Bringing to light the voice figures of Margaret Watts-Hughes
In 1885, the Welsh singer and philanthropist Margaret Watts-Hughes embarked upon an extraordinary series of experiments on the shaping of materials and images with sound. In attempting to measure the loudness of her voice Watts-Hughes conceived and commissioned the making of an instrument she called the eidophone. Consisting of a mouthpiece and receiving chamber, across which was stretched a vibrating India rubber membrane, she discovered that the apparatus produced patterns in a variety of powders and fluids by way of its resonant articulation of sung notes – phenomena she named voice figures. A desire to ‘fix’ these patterns directly led her to applying the eidophone to pigments on glass.
This article will evaluate a recently unearthed archive of these works – never before seen in colour and previously thought lost – by examining details of the images in conjunction with Watts-Hughes’ writing in order to gain insights into her practice. It will attempt to situate Watts-Hughes as an interdisciplinary practitioner, working within and around the contemporaneous discourses on early sound recording, science and the supernatural. Noting concordances with spiritualist practices and (given their relationship to radical social movements) implications for notions of female voice and power, an implied metaphysics of the voice is discussed, along with the possibility, or otherwise, to disinter the sound from these singular works of art. In an era where digital tools and practices enable the extraction of an audio signal from almost any form of visually represented sound, this article concludes with how we might contend with the voice figures – works of immense complexity which problematise this tendency towards direct sonification.
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