How did you discover your voice?
I’ve enjoyed singing for as long as I can remember. As a small child, my mum used to record me performing nursery and nonsense songs onto tape and, when I was a little bit older, I would record myself on a fisher price, singing and playing a miniature keyboard – I have to try and find all those tapes some time! I started writing songs as a teenager, and then at art school, I began to play in various bands and improvise with other musicians. During that time, I was exposed to all kinds of weird and wonderful music, and consequently started experimenting with my voice, exploring ways of using it as an instrument. I suppose you could say I ‘discovered’ my voice around then, though honestly, I feel like the process of discovery is an ongoing one.
You’re an artist and composer – do you feel more at home in one of those worlds?
To be honest, I don’t quite feel at home in either of those worlds. By this, I mean I feel uncomfortable with the idea that ‘art’ and ‘music’ are set apart from each other. For me, there is a strong connection between different modalities – music is very visual, gesture and mark-making are very musical. As a society, we separated out different art forms into boxes, but music, dance, theatre and visual art were not always discrete disciplines. These boxes feel quite limiting, so I try to synthesise different ways of working to create multisensory, multi-form experiences. I work with a range of media – musical composition, choreography, visual-scores, text, drawing, performance, moving image, and audiovisual installation – and, by sitting between ‘disciplines’, I enjoy that my work can find itself at home in various contexts, be it a visual art exhibition, a music festival, or a site-specific theatre production. You could say that I feel at home in the cracks between worlds! Or perhaps I am just jack of all trades!
Your musical scores are so beautiful. Can you talk a little bit about the process behind creating a score?
Thank you! I work with scores in different ways, to notate music, movement and performance. As I compose, or choreograph, I sketch drawings and diagrams, playing with different ways of notating sound and movement. Sometimes these reference conventional forms of notation, and at other times I invent a new vocabulary. I treat these score sketches as mnemonic devises, or as aids to learning, the ultimate aim being an embodied performance without the need to reference a score. Sometimes these sketches are then developed into more fully realised visual scores that act as dramaturgical keys to unlock meaning for the audience, opening out elements of process, subject matter, or narrative.
Your work has such a playful interaction with the human voice – when did you first start singing, and what inspired you to push the voice in different directions?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve sung for as long as I can remember and although I work across different media, the human voice is central to my practice – I compose for and with the voice. Singing and extended vocalisation can be a way to release and communicate what is invisible and undefinable. I’m interested in trying to access spaces beyond – or before – language, where the focus is not on semantic meaning, but on the emotional, mimetic, and relational aspects of expression. For that reason, I tend to compose with vocables – non-lexical sounds – or particles of words and fragments of phrases. Over the past few years, I’ve begun to work with gesture and dance as equal elements in my work, exploring a space where vocal sound and body movement meet.
I’m also interested in the idea of the voice – or more broadly, the sounding body – as a meeting point between self and the world. How does one human voice meet another? Can I augment my voice to inhabit my co-singers pitch range, their tone or vocabulary, to find common ground? How does the human voice extend into spaces that are shared with more-than-human qualities? What can I learn through imitating or emulating more-than-human sounds? Can I extend my voice beyond my human edges into a space where species meet? Can I sing bird? Can I sing water? Can I sing wind? Similarly, I’m interested in the ways in which the human voice encounters technology, extending what is humanly possible – we are all cyborgs after all! For example, can I utilise technology to multiply my voice and process it, to create the sense of flowing water? Can I extend my vocal range into a ‘male’ or ‘red deer stag’ pitch range? What happens to my way of thinking – my edges – when I reach my voice into these spaces?
How do you approach making something new?
When I begin something new, I always start with research. This might include making field trips to a particular location, to listen and observe. Sometimes I’ll experiment with singing, improvising with my voice in relation to an outdoor site, to discover its acoustic properties. I might learn about a particular species, or ecology, find out about the history of a particular location, or study the song and/or movement traditions of the locality. What are the ‘meeting points’ between these different elements?
After this initial sprawling research, I hopefully then have a sense of a possible framework for a new project, or have formulated a set of questions that I’d like to explore or be guided by. I might also begin to work with other people at this point – for example, tradition-bearers, other performers, a dramaturg – collaborating on a process and testing ideas, and I’ll begin to make sketches – recording voice and/or movement demos, drawing, notating, and mapping ideas on paper. Gradually, as the process becomes clearer, the research gets distilled, and slowly, a resulting project begins to emerge, usually as an assemblage of elements that tells a story through vocalisation and gesture. I’ll then set about producing the new work – making, composing, choreographing, rehearsing, recording, filming and editing – for either a live performance or an audiovisual installation. And maybe it’s worth mentioning that all this takes time – for better or worse, I tend to work very slowly, and often the research and realisation of a new thing can take years.
