Matthew Herbert – The Chorus

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The incredibly talented Mathew Herbert is the brains and talent behind The Chorus, a unique installation at the incredible This Is A Voice exhibition at London’s Wellcome collection. In an exclusive interview, he discusses the inspiration behind the piece, the complicated three-year process involved in setting it up and how the end result remains unknown to him.

One of the main attractions of the excellent This Is A Voice exhibition is an interactive piece by the multi-talented electronic musician Matthew Herbert. The Chorus was commissioned in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, allows visitors to add their own voices to the mix of sound in the gallery, and uses Bowers & Wilkins speakers to deliver pristine sound.

“Like a lot of art the inspiration came from the commission itself,” Matthew told us. “I was asked to respond to the themes of the exhibition by the Wellcome Collection and the Royal Opera House. I thought it would be nice to give people in the exhibition the opportunity to use their voice; it would have seemed a little unfair to develop a whole exhibition on the voice and not give the opportunity to the audience to add theirs somehow.”

Three –year project
From initial idea to opening to the public, The Chorus was three years in production, and as well as Matthew it involved the efforts of a lot of people, including two programmers who designed the software required to bring it all together, and leading recording engineer Pete Cobbin who was involved as a consultant on the audio chain, and who advised on the best way to record and what microphones to use among other things.

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The result was a dedicated recording booth, on the outside of which are situated five Bowers & Wilkins CWM7.4 custom installation loudspeakers, powered by the incredibly capable Rotel RKB 8100 power amplifier. Visitors are encouraged in to the booth to record a single note, which will then be added to the ones already recorded.

At the time of the interview, the installation had been opened for two weeks, and was already up to 3,500 voices. Matthew was confident that by the end of July when the exhibition closes there would be around 25,000 voices.

The piece of music it creates is still an unknown, but Matthew talked us though the structure. “It starts off with a single voice – which is mine – then it adds the voices in the order they were recorded in. So you hear the exhibition grow – it’s like a time line of the exhibition growing.

“So the piece will grow and grow and we hear all the voices together in the middle and then slowly the voices leave one by one in the order they were recorded and eventually we come out and we end up with the final voice – which will be the very last voice recorded and then that’s mixed with me so it becomes a duet.”

This is very much an insight into a work in progress, and Matthew – whose career spans dance music, installations and ambient soundscapes of found sounds still isn’t sure of how it will end or even how long it will be: “At the beginning off the exhibition the cycle lasted a minute or so, but by the end it will take around 15 or 20 minutes to cycle through everyone.”

But it is not just Matthew and the visitor voices you will hear. There are also voices from the Royal Opera House, recorded off site before the exhibit opened. But as Matthew explains, there’s no need to worry about trying to match your voice to these professional singers:

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“We recorded with the staff as well as the singers. So we recorded the accountants, the cleaners, the marketing department as well as the professional singers. So it is a real mixture. It it is democratic in that way, and the democracy of the whole exhibit is important for me. In the way I didn’t want to prioritise one type of voice over another – I just wanted a microphone and to see what people would do.”

Full automation
Obviously with such a long-term project, people can’t be on hand all day every day to record the voices. “The process is automated, but there are structures within the automation,” Matthew told us. “It is all uploaded to a server so I have access to all the files, so every evening I listen in to all the files. So I can see all the information on a dashboard, which is pretty amazing to be 70 miles away and being able to see it all.”

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“It is fantastic being able to capture all these voices and then being able to access them. It is one of the things that we kind of take for granted now, but it would have blown people’s minds even 30 years ago.”

Sound quality
Matthew also explained why audio quality was vital to the success of The Chorus:

“Sound quality is really important to me, and I think that it comes into sharp relief when you look at this installation, which we are hoping to get to a million voices by the end of its run through Australia and then back through Europe.”

“I’m not sure if anyone has ever done that before. And so we don’t really know from a sound quality point of view what this one million voices will sound like – is it just going to be white noise or is it going to be blank tone, or is there a way through it or round it?“

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“We need to make sure that our audio signal is a clear as possible going into the smallest number of components in the chain. And we also need to keep an eye on things like low and high-pass filters to make sure that we are not cluttering up the images with unnecessary information. So sound reproduction plays an important part of that.”

Listen online
Even if you can’t visit the gallery to experience The Chorus first hand, there is an innovative online element to the exhibition is well worth experimenting with in its own right, and you can even add your own voice to the mix from the comfort of your own home.

“The online part is a way to listen to the data more than anything else,” Matthew explained. “And as a by product you get these amazing combinations of voices, almost seemingly at random.”

The online experience allows you to filter the voices by a number of different ways – by what the weather was like, whether what was in the news could be considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the traffic situation in London and by pitch. It allows you to hear the whole work or listen week-by-week, with or without the Royal Opera House voices. And it is a very enjoyable experience.

“You start to hear patterns – it is interesting that bad news almost seems to sound good,” Matthew says. “You can tell what kind of weather we have had by how many people are singing. The online version is not the real thing. but as we have all that data we may as well use it it and it is a great way of listening to the passing of time through the exhibition.”

The Chorus is part of This Is A Voice, which runs from 14 April to 31 July 2016 at Wellcome Collection located at 183 Euston Road, London. Entry is free, so why not come along and add your voice to the chorus.

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You can experience The Chorus online here.

You can find out more about Matthew Herbert and his incredible body of work here.

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