Linguistics and English Language

Music record inventively illuminates research into the evolution of words relating to “light”

Professor Simon Kirby collaborated with artists & musicians around Scotland to create ‘Sing the Gloaming,’ a vinyl record of experimental music grounded in research

The culmination of a project exploring light, linguistics and landscape that draws inspiration from research into the evolution of language is set to be released next month [July] in the form of a limited-edition 10” vinyl record of experimental music and an accompanying booklet of striking imagery.

Exploring light and sound, past and present

Rob St. John, Tommy Perman, and Professor Simon Kirby
Rob St. John, Tommy Perman, and Professor Simon Kirby

A collaboration between Linguistics & English Language Professor Simon Kirby and artists/musicians Tommy Perman and Rob St. John, Sing the Gloaming draws upon Simon’s ground-breaking research at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Language Evolution into the cultural evolution of language, including phonaesthemes; sounds or sound sequences within words that directly invoke a certain meaning.

The project focuses on English words relating to light that feature the phonaestheme “gl” at their start, such as: glimmer, glitter, glow, gleam, glass and gloom. Professor Kirby’s research reveals the processes by which language evolves over many generations, including the way these words originate from a single ancestor first spoken near the Black Sea nearly 5,000 years ago.

Constructing vocals around light words

The record formed a creative fellowship between Kirby, Perman, St. John and seven of Scotland’s finest artists and musicians: Hanna Tuulikki, Aidan Moffat, Andrew Wasylyk, Su Shaw (SHHE), Emily Scott (Modern Studies), Kenny Anderson (King Creosote) and Nerea Bello.

The project brief for the artists was to find a place where light moves, then record short new vocal pieces around particular “light words” from that place.

The singers were asked to think about the qualities of the space they were in, and those of the words themselves, when recording their pieces. Once each singer had finished their recordings, the recordings were passed onto the next singer, who in turn listened and improvised their own ‘light word’ piece. Melodies emerged and evolved in this process, mirroring the real-world evolution of the words themselves. This method of composition is directly inspired by the experimental methods Kirby’s lab uses to study the cultural evolution of language.

More information on exactly how the recordings for Sing the Gloaming were produced can be found in a short documentary produced by Kirby, Perman, and St. John.

A glimmering masterpiece

For all its conceptual thinking and tinkering, the new record is a playful and joyous listen. The vocals wash in and out creating new clusters of chords, melodies and rhythms, each singer collaborating with the next, their collective efforts coalescing like the words in language itself.

Sing the Gloaming will be released by Blackford Hill label next month on 10” vinyl, accompanied by a printed booklet illustrated by Tommy Perman. The record can also be pre-ordered via the record label’s Bandcamp: Blackford Hill site below.

Sing the Gloaming: A Documentary

Three tracks from ‘Sing the Gloaming’

Reconstructed Forms

Phonaesthemes (section 5)

Onset and Rime

Related links:

Bandcamp: Blackford Hill

Professor Simon Kirby

Centre for Language Evolution