The Learned Pig

Art – Thinking – Nature – Writing

Sing the Gloaming

If ever we needed a light-evoking cluster of words, it might be these waning days of 2020. The word form *ghlei has lent a glow to Indo-European languages for millennia. The gl-sound crossed landscapes and time, evolved with cultures that fashioned glimmer, glisten, gleam into their relations. You can imagine nimble words of light and its lack creating their own shapes and relations in turn. Let the words roam from your mouth – glimpse, gleam, glance, gloom, glitter – and feel your own connection to light grow in expression and complexity.

Sing the Gloaming, an ongoing collaboration between Professor Simon Kirby and artist/ musicians Tommy Perman and Rob St. John, offers innovative points of entry to engage with a map of *ghlei words. They brought a soundscape installation to Galloway Dark Skies Park in 2017 and witnessed the power of weather and water to quickly render shifts and decay. The project moved from forest to disused shop front for the Dundee Design Festival the next year, relying on sunlight to define the evolving sound. This past summer, Sing the Gloaming released a 10” record with Blackford Hill; Scottish vocalists inhabit the movement of light and the evolution of language in multi-layered recordings. Taking in the collective effort – intricate improvisations by the vocalists and studio production informed by a publishing database – a listener is transported across the span of maps and clocks, landing deep in the heart of human creativity and legacy.

Simon, Rob and Tommy considered questions about how they continue to build a creative place of light, landscape and language – a place where we can all belong.


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What was the specific origin or inspiration for Sing the Gloaming?

Simon Kirby: One of my research collaborators, Christine Cuskley, and I had written a paper a few years back about the way in which some words in language appear to evoke their meaning directly. In particular, we looked at a set of words in English that all relate to light and all start with the same sound: “gl-”. For example, glint, glimmer, gleam, glow and so on. Why do words like this exist? Part of the reason is due to the way languages evolve over time as they are passed down through the brains of many generations of language users. The meanings of words, and their sounds, change gradually, and what we are seeing here is a cluster of words that all have their origins in a single form spoken over 5000 years ago and have travelled over the centuries through multiple different languages, landscapes and cultures to arrive together in present day English. In making Sing the Gloaming, we started with one of the diagrams in that paper and took it from there.

Did the project proceed as expected? If yes, what were the expectations? If not, did the unexpected arrive in the artists’ expressions or in technical aspects, or in the collaborations, etc?

SK: I think in many ways the project did proceed as expected, in that we have ended up with something that really does fit what we set out to do. Gratifyingly, I think the record ended up being more musically varied than I expected. We started the (re)composition process with a set of recordings that our singers produced, and then had to figure out how to create a record with these. I did wonder if there would be limits on how far we could take the sound with this very vocal starting point, but once we got started it became obvious that there was a whole universe to explore within those recordings.

For the first installation, in the forest in Dumfries and Galloway, there were definite technical challenges that were unexpected. Artistically, I like the fact that we used tape loops for the physical installation, but Rob might want to chime in on what that was actually like to realise on a technical level!

All three of us are interested in this process of ‘setting the starting points’ for a piece of work, and allowing the characteristics of a site or space define how it takes shape.

Rob St. John: The initial Sing the Gloaming installation took place in Galloway Dark Skies Park in 2017 as part of the Sanctuary Lab 24 hour art festival. Tommy built a series of coloured hexagonal wooden sculptures, which each housed a cassette tape player. Each tape player continued a different tape loop, which would repeat indefinitely over the course of 3,5,7 or 9 minutes. Or so we imagined! The sculptures were designed to be laid out across the forest floor, with their loops arranged in such a way that a listener would ‘compose’ their own piece based on how they moved through the space. The weather on the first day of the installation was clear, and the loops variously whispered, pulsed and sung in the understory through to dusk.

Sing the Gloaming However, overnight a band of heavy (gloomy, even) rain moved over the site, and when returning to the installation in the grey dawn, the sound signature of the piece had shifted significantly. Water had trickled into the sculptures, and their batteries had begun to drain: meaning the cassette loops slowed and stuttered; their edges blurred and syllables mechanically slurred. But, there was a strange beauty in this decay, I think, and the result opened up possibilities for how we might design for chance and emergence in the long-term project. So, for example, when the project was reworked for the Dundee Design Festival the following year, the sound piece was defined by the movement of sunlight across an empty shop window. I think all three of us are interested in this process of ‘setting the starting points’ for a piece of work, and allowing the characteristics of a site or space define how it takes shape.

