Speaking in Greyscale: Approaching Trevor Wishart’s Globalalia through Dualistic Continuums

Cormac Gould
Date of publication: 

1.0 Introduction

The issue of where to begin is as common to analysis as to the act of composition itself. Within electroacoustic music, this issue is clouded by the breadth of approaches available to composers and the resulting variety of works extant for analysis. My current, practice-based research seeks to formulate and utilise a classification system, centred on the macro decisions that are made when composing electroacoustic music. From my creative practice, a clear line of enquiry has arisen: is such a system useful as a starting point for analysis? To attempt to address this question, this paper will provide an introductory analysis to Trevor Wishart’s Globalalia (2004). By utilising select dualistic continuums from that system, we will explore its potential as an analytical framework, whilst concurrently highlighting some of the pertinent issues arising in Wishart’s composition.

2.0 The System

It is necessary at this point to give a brief explanation of the system as it currently stands.[1] Organised somewhat like a taxonomic system,[2] it is divided into five family groupings:[3]

  1. Production
  2. Sound Source
  3. Language
  4. Form
  5. Performance

Sound Source, for example, deals with a work’s initial sonic materials, their origin, interrelation, type and manner of sonic production. Within this family group we may find for instance Manuella Blackburn’s dualistic pairing of ‘Culturally Familiar/Sonic Souvenir’ (2011).[4] Blackburn has defined a sonic souvenir as ‘culturally tied sounds/sound objects that are not common or familiar to one’s own cultural heritage or immediate surroundings’ while a culturally familiar sound is the inverse of this (Blackburn 2011). Blackburn’s pairing of ‘Culturally Familiar/Sonic Souvenir’, like most dualisms in the system, should be viewed as a continuum and thus sounds are able to lie at any point between the two extremes. In order to clearly represent these points on a continuum, it is useful to assign each dualism a visual (grey)scale, marked to indicate the position of the piece on that continuum. For further clarity, an approximate numerical value for that mark is assigned, using a decimal scale from 0 to 1.[5] This greyscale allows for a theoretically infinite number of positions and we can easily understand and visually represent the middle and extremes of the continuum. See figure 1. 

Figure 1. Example of Dualistic Continuum from the family group Sound Source

Furthermore, if one views these continuum values primarily as a tool for starting discussion and/or a creative process, their subjectivity is not so problematic. The following are examples of different potential dualistic categories:

Subjective dualism: Indefinite Pitch/Noise
Non-subjective dualism: Live/Fixed Media
Switch dualism:[6] Single Author/Collaboration

Finally, the system is regarded as having two separate starting points: either composition (intention) or analysis (reception). [7] These starting points can then be further qualified by a type of approach, i.e. whether one chooses a planned/blank approach for composition or an informed/naked approach to analysis. In the case of this analysis of Globalalia, a ‘naked analysis’ approach was chosen, i.e. any available supplemental material was not initially consulted.

3.0 An approach towards analysing Globalalia:

The first step in this analysis of Globalalia involved assigning values for each continuum currently present in the system. These values were then revised through repeated listening and subsequently some investigation of the provided material from the University of York archive.[8] After this initial distribution of values, it became clear that several continuums had significant potential for further analysis. However, there were also some continuums that were mostly unsuitable for the analysis and classification of this work, including some of those related to live performance. Below will be found examples of this process and initial analyses for six select continuums from three of the five family groups: Sound Source, Language and Form respectively.

3.a Family Group: Sound Source

It is immediately apparent upon listening to Globalalia that it is composed from the human voice.[9] Whilst one can aurally discern that the sounds were from a multitude of voices, and perhaps from the radio or television (due to certain perceivable timbral components), pinpointing the context and countries of the voices is not straightforward.[10] There are other issues however with the classification of sound source beyond this: should this multitude of voices be considered a single sound source? And do sounds from the radio/television qualify as found sound or even field recordings? These issues are explored below.


Single source/Multiple sources

A pertinent issue concerns whether Globalalia’s multiple voices should be considered as a single sound source (like Adrian Moore’s Study in Ink (1997)) or as multiple sound sources (as in Kitchen Alchemy by Manuella Blackburn (2007)). While all of the sound sources are voices they also differ in gender, and their timbre and accent have a wide degree of variance. Due to this multitude of voices, Globalalia has been assigned a value just left of the centre. However, this continuum alone may not provide satisfactory definition of Globalalia’s sound sources and we must consider refining our definition by utilising auxiliary continuums, see figure 2. Here we can see that by using the continuum Arbitrary/Related we can define whether the sound sources are related to one another. If they are related, we can then use the continuum Conceptually/Sonically to define the nature of that relationship.[11] 

Figure 2. Example of refining the continuum Single source/Multiple sources through using additional related continuums

Field/Studio recording

Whilst the sound sources for Globalalia are ostensibly not field recordings, neither are they simply recorded in a studio. I would argue however, they have more in common with a controlled studio environment, accepting that as previously stated some sounds originate from radio and television broadcasts. For this continuum then, Globalalia attains a value closer to the right hand side of the scale because whilst it potentially contains an element of field recording, it is predominantly comprised of sound originally recorded in a controlled environment. This aspect of the work is worthy of further debate at a later time, and also raises the question: if sound recorded in a studio is played in an outdoor space and subsequently re-recorded, where would this lie on the continuum? I would argue that perhaps the answer lies in which sound is more dominant: the environment or the played back audio.

