkas Kempelen's 1791 piece, “The mechanism of human speech, and a description of the author's speaking machine.” Note that my Talking Machine uses a separate pipe for each sound, which is a principle that Kempelen discarded. The colourful and lively language of his classic writing nonetheless proved inspiring for me.

Text: Martin Riches, photo: Tom Gundelwein