Were the vocalists given the same list of gl-words, or different lists for different musicians, or did they only start with an origin word?

Sing the GloamingSK: Each vocalist had 3 or 4 words to sing, and were given the recordings made by the previous singer, who had sung for an overlapping set of words. In this way, each singer had to improvise for familiar words and new ones. We chose the order of the singers and the words quite carefully to mirror aspects of the historical evolution from the extinct word forms to the more recent words. This process of transmission from one singer to the next is very close to the process whereby languages are transmitted from one generation to the next. Children hear language spoken (or see it signed in the case of signed languages) and then go on to produce language themselves. In this way, languages carry the imprint of the many brains and mouths or hands through which they have passed back through time. The melodies produced by our last singers similarly carry echoes of all the ones before.

Did the vocalists record on-site or in a studio? What were some of the specific places or landscapes where the recordings were made or inspired from? What are some particular ways the vocalists were inspired by place?

RSJ: We asked the contributors to listen and record in ‘a place where light moves’. Very open, as an instruction, I guess! Most often, this meant spaces within their own homes. What we wanted was to encourage a sense of stillness and attentiveness in the process of listening and recording, to slow our collective bodies for a short while and tune in to the transmissions from the previous singers. So, where the Sanctuary and Dundee installations were defined by the characteristics of the places in which they were installed, this latest iteration is more about the fleeting and momentary experiences of light and language, and how their interplay might evoke different imaginations of being in a landscape.

Sing the Gloaming

Can you elaborate on how book data usage of gl-words was used or incorporated into the (re)composition process (which seems a mapping process in itself)?

SK: We wanted to find ways to allow the evolution of language to inform the project at many different scales – not just in the choice of words or the compositional techniques, but also the audio production. We used the Google Books corpus, which is a massive database of a large proportion of everything that has ever been published in English. This lets anyone see a graph of how the usage of particular words has changed over the centuries by showing a count of how often a word is used in books published each year. Tommy was able to use these graphs to create impossible reverberant spaces that were simulated within the computer. In a very real sense, on the record you’re hearing the singers’ voices played through the history of the language itself.

Languages carry the imprint of the many brains and mouths or hands through which they have passed back through time.

I was intrigued by the accessibility of the project, both its concepts and the results. How might the recordings encourage people to inhabit place(s) and build connections to the cultural evolution of language—aspects of humanity that are part of every person’s heritage?

Tommy Perman: One of the aims of this project was to communicate something of Simon and Christine’s research in a playful and accessible way – so it’s lovely to hear that you feel the project has achieved this. I think the concept at the heart of Sing the Gloaming is quite simple to understand. I’ve spoken to lots of people about it over the last four years. As soon as I point out the group of words that all begin with “gl” I’ve noticed people becoming interested and start to suggest other words. We’ve learned about lots of regional variations (a personal favourite is glisk – a Shetlandic word meaning a gleam of sunlight through cloud; a glow of heat from a fire.)

What is something you’ve discovered or learned through Sing the Gloaming thus far? As I understand it’s an ongoing project, where do you imagine it heading in direction or evolution?

TP: I’ve really enjoyed the long gestation of Sing the Gloaming. Me, Simon and Rob first discussed doing something with “gl” words way back in 2016. Since then the project has involved many different iterations incorporating multiple artforms – sculpture, photography, filmmaking, animation, music, writing, drawing, graphic design. It has been a pleasure to share it with collaborators and audiences along the way.

After the experience of presenting the project in a rain-soaked woodland we worked with art fabricators Old School Fabrications to craft new waterproof sound sculptures. We plan to use these for more outdoor sound installations in the future and we have thoughts for sound and light performances. I’m excited to see how the project will continue to evolve.


For more information on Sing the Gloaming, you can visit the website, head to Blackford Hill, or watch the documentary online.


This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.


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