The human voice was the first ever instrument. Its use as a vehicle for sound dates back to the earliest days of humanity, and has traversed the traditions of world religion, culture and modern music since.
In Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, he posits that our ancestors sang songs to each other before they could ever converse in language. Since this primordial sonic era, the human voice has been treated largely as a device through which to convey lyricism.
Breaking this modern-day convention are all-female drone choir, NYX, whose ethereal and spiritual approach to the collective human voice pushes the boundaries of what can be achieved with our bodies.
The group have just released Mutualism, a project that explores our relationship with nature, symbiosis transformation and collective consciousness.
Mutualism arrives with a multi-sensory audio-visual 360 degrees experience for us to indulge in, and its use of digital augmentation to manipulate NYX’s voices makes the release a truly unique body of work.
In the production of the track, NYX’s singers created short loops and recordings from their individual studio spaces, using each other’s creations as sources for development and inspiration. Vochlea Dubler, VocalSynth software, stethoscope contact mics, hardware and Ableton software enabled singers to expand their capacity for creating connective, human soundscapes and bridging the gap between the organic voice and synthetic modulation.
Their collaboration with spoken-wordist MO.MAYA & visual artist Nick Cobby collate to form a complete, all-consuming piece of art.
On top of the single, NYX have shared a remix EP, containing interpretations by London-based Anna Wall, Tunisian producer Deena Abdelwahed and Bristol artist LCY.
We were recently fortunate enough to speak with Sian O’Gorman, NYX’s musical director, to dive deeper into the group’s work and philosophy.
Nyx is the Greek goddess of the night – an omnipotent, prime-moving figure who is feared by all, including Zeus. Are there parallels between the characteristics of Nyx the mythological character and NYX the drone choir?
Yes! Nyx personifies the shadow coming gloriously out of the darkness – something we’re embodying through our compositions and performances. Traditional choral music often focuses on the angelic end of the divinity spectrum and we’re looking to integrate every facet of human vocal experience/explore their depths even further through the expansiveness of our electronics. We’re always striving to express the celestial, the chaos and all of the spaces in between.
‘Mutualism’ is a breathtaking multi-sensory offering, described as a ‘metamorphic meditation’ – can you expand on this? How did the idea for the project come into being, and how do you hope listeners/watchers will feel when they experience it?
Mutualism is a call to find equlibrium amongst the uncertain/discordant realities we often find ourselves residing in these days. “Meet me in the middle” asks us to take a step back and honour our relationships with each other & the planet (and ultimately within ourselves). Mutualism means that mutual dependence is necessary to social well-being.
For us, creating music together – singing, collaboratively producing works, deep listening together – this has always been at the forefront of what we do as a collective to step beyond our sense of separateness and fall into a sense of space and holding beyond our individual parts. So, we hope that others can share in this experience of synergy & connectedness as they experience the music & its visuals.
You collaborated with spoken word artist MA.MOYO and visual visual artist Nick Cobby in ‘Mutualism’. What was it about these two artists that felt right for the project? How much influence did they have on the development of the release?
We were lucky enough to get a grant from Help Musicians UK early in 2020 which funding the initial creation of this project. We wanted to create something truly collaborative, where the words, imagery and music would all influence one another and their evolution – so we began this project all together. Belinda and Nick were friends that we had worked with previously in different contexts but we had never fully collectively created something together from scratch, and we knew this was the time.
We started with the theme and shared visual, sonic and written references amongst the group. From this came the poetry, then we all responded to the spoken word by going away and creating musical layers (our NYX vocalists spent weeks gathering their own vocals, instrumental experiments & field recordings) along with Nick going deep into a Mexican mushroom forest near his home and gathering all of this psychedelic 4K film content. I then pieced elements of the audio research together and began an iterative cycle of composing the music.
The wider remix package contains interpretations from three artists with unique but completely different skillsets. How did you decide that Anna Wall, Deena Abdelwahed and LCY would suit this release? What makes their takes on ‘Mutualism’ interesting?
