Emma Smith: Euphonia

The Bluecoat - Emma Smith ®Rob Battersby (@rjbattersby).jpg
Emma Smith, Euphonia, 2018, installation view at Bluecoat, Liverpool. Photograph: Rob Battersby © Bluecoat

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it feels like peoples’ voices have been getting louder recently. There’s an urgency bubbling, a building hum, occasionally erupting into shouts and sobs, a startling squall. In a time of social division, there are also movements to form communities and to lend our voices to causes, to find better ways to communicate and to prevent the mental anguish of isolation. The premise of Emma Smith’s exhibition ‘Euphonia’ is that through speech we are constantly making music together, and that this collective action is important for social connection. This music is made not just through song, but in our everyday social interactions, our voices unconsciously hitting complementary notes, our speech patterns merging with others’ rhythms, becoming more harmonious as we bond.

The exhibition derives from the artist’s work with experts in music and psychology, including professor Ian Cross, who researches the affiliative powers of speech. Smith devised an online experiment in response to Cross’s research, which tests the human ability to comprehend positive and negative inflections across language barriers by listening to the musical nature of speech alone. For the exhibition, Smith worked with evolutionary psychologist professor Robin Dunbar and Liverpool’s Choir With No Name, Up for Art and Migrant Artists Mutual Aid Choir to test the impact of collective singing on social cohesion. The exhibition begins with a similar experiment as to how music makes us feel, measuring visitors’ emotional states before and after the experience.

These social experiments frame Smith’s major new sound work, Euphonia, a polyphony of lives and languages transposed into musical form. Collected by Smith over the past year, Euphonia is a composite of conversations among gallery visitors and local community groups and responses to an open call. It is possible to detect low hm-hmms, high laughing trills and other non-verbal vocalisations that sound and merge soothingly. Smith also includes parent-baby interactions, collected with professor Lauren Stewart to explore the musicality in pre-language communications with babies.

The aesthetic of the exhibition, and in particular the functional dressing that surrounds the speakers, microphones and computer of Euphonia, blends a pastel palette – pale-yellow accent wall, soft white bean bags and patterned seating pads – with futuristic, clinical notes – rose-tinted Perspex sheets that curve around and buldge out into the space, suspended from ceilings and walls by metal chains. As I sit bathed in sound, I’m put in mind of a utopian care facility, where clean lines, soft surfaces and musical murmurs pacify patients.

Wondering whether even these mediative sounds can become oppressive over lengthy periods, an invigilator explains that the score builds throughout the day in response to visitors’ voices and, as there are no audible words, it is easy to tune in and out. In a room off the main chamber of the gallery, crisp grey pyramids of anechoic foam mute the Euphonia score; inside, chunky white polyhedrons are laid out on a circular Perspex table, circuit boards and wires twisting beneath the surface. These are haptic elements of an interactive experiment in collective scoring. The tentacular Mephistophone, which synthesises movement from sound, is made up of robotic arms which move with the notes of Euphonia, enabling guest musicians to lead choral performances and workshops following Smith’s directional and gestural notation. This coming together of people, voices and actions – mechanical or otherwise – is a necessary counterbalance to the beautiful but eerie stillness of the disembodied Euphonia.

From these social interactions to the quantitative science behind the exhibition, I wonder what has been proved. My predicted result for visitors’ measure of emotional change is that the outcome will be positive, as is my own experience. However, surrounded by soothing sound, I find an off-key note: in this musical interpretation of speech, where is the place for disharmony? There is an absence of argument in these echo chambers. Dissent is a vital part of our social interactions, enabling us to question crowd logic, disrupt the status quo. While this exhibition focuses on the possibilities for increased well-being, our underserved education in how to disagree can leave us feeling disempowered. In the wake of increased awareness of consent and post-truth politics, there seems to be potential for considering the voicing of discomfort and opposition – whether together, or by raising our voice alone. In Euphonia we find pleasure and comfort in singing as one, but I found myself also craving songs not just of solidarity but also discontent and disobedience.

Review published by Art Monthly, June 2018.

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