Instrumental/Found sound

The human voice is often considered a musical instrument, given that it has a variety of common musical uses: song, rap, beatboxing etc. However, when recording speech from the radio or in an ambient space, the line between instrumental and found sound becomes slightly blurred. To elaborate, within Globalalia we find human voices initially intended for a non-musical context being redeployed into a musical context. The sound has been transitioned and selected by Wishart from a broad swathe of recordings, in effect a process associated with found sounds. However, the final value represents the fact that despite this process, the human voice is a common musical material.

3.b Family Group: Language


Textual Narrative/Illustrative 

Globalalia is illustrative of both the spoken word as well as global variations in language and accent, rather than representative of a specific textual narrative. It is not however fully abstracted from the original spoken texts, as the sounds of individual syllables remain. We know from archival material that these sound sources ranged from a variety of different contexts: news broadcasts, sports commentary and advertisements from television and radio etc. (Wishart 2013). Whilst we most certainly feel that Globalalia illustrates and interacts with the concept of communication and the variety of the spoken word, a linear, textual narrative is not literally represented in the work. For this reason, a position on the continuum closer to illustrative was assigned to Wishart’s piece for this continuum.


For works that utilise elements of human language we have a possible interaction with the continuum of Linguistic/Text-based. Whilst we have noted that Globalalia is constructed from recordings of scripted text and free flowing conversation, it does not present these elements in the finished work. Instead it is highly focused on linguistic elements, in particular different phonemes, and as a result it has a position close to the linguistic extreme on this continuum.[12] To clarify, Globalalia focuses on the sound of language more than the meaning conveyed by the words spoken. Finally, one could further say that it is also not overly engaged with the syntax of the spoken languages.

3.c Family Group: Form



Globalalia was initially assigned a position close to the extreme right hand side of this continuum. This position arose from my aural perception of an almost uninterrupted flow in the work, with few movements or overtly separated sections. However, subsequent listenings revealed distinct clusters of similar sonic material, which is upheld by supplemental resources provided by Wishart (2013). Indeed, Wishart has stated that Globalalia is composed of around 20 movements [or ‘tales’]. If Wishart’s statement was taken in isolation, it would require revising the position towards the extreme left hand side, given Globalalia’s large number of movements. However, in practice these movements may not be distinguishable to every listener. What seems to have arisen here is a disparity between the composer’s statement and the listener’s assessment of a work. As a listener, I would question whether each of Globalalia’s 20 movements is aurally perceptible and given that it is presented as one continuous piece, I would suggest that they are not necessarily all intended to be.[13]

We, as listeners, must question the extent to which the composer’s statements should influence our perception, or indeed our analysis, of a work. With regards to this continuum, I have sought a balance between Wishart’s statement and the listener’s perception by choosing a compromise value of just left of centre.[14] Whilst I did not feel that many of the movements could be presented for listening separated from the whole, due to Globalalia’s segmented nature it was positioned slightly closer to multi-movement. The aim of this compromise is that the analysis may therefore provide a more general and less subjective assessment of the works position.

To an extent it appears as if this continuum may need refinement.[15] As Globalalia has shown, a work can indeed be a blend between multi-movement and continuous and yet because of this blending we must balance the composer’s and listener’s statements. The resulting process of revision highlights the fluidity of subjective categorisation, but more importantly, it emphasises the shifts in perception of a work resulting from better acquaintance. After Simon Emmerson revisited his Language Grid,[16] and in relation to such shifts in perception of a work, he has stated that:

We hear works differently over time, so perhaps the work itself can ‘walk’ across the grid. The listener can change the landscape just as much as the composer, such that the music will find itself in a new environment, unfamiliar to its earlier self. (2013) 

In conclusion, we as listeners and analysts of electroacoustic music should be clear on the extent to which we have revised our perceptions of a work, based on knowledge obtained from external sources. However, whilst this is a matter for further discussion outside of the scope of this paper it will need further consideration in relation to this system of analysis. It would seem that the appropriate extent of revision might need to be varied for each continuum, in order to provide a more broadly useful categorisation of works.

4.0 Conclusions

As a starting point for analysis, a classification system composed of dualistic continuums has proven to be stimulating. Globalalia is evidently a work that contains complex issues regarding its interaction with language and text amongst others. Even an attempt to classify its sound source has required new continuums (Arbitrary/Related and Conceptually/Sonically) to describe the relation of multiple sound sources within this and other works. Indeed it has also exposed elements of the system that need refining, such as the continuum Continuous/Multi-Movement. Furthermore, a number of significant aspects of the piece have been highlighted for further investigation: its distinctive yet free-flowing movements/sections, its deconstruction of language and narrative conventions and its dialogue with the human voice as an instrument and found sound. Globalalia has several overt characteristics that are superficially easy to identify, but forcing oneself to commit to a position and numerical value upon the continuum of these characteristics was informatively difficult. In other words, by challenging ourselves to commit to a position for each continuum and by questioning our choices, we gain informative insights into the complex issues inherent in much electroacoustic music.

