Artist and PhD researcher Kelcy Davenport discusses her inspiration for the soundwork “What Makes Us?”, which she presented at this year’s Pint of Science festival in Cambridge.

What Makes Us? was my creative reaction to a talk given at this year’s Pint of Science festival by Sarah Abel and Hannes Schroeder, in which they discussed the scientific creation and social uses of consumer DNA ancestry tests.

I met up with Sarah a couple of weeks before the festival to discuss her and Hannes’s research. After our conversation, I thought about the different reasons that might inspire a person to buy a testing kit. They may be hoping to find out about their ethnic heritage, or trying to trace missing family, or to re-connect with a lost part of their identity.

I felt that what people might be trying to understand was less about their DNA and more about where they were from – the places, the cultures that they were made up of somewhere along the line. I thought about the history of human evolution in terms of the history of migration, a theme made pertinent today as a result of the ongoing “war on terror” and the biggest refugee crisis since WWII. I began to research the subject using maps and data visualisation tools online.

While I was thinking about this, my son came home from school one day telling me excitedly that he had been learning gamelan, the traditional ensemble music of Java and Bali. He explained that the xylophone-type instruments gamelan is played on has seven bars, but that his classmates and he had only used five of the bars, after the custom of Indonesian musicians. A teacher explained that the metal bars of the instruments would ring after being hit by a hammer, but that since this was thought to be undesirable, the player’s other hand had to work to follow the hammer, by holding or silencing the bars once they had been struck. It was forbidden to step over the instrument because this disrupted the connection to the spirits, and players were not permitted to play the instrument by itself.

We wondered together at how music and instruments mutated between cultures and places. I thought about the different routes suggested by the various histories of human migration and wondered what following one might sound like through music. What might the evolution or mutation of music around the world suggest about the people who first lived in each place?

I decided to follow the longest root of early human migrations, from Africa out through the Middle East, across South Asia, up across the Bering Strait into North America, then down into South America. I began by researching each country, and the history of music and musical instruments for each location. Once I had an idea of what type of music I was looking for I searched for samples on YouTube and began to string them together, to create a continual soundwork.

I came up against several problems. Firstly, searching for “early”, “ancient”, “traditional” music by Native Americans, Indians, and the Chinese etc. tends to produce “meditation”, “pan-pipe”, and “relaxation” albums (studio produced), which do not sound at all authentic. I managed to overcome this by looking for recordings of live performances by musicians, who had learnt the traditional ways of playing ancient instruments. The downside to this meant the sound quality was not ideal.

Secondly, there are many different histories of music in each place, for instance due to religions, different tribal customs, and so on. And I quickly came to realise, through trying to trace human migration through music, that this is all very much embroiled in the history of slavery and colonialism. For the purposes of this exhibition I made the decision to produce the work by focusing on the music of the earliest indigenous peoples in each location.

In terms of how it sounds, What Makes Us? begins with different types of African drumming, before moving into Egyptian, Palestinian, Hebrew, and Jordanian string and percussion “folk” music, then into the earliest recorded (in notation) Sumerian music. This is followed by Zoroastrian ceremonial music; Persian, Indian, and Chinese flute music; Tibeto-Burman chanting; Mongolian long-song, and Russian folk song (very similar to Mongolian long-song). Moving into the present-day Americas, we hear Inuit throat singing; Native American ceremonial singing and drumming; music featuring rattles, chimes, rainmakers from indigenous groups in Mexico; then percussion music from Guatemala, Costa Rica, and finally Columbia.

I noticed two key things. Firstly, musicians and instruments everywhere seemed attuned to imitate or respond to the sounds of their natural environment, such as birds and the weather. Secondly, there appeared to be clusters of music or instrument types: drumming in African countries; the strings of Arabia; the flute of Asia; the voice (throat singing, long-song, chanting) from the Tibeto-Burman region through Mongolia, Russia, the Inuit people and Native American groups; and the percussive rattles of Central and South America. Another learning point was that the Inuit people did not necessarily have a concept of music like that of the Western world, but more of sounds and noises, as is reflected in the harsh sounds made as part of their “throat-singing”.

While making the work I was thinking about the fact that all human beings are made up of 99% of the same DNA, and reflecting on how wonderful the variations produced by that 1% are. I had mixed feelings when I listened to the resulting soundwork. One the one hand, there is a joyfulness in recognising it as a testament to human survival, adaptation, innovation, and creativity. However, this is connected to histories of war, colonialism, slavery, and climate change, and their continuing relevance to a world in crisis today.


What Makes Us? (soundwork, 2017, dur. 18 minutes) was produced by Kelcy Davenport as part of the Creative Reactions programme for this year’s Pint of Science festival, and exhibited at St. Paul’s Church, Cambridge, from 18-19 May 2017. To learn more about Kelcy’s work, please visit her website.

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