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Gretchen Jude

Gretchen Jude is a vocalist and electronic musician who performs traditional, experimental, and improvised music around the world. She holds an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College and koto certification from the Sawai Koto Institute in Tokyo. Gretchen is also a linguist, a composer, and a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at UC Davis, where her research interests include presence and embodiment in computer music, and sociolinguistic difference in vocal performance. 

“Songs from the Uncanny Valley: The Posthuman Vocality of the Vocaloids”
First popular among transnational cosplay communities, Hatsune Miku made U.S. headlines when she joined Lady Gaga’s 2013 North American tour. Branded the Digital Diva, Miku is the first of Yamaha’s Vocaloids to attain ‘virtual idol’ status. Yet despite the gleam of edginess to what Hamasaki (2008) calls “massively collaborative creation of multimedia,” the sounds of the music itself tend (arguably) toward the banal. This presentation will explore the contradictions posed by the Vocaloid phenomenon, aiming to pinpoint the posthuman uncanny of synthesized pop voices—even as such aural uncanniness is revealed as a moving target. 

Mori’s (1970) bukimi no tani, or uncanny valley, will be a key analytic concept in this exploration. Freud’s uncanny—that which is uncertainly (in)animate or undead, such as waxworks and mechanical dolls—is typically characterized in visual terms. This paper will argue that conceptualizing a specifically aural uncanny requires consideration of the inescapably embodied nature of both auditory perception and vocal production. What does the digital transformation of a human’s voice into a manipulable (and saleable) database imply for embodied ears?

The presentation will trace the Japanese role in the development of concatenative singing synthesis—a technology which itself problematizes the distinction between synthesis (of the virtual) and sampling (of the real). Pop cultural connections between this technology and Japanese anime will also be traced, starting with the (Vocaloid-laden) soundtrack of Satoshi Kon’s 2006 Paprika. What are the implications of the transcultural nature of Vocaloid development? 

Finally, analysis of the uncanny Vocaloids will grapple with the double-binds of Orientalism and (hetero)sexism. Befu’s work on the self-exoticizing discourses of nihonjinron (2001) indicts images of ‘futurist’ Japan as inescapably techno-Orientalist, while Robertson (2010) asserts that Japanese R&D in humanoid robotics naturalizes binary gender. Given such reactionary contexts, how might Vocaloids give voice to a more radical posthumanism?

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