This was one of the first pieces we had created which had a steady rhythmic (heartbeat) pulse running through it, and we knew very early on we wanted to push this percussive element further into the club music realm. We passed this out to our dream list of collaborators, and they responded with the most beautiful remixes we could have ever asked for.
It was only after they’d been sent back to us that I realised they all summoned the power of the elements Belinda had outlined in her poetry – Deena’s felt like an ever flowing stream/river of water taking us on a journey and crashing into rocks and dancing through riverbeds, LCY’s was a full fire rave from the hot crystalline core of the earth, Anna’s felt like a deep rest into the mosses and stones of a zen garden, and mine was an expansion of air, space and angelic breath.
You describe the process of ‘Mutualism”s inception as a ‘new way of symbiotic working’. Can you talk to us about the difference between how you worked on ‘Mutualism’ compared to previous projects, such as ‘Deep England’?
The collaborative process here was different but equally as enjoyable – Deep England is an electronic choral expansion Gazelle Twin’s original work Pastoral, whereas Mutualism is an entirely new piece, created together. As I mentioned above, the process. Our intention here was to harness the power of collective voice and audio-visual online collaboration, by moving through concepts of symbiosis together.
As we worked from our remote spaces, we explored how each voice and image fed the other in order to feed itself, in an evolving relationship that became more than the sum of its individual parts. Even our shared folders began to take on a life of their own – constantly evolving like an underground network of call & response.
The concept of ‘voice as instrument’ is central to NYX’s musical identity. Does vocal music go beyond the need to understand it in a literal/lyrical sense? Is delivery more important than content?
My approach to composing is to explore the many timbres of the human voice, and expand this out even further by synthesising the sounds through electronics. It’s fascinating how different voices relate & respond to different effects & processes – to me it’s equally as interesting as how acoustic voices can blend and create pure harmonics alongside one another. I’ve always heard sounds and phonetic expressions over lyrics, and I often see NYX’s instrumentation as sonic layers more akin to a digital chamber orchestra rather than a traditional choir.
For me a breath or a sigh or a wail takes on a deeper meaning than I am able to access through complex lyrical expression, although I honour and deeply respect people that can compose so beautifully with words. That’s also what makes Belinda’s vocal timbre and the discipline of spoken word so important in this piece for me – we’ve created this sonic holding space where her words can cut through right into your core. It’s a totally different form of music and I feel like they work beautifully together here.
Historically, ‘voice as instrument’ has been a tradition of several ancient world religions. Is there a spiritual element to NYX’s output?
Yes – again I think this is because vocalising is a shared, universal language that people have been participating in for millennia. I don’t need to understand Latin to feel the divinity inside one of Hildegard Von Bingen’s chants, and I feel just as incredibly moved by Sanskrit mantra as I do a small child learning to make sounds with their voice, or watching a Tuvan or Mongolian person singing traditional overtones. Its a spirituality that we can all tune into – a connection to our voices, to our bodies, and the magic that is created when we share our harmonic frequencies with others.
NYX’s sound finds an equilibrium between the natural voice and modern audio manipulation technologies. How does digital augmentation extend the group’s output? What sort of innovations were used in the creation of ‘Mutualism’?
We use all sorts of digital expansions of the voice, from pitch shifters & loopers to distortion & time stretching. As mentioned above this means we have an almost infinite pallette of sound available to work from. But most of what you hear from our vocalists in this piece is the huge choral outro at the end, and the majority of that is just multiple layers of natural wailing voices (droning in cathedral reverb, mind you).
Finally, if you were to take us on a trip into NYX’s world, which three records would make up the soundtrack?
Oh god where to start. My current NYX dreams are being supported by the worlds of:
Malibu – One Life
Holland Andrews – Wordless
Koreless – Agor
You can buy NYX’s ‘Mutualism’ here.