Producing trailers for Wellcome Collection often involves hunting around for that perfect music track to cut to. Some are thoughtful; some are more downbeat. All are essential for conveying the mood of the show. Our Multimedia Producer Chris Chapman speaks to artist David Toop about creating a distinctive soundtrack for one of our current exhibitions.
‘THIS IS A VOICE‘ was always going to be different. I knew the soundtrack needed to be something very human, but also quite unusual. Our music library certainly wasn’t the place to look.
After chatting to exhibition curator, Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, I discovered that David Toop was due to host one of the Voicings events during the exhibition. He had been one of the original members of The Flying Lizards, an experimental 1980s art-rock group, with hits such as ‘Money’ and ‘TV’.
As well as an established author and the Chair of Audio Culture at London College of Communication, David continues to produce and perform experimental music, much of it based on vocalisations. After an introduction over a cup of tea, David was on board.
David, can you explain the process of creating the soundtrack for the ‘THIS IS A VOICE’ exhibition trailer?
I knew that I wanted to create a composition from contrasting voices so it was a question of deciding on three singers who were very different but who could respond easily to the instructions I gave them.
I chose Phil Minton, Elaine Mitchener and Tu Pham. Phil is one of the pioneers of improvised singing, a true original and an absolute genius. Elaine’s background is an interesting mix: singing in an Afro-Caribbean church in London when she was very young, then going through voice training, working in many different fields from jazz to opera.
Tu Pham is a young Vietnamese woman studying fine art at Central Saint Martins. I encouraged her to attend my improvisation classes at London College of Communication and was really impressed with her singing. For me it’s a perk of my job as Chair of Audio Culture and Improvisation at UAL to be able to place students in professional, public situations. They can learn what it’s like to collaborate with extraordinary artists but at the same time they can bring something unexpected and fresh to the situation.
Working in the studio was quite easy. I gave them all the same set of guidelines: sing sustained sounds to a specific pitch, make buzzing and humming noises, groans, creaks, gasps, whistles, percussive sounds and so on. They all responded in different ways, sometimes coming up with exactly what I’d envisaged, sometimes doing things that were crazy or quite shocking. It was a lot of fun to do.
The real work starts then because you have to sift through a lot of material to find the best parts and then organise them in the computer so that they start to speak to each other. That involves a lot of memory work and some instant decision-making.
In the end I made two 30 second and two 60 second versions. One of those was a bit too sinister for the feel of the exhibition so it was a question of making some minor tweaks to the other one.
People have commented to me that the final piece sounds like a short improvisation recorded live, whereas it’s days and days of work making precise digital cuts and edits into individual recordings, then reassembling the fragments into something that feels like a perfect trio.
Listen to the final 60 second mix below.
From Amazonian Yanomami shamans to New York hip-hop, you’ve recorded and written about many forms of human vocalisation. Why does the human voice hold such a particular fascination for you?
The voice is a strange hinterland between thought, as expressed through speech and writing, and then all the unruly sounds of the body that we try to keep under control. When I recorded Yanomami shamans in Amazonas in 1978 I was overpowered by the intensity of their voices. Then when I came to write my first book – Rap Attack – in 1984, I was really fascinated by the way in which African American oral culture had been absorbed into a young and quite avant garde form of dance music, particularly the electronic hip hop that emerged after “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa. Even though the backing tracks were ultra-modern, the voices had deep connections to a tradition and history of what were known as words of power.
You’ve described the voice as “an uncanny instrument”. In your opinion, which contemporary artists are pushing their vocals in the most innovative and mysterious ways?
I work with a lot of singers, all of them extraordinary. Shelley Hirsch and Sofia Jernberg are two good examples, both of them just unbelievable in terms of what they can bring out of themselves. I admire singers like Björk, Scott Walker and David Sylvian, all of them still experimenting, often moving in areas that are uncomfortable and quite extreme, but I also like artists like FKA Twigs, James Blake or Kendrick Lamar – their voices are uncanny in the way they seem to melt into electronics, so they articulate the feeling of what it’s like to exist as bodies in an increasingly digital world.
What was the idea behind your ‘Voicings’ session here at Wellcome Collection?
I wanted to explore this difficult area between speech and vocalisation by asking questions about where the voice comes from, how singing happens, how it relates to personal and intimate experience. But I also wanted it to be awkwardly poised in between a conversation and a performance, so that none of us – singers, audience or me – knew quite where we were.
I asked seven singers – Lore Lixenberg, Elaine Mitchener, Sharon Gal, Rahel Kraft, Aminah Ibrahim and Tu Pham – to work in groups of three. Even though each session was brief it generated some powerful moments. The final session finished with all three of them singing a Vietnamese lullaby, then an Indonesian lullaby. It was a beautiful finale. Afterwards, a member of the audience came up, quite emotional, to say how much it had affected her. We all ended up quite tearful!
Can you recommend a favourite album, recent or otherwise, that features a great use of vocals?
It’s not new but it’s a new reissue of an album that I first bought in the 1970s, a really important landmark in vocal exploration: Voice Is the Original Instrument by Joan La Barbara (Arc Light Editions).
Chris Chapman is a Multimedia Producer at Wellcome Collection.
Live Voicings sessions take place in the ‘THIS IS A VOICE’ gallery space until 17 July.