January 7, 2020
Harry Yeff: The Intelligent Syntax of Sound
Harry Yeff is a world-class beatboxer and visual artist who embodies the interdisciplinary practice of Factory Berlin’s Artist in Residence program in his collaboration with technological innovators, creatives, and academia.
Harry Yeff (aka Reeps One, Reeps 100) is obsessed with sound. Ever since he started school, Yeff’s love for music has guided him to the art of a cappella mimicry and then innovative vocal practice. As a beatboxer on the world stage, he recites conjugations with the curves and cusps of his palate, forming an oral fierceness. Even his percussion performance is worthy of having the fastest recorded use of the human diaphragm.
This expertise over motor functions has guided Yeff into a world of accidental academia, where his mastery of physical control reverbs dynamic sound. His natural flow of innovative vocal schematics and use of visual representation has burgeoned into a guided discovery and the expansion of phonetic vocabulary. This experimentation and test of possibility provide a sketch of how artists can collaborate with new technologies and science to shape ideas about sound and how neural pathways forge connections, strengthening all kinds of networks.
Was there a shift or change in your life that lead you to explore beatboxing?
I started to learn music theory through my voice since I couldn’t take instruments home from school. I grew up in a sort of rough place and around that same time I was introduced to early grime and early dubstep (Techtonic, Loefah, Mala) and learned to speak those compositions. Essentially, my soup of character and obsessiveness led me to explore sound making and it slow-burned into talent.
This obsessive character of mine translated into a philosophy of hyper-focus, which when applied to voice, I developed into exact articulation. Over time, I developed more communication skills and started to match these with artistic visual representations. My voice skill set has led me to insert myself into all kinds of spaces. I am non-linear and I use my voice to explore many mediums.
After I won the UK Beatboxing Championships for the second time, a neurologist from the crowd approached me and literally asked for my brain. I became part of an expert behavioral study by Sophie Scott, and she introduced me to more studies that tapped into my hyper isolation and phonetic skill. I realized that my biological hyper control is quite uncharted and it’s not fully understood.
“You try to have a quantifiable understanding of your behaviors. Each action, each stroke has a purpose.”
What's the story behind your documentary, “We speak music,” and your experience at Bell Labs?
Bell Labs is probably the most fundamental tech institution in the world, known for the Experiment in Art & Technology (EAT). The infamous program started in the late 60s with Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver’s 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering. It was the first time top-level engineers were paired with fine artists and through that, they invented speech synthesis. They wanted me to produce content that brought together sensibilities of leading-edge voice technology that would encourage the public to interact. My concept was to make an art documentary called “We Speak Music.” In that journey, we see a different manifestation of voice, culture, voice evolution, and the use of technology with the human voice.
“The institutions, political spaces, and spaces that appear as non-art spaces actually need artists to help reveal new and difficult ideas in an experimental way for the public's consumption and engagement.”
How does your environment affect the way you approach your work and research?
I love being in an artist residency because you get exposed to a group of research or space and then you interact, you understand their goals, their sensibilities, and it bleeds into your own skillset.
By being in a new context, you kind of pull out a different manifestation of your expertise just by ricocheting off everybody. It’s at the very heart of everything that I do now. I find myself in the deep end – it’s finding a way to interrupt and shake to find your place in a collection of dots, environments, and space.
What can you tell us about your latest project?
I came to Factory Berlin to develop a specific project in the 360 XR Room. I am composing the beginning sketch of a dome projection performance called “Rapid Eye Movement” that will be released this year at the Society of Art Technology in Montreal. They have a huge dome projection space complete with 56 channels of spatial audio. While I focus on writing the vocal composition and production, Bertie Sampson is doing the visual elements. The XR Room is really important for these sorts of experimental pieces because we are able to play and prototype. In the performance, we will move through the five stages of sleep until we arrive at REM.
“At Factory Berlin, you meet other focused and hard-working people, but it's more social and mixing together.”
I’m also working on a project with Dadabots who is another resident at Factory Berlin. It is an extension of “Second Self,” and we are exploring how we can take sample RNN (recurring neural network) generative audio and synthesize it with live vocal performance. I send my vocal data sets to Dadabots, and he generates new audio content that sounds like a real voice but it’s not me nor the decisions I’ve made. I am exploring the potential collaborations for that tech and hope to make a new piece of content that flirts with a live stream that will basically sound like me performing until beyond my death. It will just stream forever. It will capture the idea of an eternal portrait of sound, which is quite interesting. I am not trying to replicate myself or recreate, but rather extend, like a photograph. By interacting with your extension, you develop a new perspective about yourself, which is so wholesome – purposeful – and develops your creative process.
“My goal has always been to bring things together and then explore: How can I push this forward and make it grow? How do I engage with everything I want to engage with?”
These modern manipulations of airflow into stunning sounds are meant to awaken and cause reverberation. They etch an innovative syntax and lay the foundation for new connections. Yeff’s echos are valuable extensions that demonstrate alternative and metaphysical iteration. From the click roll and whisper to everyday slang and odes to a southern twang, Yeff has “reeped” the benefits of an intimate duality of mind-body few have transcended. He embodies the heroic quality of an explorer, singing a provoking melody, waking the cognitive class in both research and artisanship.