Grace Digney Creates Acoustic Autographs

The Newry artist uses visible sound to map the shapes of words, noises and the occasional burp

Everyone knows what a Q looks like, but what does the sound of a Q look like? That is the question that Newry artist Grace Digney, whose work is on exhibition in the Crescent Arts Centre, asked when she started working with sound. She got her answer with a little help from an 18th century physicist and a 19th century opera singer.

It was physicist Ernest Chladni who first gave Digney the idea of using sound shapes in art. He had created sound pattern using a piece of metal, a violin bow and sand. What Digney wanted, however, was something capable of more complex representations.

‘I thought, “That’s interesting, but how much interesting would be it be to find out the shape of a voice, not just a note?” So I launched into a study of acoustics and vibration and how we shape sound,’ Digney explains. ‘Eventually I came across Margaret Watts Hughes, a Scottish opera singer who invented the eidophone to help her measure how long she could hold a note.’

With help from a friend Digney created her own portable version of the eidophone. It is a simple piece of equipment, a latex membrane stretched over a metal funnel and a piece of white piping to make the noise into.

Demonstrating it Digney sprinkles silver sand over the membrane and sings her name down the tube. The particles of sand bounce about in constantly shifting patterns. The key, Digney explains, is to hold the sound until you have an interesting looking pattern. Such as below, with 'Sneeze' in blue and yellow and 'CultureNorthernIreland' in green and pink.

'Sneeze' in blue and gold and 'CultureNorthernIreland' in pink and green

Digney first started working with sound six years ago. She wanted to create a present for her mother that combined the names of her daughters and extracts from her favourite opera La Traviata.

‘She used to say that opera was music for the soul. I wanted to print the sound shapes onto a shawl,’ Digney explains. ‘So she could wrap her family and the thing she loved around her.’

Sadly, her mother passed away before the gift was complete. It took a long time before Digney felt ready to go back to working with the process.

She uses a variety of noises to create her art. Some of the ones on display at the Crescent Art Centre include the entire acoustic alphabet, the shape of a child’s life and the visual representation of Grace’s own voice.

‘Anyone who can make a sound can make a pattern,’ Digney says. ‘I had a saxophone player who attached the mouthpiece of his instrument to the eidophone and played songs into it.’

Not all the sounds she has captured are quite so civilized. The theme of the 2012 Sonorities Contemporary Music Festival at Queen's University was ‘The Body’s Music’. For Digney’s contribution she recorded sounds made by the body, such as a heartbeat, breathing… and a fart. ‘I wanted to call it “Any Old Fart”,’ Digney chuckles. ‘My daughter wouldn’t let me though.’

The brief demonstration of how the eidophone works has people wandering over for a closer look, or to ask if they can have a go. ‘This always happens,’ Digney says cheerfully. Yet despite the exhibitions obvious popularity, Digney admits she has had trouble finding venues to display it.

‘It’s a hard concept to explain,’ she says. ‘You have to see it in action.’ Not that Digney is going to let that stop her. She works part-time as a teacher so that she has the freedom to do what she wants. ‘I don’t have to do loads of landscapes if I don’t want to do loads of landscapes.’

What she hopes to do next is work with an organisation like the Ulster Orchestra to see what shapes all the different instruments make. ‘I think it’s a lovely idea,’ she says. ‘An orchestra of sound and shape.’

Grace Digney's sound art can be seen at the Crescent Art Centre until April 13.