NYX seeks to “re-shape the role of the traditional female choir,” using the collective voice as an instrument to explore the potential of sonic immersion. It’s the brainchild of Sian O’Gorman, Philippa Neels and Joshua Thomas, a collaborative project bringing operatically trained singers, musicians and experimental producers together to challenge conventions of what a choir can represent.
Touching on themes of mindfulness, psychoacoustics and the healing potential of music, the 8-piece ensemble recently made its introduction announcing a four-part series of events, collaborating with cutting-edge experimental artists to harness the potential of deep listening and the meditative qualities of drone. Having already kicked things off with Erased Tapes artist Hatis Noit, performances alongside Gazelle Twin, Iona Fortune and Alicia Jane Turner will bring what they’re calling ‘Series 1’ to close.
Ahead of a second instalment with Gazelle Twin this weekend, we caught up with the people behind NYX to find out a bit more about the project as a whole.
Can you talk us through how NYX came to be? How did you all meet?
It was a beautiful and weird collision of sorts. Philippa and Josh used to produce Convergence Festival, we wanted to look at ways to make live electronic music more performative. Philippa and Sian were match-made by friends as we were both into ‘weird’ music and from New Zealand. Sian was inspired to expand the role of the traditional female choir – to explore the colours of the collective voice by experimenting with acoustic and electronic manipulation.
After mixtapes, love letters and a loads of gong baths we brought together a little group of our favourite weird voices. We developed the concept over a summer residency in Corsica, Providencia. As we started to jam and experiment with like minded singers in London, we put the feelers out to some of our favourite artists, and the response was unanimous: you had me at drone choir.
There’s something incredibly meditative and transportive about the harmonic arrangements. Why does the dynamic range of a female voice suit choral ensemble so well?
Female voices have been utilised in healing contexts throughout the world’s history. From shamans and priestesses in ceremony, to Hildegard von Bingen’s fusions of natural sciences and the cosmos through collective vocal music – the female voice can draw us back to “the mother” – that divine source of creativity and chaos. Its that capacity for ethereal, angelic, “perfect” harmony juxtaposed with earthly, guttural tones of dissonant witchery, sirens and dark chanting – this dynamic range can transport the listener to otherworldly realms. This in combination with electronic manipulations mean we can expand the ensemble even further – now these dark tones can be modulated into deep, hypnotic bass, and a whisper can be transformed into slow metallic scrape against the blackboard.
You’ve described the performances attendees can expect as “hyper-live, electronic music meditations.” Would you say the live aspect defines the project as a whole?
Yes. In some way the music should always be live or reactive to its environment- whether through allowing improvisation in performance, how the sound responds its immediate architecture, or through generative algorithms.
How have you gone about deciding which musicians to collaborate with across these shows?
We’re using our first series to explore experimental approaches to drone: from the operatic chanting of Hatis Noit, Gazelle Twin’s ritualistic application of found sound and traditional music tropes, Iona Fortune’s Fourth World dronescapes and Alicia Jane Turner’s visceral take on classical instrumentation.
All have a brave approach to their sound and how it’s experienced, and all are totally up for challenging how they perform live together with NYX.
Each show takes a different approach to collaborating with the respective answers, whether its reinterpreting their own music or exploring the ancient Chinese I Ching text through sound. How much preparation has gone into each of these performances?
As this is our development series, the largest work has gone into understanding what our sound is and what we can offer a collaborating artist. We ask each artist, “what are your limitations of performing live? why are you making music right now? how can we achieve more together?”
Our shows have original NYX compositions, shared improvisations and reimaginings of the collaborator’s music so it’s important to properly get into their heads. We run a super open door policy with our choir and team – anyone can join workshops, music production training or add to our shared playlist so it’s good to spend time together outside of the project when we can too.
As mentioned, you try to let “primal instinct” shape your artistic expression. Is there quite a fluid approach to performance and the roles each person assumes within the choir?
