Review: Polyphony brings beauty to the banal for Mayfest



Verity Standen has a history of producing affecting, sensual audio shows for Mayfest. From Symphony to HUG and Undersong, she has a talent for drawing the beautiful out of the banal. A hum can become more than hum-drum, a simple tuning fork can send your mind spiralling, and the movement of a singer can seem revolutionary.

Last year Standen set her sights on exposing more simple elegance in the human voice. Alongside co-composer Yas Clarke and a team of fellow artist-interviewers, she gathered recordings from 32 people from Bristol to Middlesbrough, the main topic of conversation being their opinion of their own voices. They then cut the recordings up, wove them together and produced Polyphony.

The performance is laid out simply. In a disused shopping unit in The Galleries, speakers – each playing a different voice – are suspended within frames mazed around the space. Sometimes one voice is heard. At other times all are sputtering at the same time, overlaid and cut into each other, knitted together in a loose purl. 

Breathing, sighing, a tut, a tick. Murmer, utter, ums and ahs, coughs and mastication, the odd giggle. Some harmonising – several of the participants seem to be members of choirs – is broken by a cacophony of voices. Maniacal laughter is reminiscent of a Pink Floyd backing track. One of the choir members sings Pieta Signore, handsomely, and then another reels off Tcha Tcho by Koffi Olomide. 

The piece also reflects on how language – and consequently our voices – has changed. We hear from two trans participants, who reflect on how hormone therapy has altered their voices. Elsewhere, a series of stitched-together “yeahs” and “um, likes” and “you know what I means” aptly demonstrates how much can be said without really saying anything at all.

As with her other shows, Standen has managed to bring a charming focus to the things we normally subsume into the meanderings of everyday life. We listen to birdsong lovingly, listen to musicians sings constantly, but rarely reflect on the power of our own voices. As one participant noted, “my voice is a gift…I can forget how magical and beautiful it is.”