Song of the Human

A new work inspired by how we speak in music


Song of the Human, performed by The Crossing at the Winter Garden, New York, October 2016.
Song of the Human, performed by The Crossing at the Winter Garden, New York, October 2016.

We use pitch, rhythm, tone and dynamic as part of our speech. Or to put it another way: when we speak, we speak in music.  But something rather wonderful happens when we remove words and listen only to that music; potentially divisive elements such as race, nationality, religion, gender all disappear. What you’re left with is what I call the “Song of the Human”.This musical layer of language is so easily overlooked that exploring it can feel like encountering ‘human’ as a new species. The reason it fascinates me is that in this song we get a glimpse of our ‘inwardness’, our inner nature, we might hear love, hope, playfulness, fear and other states of mind and emotion but whatever we find we find in all people – and in what sometimes feel like divisive times, I find this a reassuring observation.

A credible theory advanced by Professor Shigeru Miyagawa of MIT is that the ‘expressive’ layer of human speech is evolved from birdsong (Charles Darwin seemed to believe the same). When I listen to the extraordinary virtuosity and intricacy of both birdsong and speech, I need no convincing.

In creating ‘Song of the Human’ I wanted to consider the human as part of nature as well as the nature of being human, what we share in music when we abandon words. In order to do this the piece takes an unusual form: it is both an immersive sound installation that places speakers above, below and around the main plaza of the World Financial Center and a concert work featuring a live choir performing with immersive sound in the space.

Here you can hear the fifth movement of Song of the Human, on the subject of grief: We Must Say Goodbye:

About the installation: The iFOREST

iForest DiagramI have been working with immersive sound since 2004 and with immersive sound for natural spaces such as woodland in the last few years with an installation I call the “iForest”. Using multiple independent speakers and specially developed software that moves sound invisibly around and throughout the space I’m able to create immersive sound-worlds and have developed my own scoring system for music that moves through space (being old school I still like to do this with pen and paper).


In nature when the birds stop singing it is a signal that a predator is near; millennia of evolution have taught us to be on the watch when this happens. People have joked to me that in Manhattan a predator is always nearby – whether  that’s true or not there is a theory that lack of birdsong heightens stress levels in Manhattanites – and there is plenty of evidence that birdsong helps to reduce stress. So, as a part of the work I am going to Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios deep in the English countryside to record the dawn chorus simultaneously at 16 locations around the grounds in order to play it back at the winter garden, recreating a ‘3D’ version of the English dawn chorus in the heart of Manhattan..

Song of the Human: choral work, immersive sound, voices turned into birdsong

The work includes a forty minute choral score performed by The Crossing choir from Philadelphia with an immersive soundscape that includes the dawn chorus which will be broadcast as part of New Sounds Live on WNYC. The work is inspired by the concept of what we share in music, when we abandon words and the connections that we possibly rediscover when we forget about the labels we attach to ourselves and others.