Artist Statement: ‘Polyphonic Practice’ and the artist as conductor (PDF version)

I am a visual artist, singer-composer and performance maker, working in Bristol UK.

My work spans the mediums of performance, voice, drawing, music composition, sound art, video and artistic direction.

I research historical vocal forms to develop an exploratory contemporary practice around multiplicty, and combinations of ‘voices’.

Compositions are informed by experimenting with singers’ individual voices as well as my own, and exploring the idiosyncrasies and varied timbral and harmonic qualities of live, mediated and pre-recorded elements.

This cumulates in performances which explore degrees of liveness and human presence in spatial, site relational and experiential ways.

In doing this, I am increasingly interested in how an audience’s presence can influence both the structure and outward manifestation of a work – including the experience of their listening, and the sensory potential of performative ‘encounters’.

To explore these themes, I am currently developing a performance-based compositional practice around concepts of polyphony – the co-presence and interaction of many ‘voices’ – and investigating the interdisciplinary artist as a ‘conductor’ in the widest sense.


  • 2014 - Summary of recent and current artistic activity

Since completing my MA in autumn 2013, I have presented my research practice to BA and MA fine art and performance students at the University of Brighton, and have worked as volunteer at the Borealis Festival, Bergen, Norway, the London Ear Contemporary Music Festival, and Rowan Arts, a Holloway based arts charity in London. Also this year, I have created Watervoices, a commissioned vocal sound work using live and recorded voices (see below), and I am currently starting work on Site Singing, a pilot audio project for English Heritage, exploring acoustics and vocal responses to historical sites.

Alongside this, I am co-forming the
Wild Singing collective, experimenting with voices in unusual spaces such as tunnels and shelters. I have also begun work on a blog dedicated to developing the evolution of what I term my Polyphonic Practice.

I am very pleased to have been selected by Bristol City Council to make a vocal sound installation for the autumn programme of artworks at the Edwardian Cloakroom, Bristol. More details will appear here nearer the event, which will be between the 10th - 16th November 2014. In the meantime,
here is the text I have written about the work.

  • Recent - WATERVOICES (6 min)
I performed a specially composed solo vocal work for the final event of Waterweek (10 - 16 March), curated by Charlotte Still and Clare Whistler.

Watervoices from Ellen Southern on Vimeo.

The event, on Sunday March 16th in Hailsham, Sussex, concluded six days of information, conversations and reflections from nearly 50 contributors, on the theme of water. The event was part of Clare Whistler’s Leverhulme Artist Residency at Queen Mary, University of London.

Programme notes: “The piece was originated in my thinking about how a waterfall is made up of individual drops of water, and I wanted to make a work which explored how separate ‘voices’ can be combined to create a form of polyphony.

The piece was created by recording drops from a tap running at various speeds, and gradually getting slower. I re-recorded myself vocalising each, using the sound ‘thuh’ to replicate the sound of each drip. The 6 resulting pre-recorded ‘voices’ were spatially installed around the space so that each audience member’s experience was a unique combination.
I had pitched each 'voice' on a whole tone scale, sometimes called the 'Alice in Wonderland' scale, as it has a rootless, cold, washy and otherworldly quality, which seemed to suit a piece about water. I moved around the space adding the 7th 'voice' live (the octave above the lowest note). As I moved, I synchronised to each rhythm according to whichever was most prominent, further overlaying and transferring rhythms from one part of the space to another.”

Hear the track here

See Facebook page here

  • New - SHOWREEL (10 min)
Featuring selected works from 2011-2013. All works featured are on this site.

Ellen Southern showreel from Ellen Southern on Vimeo.

