It started with the human voice

By Suvi Andrea Helminen

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On Tuesday March 3rd, Open Documentary Lab fellow Halsey Burgund gave a talk about his work as a sound artist working with voices and music-scapes. What does this have to do with documentaries? All his work springs from real life and recordings of people’s personal experiences.

Inspiration often starts in the most unlikely situations, when not searching for it. In 2003 Halsey had spent the past 6 years of his professional life working for a high-tech consulting firm, and before that he was as a furniture designer. Art and music had always been his spare time passion. Halsey was having Thanksgiving dinner with his family when he decided to record them reading out poetry. He got instantly fascinated by the spoken human voice, because he discovered that each voice seemed to reflect the personality and the history of each family member. There was a hidden layer of meaning beyond the actual words that were spoken. He turned the family dinner poetry session into a piece of music. That was the start of his next 10 years as a sound artist.

After exhausting his family and friends with sound recordings, he began to involve other people in his work. The first project of this type was “Bring Your Own Voice” which started in 2004. He built a booth on Harvard Square, the general public could enter and comfortably record and contribute their voices to the installation. The booth has since then been set up in many locations and the project is ongoing. Over the years he has collected close to a thousand voices. It can be experienced at  HYPERLINK “

He did several participatory pieces after “Bring Your Own Voice”, and eventually it led to Halsey developing “Roundware”, an opensource audio platform  HYPERLINK “ He began to compose location based works in larger physical spaces, amongst them Scapes, a spatially related musical composition in DeCordova Museum’s sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts in 2010. It began as a piece of music to which people would add their voices as overlayed layers. The audio, being location  specific changed depending on the position of the listener in the sculpture garden.

The core of Roundware is the ability to augment physical spaces with an evolving layer of audio comprised of music, curated content and participant-contributed content. In his current works Halsey essentially creates what could be called “documentary spaces”, capturing moments in time from multiple points of view that can be re-experienced by other participants in the same physical space. Recently he used Roundware for the project Sound Sky, in Christchurch, New Zealand, recording stories after the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes.

People walk about the city thinking about what used to be and what is there now, remembering and rebuilding collectively. They record their own stories and listen to other’s stories in the same locations. This results in an installation that is constantly changing as more and more participants record their audio commentary on landscapes in real-time.

Check out Halsey’s works here

Suvi Andrea Helminen
Fellow, MIT Open Documentary Lab
Comparative Media Studies/Writing