In June 2019, artist Màiri Lafferty brought together an all-female ensemble at Basic Mountain, Edinburgh, to experience the process that was the making of her new film ‘Tongues’. Through the sanctity of the environment and unique shared experience, the group were able to unearth and release their inherent voice, identifying the restorative potential of female bonding and expression through what eventually emerged as a secular speaking of tongues. Accompanied by a text by Holly Yeoman, the film is a document, testimony and expression of that process. The full film was screened by MAP until from 8 April - 8 May 2020.

'Tongues' (excerpt), Màiri Lafferty, with Fallopé & the Tubes, 2019. Digital film, black & white, sound, 25 min. © The Artist

Polyphonic Repentance: Holly Yeoman on the making of ‘Tongues’, a new film by Màiri Lafferty

‘Tongues’, a new film by Màiri Lafferty, is inspired by her formative experience of Evangelical Christianity in Scotland and in the southern United States, witnessing and practicing glossolalia or speaking in tongues. The making of ‘Tongues’, comprised of four workshopped Acts led by Ros Steen, a voice practitioner and Layla Brown, a classically trained singer specialising in improvisation. Being led through the Acts in this way enabled ‘Strange Music’ group Fallopé and The Tubes to experiment and locate their hidden voices: it supported them to explore the vocal expression of humanity while developing their delivery of this, highlighting how the voice is inseparably bound with the experiences and individuality of one’s life.

‘Tongues’ signifies a desire to create space, a system, an atmosphere of support, fellowship and creative outlet. It is evocative but alternative to the qualities of the organised religion of Màiri’s youth. Through a self-reflective process, it explores the duality of religious existence and the complexities of womanhood through the creation of a disconnected/connected choir, bringing them closer to the point of producing secular versions of speaking in tongues. The process and outcome of this was filmed throughout by an all-female production group based at Basic Mountain, an independent female owned/lived-in Edinburgh arts venue with a rich domesticated creative ethos and heritage that provided a private, protective energy.

In this context, process was profoundly to the fore, the film being the result of this unique experience of improvisation: bonds were reinforced through meditative engagement with source ideas and context which in turn released emotional and creative response. Working on the voice beyond conventional boundaries, experimenting with breath, range, dynamic and gender, enabled participants to overcome inhibition and realise maximum vocal potential. Unearthing their authentic voice, they were able to contemplate the nature of that sound, experimenting with vocal expression to explore aspects of humanity such as frailty, sorrow, joy, light, dark, masculine, feminine. Experienced often in unexpected circumstances, these are voices we access when we come up against feelings of distress, relief, elation, and matters teetering between life and death.

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Still: 'Tongues', Màiri Lafferty, with Fallopé & the Tubes, 2019. Digital film, black & white, sound, 25 min. All images © Màiri Lafferty, courtesy the Artist

Referred to in The Old and New Testaments, and associated with revivalist and Pentecostal movements, speaking in tongues sounds to some, heavenly, an unintelligible, melodic personal prayer language known not even to the speaker. Those who practice it say it comes from the spirit not the mind, that it has no meaning in the natural world, only in the spiritual one. Speakers believe that the spirit of God moves through them, commanding their voice. Worshippers are urged to practice away from the congregation, in order to have deeper prayer experience and to edify themselves spiritually: this aspect of bolstering the self through free expression is something ‘Tongues’ adheres to.

Màiri’s family experienced this form of worship in the southern US in a Baptist Tent Revival that showcased the extremities of physical and verbal automatism. The resulting convulsions and seizure-like activity had electrifying appeal. Once back in Scotland, the family joined other families in prayer in their homes. Màiri, in a desire to master her ‘spiritual language’, practiced aloud when alone.

In ‘Tongues’, Màiri shares a glimpse into this unique part of her life, the process and film circling the conundrum of religious experience in the UK’s increasingly secular society. Religion provides a community in which worshipping in tongues offers complete connectivity and redemption through a private act with an air of cult-like mystery to the non-believer. But this idea of self-actualisation is constantly challenged by the reality of contemporary everyday life.

Màiri’s feminist approach also sparks enquiry into the interconnection of religious and social systems and its relationship to women. ‘Tongues’ draws on a widely held scepticism, fear and constraint of women. Where society is threatened by female power and self-expression, there lies self-doubt and neglect, as eloquently described by poet Audre Lorde in her essay ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’.

