Casino Luxembourg—Forum d’art contemporain invites, from February 18 to April 16, 2023, Judith Deschamps to present an·other voice.
The exhibition an·other voice finds its starting point in a nightly ritual shared for nearly a decade by the Italian male soprano Carlo Broschi, better known under his stage name “Farinelli,” and the Spanish king Philip V. The voice of the eighteenth-century Baroque singer, who had been castrated as a child, was a hybrid between the vocal ranges of a child, a man and an adult woman. Philip V, who was prone to persistent bouts of melancholy, appointed Farinelli to become his private singer. This marked the beginning of a daily ritual of the two men that lasted until the king’s death. Accounts by musicologists of the time report that Farinelli sang the same songs every night and that the king’s favourite was “Quell’usignolo che innamorato,” in which the singer imitated the trills of the nightingale.
It is precisely this song that Judith Deschamps has tried to reinvent by means of deep neural networks at IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), in collaboration with the researchers Frederik Bous and Axel Roebel, singers of different ages and ranges, and the composer António Sá-Dantas. Farinelli’s voice was similar to that of a child but more powerful, since his rib cage, oral cavity and throat were the size of an adult’s. It has been described as warm and chesty, similar to a mezzo-soprano, but in the course of his fifteen-year professional career, it would have settled into a somewhat lower register, similar to that of a light tenor. The work at IRCAM unfolded around this multiplicity of tessituras within Farinelli’s voice, caused by castration but also ageing. Singers with different voices and of different ages were asked to interpret the parts of the aria corresponding to their vocal range. These recordings were used to train an artificial intelligence (AI) to recreate the timbre and pitch of each voice, and then reproduce Farinelli’s supernatural vocal amplitude.
Presented within a larger installation, the musical reconstruction is the result of a technical process that is laid bare by occasional slight glitches in the music. Far from being smooth or steady, the song generated by the artificial intelligence oscillates between different pitches and states and is constantly renewed with the help of integrated software. This instability lies at the heart of Deschamps’s work, which aims to reveal the continual transformations that we undergo throughout our existence and the vulnerability they entail. While castration served to artificially freeze a child’s voice as if to make it eternal, the exhibition questions our beliefs in the use of technology when dealing with human finitude.
Conceived in collaboration with the performer and dancer Gaëtan Rusquet, the exhibition display combines the song with a sculpture and a film, which emerged in parallel from the work at IRCAM. They highlight different layers and underlying narratives the music on its own could not have conveyed.
The sculpture, a 3D hybridisation of an ear and a larynx, materialises the symbiotic relationship between Philip V and Farinelli. The new organ resulting from this modelling process appears to have been violently removed from the body, echoing the violence of castration. This appropriation of a child’s body resonates with the more contemporary questions raised by the three singers in the film. One has undergone what he calls a “silent break of voice” and was momentarily persuaded to force his voice to adopt a lower pitch so as to conform to the so-called “male” register. Another has begun a gender transition, which allows her to embrace the female gender she has always identified with, incidentally keeping her soprano voice in the process. The third singer is a teenage boy whose voice is about to break. Against the authority of norms that operate in often imperceptible and deep-rooted ways, their stories show that the voice can disappear at any moment. It is a simultaneously powerful and fragile instrument that the society of adults threatens to suppress. Opposite the singers, who are still close to childhood, appears the artist’s grandmother. By connecting these two generations, the film seeks to provide a platform for voices that are all too often excluded from social and political life. By bringing them to the fore, the exhibition affirms their crucial importance if we are to imagine a viable future in which all bodies have their place.
Judith Deschamps (b. 1986 in Paris, lives and works in Brussels and Paris) studied in France and the UK. Her multidisciplinary approach combines performance, film, sculpture and installation. Her works harness historical, cultural and religious references to explore contemporary social and technological concepts and practices from a feminist perspective.
Kevin Muhlen and Stilbé Schroeder
Gaëtan Rusquet with the participation of Stefan Kartchev
Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique – Ircam, Équipe Analyse et synthèse des sons – Laboratoire STMS, La Fondation des Artistes