Installation, 2013

Nye Parry (UK)

In Significant Birds the listener is confronted with a group of twelve bird cages, each containing a small loudspeaker. From each speaker a pure ‘chirping’ sound can be heard which is in fact a single sine wave extracted from a recording of speech. When all twelve speakers are active and in perfect time with one another the listener hears the speech reconstructed, although no speaker ever contains more than its one single ‘partial’. When we hear speech (or any other sound) our ear breaks it down into individual frequencies which are then reconstituted by the brain into the meaningful sound we hear. In Significant Birds the individual tones are separated in space, yet our brain cannot help but recognise them as part of a whole and reconstructs the speech from which the tones are derived. When the tones are introduced individually or shifted in time the illusion is broken and their individual, bird-like natures are revealed.

Additionally, the illusion plays with our ability to localise or find the origin of the speech that we hear. Each partial has a separate location in the gallery space. No speaker reproduces the whole so it is impossible to locate the origin of the sound—we hear it in the space and may even think we know where it is coming from, but on closer inspection its location eludes us. The sound we hear is created in our brains, not in physical space. Significant Birds focuses on speech as it is perhaps the most recognisable sound in human culture and we are predisposed to focus in on voices whenever we hear them.

The text is taken from Hermann Helmhotz's seminal book On the Sensations of Tone (second edition, 1885)

Artist's Statement

Writers such as Richard L. Gregory have investigated how illusions lay bare the perceptual hypotheses with which we approach our environment. Generally, though, the examples are drawn from the visual domain. Significant Birds draws on auditory theory and the perception of sound—and in particular the perception of human speech—and both complements and contrasts with other exhibits. It highlights features that are common to hearing and vision, principles of pattern recognition and parsing, and their differences, for example the importance of time and spatial awareness in the perception of sound.