Written By Nick Compton Senior Editor - The Economist
A champion for a new generation of young musicians, Harry Yeff is pushing the human voice to new musical, scientific and artistic heights.
You could call Harry Yeff, aka Reeps One, a virtuoso instrumentalist who happens to use the human voice. But that doesn’t quite get at the extraordinary music he makes with voice alone. Comparisons fail to explain the sounds he creates because they are new to the human ear. His music is rooted in the UK dance music subcultures “grime” and “dubstep,” but it’s now as much a contemporary experimental jazz, improvisational and rhythmically complex. And no comparison gets at the scope of his particular project, its ambition and interdisciplinary engagement.
In early October, for instance, he is in New York working with Bell Labs, now Nokia Bell Labs, on a programme called Experiments in Art and Technology or E.A.T. Bell, the grand old lady of American telephony, has a long history of collaborating with artists. It established E.A.T in the mid-1950s, working with pioneers of abstract art and the new radicals of classical music. Its contemporary collaboration with Mr Yeff is a two-parter. “I have been collecting sounds from all over the world, and we are going to end up with an encyclopaedia of contemporary voices,” Mr Yeff says. “All these people have discovered sounds that even phoneticians had no idea about. They are all going to be logged and I’m going to use them all to create a documentary and compose a piece of music.”
Mr Yeff, born in East London and just 28, has emerged as not only the star practitioner but also champion of and figurehead for a new generation of young musicians pushing the human voice into remarkable new areas. “Now you have 100,000 young people out there who are doing R&D for the human voice,” he says. “They want to create music to a standard, to a machine-like quality. There are still new sounds being discovered. And it is really fun for me because I’m the bridge between something that is just a subculture but is doing things that have never been seen or heard before.”
Mr Yeff started as what you might call a traditional musician before he discovered “beatbox” culture, sometimes called “vocal percussion”, at 15 and realised there were things he could do with his voice that his external instruments could not. “I really didn’t know anything about beatbox culture. But I was trying to write and compose very simple pieces for violin and drums and I realised that I could play both parts at the same time with my voice. You can create all these complex rhythms with other things on top. And there were dynamics there that I couldn’t achieve with an instrument. And then I began to think, ‘ok, so what else can I do?’ As soon as I set my mind to it, there was this exponential growth. I don’t know why I have been able to take it so far, but there are things that I can do that are not found anywhere else.”
“We are going to end up with an encyclopaedia of contemporary voices”Reeps One
Mr Yeff’s skills even attracted the attention of University College London, which was planning a neuroscientific study of expert behaviour (Mr Yeff admits he has one advantage over other experts in that he can display his expert behaviour while lying down in an MRI scanner). “They were trying to look at what expertise looks like at a neurological level,” Mr Yeff says. “The fundamental idea—and you can feel it when you are trying to learn something new—is that there is this stammering of concepts. Over time you practise and you practise and after a while what you are trying to do goes beyond your conscious understanding and your mind starts allowing you to get to flow state.”
And for Mr Yeff, that “flow state” is the key to unlocking deeper instincts and accessing hidden mental reserves. “Your instincts are a whole world of mechanisms that are very old and very powerful and they are there waiting to be used. It’s like all this extra RAM that is in your mind waiting to be used, but you can’t use it effectively with your consciousness. You can’t say, ‘hey brain, this is what I am trying to do and these are the parts of the mind that are going to lead me there’. It takes time and flow, and if you do something enough you can achieve that. It’s the way we learn a language, so our intention can manifest itself immediately and smoothly. And this is where you get expertise. The study gave me a framework to move towards expertise and it is something that I am very proud to have been part of.”
Mr Yeff continues to stretch and push himself into new areas. He has also recently collaborated with Rama Allan, the visual effects specialist of The Mill, creating something they call See Sound. Mr Yeff has a history of collaborating with artists to create visuals for his live shows, often reacting to what Mr Yeff is doing with his voice. Mr Allan and his team have created a programme that visualises Mr Yeff’s voice in sculptural forms. “I make certain sounds and, depending on their frequency and texture, the programme shapes a digital form of marble or gold. And eventually we want to take them out of the digital realm and 3-D print them,” he says. “I end up doing things I never normally do because I have this feedback loop while I’m watching it develop these forms. Those are the projects I love, where you can visually represent what you are doing.”
“Your instincts are a whole world of mechanisms that are very old and very powerful and they are there waiting to be used.”Reeps One
For Mr Yeff, this kind of cross-disciplinary collaboration is essential for the contemporary creative. “It’s just 2017 basically. If you are a visual artist, a designer, a musician, you have to be more. You have to have a foundation in something, a discipline, but you have to push that as far as you can. Everyone who thinks of himself or herself as a creative must look at new ways of exploring what they do. That is what true intelligence is I think—trying to connect dots that haven’t been connected before. That is why I have pushed things with my voice. We only get one chance to be here, so you should really push and try and do things that have never been done.”