  • Featured performance - LUMINAIRE
A poly-versional performance for live and recorded voices, percussion and video. Mon 10th - Fri 13th Sept 2013, Sallis Benney Theatre with accompanying exhibition of drawings, vocal-video and audio works at the University of Brighton

Luminaire smaller

Reverse of flyer - Ellen Southern reflects on live and recorded voices

LUMINAIRE trailer - Ellen Southern from Ellen Southern on Vimeo.

aprox 40mins)
Live ensemble performance for live & pre-recorded voices and percussion, a backwards-composed arrangement of Au Clair de la Lune

LUM all four smallLUM jennie cymbal smallLUM chloe tapes small
LUM fiona candle smallLUM-shirt smallLum moon curtain2 small

Luminaire version I - short from Ellen Southern on Vimeo.

See the full length video (14.30 mins) here

Video created from the live ensemble performance footage, in which the melody of Au Clair de la Lune is ‘revealed’ by reversing the audio-video fragments

luminaire v2 feetluminaire v2 tape cymbal
Ellen Southern - Luminaire version II - video still camera by J Caseyluminaire v2 feather

Luminaire version II - short from Ellen Southern on Vimeo.

See the full length video (10 mins) here

Solo performance in the streets between the theatre and Brighton station. Re-performing elements in the same reversed order as version II, to the accompanying audio from version I

luminaire v3 feetLuminaire version III - video still camera by J Casey
luminaire 3 tape machineluminaire v3 feather1

Luminaire vers III shirt
Above: Photograph taken by audience member Clare Whistler

Luminaire version III - short from Ellen Southern on Vimeo.

See the full length video (13 mins) here

Selected working drawings, vocal-video and audio works

lum draw moon goldlum draw shirtcymbal small
lum draw  two figslum draw fig scipaperlum draw circles
lum draw vague figlum draw two figs tapeslum draw scale

Above: Selected drawings from the Luminaire series in progress, gold paint, candle smoke, ink, cotton thread and pencil on paper and tracing paper (each 19.5 x 19.5 cm)

Also exhibited for the first time was
Signal, a drawing and audio piece created using candle-smoke. See drawings section at the bottom of page 2.

Programme notes: Luminaire is a poly-versional and site relational performance work, which is composed and realised using generative processes. This means that while musical and performative elements of the work are intricately constructed, performers and audience all experience the work for the first time together. The work, which includes live performance, video and visual art, is inspired by the reverse-engineering of Édouard-Léon de Scott Martinville Au Clair de la Lune (By The Light Of The Moon) from 1860, now the worlds earliest known vocal recording.

The work has an emphasis on the presence of multiple viewpoints and individual experiences of the work, interrogating and creating an ambiguity around the idea of a single ‘definitive’ version. For example, documentation was regarded as a form of co-composition, with audience members contributing their own documentation footage.

Version I is an ensemble performance set in a theatre in a blackout, and features spatially arranged live and pre-recorded voices and percussion. Version II is a video created by reversing fragments of footage from version I, revealing an embedded melody and alternative narrative. Version III takes the elements of the live performance and improvises them in the streets as a journey between the theatre and a point of departure – the train station. Sonic ghosts of the two previous versions are both sequentially present, re-conjured to cross each other’s paths as they disperse and merge into the world, as both live and recorded voices do.

Hear Scott de Martinville’s 1860 recording here at original speed and the more widely distributed sped up version . Audio featured under creative commons license courtesy of Firstsounds.org

Au Clair de la Lune - translated lyrics

By the light of the moon, my friend Pierrot, lend me your quill to write a word. My candle is out dead, I have no more fire. Open your door for me, for the love of God.

By the light of the moon, Pierrot replied; I don’t have a quill, I am in my bed.Go to the neighbour’s I think she’s there. In her kitchen someone is using the lighter (striking stones to make a spark).

By the light of the moon likable Lubin knocks on the brunette’s door. She quickly responds; Who is knocking like that? He replies; Open your door, for the God of love.

By the light of the moon, one could barely see. The quill was looked for, the light (source) as looked for. With all that looking, I don’t know what was found. But I do know the door was shut behind them.

Reverse of flyer - Ellen Southern reflects on live and recorded voices

more about the piece

For more on Édouard Léon Scott de Martinville’s 1860 recording of Au Clair De La Lune, see Firstsounds.org