Body of Songs: Music artists take on human organs in sci-indie album with Wellcome Trust

By Ben Miller | 10 December 2015

In a meeting of sound, emotion and science, ten musicians met clinicians – with a little help from the Wellcome Trust and the Arts Council – to produce ten songs dedicated to human organs.

From the operating table and mixing desk to Goldie’s brain and Bat for Lashes playing her own skin, the compilation has now been released. Here, some of the artists talk about electric shocks, cells and the nose as the seat of the highest intuition.

Afrikan Boy ft Bumi Thomas & Adio – Eje Aiye

A photo of a male musician in profile
© Hassan Hajjaj
“Initially I wanted to choose the heart as my organ to investigate. I felt the motion of a heartbeat would be an easy medium to create music to.

I spoke with a heart specialist who quickly pointed out to me that the sound of a ‘heartbeat’ is simply the noise of Blood being pumped through. He then added that Blood could be considered an organ in the human body.

Our song, Eje Aiye - it means ‘Life Blood or the Blood of life” in Yoruba - is inspired by the three main functions of blood: protect, repair and transport.

I had the opportunity to talk with patients needing regular blood transfusions to get an idea of what blood meant to their unique lives. I am very proud of this piece of sonic art.

It will forever remind me of this important component in my Body of Songs.”

Bat For Lashes – Skin Song

A photo of a female musician in profile
© Neil Krug
“The song is from the perspective of an old lady looking back on her life through thoughts of the history in her skin.

We laid out initial parts by following a diagram of a cross-section of the layers of skin. Some synths were a hair or the skin cells that sit like bricks, and we used a heartbeat pulse for the beat and electronic sounds for nerve endings.

I also used my skin as percussion that was turned up in volume, so you can hear it.”

Goldie – Electric Abyss

A photo of a male musician in profile
© Chelone Wolf
“As a very young kid , I look back and wonder how I ever made it out of where I was.

It’s only now I realise as a man the trauma I had been through, and yet the beauty of being creative, wanting to become ‘somebody’, and finding out about the limbic system and where it sits in my brain…it’s the same place where our fear lies.”

Raf – Ooh Ah Carolina

A photo of a male musician in profile
© Courtesy Wellcome Trust
“The appendix is a bit of an obtuse choice but I was genuinely interested in the idea of it. There are all these amazing, complex, crucial organs in the body.

The appendix is surplus to requirements and according to most of the clinicians I spoke to, worse than useless. An accident waiting to happen.

I thought it would be an interesting starting point for a song. I spoke to a very smart man called Dr William Parker, from Duke University in Carolina.

He was the first person who really had anything good to say about the poor old appendix. According to him it’s been rendered useless by the super-santised world we live in now.

It was originally there to repopulate the gut with good bacteria but in “hygenic” societies there’s nothing much for it to do.

Appendicitis is something to do with auto-immunity apparently. Anyways, the good doctor compared the appendix to a bored teenager with nothing to do.

I really liked this idea and took it as a starting point.”

Mara Carlyle & Max De Wardener – Follow Me Through

A photo of a female musician in profile
© Courtesy Wellcome Trust
Mara: “We decided to choose the kidney as ‘our’ organ in tribute to Max’s father who died recently, and who was a pioneering kidney specialist. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to explore his world both scientifically and creatively.

We were able to get an initial overview of the kidney from several fascinating - and mind-boggling - meetings with Hugh Montgomery and Chris Laing.

Other parts of our process included gazing into jars of ancient pickled kidneys at the Gordon Museum of Pathology, talking with dialysis patients and meeting researchers who showed us mesmeric films of embryonic kidneys growing within the womb.

For our piece we choose the kidney’s main function of filtration as the inspiration to create our song. Using mainly vocoded voice and live drums (Tom Skinner) we filtered the frequencies of our sounds to give a sense of constant change throughout the piece.

For the lyrics, or the ‘voice’ of the kidney, we created a character, something like a passport control or checkpoint officer, who greets the cells passing through and thanks them for their hard work.”

Dave Okumu – Grateful Heart

A photo of a male musician in profile
© Courtesy Wellcome Trust
“When Body Of Songs approached me about this project, I was immediately intrigued. Here was an opportunity to unearth some of the mysteries of the human body and feed my discoveries into a process I cherish dearly: making music.

I wanted to learn more about the heart, particularly the relationship between electricity and the heart. This curiosity was aroused by the experience of receiving a sustained electric shock on stage which resulted in my leg being broken by the force of the electricity earthing.

I consider myself very lucky to be alive and I have felt a profound sense of gratitude towards my heart for carrying me through that experience relatively unscathed. Hence the title of my piece of music: Grateful Heart.

This gratitude extends to Body Of Songs, the Wellcome Trust and to Martin Hayward and Hugh Montgomery, who granted me a level of access to the information I desired which exceeded my wildest expectations.”

Sam Lee and Llywelyn Ap Myrydn – Nose Song

A photo of a male musician in profile
© Frederic Aranda
“The nose is by far the least understood of all the organs and one of the great of the human science mysteries. This song explores this “archaic nerve” that penetrates our psyche and unconsciousness in magical transportive ways.

This original organ has elevated itself to such a lofty position of biological deportment as to become almost unnecessary, yet so rooted in all our judgements socially, sexually, animalistically and atavistically it could be reckoned as the seat of the highest intuition and most advanced of all faculties.”

Ghostpoet – A Plateful of Liver

A photo of a male musician in profile
© Sophia Spring
“I chose the liver because as a heavy drinker at times, I felt It was necessary to discover more about an organ I was potentially destroying as a past-time.

What I realised, as my journey of discovery unfolded, was that the liver is a much more complicated and essential organ than one could imagine.

I’ve learned a lot along the way and this project has offered up a lot of food for thought.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums where music and art meet

Horniman Museum and Gardens, London
Current exhibition At Home with Music explores domestic keyboards from the past five centuries that were brought into homes from parlours to palaces and brings together highlights of the keyboard instrument collections from the Horniman and the Victoria and Albert Museum. More than 1,300 instruments from the Horniman's internationally renowned collection can also be seen in the Music Gallery.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter
Chris Watson, one of the world’s leading wildlife recorders, is bringing sounds from rural Devon to the gallery in current exhibition Ebb and Flow. Four seasonal recordings from a variety of locations will be used to create a changing soundscape evocative of Devon’s diverse ecosystems. Until December 31 2015.

Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life, Norfolk
Harry Hammond was Britain's leading showbiz photographer for nearly two decades. Starting in the late 1940s, he captured the definitive images of virtually every leading British musician, as well as many visiting American artists. From Tommy Steele to the Beatles and Shirley Bassey to Dusty Springfield, see them, from the V&A's collection, in the Halfway to Paradise exhibition. Until September 4 2016.
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