I hear Cocteau Twins’ album Lullabies playing as I enter the room, wafting out from a record player upon a varnished wooden cabinet. Liz Fraser’s voice swoops through the air like a kite. A small sign invites me to change the record if I please. I take a look through the selection available: Sigur Ros’ Valtari, Sam Browne and Elsie Carlisle, more Cocteau Twins…all records with voices that seem soft and almost aquatic in movement and shape, empowering themselves through the gentle, gravity-defying power of vowel sounds.
Are these voices the basis for Emma Smith’s new language? 5Hz explores the possibilities posed by a new method of vocal communication, which prioritises “human connection over the communication of explicit information”. A new alphabet runs the full length of the wall to my left, with various letters carved into the pieces of wooden furniture arranged across the space. The shapes are ovular, vessel-like; allusions to listening and openness, rich in an absence that desires to be filled by the other parties in the conversation, with tails curling outward in invitation. Just like the voice of Liz Fraser, there is a swooping delicacy to how they rest upon the white of the wall, like loose hairs left to land in whatever shape they please: snakes, half-curls.
I take a seat in a semi-enclosed, hexagonal study space – the walls covered with carved letters of the alphabet, like some strange alien church – and put some headphones on to listen. The alphabet sounds just as pleasant as it looks. The emphasis is placed on vowels and open spaces rather than harsh percussive edges; there is a distinct absence of “k” and “t” sounds, or any letter associated with impact or the aggressive clack of teeth. “Beeee”, “Muuuu”, “Eeeee”. It’s inclusive, encouraging the listening parties to pick up on a particular stream of thought, like the end of a ribbon dangling in the wind, and continue the conversation fluidly.
I wander over to a computer experiment. Research is central to Smith’s project – Smith collaborated with a psychologist, neuroscientist and a musicologist in the development of the new language, utilising an array of experiments and workshops. I’m asked to select the sound I prefer from a possible two choices. Some are distorted as though yelled into a laptop microphone. Others sound like people humming into empty churches. Barking and harsh or moist and placid? After repeating the exercise a few times, I realise that my natural allure toward reverb and warmth makes me prefer those sounds captured in large acoustic spaces. Should I be listening more to the sounds themselves, or am I right to factor the acoustic characteristics that clothe them? Any noises that carry connotations of the inane or apathetic (“la la la la…”) I feel less affinity with. Sounds with an acrobatic, birdsong element to them seem to attract me more.
I take for granted my ability to query sound in this way, twirling it and clutching at it in my mind’s eye, questioning texture and tiny surface crevices. I venture upstairs to observe (and hear, in a way), the artwork of Christine Sun Kim, who has been deaf from birth. She toys with staves, quavers and musical symbols – which usually sit statically on a page, parallel and perfect – in a series of lively and animated sketches that elicit more than mere musical instruction. “Fort on fort – Like a fort of fortes” she writes, above a jelly-like grid of stacked letter “f”s. It’s whimsical and instant like sound itself, carrying a joke that flickers into life and then recedes again. Her stave lines ripple with hand-drawn imperfection while each quaver note is alive and imperfect, bearing a strong resemblance to how sound leaps, ungainly, into the material world – oblivious to how it may be received, knocking against objects as it goes.
“Too suspicious for score”, she writes, as a quaver creeps down from one stave to another, like someone trying to quietly descend a staircase after bedtime. Wait, no. She crosses out the word “suspicious”. “Too possessive for score” she corrects, as the quaver now appears to hug two staves all to itself. I see narratives and changes in direction. In the absence of being able to perceive sound as sound, she conveys the visual representation in a durational way; the fixed image is a timeline of her chicaning artistic thought and an evocation of sound as a personality, as a conscious entity, as a lively vibration that one inhales and bumps into – sound as everything but something heard, permeating all senses and embodying human characteristics.
I’m drawn to question the stave and notation as a visual representation for music. One sketch reads, “my voice has a personality and a pair of legs”, which sits within a giant pair of quavers that runs across three edges of the frame. It’s gangly and dynamic. Even when parted from the stave, I can hear how these notes would sound – glacial and staccato with a tang of wry humour, resounding into the white emptiness that exists between the two notes. Where musical notation often sits like parallel shelves, stiff and functional and unmoving, Sun Kim renders it as both a performance instruction and a live, synaesthesic wire between shape and listening expectation.