“We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings... And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for or accept many facets of our oppression as women.” [1]

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Still: 'Tongues', Màiri Lafferty, with Fallopé & the Tubes, 2019. Digital film, black & white, sound, 25 min. All images © Màiri Lafferty, courtesy the Artist

Lorde reveals the erotic as not only something assigned to the sexual, but as also connected to a feminine and spiritual sense of self, to where we find a personal sense of joy — making a bookshelf, making love, dancing. Women have been taught to dissociate from this connection: the erotic can provide us with knowledge and a lens to politically scrutinise and reaffirm ourselves, our self-expression and power. It is this aspect of our lives women must protect most carefully.

Throughout the Acts of ‘Tongues’, Steen and Brown led the group from radical pedagogical vocal techniques to historical scales from around the world. Steen, an accredited teacher of Voice Studio International which provides training and workshops based on the work of renowned voice teacher Nadine George, drew upon the technique, ‘The Four Qualities of the Human Voice’ which acknowledges and connects the importance of breath to voice and energy, physicality, touch, breath, bonding, imagination and escapism, all characterising the ‘activity’. A pioneer in exploring the therapeutic and artistic potential of vocal expression, George’s technique is in turn influenced by singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn’s research that grew out of his experiences during WWI. Returning from military service, he was haunted by auditory hallucinations of fellow soldiers, wounded and dying. Suffering from shell shock but finding no relief from therapies offered to him, he cured himself by vocalising the sound of these hallucinations. Why are the voices of the dying stronger than the living? He reasoned that the human voice extends beyond the range commonly heard in speech and song. Working in pairs participants concentrated and connected to breath energy releasing their authentic, magnetically haunting sound, a voice relation of Wolfsohn’s dying souls.

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Still: 'Tongues', Màiri Lafferty, with Fallopé & the Tubes, 2019. Digital film, black & white, sound, 25 min. All images © Màiri Lafferty, courtesy the Artist

Moving into the next phase, gathered around a keyboard, directed and encouraged by Steen, participants’ confidence and presence visibly reinforced as their breath-sounds traversed into the intersections between vowels and notes, from high and low ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities. Mastering this ‘singing’ speech, they drew on texts that ranged from Shakespeare’s soliloquies to A.L. Kennedy’s Proof of Life.

Using classical scales and improvisation as her tools, Layla’s workshop explored the building of content through a diverse array of scales from Italy to the musical metre of Indian classical music. The increasing unfamiliarity of the scales acted like a vocal obstacle course, preparing them for vocal deconstructions of their names. Partnering and using call and response, the group built a dismantled, disorientating pattern of sound.

Bursts of laughter, caution, fun, kindness and affection were spontaneously added to this mix: the choir members expelling and transforming their names in onomatopoeic hybridity, became the orchestra tuning up, the animals of a jungle canopy. Risk and failure were embraced in the making of ‘Tongues’. And with this came a poignant wish that you had been able to experience all this at an earlier stage of life. The deconstruction of the names of members of Fallopé and The Tubes was a surprisingly powerful action. In that polyphonic undoing there was a loosening of the formalities of self, purging the doubt, shame, guilt and restrictions that women can habitually enforce on themselves, a repentance for consenting to the gender-bias and control of societys' ideas and beliefs. A much-needed release, and the closest we can get to a secular speaking of tongues.

[1] Audre Lorde, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (1978)

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‘Tongues’ was supported by the Royal Scottish Academy Morton Award.

Holly Yeoman is based in Edinburgh and is a lecturer at Gray’s School of Art, the Community Engagement Manager at Edinburgh Art Festival and an independent curator.

Màiri Lafferty is a visual artist based in Edinburgh, working with moving image and sound.

Professor Ros Steen is a voice practitioner and former Head of Research and the Centre for Voice in Performance at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Layla Brown is a classically trained singer specialising in improvisation. Originally from Dundee, she in now based in London.

Fallope and The Tubes is a Glasgow-based DIY weirdo punk group. The band is comprised of Catherine Weir, Rachel Walker, Ruby Pester, Nadia Rossi, Sarah Messenger and Emma McIntyre. Emma was unavailable for ‘Tongues’ and the group were joined by guest Rosslyn Oman. Their music is now available on bandcamp.

Basic Mountain is an independent arts venue in Edinburgh, owned by artist and educator Naomi Garriock. The mid-19th century building was formerly a purpose-built dance studio, which later became a Masonic Lodge for arts and drama.