In Terry Pratchett’s Feet of Clay, Dorfl is a golem: a living machine who, since his mouth is sealed shut, cannot speak. Towards the end of the book, though, he is bought, freed, and given a voice.

Interested in combining computer music with my experience as a chorister, I’ve created an instrument which aims to do the same. It listens to the sound of someone singing, and deconstructs their voice into a series of harmonics. By randomly piecing these harmonics back together, Dorfl mimics the voice it heard, but adds an eerie quality of its own. To maintain the similarities between Dorfl and a human voice, the instrument slides randomly between notes, which are tuned to a Pythagorean scale.

As well as demonstrating the sound of a digital voice, Dorfl sings is an exploration of freedom in improvised music. The performers improvise throughout, constrained only by my whims as conductor. By conveying instructions with a small set of gestures, I can restrict the mode from which they can play, the settings of their instruments, and how melodically or atmospherically they should play. Although I never have complete control over how the choristers play, these broad instructions are enough to influence the overall sound and trajectory of the piece. This system was inspired by the political landscape Dorfl encounters: the local benevolent dictator rules in much the same way as I conduct.


Abigail is a computer science student at ANU, where she participated in the Laptop Ensemble (LENS) program last year. She has returned to the ensemble as a tutor in 2020.