CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Like most musicians, Erin Gee – a composition professor at the University of Illinois – experiments incessantly with her instrument, trying to coax it into delivering an increasingly wider range of intriguing sounds. In Gee’s case, her instrument is simply her mouth, but what she does with it defies conventional categorization. It’s not singing, or scatting, or even beat-boxing. Instead, she has created her own musical toolbox – a collection of clicks, hums, pops, sighs, trills, whispers and whistles that composer Martin Brody has described as “new vocal molecules created by recombining the atomic elements of speech.”
Excerpts from “Yamaguchi Mouthpiece I” by Illinois music composition professor Erin Gee provide the soundtrack to a new iPad game called Blek.
Gee’s compositions built on these sounds have won her a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, the Rome Prize, the UNESCO Picasso-Miró Medal and commissions ranging from the American Composers Orchestra to the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the Zurich Opera House.
Most recently, Gee’s music turned up in a new and novel video game called Blek, described by The New Yorker as “the sort of game you’d want to put on a space probe: when the aliens play it, they’ll take a liking to us right away.”
Selected as Pocket Gamer’s “top pick” of the week when it was released earlier this month, Blek begins as a simple game in which the player draws on a touchscreen to create a doodle that repeats itself. The goal is to have the doodle hit all the colored dots while avoiding being sucked into the black holes. Over the course of 60 levels, the dot patterns become increasingly challenging. Blek’s environment, described by various reviewers as “gorgeous minimalist art,” “zen” and “a thing of elegant, intuitive beauty,” has no music – just a simple, shimmering chime between levels, and a one-second utterance from Gee whenever the doodle falls into a black hole. These sounds are tiny excerpts from “Yamaguchi Mouthpiece I,” part of a set of pieces based on Japanese vocal sounds that Gee wrote in 2005, during her residency at the Akiyoshdai International Art Village in Yamaguchi, Japan. In 2012, Gee was contacted by Davor and Denis Mikan, who wanted to use “Yamaguchi Mouthpiece” in their first game.
“Davor has a music background and he had been to some of my concerts in Vienna,” Gee said. “He told me that while creating the game and looking for sounds, he happened to pick up my CD and put it in. He said he thought it would be perfect.”
The half-dozen wordless clips express frustration and sympathy in an intimate, gently whimsical tone, almost like a mother clucking over her infant. One reviewer called them “humorous;” another described them as “so lovely and so unique!”
“When the little black thread is absorbed into the black dots, you hear a lovely sigh from a female,” the reviewer wrote. “The otaku’s (game player’s) heart is breaking!”
Gee, who grew up in Iowa, is fluent in German and has studied other Romance languages, but is omnivorously drawn to the vocal sounds of all sorts of languages. “For a while, I was sort of collecting tongue twisters in different languages,” she said. When she first began composing “Mouthpiece” works, starting in about 2000, she used a hand-held recording device to record small quasi-improvisatory segments and then edit and organize her work. Eventually, she fabricated a notational system based on a combination of traditional musical notation and the International Phonetic Alphabet.
“It’s all the known sounds of all the known languages,” she said. “It doesn’t work for everything, but it works for almost everything.”
When other artists want to perform her vocal works, she provides the manuscript, a recording and detailed instructions. “Sometimes I’ll have a conversation with them on the phone,” she said.
Originally trained as a classical pianist, Gee writes for a variety of string, wind and percussion instruments, sometimes in combination with vocals, sometimes without, but never in the traditional arrangement, where the vocalist is simply accompanied by instrumentalists. Instead, Gee may mask the voice by assigning it a fricative consonant at a pitch that blends with, for example, the trombones. “There may be a section where the voice is sort of dancing on top of the instruments,” she said, “and then suddenly, it drops down, just holding a note with the brass, hiding almost, just adding timbre to the instruments.”
A CD of her “Mouthpieces” compositions is scheduled for release next month on the col legno label. Also in January, Blek, which is currently available only for iPad, will be redesigned and released for iPhone and iPod Touch.