What exactly is the human voice?

Anna Barham, Liquid Consonant, 2012. Credit-Courtesy of the artist

Anna Barham, Liquid Consonant, 2012. Credit: Courtesy of the artist

What exactly is the human voice? It is an extremely elusive beast, one that aims to avoid categorization. In the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition, art and science’s explorations of the voice are brought together.

To paraphrase theorist Michel Chion, human listening is vococentric. The human ear will form a hierarchy of perception, hearing the voice above other sounds. Thus, when encountering the works on show, the viewer/listener is in fact encountering their own perception and bodily utterances.

The first part of the exhibition is designed to cleanse the aural palette by passing through an anechoic chamber, a corridor lined with material to absorb all sounds. This is preparation for the series of vocal and aural probing that lie ahead. The exhibition is designed into thematic sections, although these themes are, thankfully, not forced upon the visitors. The voice is not only a means of communication but also an instrument. The first section has works by Anna Barham, Enrico David and a memorable work, entitled ‘Circular Song’, by Joan La Barbara. This work, along with several others in the exhibition, is presented via a speaker and a disc, which hang from the ceiling. This work is heard only by standing underneath the disc, creating a contained but surrounding, sonic environment. Also in this ‘theme’ is Marcus Coates’ ‘Dawn Chorus’, a large amount of space within the section is dedicated to this film installation, and rightly so. Coates’ presents 19 people, each using their own voice to recreate birdsong. This work combines the daily rituals of both human and bird in a dialogue that often goes unnoticed.

THIS IS A VOICE at Wellcome Collection, 2016. Credit-Photography by Michael Bowles

THIS IS A VOICE at Wellcome Collection, 2016. Credit: Photography by Michael Bowles

In continuing the exploration of the voice as instrument, the next section explores the melodies of the voice, specifically focusing on pitch and tone. What unites these works is a thought experiment of what communication would be like if we relied on non-linguistic means. What would the vocalization of thoughts sound like if we did not have words? ‘Dolmen Music’ by Meredith Monk explores the emotional responses to communicative singing.

It wouldn’t be an exhibition by the Wellcome Collection without some science, but it waits until a section examining the mechanics and physiology of the voice before making a large appearance. The stand out artworks in this section are by Sam Belinfante and Imogen Stidworthy. Belinfante’s video explores the physical effort required within a vocalist’s warm ups. Stidworthy’s work also explores the limit of the voice. By combining a young male treble, a female soprano and a countertenor, Stidworthy recreates the lost, angelic sound of the castrato voice. This vocal range was created by training and castration. Stidworthy demonstrates that the sound, lost because of its now illegal methods, is not beyond reach.

L0081594 Imogen Stidworthy, Alex, 2001-2. Video st

Imogen Stidworthy, Alex 2001-2. Video still. Credit Courtesy: the artist, Matts Gallery London and AKINCI Amsterdam

The final two section become a little blurred together in an area which combines painting, such as ‘His Master’s Voice’, and a film by Katarina Zdjedlar, examining the removal of accents. These two sections explore the hidden voice and the details given away by the voice. Our voices often betray the gender, social, geographical and psychological statues of our bodies. How do we train and re-train our voice? Chris Chapman explores this in a film that examines the process of re-learning vocalization following gender reassignment. ‘Voice and Identity’ focuses on two individuals who have gone through this, alongside Dr Jen Read, whose work researches the impact associated with vocal changes. This revealing film will leave you examining your own voice and prejudgments about pitch and gender. Laurie Anderson examines gender and the singing voice in the song ‘O Superman’. The exhibition presents the visitor with the music video for the song, in which Anderson and her technologically altered voice assume a masculine or third, cyborg, gender. This famous song also examines the acousmatic voice. This is where the source of the voice is hidden from view. ‘O Superman’ takes it’s inspiration from phone messages, although acousmatization can take many different forms. This is illustrated in the curtain scene in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, where the true source is hidden.

L0081768 Laurie Anderson, O Superman (For Massenet

Laurie Anderson O Superman (For Massenet) 1981. Credit: Courtesy of the artist

The last room in this expansive exhibition provides an opportunity for the visitor to add their own voice to the cacophony heard in ‘This Is A Voice’. ‘Chorus’ by Matthew Herbert asks people to add a single note within a recording booth. This voice is then added to a chorus of voices, including those by performers and staff from the Royal Opera House. This continuously expanding sound installation can be heard in the exhibition space and at the ROH’s stage door in Covent Garden. However, if you’re feeling shy, you can also add your own voice at home, via the website.

This incredible exhibition sets itself a mammoth task by proclaiming: ‘This Is A Voice’, within these walls is the definition of the voice. However within the show, the visitor listens to the range of voices: those which speak words, utter sounds, scream, sing and shout, and looks at the range of bodies, faces, organs, and environments which produces it. Through this a realization dawns that there is no set classification of a voice, its definition lies within the multitude of ways a voice can be heard.

This Is A Voice is at the Wellcome Collection until 31st July

About Jesc Bunyard

Writer and artist Jesc Bunyard is primarily concerned with modes of spectatorship. Her interests in installation, film, sound and performance span both aspects of her practice. Jesc Bunyard has also written for Hunger Magazine, Rooms Magazine and ArtZip. In her artistic practice, she has shown work at the Whitechapel Gallery, Wysing Arts Center and the ICA.