“Never before heard by humans” / Alice Boyd’s ‘From The Understory’ single

‘Separation’ deftly mixes plant electrode data with a compelling musical current.

Artists from 'Separation.' Photo by Kanahaya Alam.
‘Separation’ features vocals from XATIVA, Dazey, Emily Izen Row, Alice Boyd, Issa, and zha. Photo by Kanahaya Alam.
Jay Richardson

Jay Richardson

24 February 2023

In late 2022, at an overgrown farm pond in Norfolk, a team of researchers gathered to begin hauling out foliage and leaf litter. Within a year, they hoped, it would host rare and declining species of dragonfly, newt, and carp, and start to reverse their decades-long loss of habitat. Poets and sound artists gathered, too, and hauled out art.

In January this year, the art flowered. Among the works now out in the wild is Devil’s Horse, titled with the insect’s Romanian name, with words by Amina Atiq and sounds by Alice Boyd. Flitting between sub-bass, breath, sine-wave synth, and grainy vocals, layered under spoken poetry and laced with the intricate trickle of water and birdsong, the piece hits many of the touchpoints of Boyd’s upcoming debut EP, From The Understory. But her latest work is built on recordings of a different biome: the artificial Cornish rainforest at the Eden Project.

Alice Boyd at the Eden Project. Photo by Mark Lomas.

The album’s newly released single, ‘Separation,’ pulls off the same delicate balance between pitched and unpitched sounds as Devil’s Horse—or, for that matter, Ghost Walk, Boyd’s Offie award-nominated 2021 soundtrack to Poltergeist Theatre’s digital soundwalk around the City of London. It also has a rhythmical assurance that’s still very hard to find in field-recording-based new music.

The effect, especially in the track’s amorphous opening half, is to feel like you’re being pulled by an underwater current. You may not know where it’s going, or what sound-biome you’re immersed in, but it will pull you anyway. The flow stems partly from Boyd’s distinctive choice of field recordings—in From The Understory, it’s conductivity data from plants, recorded by electrodes on their leaves and turned to sound by a hand-customised Arduino board. In short, it’s plant chemicals going places. If you’re a sucker for intriguing clicks, scrapes, and gurgles, ‘Separation’ will entrance you. That’s partly a function of combining such diverse sound sources, and it’s also what gives the music most of its forward momentum.

The EP also flows from a set of more relatable influences, despite its almost fantastical mix of sound sources—Eden Project’s co-founder Tim Smit called it “a unique combination of sweet vocal harmonies, throbbing electronic textures, and sounds from the Rainforest Biome never before heard by humans.” Boyd frequently cites Dirty Projectors and Deep Throat Choir, both ensembles whose memberships are constantly in flux. ‘Separation’ shares the textural dexterity of Dirty Projectors’ 2020 EP Windows Open. But it also expresses some of the meandering lyricism of classical works like ben nobuto’s Norfolk Poems, or of the gentler tracks from Anna Meredith’s Fibs.

The Arduino device used for From The Understory. Photo by Alice Boyd.
Alice Boyd’s custom Arduino board, used for converting plant conductivity data to MIDI signals. Photo by Alice Boyd.

And for all the background spray about immersive high-tech listening experiences—From The Understory was streamed from its première using 360º META cameras over aql’s 5G network—Boyd’s latest work immerses you in its musicality, tech or no tech. Its spaciousness and structure hints at theatre, in refreshing contrast to the concert-orientated intensity of much of Britain’s new music establishment.

Thankfully, the establishment now encompasses a growing cast of field recordists: John Luther Adams and Jason Singh both figure in Boyd’s stated influences, and Chris Watson, Claire M Singer, and Simon Scott have made paths into pitched-unpitched sound art through the independent label Touch, established in 1982. ‘Separation’ feels clearer and more vivid than a mammoth field recording album like Watson’s El Tren Fantasma, not least because of Boyd’s judicious textural shifts and silences.

It also feels less musically static, and more collaborative—five fellow vocalists feature on the single, it’s co-produced with Liam Evans (of the art rock quartet JC Palmer), and a hand-animated music video by Studio Gruff will première on 28 February. If a long-form work like Watson and Singer’s Voci del Vento lets you lose yourself in expansive Arctic soundscapes, ‘Separation,’ and the EP to follow it on 21 April, will throw you head first into the multiverse of electronic plant sounds. As Deep Throat Choir has written, “a melody sung by one voice is so different to a melody sung by many.” º

From The Understory is now on pre-order from Bandcamp and on eco-mix vinyl. ‘Separation’ is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and YouTube Music.

Alice Boyd’s music has been supported by PRS and Arts Council England, and the EP was created during a residency at the Eden Project and on Sound and Music’s New Voices programme. The album première was supported by DCMS, aql, and Meta Camera.

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