Our sonic foundation has come from setting a drone and experimenting over this. Very naturally our singers paint with their voices in different ways – some are organically drawn to sound scaping with more aspirant / experimental noises, others find themselves chanting in lower or middle tones, some are more naturally inclined to soar above the piece with more vast operatic motifs. We work to each other’s natural inclinations and we arrange pieces to really make the most of each singer’s unique gifts.
Can you tell us about the equipment you’ve been helping to push sonic boundaries, specifically when it comes to modulation?
In a traditional choral context your sound is shaped by the variance in vocal tones – people with “reedy” voices are combined with “flutes” or “strings” to shape the music in a particular way. The way we have been working so far uses elements of this – certain people’s voices work well with particular technologies and have been helping create what we are beginning to define as our “sound”. Deep bass pitch shifters, free-timed reversed looping, expansive modulations of breath and whispers through echo chambers and feedback – we’ve been using everything from classic pedals like Cathedral Reverb & Nemesis Delay through to voice-specific machines like Boss Loopers, TC Helicon Voice Live, and we have only touched the surface of the insane amount of vocal synthesis and effects Ableton has to offer.
Having trained in overtone singing, and specifically Mongolian throat singing, are there any similar vocal techniques you would like to introduce to the choir moving forward?
We would like to explore more collective vocal techniques – for example the way Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares use that incredibly bright close harmonic blend, or the way David Hykes uses harmonic overtone singing in a small group to create whole new beings within the sound. The death growls of heavy metal singing, undertones, multiphonics, non-vocal bodily sounds, singing into different echo chambers, these are all on the bucket list for sure!
You have previously mentioned Meredith Monk, Holly Herndon and Peter Broderick’s The Beacon Sound Choir, but has anyone else influenced what you’re doing? How about David Hyke’s Harmonic Choir?
Absolutely. We would love to attend one of David’s week workshops in France at some point! David, if you’re reading this, lets talk ;). As mentioned above, the way he utilises the harmonic chambers of the voice to expand the collective sound is a remarkable achievement. Other vocal heroes include Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Joan La Barbara, Lisa Gerrard, Sainkho Namtchalyak. And huge influences of those manipulating the voice electronically include Aisha Devi, Julianna Barwick, Tim Hecker, Eartheater. The list is LONG.
For the uninitiated, could you explain the science of psychoacoustics?
It’s how we perceive sound. Different notes and sonic environments can alter your mood and emotions. Music can speak to your body before your brain. When we consciously design music with this science in mind, we hope to have more control of the affect our music has on audiences.
How does NYX intend to harness the healing power of music? Had any of you explored its healing potential or the relationship between music and the brain previously?
Sian developed a vocal music meditation called Like Nobody’s Listening in 2015 – this was to utilise the proven power of group singing. The oxytocin released when singing activates feelings of trust and deep bonding, so when we sing with other people that sense of acceptance and love is amplified tenfold. The act of simultaneously creating and being part of a collective, organic sound source shifts us up to a higher state if consciousness – we truly feel part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s a sense of belonging that takes us back to our origins as a communal species – singing and music were crucial social bonding mechanisms that would help create tighter groups, and the stronger the bonds, the higher their chances of survival. NYX carries on from this ethos and begins to explore some of the other realms of sound healing – using drone as a way to entrain the brain and relax, toning and chanting and experimenting how the different frequencies of our voices can release tensions in the body.
Is there any intention to release original music?
Following the first series of collaborations and events, releasing music (original NYX compositions and collaborative material) definitely feels like the natural next step for us. Currently there are lots of lovely lofty ideas floating around, which we’ve started to refine as we collaborate with more artists and introduce the project to our favourite creative minds. We can’t really say anything concrete right now but things will revealed when the time is right.
And finally, beyond the current four-part series, is there anything else people can look forward to?
2019 will be about developing the experience of NYX. We’re sticking to our DIY approach but we are upskilling and we will be getting much louder. 🙂
Gazelle Twin performs with NYX at Oval Space on Sunday December 9th – buy tickets here.