INTERVIEW: Scottish ‘Sing The Gloaming’ Exhibition Explained

Rob St. John, Tommy Perman and Professor Simon Kirby of the University Of Edinburgh's Centre For Language Evolution get together for a new project exploring language

Sing the Gloaming / Borrowing from Blackford Hill on Vimeo.

Sing The Gloaming is an evolving project exploring landscape and language, involving some of Scotland’s most notable vocalists.

Aidan Moffat, Kenny ‘King Creosote’ Anderson and Emily Scott of Modern Studies are among the artists giving voice to the collaboration between musicians Rob St. John, Tommy Perman and Professor Simon Kirby of the University Of Edinburgh’s Centre For Language Evolution. Sing The Gloaming involves each singer finding a place where they feel light ‘moves’, and recording a piece of vocal music based on this, and the feeling of the place.

"The ‘light words’ in Sing The Gloaming are phonaesthemes, words whose form seems to evoke their meaning directly," they say. "In the English language, there are many beginning with ‘gl-‘ which relate to light, for example: glimmer, glitter, glow, gleam and gloom. These words have all evolved from a single word spoken over 5000 years ago near the Black Sea. Their different forms and meanings bear the hallmarks of their individual routes through history, across languages and cultures to present-day English."

Sing The Gloaming has come to life as an installation at the Sanctuary Festival in a Scottish forest, in a Dundee shop front, and now is getting a release on 10" vinyl via the Blackford Hill label, specialists in high-quality, ‘artefact’ releases. Rob St. John and Tommy Perman have made a video for the track ‘**‘, which you can watch above, and have answered some questions for tQ, the results of which you can see below.

To find out more about Sing The Gloaming, including purchase options, visit the Blackford Hill website.

Rob, Tommy, Simon, how did you get involved in the Sing The Gloaming project, and what about it spoke to you?

Tommy Perman: When Simon Kirby told me about the ‘gl-‘ words and their ancient origin I became fascinated with them. I’ve spent a lot of my life exploring links between light and sound and I was enchanted by the story of the ‘gl-‘ words – I like to think of them as humans encoding light into sound. It then seemed like a nice next step to sing these words. When Rob was approached to make a work for the Sanctuary Lab in Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park we thought it was a perfect fit.

Rob St. John: The project offers us space to think about the lived experiences of light and landscape, and the language we use to describe them. This is the third iteration of the project. The first was a series of tape loop sound sculptures installed in the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, the second was a light-responsive installation in a disused shop window in Dundee city centre. In each, we tried to make space for the characteristics of the site – particularly their diurnal rhythms – to shape the way sound and language were composed and heard.

Simon Kirby: I’ve been lucky enough to be able to combine my scientific work on the origins and evolution of human language with artistic collaborations over the past decade or so, many of them with Tommy and Rob. Our previous work has related mostly to ideas around the process of cultural evolution, which I study in my lab in the University Of Edinburgh, but Sing The Gloaming presented a great opportunity to create something more intimately connected to the way words in language are shaped by these evolutionary processes. It actually started life as a figure in a paper I wrote with my long-time scientific collaborator Chrissy Cuskley. I suspect it’s the only diagram in a scientific paper that has ended up being recreated in a forest, on a shop window, and as a vinyl record!

There’s Sing The Gloaming, Richard Skelton’s work on ancient languages – why do you think this is becoming a topic of artistic enquiry at the moment?

TP: It was inevitable for me and Rob – we became good friends with a professor of language evolution!

SK: I am very happy that there’s an increasing openness to cross-fertilisation between the arts and sciences. I’ve really felt it at an institutional level in the past few years. The university I work for has been very supportive of me spreading my time between my scientific work and my artistic output, seeing it as part of a broader agenda to take research out beyond its usual academic audiences.

My hope is that this kind of activity will eventually seem unremarkable, and there will be a growing realisation that the similarities between art and science are greater than their differences. In making art, we are constantly asking questions, investigating and probing ideas, and throwing new light on the familiar to reveal the unexpected. This is exactly what scientists do too. I hope one day we won’t really recognise the difference.

Tell us about the synth you made to manipulate the various voices.

RSJ: Like all the tracks on the EP, ‘Borrowing’ was made entirely using the vocal recordings made by our singers. The bass and drum pulses were made by feeding some of the lower range voices through modular synths, and the percussive clicks from chopping up ‘gl-‘ sounds. I then used granular synthesis (where sounds are ‘eroded’ into tiny grains and recomposed) to create the synth pad washes.

SK: On ‘Onset’ and ‘Rime’, I separated the sung words according to their linguistic structure at the level of the syllable (the ‘onset’ is the ‘gl-‘ part, and the ‘rime’ is the rest). The rimes were fed into two hardware modules made by brilliant Scottish synthesiser manufacturers: the Disting by Expert Sleepers acting as a sampler, and the Arbhar by Instruo acting as a granular resynthesiser. This allowed me to play the voices as evolving frozen choirs, using a Monome grid controller. The eventual recording was done as one live take. Then Tommy added the onsets back in as a bright rhythmic part over the top using Ableton.

Throughout the record, we also use convolution reverbs that Tommy created based on data from the way the ‘gl-‘ words’ usage has changed over history. Basically, we compressed hundreds of years of language change into a couple of seconds which shape the way the voices decay to silence. (If you listen closely on headphones you can really hear how unusual the ‘space’ in the record sounds – this is why!)

How did you go about putting together the video?

TP: The accompanying video was filmed in the gloaming by Rob and I in the landscape surrounding where we live (Lancashire and Perthshire respectively). We each illuminated features in the landscape with projected animations of the same ‘gl-‘ words vocalised in the music.

RSJ: We’ve both been experimenting with using mini portable projectors to project film onto landscape features lately. Surfaces like moving water and swaying vegetation can create unpredictable and beautiful visual effects when used as projection canvases. Tommy made a series of animations of the ‘gl-‘ words addressed in the project, and we went roamin’ in the gloamin’ in our local woodlands to project and film them.

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