Heloise Tunstall-Behrens is trying something new. One of five artists taking part in the Huddersfield Professional Development Programme for Female Composers of Electronic Music, her new music is all the way out of her wheelhouse. ‘I’m in an experimental phase right now’, she says, which is absolutely ridiculous, when you consider her career so far: she’s played in a psych rock band, written song parts for indie house outfits and created operas about bees. In preparation for the piece she’s writing for the Huddersfield Immersive Sound System, she’s going after everything else, thinking in the resonant frequencies of rocks and the travel patterns of birds. She’s taking her core practice, as a vocalist, and applying it to bigger ideas – like how the voice sounds mapped out in a cave. There’s a lot going on.
It’s worth reiterating this: the Huddersfield Immersive Sound System is a unit of 66 speakers. Forget for a second that they’re inanimate: this is just the kind of collective society Tunstall-Behrens loves, one where lots of parts are played, each on their own to strengthen the together. In 2017, she wrote a 60-minute opera, The Swarm – a tale of social organisation amongst bees. The piece was inspired by her beekeeping hobby. In order to bring the bees into the opera’s cast, she infiltrated the hive with a recorder, creating a chorus of frantic buzzes that captured the work these bees do as a co-operative. Their voices were complemented on stage with the harmonies of a nine-person choir, another organised group playing something greater than themselves.
The Swarm might seem a little ludicrous, but it draws out some fascinating ideas; as an artist interested in organisation, Tunstall-Behrens’ bees are a metaphor made real, their canny organisation giving way to the structure of her music. Tunstall-Behrens draws a link between organised female powers: continuing the all-woman legacy of Deep Throat Choir, which she is a member and musical contributor, the human voices heard in The Swarm come from nine different female singers – just like the bees. ‘I decided to compose for female voices because the scout bees are all female and I wanted to emphasise, through allegory, the power of women working together.’
Tunstall-Behrens described the swarming process of bees as ‘a metaphor for the journey towards achieving a collective identity’. They organise, and so could we: ‘the decentralised process of decision-making creates… a feeling of oneness. Could this process be institutionalised for larger groups, like nations?’. She may not be operating on the level of diplomat yet, but Tunstall-Behrens is ready to collaborate on a culture for all. She started the process in groups like Deep Throat Choir, where non-hierarchical inclusion was paramount. With her larger scale works, she describes natural networks of co-operation with natural networks of co-operation: people singing, bees working.
Tunstall-Behrens is drawn to co-operation, and has one of the all-time most confusing music career CVs, she’s collaborated on experimental choirs, played in psychedelic bands and co-conspired on synth-pop duos. She was part of reverb worshippers Landshapes before embarking on Vertical Foliage, a spectral drone project exploring vocal filtering alongside a bowed saw. Along with Deep Throat Choir member lead Luisa Gerstein, she wrote a piece for Simian Mobile Disco’s album Murmurations. ‘I’m drawn to collaborations, the energy of it – the fact you’re creating something more than your own and creating this oneness between two people really excites me’. Even now, she’s scheming a collaboration on the side, having launched a new trio with two dancers, exploring ‘looking at the dancer as composer’.
Striking out on her own has been a trip. Her self-described ‘experimental phase’ expands beyond her core instrument – the voice – into the tribulations of ensemble writing and the augmentation of acoustic instruments through microphones. She’s been exploring the resonant frequencies of flutes and tubes, deconstructing any instrument with the remotest hint of a cylindrical shape, as well as creating instruments from non-conventional objects – ‘just things I’ve found’, as she puts it. Rocks have become a recurring theme, too; on trips caving, Tunstall-Behren has paid attention given to ‘the echoes of rocks, playing around with the lengths of their echoes and voicings’.
Now, she’s looking to expand on The Swarm’s themes. She’s currently looking at other networks of co-operation, living or dead: she’s been studying the flocking nature of birds, and she’s also recently tested out the ‘archeo-acoustics’ of ancient tombs and ceremonial sites. Her quest for resonant frequencies took her to the Dwarfie Stane on Orkney, where she created an orchestral piece for spatialized vocals – exploring what she calls ‘the notion of voices as energies, moving around the space’. On a recent trip to Georgia, she started learning and recording folk songs, once again relating music to the shared movements of a localised community. Specific cultures, natural and human, have become an underlying part of what she makes: even as a solo artist, everything exists in interaction.