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5Hz: An Interview with Emma Smith

In this interview, artist Emma Smith talks about her upcoming interactive exhibition 5Hz and how she created a new human language.

Where did the idea for 5Hz originally come from?

The idea for the project developed from conversations I had with psychologist Laurence White (Plymouth University) and musicologist Emma Hornby (University of Bristol) during a performance called ΔE=W that I presented at Arnolfini as part of 4 Days Festival in 2013. The ΔE=W performance creates an awareness of connectivity in place through voice. I had invited Laurence and Emma as guest speakers. We have a shared interest in the power of voice and started thinking of a project that we could work on together and develop collaboratively. We were interested to look at neurological response to voice and so we also invited cognitive neuroscientist Nina Kazanina (University of Bristol) to join us.

What is it about the human voice that interests you?

One of the things that really interested me at the start of the project, and still does, is a proposal that comes from the field of anthropology and suggests that when the human species first started using voice, we sang to each other rather than spoke. This is a contested idea but, in a way I'm not so concerned as to whether it is 'true' or not. The idea that we evolved as a singing species is really beautiful.

The argument put forward is that the voice evolved out of a need for connection with others and to show a social solidarity to one another. When we lived in tiny communities we would have shown social connectivity by physical grooming – picking out each other nits and stuff like that. Then, as we started living in larger groups we would have needed to communicate our desire to hang out together without touch and this is what first prompted us to start vocalising. 

My art practice is concerned with relationships - how we knowingly relate to one another as well as how we are in relation without realising. I am really interested in the musicality of voice and the ways in which it allow us to connect to one another.

  Emma Smith 5Hz lab: Vocalise to Socialise. Nov 2014. Photo: Justin Yockney

Do you feel that we have lost something along the way in our ability to communicate?

It’s not that we have lost anything, it’s more that the voice has a huge capacity that we don’t necessarily always utilise. Language is an extraordinary, complex and fascinating thing that we have created. However, if we only use our voices for speech then we’re not fully utilising the power of our voice. The idea of using voice as a tool solely to feel close with people is not a common part of our lives - it is something a parent might do naturally with a baby, for example, by singing a lullaby, but this is not something we commonly think to do between adults.


As part of the 5Hz process there have been a number of workshops and experiments with the public. What were they like? Did anything unexpected come out of them?

There were three different stages to the 5Hz process – the EEG (brain scanning) experiments, the research symposium and the Language Evolution Workshops. The EEG was really exciting for everyone because it’s not something you get to do normally - to come along, get wired up and see what’s going on in your brain. It was really exciting for the scientists involved too because usually they do this kind of research in a lab environment where it’s much more clinical.

The language evolution workshops were a complete experiment for which we created a new methodology. The results have been fascinating and we are generating some very exciting research findings that give a real plausibility to what has been created in the language.


How did you take what you learnt from the workshops and translate that into a language?

We’ve looked at all of the sounds that came out of the Language Evolution Workshops and asked questions like: what sounds made people want to hang out with each other? What types of sounds made people attracted to somebody else? What sounds are friendly or made people feel relaxed? What sounds made the group feel connected to one another?

We analysed all the sound preferences; identifying the syllables, rhythm, pitch and tones that were being used so we could understand the delivery of sounds as well as pronunciation. What is interesting is that the vast majority of sounds that made people feel connected to each other were sung. There was a massive preference for sung over spoken communication.

We also found that the sound preferences from the workshops mirror the sounds we make as babies. Some of them are labial noises – noises that you make with just the lips – and also the core vowel sounds a, ee and oo – these are all our earliest noises. They are the sounds that we have been making the longest and it seems they make us feel connected with one another.

The sounds are also ones that appear in almost all languages, which is important as our aim for 5Hz is to maximise the possibility for everyone to be able to speak it. This language is quite simple.  We want people to be able to come into the gallery, look at it, learn it, have a go but also take it away with them.


Given your discoveries about ‘earliest noises’, how do you imagine children will react to the new language?

I am really interested in the response from children visiting the exhibition. Looking at how children respond to sound has been a big part of my research. Nursery rhymes are a known way of using the voice to communicate a particular social relation i.e. between adult and child. When you look at nursery rhymes internationally they sound very different because of different musical traditions and languages but the rhythm is very similar. There are universal commons in how we all use voice to connect to one another. We will be exploring some of these ideas on Sunday 22nd March with musician Zoe Palmer who will run a workshop on vocalising as a family. Parents and babies are especially encouraged to come to this session that will be really fascinating and a lot of fun.

There are also going to be a range of activities for families over the Easter weekend, designed by the Arnolfini Learning team. Families will be able to engage with the exhibition by making their own sounds and languages.

 Emma Smith 5Hz lab: Vocalise to Socialise. Nov 2014. Photo: Justin Yockney 

There seems to be feeling throughout the 5Hz project that anyone can pick up the language or research and give it a go – is that a common thread in your work?

Yes definitely. All of my work is collaborative in process. While there has been a clear collaboration with the academics, the public have also actively contributed to the development of this research and we couldn’t have created it without all the people who got involved. The exhibition is an open invitation for everyone to continue this process – to share in what has been created and to come and have a go using the language themselves.

5Hz: Emma Smith opens on Friday 20 March, 11am - 6pm, free admission. 

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Wednesday 18 September 2019, 19:00 to 22:00

£10/£7/£5 + BF Book

Raise the Bar presents an extra special event exploring the role of spoken word in UK culture and society.