In 1845, Austrian inventor Joseph Faber created Euphonia: a mechanical talking machine that used instruments to mimic the human throat and vocal organs. This April, EMMA SMITH’s exhibition of the same name will take over the Bluecoat and attempt to outline the natural relationship between communication and music. It promises to be an innovative, immersive exhibition and will rely on the public getting involved.
Put simply, Euphonia is an interactive soundwork. Smith has used sounds collected from the public to create a musical score, which will show how we unconsciously make music when engaged in conversation. The exhibition will also be a reflection on the many communities who visit and use the Bluecoat. I caught up with Smith to find out more about this intriguing project. She speaks of the gallery as a place for experimentation, and I’m keen to find out where Euphonia will lead.
Can you explain the premise of the exhibition?
The premise of the exhibition is that everybody is a musician. We produce music all the time; we just do it subconsciously without realising. I’m interested in the way that, when we’re talking with each other (particularly in friendly interactions), we produce harmonies and interlocking rhythms that work musically on a subconscious level.
Over the past year, I’ve been working with a number of academics. Together we’ve been exploring the ways that we use voice to produce relationship bonds between one another.
How does this relate to what you’re doing now at the Bluecoat?
So, we’ve been running a number of different experiments. We’ve been working with local choirs to explore different ways of making music and singing together, and we’ve looked at the benefits that this has on people’s emotions and how they feel connected as a group.
We’ve also been collecting recordings of conversations, and analysing what people are doing musically when they are talking to one another. The score that I’m creating from this will be a central part of the installation. These conversations have been in a wide range of languages – English, French, Italian, Japanese and Hindi. In every language, they are producing the same kind of music.
How did you go about creating this musical score?
There’s been a long process of transposition and processing recordings. Some of that involves just being able to listen, hear and write music but I’ve also been working with various pieces of software that allow you to transpose.
Can you explain a little more about what the score will show?
So, the score is based on all the conversations we gathered from the public. There is also the idea that when people come into the gallery space, they can sing along or interact with the sound piece. When we are in conversation with one another, we naturally attune our voices so that we are in harmony – even if we don’t have perfect pitch. So the idea of the artwork or sound piece is that it has that capacity. If somebody comes to the space and attempts to sing along or make a sound, the sound work will harmonise itself to the person’s voice. The music will be constantly shifting and adapting itself to the voices it hears within the space.
How does this exhibition differ from your previous work? Or is this a continuing research interest?
This project emerged out of a previous project, 5Hz (2015). Through that, we discovered that people preferred listening to the voice when it’s used for song as opposed to speech. We enjoy sounds that have a musical quality to them. Certain sounds come up through the vocal chords, which means the vocal chords have to vibrate in order to make that sound. This automatically gives the sound a pitch. So whether you’re thinking about singing or not, you are making a note. And so in that project, we created this little language of sounds that we like to hear.
I’ve been looking at voice for a number of years, and I’m very interested in the ways that we’re connected with one other without necessarily realising that we are – all the stuff we are doing on a subconscious level that builds relationships.
You mentioned before that you are collecting sounds of people talking in different languages. Are we connecting with one another even when there’s a language barrier?
Yes. That’s what is nice about the sounds that we discovered people liked best. They came from experiments with adults, and what we like as adults, but the actual sounds themselves are very close to the sounds that we start making as babies. They’re the very first sounds that we make when we’re learning how to make noise. That’s maybe why we like them because we’ve been making them the longest and, physically, they are the easiest to make – we tend to choose and like things that are relaxing on the body.
What’s exciting about these sounds is that they are not specific to cultural language. Human beings are producing them before they learn their own cultural language and they appear therefore in pretty much every language across the world.
You’ll have a lot of material after this exhibition. Where are you hoping this will lead?
We’ll actually be using the exhibition space as part of the research process. Although we’ll be sharing this score as a work, the idea will also be to see what happens in the space and invite people in to explore the capacity of the work.
In particular, I’ve been looking at different ways of scoring music that don’t rely on people having to have learnt something previously or knowing how to read traditional forms of scoring music. How do you score in such a way that anyone can just come in and make it up? And what tools will help people do that together? That’s something we’re hoping to test out within the gallery space itself and we will see where that leads. We’ll be inviting different groups to come and do workshops, and so the public will be a part of that experiment process as well.
Euphonia by Emma Smith will be on display at the Bluecoat from 27th April to 24th June.