Vocal artist and championship beatboxer Reeps One has become a case study for academics across the globe, given that what he can do with his voice defies technical possibilities and blows the minds of most who encounter it.

As part of Doc/Fest 2018, Reeps One, real name Harry Yeff, brings the world premiere of We Speak Music Live to Abbeydale Picture House on 8 June. The culmination of his documentary of the same name with Nokia Bell Labs, as well as his own personal research, the show combines live performance with a TED-style talk, aiming to make people think differently about the human voice. Incorporating some high-tech gadgetry and creative visual representations of sound, the premiere will showcase “things even politicians and linguists didn’t realise were really possible”.

Yeff and I exchanged vocal articulations.

How did the new live show develop and how does technology play a part in it?

I’ve been developing a documentary with Nokia Bell Labs for the past year, and separate to my work with Bell Labs my mission has been to subjectively find out how far a human voice can go, and what the new discoveries in the voice’s expressive capability are. That started with my own journey, with the fact that I can do things with my voice which are considered unchartered territory from a technical perspective.

The show is based mostly on the discoveries I learnt throughout the documentary, and then also showcasing some of my favourite pieces of unique performance using voice and technology.

Am I right in thinking you are building up a library of human sounds?

Via the documentary, on one of the episodes we showcase a ‘contemporary beatboxing’ library, and through my own personal research and development I’ve been collecting and understanding a whole bunch of new sounds and what you call extended techniques. The actual crescendo of the documentary is me facing off against a neural network AI version of myself which has learnt to beatbox.

Without giving away too much, what is the Reepsbot?

The project is a collaboration with Dadabots, which is a deep neural net company, who basically produce artwork and projects using machine learning and deep learning. If I took an hour of you speaking and I fed it to this bot, it would interpret your ‘vocal essence’. It would sound like you speaking, but not in English. It says phrases and words that you’ve never said. It’s creating as-you, but not you. When I started feeding it beatboxing, it started doing all these patterns, things I’ve never done before. A lot of people find that concept terrifying – the idea that these things can create using our stylistic essence – but I just find that really exciting.

In the documentary, I speak with one of the leading figures in neurological studies around the voice, Prof Sophie Scott from UCL, but also I spend time with kids who have special needs in a place called Lavelle School for the Blind in New York. They use beatboxing as a form of voice therapy and they’re making massive leaps, not just in the general happiness of the kids, but also the idea that it has such a profound health benefit to express in that way.

Even though me doing crazy beatboxing is the in-the-moment, ‘wow factor’ part of the show, the really big theme is: how are we going to use our voices to work with technology? With things like Alexa and Google Home, the voice of the interface is a massive discussion.

For you to be discovering new sounds that you’ve never produced before, that shows how far beyond your comfort zone you can go with it.

Well, that’s all I ever want, to be outside of my comfort zone. I guess all artists have this, but I have a deep desire for mystery, and new technology offers this mystery in a very clear way. I think a lot of new technology offers the same role as mythology not so long ago, where there’s these massive question marks. I like that feeling, as opposed to this idea that everything has been established, everything’s been done.

You’ve done various projects, installations and exhibitions recently. Have you seen this as a way of fighting against the stereotypes and the novelty factor that sometimes surrounds beatboxing?

I don’t know if it’s an active way of fighting against anything. I think it’s always been a part of my work. Yeah, when I do a club set on my own I’m a musician, but I’ve always been involved in the arts. I’ve been a world-class battle beatboxer, but that was always part of a much bigger thing. Beatboxing is a huge novelty, because it’s used as novelty, but at the end of the day it’s a part of voice.

I never really made a conscious effort for the top academic institutions to come to me and talk about these things, but what I was doing was using my voice to make art, beatboxing in this really extreme way. It’s definitely made a massive different in my output and my career.

Humans are built to be masterful with their voices. A lot of people don’t see themselves as experts in anything, but if you can speak a language then that’s a form of expertise. That type of ‘flow state’ is what people are going to want when they use tools, their phones or laptops. So the idea of people being able to use their voices in extreme ways, and have hyper expertise in the voice – there’s a lot of lessons in that for how we want to use tools and also how we can express.

To answer your question, no, I’m still a beatboxer. I love beatboxing and I perform all the time. There’s just now this whole extra branch of purpose which just happens because that’s what I think I should be focussing on.

It’s interesting on the trailer, where you say you’ve spent years trying to sound like a machine, but actually you can turn that on its head and see if a machine has the capacity to sound like you.

Yeah, absolutely. If you forget the whole subjective, musical aspect of beatboxing, it’s a really weird thing. It’s a bizarre physical thing. I’ve got the fastest use of the human diaphragm on record, which is strange. Why the hell would a kid from Walthamstow be able to break a record, when voice is a tool that’s used by every single human that’s ever existed?

There is something new happening, and I’d like to pose a question, rather than an answer, but this show should leave people walking away thinking about the human voice in a way they never expected to, and that has a real purpose to it.

Reeps One performs at Abbeydale Picture House on 8 June as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018. Tickets are £15/£13 via sheffdocfest.com.

Sam Walby