There’s a lot of melodic potential, it turns out, in the human voice, as much as in, say, a piano. Or a sax. Or a harp. Charles Spearin, of Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene, began experimenting with people’s voices as instruments about a year ago. His new album, The Happiness Project, is a collection of interviews he made with his neighbors about the subject of happiness. Spearin listened back to the interviews for “interesting moments of meaning and melody,” and with help from his musician friends, turned these interviews into meticulously crafted songs, which progress from playful mimicry to full on symphonic arrangements. When Mrs. Morris tells Spearin that “happiness is love” on the opening track, the saxophone amusingly imitates her deep, fuzzy voice, mimicking its rises and falls. In later tracks, pianos, harps, and violins harmonize with the natural melodies of speech. Spearin chose happiness only because it was an innocuous subject that would allow him to listen for the melody in his neighbors’ voices “without the pitfalls of religion or politics.” To his surprise, his neighbors started saying some pretty wise things.
The Aquarian talked to Spearin about The Happiness Project, Buddhism, and why Beethoven’s Fifth is so powerful.
How did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been wanting to do music based on beats for a while. I think part of it is from traveling a lot. When you travel and you don’t speak the language then you hear the melody in the voice a little bit more. Part of it is from growing up with a father who is blind. I spent a lot of time closing my eyes and paying a little more attention to the sounds around me. For a long time I’ve been wanting to do an experiment to see if I could write songs based around the little accidental melodies of talking, so I did, and it kept on going well, and it turned into a record, and turned into a live show.
What is it that struck you about the melody of voices?
Well I think part of it is I’m a musician and I’ve been absorbed in music for as long as I can remember. You listen to a lot of different kinds of music when you get obsessed with it and it starts to blur the lines between what’s music and what’s sound. If you’re listening to sounds in the park, like the sounds of the wind, and the sounds of the birds, you can think of it as just sounds or if you want, try to think of it as music. That was sort of the experiment, to see what could be heard as music and what could be heard as sound. The physics of it is the same—the little vibrations in your eardrums—so what makes one thing music and one thing noise? It’s just sort of playing with those conceptual boundaries a little bit I guess.
Was the natural melody of your neighbors’ voices apparent right away in the interviews?
I basically trusted that there were melodies in there as I was having the conversations and then afterwards I scoured through them trying to find moments that had interesting melodies. And even at first I was just looking for melodies, but then my neighbors started saying some really wonderful things and I thought it would be kind of disrespectful to not include the meaning of their words as well. It became a real sort of balance between trying to find the melodic moments and trying to find the meaningful moments.
Yeah that’s what’s so obvious in all of the songs. Everyone has something to say.
Yeah and I think it worked out quite serendipitously. It was really quite nice that when people came to their main thesis they would really sing it. For example, when Vanessa says, ‘All of a sudden I felt my body moving inside,’ she switches keys and her whole voice lifts up. It’s quite a moment in the meaning of what she’s saying as well. It was interesting to see how people sort of package their intentions, I guess, with melody.
Were you surprised when you realized that people change keys when they’re getting to the point of what they’re saying?
I was surprised. I was surprised at a lot of things. I was surprised that people speak in a key, generally. When I was listening back to the interview with Mr. Gowry, I found that he was really staying within the key of C for the most part. And everybody, Mrs. Morris talks in B, everybody seemed to have their natural resting place for their voice, and that was really neat to see and that maybe taught me about the nature of music and the nature of why the certain harmonic scales have been chosen. It’s because they’re actually quite natural in the vocal chords and in the vibrations of things.