Machine Listening Songbook


2023 - ongoing

Date 1
ICE Krakow. Unsound Festival. 2023.
ICE Krakow. Unsound Festival. 2023.

Machine Listening Songbook (1-4), 2023 - ongoing Audio and audio-video

Researched, written and produced: Sean Dockray, James Parker, Joel Stern Voices: cloned using ElevenLabs Instrument design: Sean Dockray

A songbook is a media technology. It untethers a collection of songs’ lyrics from their expression, and in doing so enables them to be archived, canonised, shared, circulated, and performed in surprising new ways. The original songbook, for instance, was the hymnal. But the Great American Songbook and Left Songbook (1938) are two important examples from the early twentieth century.

The Machine Listening Songbook joins this tradition by using automatic transcription, phonemic alignment, and voice cloning technologies to reconfigure the relationship between voices and texts, lyrics and their expression, in vocal performance and composition.

Like all songbooks, this one is open-ended. It will keep growing. The first four entries were produced during our residency at Unsound 2023, in response to the festival’s theme: Dada/Data. Clone Ursonate is a reading of Kurt Schwitters’ classic poem Ursonate (1932) by clone. We think of it as a kind of completion of Schwitters’ project: a performance not only without sense, but also without subjectivity, and all the more masterful for it. Screeching Phonograph works with the text of Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto (1918) as the raw material for a performance on a massive sound system at a club. Oh God comes out of our collective surprise when we asked OpenAI’s Whisper to transcribe Clone Ursonate, and what it produced was the phrase ‘oh god’, repeated again and again. Of course, these words never appear in Schwitters’ text, but they seemed to capture a sense of exasperation at the impossible task they’d been set, which perhaps shades into wonder at the technological sublime. Finally, Orchard Farming is a reading of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven 1927 poem by a chorus of clones, which preserves and reworks the piece’s proto-concrete poetry for the digital age.

The Machine Listening Songbook was made using the second iteration of Sean Dockray’s Word Processor. The pieces were originally performed at Unsound as a series of in(ter)ventions in the program and staged across multiple venues.

1 Clone Ursonate

Kino Kijów. Unsound Festival. 5 Oct 2023.
Kino Kijów. Unsound Festival. 5 Oct 2023.

2 Screeching Phonograph

Performed at Kamienna 12 club space. Unsound Festival. 5 Oct 2023.

3 Oh God

Performed at ICE Krakow. Unsound Festival. 7 Oct 2023.

4 Orchard Farming

Performed at ICE Krakow. Unsound Festival. 8 Oct 2023.


Philip Sherbourne

A Closer Listen