Reeping The Rewards
Harry Yeff is an award-winning composer, who’s had three artist residencies at Harvard University and now works with scientific research company Nokia Bell Labs. He has also recently made a documentary about the human voice so, yeah, he’s quite a busy guy. Oh, and one more thing. Under the name Reeps One he has a career as a championship beatboxer, with videos of his performances racking up a mind-blowing number of views online.
Set to perform at this year’s DocFest under the title of We Speak Music: Live, which is shaping up to be one of the must-see events of the festival, we sent Exposed muso Mark Perkins, ever the man for a bit of cross-over action, for a chat with Reeps.
You’re here for DocFest in a few weeks. What can we expect?
Well, it’s in two parts really. There’s the footage from the docu-series, We Speak Music, directed by Simon Waldron, then there’s a performance, which is a response to all of the work I’ve been doing over the last few years. The documentary is an investigation into voice and technology and how innovations in voice are being paired with innovations in technology. I have had over 100 million views for the beat-boxing thing on YouTube, but that’s not what this is about. It’s not a beatboxing documentary. It’s to do with beatboxing, but that’s not what the film is about. Then I’m giving a performance which is showcasing some of these extra performance tools that I’ve developed over the last couple of years. Everything is centred around the human voice.
That’s when you’ll be performing alongside something called ‘Reepsbot’. Can you tell us more about it?
I don’t want to give too much away until the actual performance, but I’ve basically developed an artificial version of myself that I’ve been educating. It beat-boxes as me and speaks as me but composes using patterns that I’ve never done before. So I’ve written a composition in collaboration with it, and then I also have a separate project which is a live version of an Augmented Intelligence (AI) that’s been trained off hours and hours of my patterns and musical decision-making. It’s actually a comment on how AI is going to be used in the future. It doesn’t matter if you think that you’re not interested in AI tools – at the end of the day, it is coming and will affect all our lives. This type of tool kit, where you can create something that you can interact with, which is somewhere between another person and yourself, it is already being developed. The main tag line is my interest in the wider conversation. Everything has sort of come full circle. As Reeps One I have spent 10,000 hours-plus trying to sound like a machine – now a machine is trying to sound like me.
How did you discover your talent as a beat-boxer. Was it a school thing that just developed?
No, not at all. I played violin, drums, piano and trumpet when I was growing up, although not so much these days. My passion when I was young was instruments and performing. I was even a tournament chess player! Musically I couldn’t play anything spectacular – I was good, but it didn’t compare to what I was able to do with my voice. For some reason there was something in experimenting with my voice that meant I found I could do things that other people couldn’t. It all happened kind of organically because I never thought of it as beat-boxing. I could practice music theory without actually needing my instruments with me.
I always find it astonishing when I listen to your music that all those sounds come from the voice of one person. The range is staggering.
I think that’s main point of this documentary. I can do things that no human being has done before and, yes, the academic world has taken an interest in that, but I’m not bothered about that. What I want is for people to appreciate what their voices are capable of, and how being expressive with your voice can have a direct impact on your life. It’s such an important thing to be aware of your voice. My job is to push human voices to the absolute extreme, but I’m only doing that so that other people can realise how expressing with their own voice can mean something to them. That’s what I’m really interested in. I’ve done three residencies at Harvard University, I’m working at Bell Labs now, but I’m still a kid from Walthamstow. I’ve no formal education. I love communication and I love performance and like pushing boundaries. Somehow, it keeps building some pretty crazy momentum.
So how do you look after your voice?
I have to be careful. If you’re going to control something in that way, if you’re an incredible piano player, you’ve got to practise every day, but make sure you’re not overdoing it. The same thing applies to the voice. I’m doing stuff that is untried territory, so it means I have to be extra careful.
My job is to push human voices to the absolute extreme, but im only doing that so that other people can realise how expressing with their own voice can mean something to them.
How do you compose? Do you have to record the sounds as you come up with the ideas?
No, I use drum notation. The voice is a musical instrument. You can use it in any way you want. If I’ve learnt anything from what I’m doing it’s that everybody has a voice. Beatboxing is just a new form and use of voice, but at the end of the day there’s something in this documentary for everyone. The focus is I have one of the most extreme voices in the world and I want to see how far human voices can go. If artists can create work around these things they can make people aware of what’s going on. I want people to know that this type of technology exists and what it means.
It reminds me of the Polyphonic Playground project that you were involved in recently. Tell me about that.
It looked like an enormous climbing frame, with swings and a slide, but as you moved over it and used it sounds were triggered. You had to reach and jump to make the composition you wanted. It’s another type of play and experimentation, and it’s another way of again pushing the boundaries. It was at the Museum of Art and Design in New York for a time and was part of the Milan Design week. It will definitely be out in London and around the UK in the future, so people in the UK can have a chance to make music with it. It fits into the concept of how you can build something that takes you out of your comfort zone.
Reeps One: We Speak Music comes to Abbeydale Picture House on June 8th as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest. Tickets are available from sheffdocfest.com.