“Everything you think is possible with the human voice is not the limit. We are discovering more every day” – Reeps One
As a multi-disciplinary artist and producer, Harry Yeff (aka Reeps One) is more than a musician, he is a communicator; his language not one of words but of pure sound, using the voice as a medium for exploration and development. Free from the constraints of language, it taps into the universal, the sublime. Using his voice as a tool for innovation, Yeff pushes the limits on what can be achieved, subverting our expectation and blurring the lines between music, art and spoken word.
Yeff began his musical career almost by accident. As a practicing musician, he found that he would mimic the instruments he was learning, helping to remember the chord progression, the beat, the order in which he was to play each note. When it came to performance time, he realised that his voice was a far greater tool than the musical instruments he would play, eventually focusing his attention on developing this phonetic skill which he nurtured and grew, writing simple pieces for violin and drums until he could replicate entire musical genres such as grime and dubstep with ease. Building this into his dazzling career as a vocal percussionist, Yeff strives to push his voice further, taking the skills he has learnt to their very limits and combining a passion for relentless innovation with a desire to explore and teach about his experiences. Speaking at and working with various high profile academic institutions including Harvard University, University College London and Central Saint Martins, Yeff combines lectures on the power of the voice with synergetic visual and musical performances that encapsulate his teachings.
- Tell us about your interest in the human voice. Where do you see the limitations of the voice and what are you most excited about in your current vocal experimentations?
The human voice is arguably the oldest and most used communication tool. That’s also what makes it an incredible medium. Most people think of the voice in terms of speech but there is a huge amount of psychoacoustic influence that comes from the dynamics we associate with music. Like any instrument, the voice is a limited palette, so I think it’s astonishing that we are still finding innovations in something that, when considered, is as old as humanity itself. My role is to create work using new vocal ideas, physical innovations and, most importantly, technology.
- Since 2012, you’ve been the lead subject in a University College London neuroscientific study led by Professor Sophie Scott. Can you tell us more about this experience and some of the findings you’ve discovered so far?
I was part of a study trying to define expert behaviour on a neurological level. A more common description of this is ‘Flow State’ – They established that when I perform it’s a refined and localised process. When a beginner does anything, the mind begins to explore and experiment, making a less efficient connection between the intention and the action. I call this a ‘stammering of concept’ or ‘non-fluency’. When you achieve expertise in any given skill or expression there is an intuitive flow. Take note next time you are having a conversation; it’s amazing when you realise that you are creating structured ideas and sentences instantaneously. We are all designed to be experts with our voices, but this expertise mostly manifests itself as speech. It’s been a great asset defining my artform as an expert behaviour.
- Something you’ve expressed particular interest in and dedicated a lot of your time to has been the use of Cymatics as a medium. What is Cymatics and how are you seeking to use this as a tool for reinvention in what you do?
Cymatics is the study of vibration creating form. For some time now, I’ve been creating live shifting geometric structures that are formed using the vibration of my voice. I’ve wanted to visualise my voice from a very young age and find that the creative implications of doing so are always extremely powerful. Working with another artist, Zach Walker, and musician, Linden Jay, I designed and built modular structures that can resonate different materials. From Saatchi & Saatchi to Milan Design week, the Cymatics work has been sold as still photography and performed as part of live installations.
- Where do you draw inspiration from?
I’ve always had a love for critical thinking and formal debate. The attempt to rationalise abstract emotions and successfully manifest such feeling in a work is something that I have always revered in an artist. From Dali to Duchamp, Chris Cunningham to Aphex Twin; these artists, directors and musicians have all been masters of primal intuition and proficient practical production. The notion that deconstruction and pure visceral emotion are in some way contradictory, is something that I think is a dated idea. Artists should strive to understand as much as they feel.
- You’ve been working recently on creating unique sound sculptures through See Sound and delving into the relationships between man and machine. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
After speaking at SXSW with The Mill LA about composing in VR, I was very lucky to be introduced to The Mill team in New York. The project developed into the digital world through a collaboration with Rama Allen, Creative Director at The Mill NY with a project called See Sound. We created software that allowed us to create sculptures using my voice.
Both this and my work in Cymatics allowed me to take my voice and performances and transpose them into immediate visual compositions. It’s this immediacy of transposition that creates a very exciting feedback loop. As you perform, you are informed by this simultaneous multimedia and multi-sensory output.
I think it’s also worth noting developments in voice activated technology such as the boom in machine personal assistants. These innovations indicate that we will be seeing a lot of voice paired with tech in the near future. It’s an exciting time to be doing what I’m doing.
