XWHY Meets: Reeps One

Much like the hallowed, wondrous and ethereal creature that was David Bowie – such an inspiration to us all that not even reality can keep its shit together without his continued presence – I do wonder about sound and vision.

I mean, that’s largely due to the myriad of talent-dependent hobbies that I enjoy in addition to my writing career. What, you thought that my ability to bend prose with my mind precluded me from dabbling in the arts? Please. I may be a slightly presupposing smith of words, but I’m also a sweepingly imaginative graphic artist, an effusive and wide-ranged singer, and a…bassist.
But enough about my mastery of various entirely independent disciplines – it’s not all about me. In fact, it turns out that I’m sorely lacking in terms of flipping my skill crossfader over multiple channels; at a recent Ballantine’s True Music Series event that XWHY packed me off to, I discovered that there are some people who are actually better than me at amalgamating all of their talents into one glorious yet mildly terrifying über-talent.

At first blush, you’d probably refer to Reeps One as a beatboxer. I mean, he can absolutely do that, and to a much better degree than the sort of pretenders you might see flaunting their wares outside Brixton tube station. However, that only really scratches the surface of the kind of sounds this guy can create – seriously, I mean to the extent that you could be happily dancing to his music in a club while being genuinely unaware that every sound you were hearing was being created in real time by one guy’s mouth.
And that’s to say nothing of the 360˚ projections that accompanied the performance of his latest piece, ‘Surfaces’, which were entirely generated via his audio visualiser. As explained to me by creative technologist Ben Williams, the kit – which looked like a sheet of glass with three speakers underneath it, as you can see on Instagram – creates a direct and immediate link between sound and visual. That sheet of glass is covered in a fine layer of water – or, in this case, delicious Ballantine’s whisky. When the speakers play underneath the glass, the liquid has a direct physical reaction to this audio, and this in turn generates the visuals that are projected around the room.

Sure, it looked amazing, but as Ben explained to me, it’s not simply a matter of having some cool visuals to accompany the music – the interplay between sound and vision can create some awesome and unexpected results. He talked me through the McGurk effect, a phenomenon which occurs when a person hears audio while watching a visual that they believe should correlate to the track. If the sounds and sights aren’t aligned, the effect kicks in and the viewer/listener ‘fills in’ the sound that they believe they should be hearing, thereby creating an entirely new sound in their mind.
While my fascination with scientific phenomena is unlimited, my ability to process information after a few whiskies unfortunately is. Fortunately I’d brought my scientist friend Jess along with me to the show, and she was keen to pick Reeps’ brain on the matter – a worthwhile pursuit considering his particular brain has been the subject of a UCL study that found his beatboxing skills to be ‘expert’ behaviour. Jess explained that this meant that Reeps’ cerebellum had lit up during MRI scans to indicate that his vocal processes were automatic rather than planned; in real terms, this meant that he didn’t have to think about the sounds he was going to make as they were instinctive.

This was a lot to process, so I figured that armed with my newfound knowledge of audio-generated visuals, reflexive musicianship, and excellently-named psychological effects, it was time to ask Reeps One himself a few questions about his performance, his music, and his brain.

XWHY: The theme of the show was very much the connection between audio and visual. I’m interested to know why this is so integral to your art – one could argue for example that as a multi-disciplinary vocalist, you might want the focus to be exclusively on your voice rather than any visuals. Why is it so important for you to streamline these two channels into one?

Reeps: Why would I want to just stick to one lane? It’s always about the environment paired with the music that makes a listening experience. In 2017 I think it’s all about being multi-disciplinary; why hold back by picking one medium when you can create for a number of senses? When immersed in an entire spectacle, people are taken away from what they expect and arrive somewhere in their own minds that is completely unique. This is the kind of show I find exciting.

XWHY: Having learnt about the McGurk effect – i.e. if the audio and visual don’t match up then the viewer/listener mentally ‘creates’ a third sound in between what they’re seeing and hearing – do you consider this when combining music and visuals? Would you enjoy the idea of each member of the audience experiencing something different due to the way you’ve combined the audio and visual aspects?

Reeps: No matter what you do there are always as many versions of your art as there are people looking at it. That’s why, when using many senses at the same time, you are more likely to transport someone to where you intended, even if it’s completely abstract. The music is at the forefront of this project but it’s everything else that makes it a one-off. I think we deserve completely new experiences and I hate the idea that ‘everything has been done’ – it has not.

XWHY: Did discovering your ‘expert’ status affect your work going forward? Has it changed the way that you rehearse or indeed affected the way you create music, or the way you feel about it? Did it affect your idea of performance and push you towards the visual aspects?

Reeps: After that experiment everything changed. It showed me what I’ve always been working towards and didn’t even know it was my goal. Flow state is what we all want from practising. The 10,000 plus hours I spent creating with my voice has given me a type of expertise I want from all of my skills, there should be no hesitation once you have your intention.
The way I compose and the music I’ve always loved has the kind of fluidness I think is magical; John Coltrane or Aphex Twin, it’s pure feeling coming through your art. Making visuals with vibrations allows music to instantly take a new form. The fluid music making becomes the visual instantly and I love that.

‘Surfaces’ is available to stream here https://lnk.to/ReepsOne-Surfaces.

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