Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Clerks – Tales from Babel (Musical adventures in the science of hearing)

The Clerks
In collaboration with the Wellcome Trust and scientists from the University of Cambridge and the University of Nottingham, tonight’s (Friday 18 October 2013) performance by the Clerks at the Royal Academy of Music peered around the boundaries between science and music. Edward Wickham first became interested in what an audience hears when listening to polyphonic vocal music and together with Christopher Fox developed ‘Tales from Babel’ and ‘Roger go to yellow three...’ a modern investigation of the problem.

In Genesis there is the premise that all the people in the world originally spoke one language, but that after the great flood God saw that people in a new city with its tower were becoming too powerful. Consequently He decided to scatter them all over the earth, confusing language so that the different groups could no longer understand one another. From this point on the city was called ‘Babel’ meaning to jumble.


The idea investigated by the Clerks in not so much the splitting of speech into different languages, but the confusion of sound due to hearing other things at the same time. This is sometimes known as the ‘cocktail party problem’, where it is difficult to either follow all the conversations or pick out one particular conversation at a time. It was also investigated by Douglas Brungart who was interested in how air traffic controllers focus on one pilot from the many voices coming through their headphones.

But, as explained a pre-concert demonstration by Sarah Hawkins and Antje Heinrich, the scientists leading the research, if this is hard enough for speech it is potentially even worse for sung music where words are stretched to fit rhythms and sounds, especially high register vowel sounds, are altered in order to maintain timbre. While we often use mental shortcuts such as context to guess difficult to understand words – this can lead to mistakes called ‘mondegreens’. During the talk (and also during the concert) the audience were invited to take part in the scientific experiment. The same test is being performed at other concerts, and at research institutes, and the data collated and analysed to provide a statistically relevant result.

‘Tales from Babel’ begins with ‘Singularity’ where the performers sang each syllable sing-u(t)-la-ri-tee as held tones, reducing it to nonsense – a technique often used by renaissance composers where effect was more important than understanding the words. This flowed straight in to ‘Genealogies’ which began with biblical references for example ‘Adam tagged Cain’. Other names included musicians from Machaut to Michael Jackson, scientists, characters from songs, children’s TV personalities, plus some ordinary names. Names flitted forward in the soundworld to be intelligible and then disappear back into the background.

During ‘Genealogies’ Edward spoke over the miasma with a monologue about the science of hearing and ‘Personal ads’ appeared, where the characters (avatars) which the performers refer back to several times during the concert, are humorously introduced. These characters are at a party held to celebrate the completion of a gazebo – which is the subject of the next item ‘Hymn’.

Unlike the renaissance compositional technique, ‘Hymn’ could have come straight out of ‘Ancient and Modern’ - if it weren’t for the replacement of words with entirely secular ones. ‘Hymn’ linked straight in to ‘Hocket’ and back to ‘Hymn’. In keeping with the renaissance theme, a hocket has mediaeval roots where a single melody is shared between two or more voices – one singing during the rests of the other.

‘The visions of Harold’ heralded the audience participation where we had to decide on the last word of a sentence by different voices against different backgrounds. We scored our choices using a handheld remote control and the results were tallied for the interval. Harold eventually gets a bit ‘frisky’ and the chorus returned to ‘Hymn’ as a link to ‘Rondeau’ which referenced Machaut, Bruckner, and even Harry S Truman.

The final movement of this piece, appropriately ‘Finale’, was a collection of madrigals interspersed and overlaid by a speech on brain evolution and background processing of sound. It eventually became psalm-like, but with very confused language.



After the interval the Clerks sang ‘Fortuna Zibaldone’ a reworking of the 15th century ‘Fortuna desperata’ with lots of food references. ‘After the mass’ was a contrafactum (an old song with new words) based on a 14th century work. The text by Ian Duhig provided the upper two voices with different words over sustained lines in the lower parts. ‘Lament on the death of Michael Jackson’ similarly used a 14th century piece by Machaud with libretto by Anneliese Emmans Dean. Keeping the sound fresh each of these four part songs used a different combination of performers.

All six of the performers returned for ‘Roger go to yellow three...’ - the second of the sound investigation pieces. The line ‘[character] go to [colour] [number]’ is taken from the Brungart experiments, and it was certainly difficult to hear all the different combinations. I discovered that my brain wanted to find patterns even though they (probably) did not exist. Slowly other sentences began to appear, were repeated through the voices before disappearing again, and the party started in ‘Tales from Babel’ resumed.

The various thoughts and conversations at the party were somewhat lost because of the cocktail problem – but that is after all the point. All of the performers were very funny and dramatic in their own part and it felt more like an opera than polyphony. But by the end ‘they’ discover they are being watched and you are left with an interesting question about who is observing who, the performers, or the audience.

The concert ended in serenity and renaissance meditation with a beautiful rendition of ‘Fortuna’ by Josquin Des Prez (1455-1521). A well thought out concert with experimental ideas within traditional music. Notwithstanding the performances were excellent and must have taken a great deal of concentration.

You can read a blog about this project from the Wellcome Trust here, and from the Guardian, or take the tests yourself here.
review by Hilary Glover

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