- You have been working recently with the renowned Bell Labs as part of their programme, Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which has a long history of ongoing collaborations with artists and engineers, including notable artists such as Robert Rauschenberg. How does it feel to be a part of this exploration process and what excites you most about what Bell Labs do?
Nokia Bell Labs have been at the forefront of innovation for generations. Putting aside their industrial achievements you could argue they had a vital role in inventing the multimedia artist. In 1966 they held an event called ‘9 Evenings’ where artists and engineers from Bell Laboratories collaborated on what was to be the first event in a series of projects. Eventually, that became known as E.A.T. or Experiments in Art and Technology.
Taking the hyper-functional achievements of engineering and pairing them with the lateral attitudes of artists was surprisingly informative for both parties and has continued to inspire to the present day. Bell Labs are still profoundly interested in artistic innovation. Learning about their history and concepts for the future has changed my attitudes toward art. Cutting-edge technology is the artists most exciting new medium.
Many of the sounds I can make with my voice have never been seen before in language or music. I enjoy the intrigue I strike up with linguists and phoneticians, although I sit firmly on the art side of the spectrum. Making music with your mouth has a social impact on your surroundings, and the term para-language has been used to describe my tool of speech and music fusion. I think that is often quite fitting.
I can’t say too much now, but over the last year we’ve been filming a documentary about how the expressive capabilities of the voice have expanded. It’s incredible that in a tool as old as humanity itself, there is still space to innovate.
- Tell us a bit more about your exploration into the combination of man and machine. How do you see the future of technology being used in conjunction with the human voice?
Some of my recent work with the music and programming outfit Dadabots has used machine learning and style transfer to generate an A.I version of myself. It speaks and beatboxes using my identity but goes a little beyond by speaking phrases and making patterns I never have. It blurs the lines between being a tool and a collaborator.
It’s quite strange that I have spent over ten-thousand hours trying to make my voice sound like a machine, and now a machine is trying to sound like me, mimicking my voice. I find that juxtaposition rather beautiful.
Although the term A.I. is misused regularly, it’s been a cornerstone for the most celebrated science fiction narratives. Now life is imitating art, it’s time to explore grounded and un-sensationalised uses of A.I. and art. It’s far enough along now we no longer have to embellish.
The challenge of A.I. outthinking human beings strategically has largely been conquered. But the challenge of using A.I and its capabilities to create new echelons of artwork is still to be uncovered. I often wonder what the first machine created masterpiece will be.
Most importantly, this conversation kicks up fear, excitement and heated conversations on what it means to be human. These elements make for exciting art.
- Alongside artists such as Marcel Duchamp, you are interested in playing chess as a game and as a mental process. What is it about chess that inspires and energises you?
I grew up in East London. During the week I was very happy being challenged by what my local area threw at me, pushing my music and making me a stronger individual all round. But on the weekends, I was playing chess tournaments.
Chess taught me not only the power of a clear idea, it showed that you can only ever rely on yourself to manifest your vision. On the board there are no irrational variables or predetermined advantages. The board is a pure and true place.
I’m sure I owe chess my ability to compose and create in my head. I can pre-plan, rehearse and write anywhere at any time. As with many others before me, it was Marcel Duchamp’s love of chess that opened my mind up to the idea of concept in art. I felt a deep connection with the beauty of ideas, and from my experience of chess I also knew how much attitude, tactics, and strategy impact the outcome of your daily life.
I owe much to Duchamp, but I owe more to chess.
- The writer Hans Christian Anderson once said that, “Where words fail, music speaks”. In your experience as a performer and communicator, to what extent can music transcend language as a tool for communication?
Voice predates language. So does music, if we agree that music is the abstract use of sound to portray emotion. A scream, laughter and crying are all music. Speech and language have profoundly impacted the development of humankind, but speech without the music of voice has a lesser potency. Music of voice is the tool used to give empathetic meaning to words. Whether it’s the spoken word or the voice in your mind’s ear when reading, it’s a much older and more universally abundant expression, and that reach extends to other living things. It’s hard to say where music ends and speech begins but it will be forever exciting exploring the limits of that spectrum in the name of art and thought.
I’ll end with one of favourite quotes that was said to me by my collaborator and friend Professor Sophie Scott at UCL, and you are welcome to make of it what you want:
“Laughter is the closest space between two people”
I’m not going to explain it, but instead suggest you think about your voice beyond words and how it connects you with others and, more importantly, to yourself.