Posted on behalf of Ewen Callaway
A couple of months into my first reporting job, I wrote the story “Neanderthal speaks out after 30,000 years”. A research team had synthesized the voice of a Neanderthal by inferring the dimensions of the larynxes of three individuals. All they managed was a single vowel – a gruff ‘ee’ – but they used it to claim that Neanderthals could not utter a kind of vowel sound that is common to all human languages.
I was reminded of this story, still probably my most-read piece, as I entered This is a Voice, a compelling but sometimes scattershot exhibition on the human voice – from material qualities to meaning to myth – that opened last week at London’s Wellcome Collection.
“As early hominin groups became larger and physical grooming was no longer an efficient form of bonding, the voice kept individuals emotionally connected by creating alliances and group dynamics,” reads an introductory text, which goes on to explain that early humans sang in choruses to ward off predators.
In the same gallery there sits: a nineteenth-century model of the larynx, a 2,600-year-old siren-shaped vase and a voice-manipulating device called an imborivungu, which the Tiv people of Nigeria once used to simulate the sounds of spirits — a duck call for deities, if you will. I was trying to piece this all together when my thoughts were interrupted by birdsong, or at least that’s what I thought the chirps were.
Dawn Chorus, an installation by artist Marcus Coates, is a series of video screens of sped-up footage showing people in everyday scenarios: their lounge, a doctor’s waiting room, their cars. These volunteers were played a dawn chorus of birdsong slowed down 16 times and instructed to imitate them. Their fast-forwarded facsimiles blared over loudspeakers. “If Darwin had this ability to speed up and slow down sounds, he would have found these amazing parallels” between birdsong and the human voice, Coates told a group of reporters at the press viewing. Maybe so.
This is a Voice intentionally keeps information to a minimum to encourage visitors to use their ears. And although headphones, clever listening walls with built-in private speakers, and isolation chambers fill the exhibit, the acoustic onslaught can be overwhelming. The trilling of Coates’ bird-men and women followed me through the first half of the show.
That was hard to ignore while I watched Dolmen Music, a mesmerizing 1981 composition by Meredith Monk. Female vocalists sway back and forth in their chairs as they produce ethereal sounds over the strains of a lone cello. Artist Emma Smith’s 5Hz offered respite from the birds.
Broadcast in over wireless headphones in a small octagonal room, the project is a 13-minute lesson in a language called 5hz; she created it with the help of psychologists and neuroscientists, who provided data on how the human brain responds to different vocal stimuli. The exhibit explains that the language is designed to enhance social bonding. What better way to bring strangers together than to crowd them into a small room and make them rehearse gibberish in unison?
The pieces that best convey the power of the human voice are about people struggling with their own or those of others. Filmmaker and audio producer Chris Chapman’s Avatar Therapy for Distressing Voices is a demonstration of a treatment developed by psychiatrist Julian Leff whereby people confront avatars that sound like people who have tormented them in the past. In the short film, a young woman (who is not visible) confronts a deep-voiced older male avatar who has just told her she is worthless. Chapman’s documentary Voice and Identity profiles two individuals who have experienced gender transitions, including voice-altering hormone treatments.
This is a Voice ends in a red-velvet-cloaked room with a small recording booth inside it. Those who enter are greeted by a microphone and instructions to press a button and hold a single note for as long as they can. The recording is then added to a snowballing chorus that plays in parallel at the Royal Opera House across town in Covent Garden.
As I sang my best ‘Ahhhhh’ I couldn’t help but think that I, like many of the others who contributed to the song, carry a sliver of DNA inherited from Neanderthals. Scientists may have synthesised one of their prehistoric vowels – but why speak when you can sing?
Ewen Callaway is a reporter in Nature’s London office. He tweets at @ewencallaway. Listen in to a Nature podcast on This Is a Voice here.
This Is a Voice runs at the Wellcome Collection at 183 Euston Road, London, through 31 July; it then tours to the Powerhouse, Sydney, in 2017.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.