Lots of your work draws upon nature and folk lore – how do you translate that into an artistic response?
I’m particularly interested in ‘mimesis’. This is a term I use to refer to a kind of imitation within music, movement and dance, specifically the mimesis of the more-than-human, by which I mean other critters, water, weather, and complex multispecies assemblages. As a creative process, mimesis is present throughout history – just think of Messiaen’s bird inspired compositions or Butoh dance theatre. But, it’s the mimesis found in traditional practices that I’m most captivated by, perhaps because within this embodied vernacular knowledge, there’s so much we can learn about different kinds of intimacy with the land.
Studying these mimetic traditions, in my work, I investigate how bodily relationships, folk histories and technologies are entangled with specific environments, ecologies and places – a process I sometimes describe as unearthing ‘mnemonic topographies: the land encoded in the song, the lore embedded in the land.’ For example, for Away with the Birds (2010-14), or Air falbh leis na h-eoin in gaelic, I explored the ‘mimesis’ of birds in Scottish Gaelic song poetry. Preserved in this tradition, albeit fragmented and hidden, are various songs and poems that imitate the sounds and evoke the movements of various waterbirds, which is indicative of the ecology of the Western Isles. Working closely with Gaelic singer and tradition bearer Mary Smith, alongside wildlife sound-recordist and ornithologist Geoff Sample, I examined the relationship between the traditional songs and the birds, studying their sound, lyrical content, social context and folklore. Collected together, the song-poems reveal a spectrum of mimesis, some directly imitative, others more stylized or symbolic. Deconstructing these into fragments, and aligning them with the birds they imitate, I composed a score for an ensemble of ten female vocalists, weaving together song fragments into a textural tapestry of sound. Across five movements – each one a different habitat – an extended soundscape emerges, journeying through communities of waders, seabirds and wildfowl. The project culminated in an event on the Isle of Canna, in the Hebrides, with performances in the harbour – along the shoreline, in the water, and on a skein shaped platform. Speakers amplified and drifted the voices across the water to the audience, mingling and interacting with the sounds of the island.
By studying traditional ‘mimetic’ practices, I’ve been interested in looking for alternative ways of being, or ‘becoming-with’, where human-nature separation is refashioned as a myriad of bodily connections, but, I’m acutely aware of the disconnect between what is encoded in tradition, and the reality of local ecologies threatened by climate breakdown. What does it mean to make work in times of ecological emergency? Where are my response-abilities? With this in mind, in more recent work, I’ve been exploring the ways in which myth and folklore contribute to the construction of gender performance and naturecultures, and the possible place of mimetic ritual in destabilising these narratives. For example, Deer Dancer (2019) is a study into our complex relationship with deer, exploring the connections between the ecological crisis and the crisis of masculinity. Specifically, I consider how the mimesis of deer within traditional dance, constructs ‘wilderness’ as the site for the cultivation of heroic hetero-masculinities, and how hunting mythologies shape and impact real ecologies. As part of the research for this, I studied three traditional deer dances, then slowly developed an assemblage of male-deer-human hybrid characters, that, in a two-screen film work, dance and stalk each other to death – a kind of life-crisis ritual for a damaged planet.
Are there any singers and/or composers who have influenced your work?
To name a few… Kate Bush, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Joan la Barbara, Jeannie Robertson, Laurie Anderson. I’d also have to include the many unknown singers and composers of traditional music from all over the world.
What are you listening to at the moment? Have you got any good recommendations?
I’ve been enjoying the 2018 release ‘Music and Poetry of The Kesh‘ by the late Ursula Le Guinn & Todd Barton which was made in parallel with Le Guinn’s book ‘Always Coming Home’. Recorded in the 1980s, it imagines the music of a fictional people – the Kesh – and reminds me of old recordings made by ethnomusicologists and folklorists.
I’m also playing a lot of ‘calming’ music to try to reduce my anxiety in these times of uncertainty, such as the beautiful new age tinged ambient compositions of Joanna Brouk on an LP called ‘Hearing Music‘. I also like to take a regular dose of early choral music by composers such as Thomas Tallis and Guillaume de Machaut.
Along similar lines, I’m spending time delving deeper into the 1970s Italian minimalist movement, listening to works by Giusto Pio, Franco Battiato and Roberto Cacciapaglia. Also, not so relaxing, but very up-lifting, is Cacciapaglia’s weird future-pop album made with Ann Steel – ‘ The Ann Steel Album‘ – which is like an experimental ABBA.
Have you got any exciting projects on the horizon?
What with the current pandemic, the horizon looks pretty uncertain just now – I have had so much work cancelled or delayed – but, until lockdown commenced, I was working on a new piece for Helsinki Biennial 2020 (the new date for the festival has been postponed until next year). Depending on funding, I’m also hoping to develop a live performance of Deer Dancer for next year – we shall see!