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Features Published 18 April 2016

This is a Voice

“The vocalisation of sound is a common denominator between species.” Lydia Thomson explores the performative nature of the human voice in a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.
Lydia Thomson
Samuel Beckett's 'Not I (1977). Credit: BBC MOTION GALLERY and GETTY IMAGES

Samuel Beckett’s ‘Not I (1977). Credit: BBC MOTION GALLERY and GETTY IMAGES

What is a voice? For most of us, we think of what to say, open our mouths, and words come out. In song or in speech, we probably don’t even need to think about it. It is a tool, a piece of apparatus, a part of the human body as miraculous as the rest. But the latest exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, ‘This is a Voice’, gives us pause to hear it anew.

Upon entering the exhibition, we’re struck by the quietness of an anechoic corridor. But there’s also an incredible cacophony of noise emitting from the various installations in the immediate vicinity, and the whisper of those to come. The ear picks up bird sound, singing, strange mechanical clunking and whirrings, and a single voice singing from high to low pitch. This sirening sound will be so, says the instructions for creating such a tune, “Until too exhausting, or no longer musically interesting.”

Aurally, this exhibition curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz which she describes as highly performative, is not guilty of lacking musical intrigue. Visually, too – the architecture allows for such wanderings as if it were the intricate innards of the ear, or the vocal chords themselves.

Primarily, it is a listening experience, and from that anechoic tunnel, I was drawn towards the sound of a group of voices singing with enviable freedom and light. It was a recording of the Bayaka community, a nomadic pygmy tribe singing at dawn. It sounds so pure and disarmingly human, uninhibited and unrestrained. The improvisational qualities land the voices joyfully in the present moment, while the range in pitch and volume denotes endless simplicity and possibility.

The same can be said for the birdsong I could hear, and as Marcus Coates articulates – whose film installation, Dawn Chorus, gives birdsong to human subjects – “The vocalisation of sound is a common denominator between species.” For the project, Coates recorded birds in a woodland, slowed down the recording, filmed the humans imitating the birds, then sped the recording back up. The result is that of people in their natural habitat – a car, a bath, a living room – singing and moving uncannily like a robin, or a song thrush, or a yellowhammer.

The effect lies somewhere between beautiful and imposing, and as Coates says, “If you spend a long time in it, it’s actually quite an intimidating atmosphere, because they’re staking out territory”. The parallel between human and bird behaviour is clear: here are human subjects whose own voices are filling their territory with song. But is that the only possible reading of the sound? Coates was interested in exploring another reading of wildlife – “It’s either scientifically explained, or it’s romantically explained…our culture doesn’t really serve us in terms of our relationship and our attachment to nature, so I suppose my work is about investigating that – trying to create a new subjectivity to relate to that – to relate to anything that’s non-human, actually.”

It is that space between beauty and science that is at the crux of this exhibition, and it is a space that the Wellcome Collection consistently fills with boundless, rich wonder. From the facial contortions in a video and photo series by Mikhail Karikis, to a series of prints by Imogen Stidworthy that illustrate the vocal chords of a selection of female subjects in Liverpool, we see the intricacies of what it takes to express – vocally – who we are and what we think. In Stidworthy’s work, she notes how the particular mouth shapes of the Liverpudlian accent puts wrinkles around the eyes in a way that other accents don’t. Even in the gradual ageing of our skin, our voice betrays our geographical identity.

But something that distinguishes us as human beings is that we can change our voice, if we want to. We can imitate birds, or we can change our accents. Actors and performers know this particularly well, and in one of the films by Chris Chapman, ‘Voice and Identity’, a cabaret performer shares her experience as a transwoman undergoing voice therapy and hormone treatment. What stands out is the effect the voice has on how we are perceived externally, and as the transman in the film confides, a squeak in his voice betrays his identity. In order to adhere to the social norms of our culture, the voice must coincide with the external persona.

The reverse can also be true, and Sam Belinfante’s film, Focus, explores the effect of external factors on the voice. A singer, Elaine Mitchener, alternates between intense physical activity and singing. She guides her voice forwards with her hand, and with lungs open from breathing harder, her voice is clear and strong. But at one point, she opens her mouth to sing, and no sound comes out. Have the external influences compromised her moment of expression?

The notion of compromise takes a more chilling tone in another piece by Imogen Stidworthy – Castrato – which looks at the effects of surgery on the voice. For choir boys who endured training and castration to prevent their larynx from naturally lowering during puberty, the external manipulation dramatically alters the way they express themselves through their voices. This film installation merges the voices of a young male treble, a female soprano and a countertenor to surround the listener in a sound replicating the castrato voice of a choir boy. It is as if we are immersed in the larynx itself. Alongside the films’ intimate close-ups on parts of the singers’ bodies – their mouths and necks – It is a suitably uncomfortable experience.

What remains unaltered, however, is the voice inside their heads. In Charles Fernyhough’s recently published book, ‘The Voices Within’, he notes that it is a voice that is almost impossible to study, observe or accurately recall. What were your exact thoughts before you began reading this, for example? Was it a voice at all? By way of depiction, the stream of consciousness is recognisable in Samuel Beckett’s Not I, featured here as the Royal Court production from 1973. It is more conversationally portrayed in Asta Gröting’s project The Inner Voice using ventriloquists, and in a piece by Steve Nottingham in which he has used a computerised voice to have a conversation with himself about his life as an artist. In both cases, the inner voice is concerned with the outward persona, like talking to yourself before throwing your own voice out into the ether.

The exhibition ends with the opportunity to sing a single note in a recording booth to be added to the surrounding collection of voices, played here and at the stage door at the Royal Opera House. Chorus, conceived by British electronic musician Matthew Herbert, is comprised of the voices of staff and performers at the Royal Opera House, and those who have added their voices at the exhibition or online. Listening to the chorus, I can’t help thinking that it is somewhat reminiscent of the sound of the Bayaka tribe at the beginning, or of the birdsong – each voice singing with the celebration of their identity, their voice, and of being part of the tribe.

I step into the recording booth, and even though I am alone, my voice comes out as a nervous, shaking note. But it gradually builds in confidence as I find my place within the surrounding voices, just before I run out of breath.

This Is A Voice is a free exhibition that’s on at the Wellcome Collection until 31st July. For more information, visit the Wellcome Collection’s website

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Lydia Thomson

Lydia writes about theatre for her own blog and reviews local work for the Basingstoke Gazette and the Hampshire Chronicle. She was also a member of the reviewing team for LIFT 2014. As well as arts journalism, Lydia is a playwright and performance artist working in Hampshire and London. She is an associate artist of Proteus Theatre Company in Basingstoke and is part of the artist's network at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton.

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