Throughout the analysis of Globalalia, I have followed the format of choosing a continuum, assigning a position and approximate numerical value, and providing an explanation for that positioning. By doing so, we gain an alternative and clear visual representation of these select aspects of the piece. The scaling and revision of these values allows one to focus on specific aspects of a work and implies that the system has potential to develop beyond a compositional tool. To this end, I intend to present this system to final year undergraduate students, in order to further test its application for both composition and analysis. In particular, I aim to have these students analyse Wishart’s Globalalia so as to average different listeners’ perceptions, which may provide useful supplemental data on the work. Whilst this has been a brief, select and introductory analysis of Globalalia, there is much potential for its development, along with this analysis method, through other family groups, continuums, and supplementary material.

[1] Due to the system being the research focus of my PhD it is a work in progress. In my compositional output I am exploring the centre point of its continuums and the potential for interplay between them.
[2] The classification system is taxonomic in that flows downward from general to specific, however it may be that mereologic is a more appropriate term. There is however not space to explore that here and as such I will use the term system throughout.
[3] Leigh Landy has emphasised the importance of looking at different aspects of a work, suggesting: ‘context’, ‘creative practice’, ‘listening experience’, and their associated sub- divisions, as important areas for consideration (Landy 2012:18).
[4] The system encompasses both my own terms and those of others for instance: Smalley’s ‘Gesture/Texture’ from ‘Spectro-morphology and Structuring Processes’ (1986).
[5] In practice for these numerical values, two decimal points are enough, given that they are for clarification purposes and not empirical values.
[6] Here, I define a switch dualism as a dualistic pairing where only one side is applicable, with no meaningful gradation between. One can have multiple collaborators but this is not easily represented on a scale from 0-1. Therefore, a switch dualism can be thought of as a binary on or off (an integer, as opposed to a floating point, relationship for dualistic pairs). [7] Here the use of the terms intention and reception are directly influenced by Leigh Landy’s emphasis on these terms in Understanding the Art of Sound Organisation (2007).
[8] Available here: https://dlib.york.ac.uk/yodl/app/audio/wishart-globalalia
[9] It is worth stating that from a naked analysis standpoint, we cannot know for certain if other sound sources have been used in addition to the human voice.
[10] Even without supporting material, the title of the piece of course implies the ‘global’ nature of the voices.
[11] An example of conceptually related sound sources would be a collection of kitchen implements whilst sonically related might refer to a family of orchestral instruments.
[12] For a discussion of a work that may obtain a value closer to the centre of this continuum see Kristan Twombly’s ‘Oppositional Dialectics in Joji Yuasa’s The Sea Darkens’ (2002). [13] As opposed to a work such as Bernard Parmegiani’s De Natura Sonorum (1975) for instance. Parmegiani’s work is presented as ‘a suite in twelve movements’ or alternatively ‘a suite in two series of six movements’ (1990, sleeve notes) with separate tracks and titles for each movement on the CD.
[14] The chosen value for Globalalia is close to the centre point, which is currently interpreted as a work that whilst continuous, can be readily split into separate movements. This might include a work that existed in two forms: a continuous single movement version and also separated multiple movements (playable individually, in sequence or perhaps in a random order etc.). Therefore, De Natura Sonorum may be an example of a work that lies on the centre point of this continuum.
[15] While concluding this analysis, the term Single Movement was considered as a replacement for Continuous. The resulting dualism – Single Movement/Multi-movement – would be a switch dualism that could be further refined with auxiliary continuums (as in figure 2 for Single Source/Multiple Sources). In this case, the auxiliary continuums would describe the relationships and transitions between the multi-movements. However, for this introductory analysis the original continuum was used in order to convey the general issues arising from the analysis of Globalalia.
[16] Emmerson’s Language Grid (1986) contains two dualistic continuums (aural/mimetic and abstract/abstracted) that are placed onto the x and y axes of a grid. 


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WISHART, T. (unknown) Sleeve Notes: Globalalia/Imago. [Online] Digital Music Archives. Available at: http://www.digital- music-archives.com/webdb2/application/Application.php?&fwServerClass=ProductDetail&ProductCode=CDE0100 [Accessed 27/08/13].
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BLACKBURN, M. (2007) ‘Kitchen Alchemy’ on Formes Audibles [CD] emprientes DIGITALes: IMED 12117 (2012).
MOORE, A. (1996). ‘A Study in Ink’ on Traces [CD] emprientes DIGITALes: IMED 0053 (2000)
PARMEGIANI, B. (1975). De Natura Sonorum. [CD] INA-GRM: INA_C 3001, (1990)
WISHART, T. (2004). Globalalia [Digital Download] Digital Music Archives. Available at: http://www.digital-music- archives.com/ and [Streamed Audio] University of York Archive. Available at: https://dlib.york.ac.uk/yodl/app/audio/wishart- audio-detail (Accessed 10/06/13)