Dec. 1, 2006— -- What would you do with a degree from Yale University in geology and geophysics? How about construct a box out of plywood, outfit it with a microphone and soundproofing blankets, and schlep it to museums across the Northeast in order to record strangers's voices? No?
Well, that is exactly what 32-year-old Boston musician Halsey Burgund did.
However peculiar this may seem, Burgund is not a man without purpose. He began recording his family and friends to turn their speaking voices into music and has since branched out to the general public.
"I found that upon close listening that you can really get some moments of beauty to come out of these spoken words that are really amazing," Burgund said. "Some rhythm, some melodies, some wonderful, wonderful bits of music can actually come out of the spoken voice when you treat it as such."
Through his project, "Bring Your Own Voice," he hopes to elicit truthful and heartfelt responses from his interviewees, which he will then transform into songs.
To record his volunteers, he constructed a booth with a microphone, and since 2005 he has lugged the room to nearly 30 locations, from Harvard Square to bowling alleys, recording hundreds of hours worth of material.
In July, Burgund and his booth went on "tour," so to speak, as he set up shop in seven museums scattered throughout the Northeast including The Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass., the Chelsea Art Museum in New York City, and The New Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston.
"People were completely amazed and moved," said Aldrich Museum spokeswoman Alison Pratt, who brought her two sons, ages 4 and 6, to the well-attended exhibit.
Of the booth itself, Pratt said it was "very approachable," "very inviting," and "eye-catching."
"It felt like you were in a big womb," said Corey Cronin, spokesman for the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass., which also hosted Burgund's booth. Cronin described the booth as a "very serene and warm place where you can focus on what you're saying and express yourself freely."
And despite his claustrophobia, he said he felt very comfortable answering Burgund's questions in the tiny booth.
Burgund's foray into "spoken word" songs started small.
He first recorded his parents reading the same poem and then slowly branched out, soliciting friends and friends of friends for their voices. Burgund began the "Bring Your Own Voice" project about two years ago, after he exhausted (and annoyed) all of his other "resources."
"Before I drove all my friends away, I decided that I would like to try and record people I don't know. And not only did I want to record them because they are new voices, but I wanted to record people's voices who had no preconceived notion of who I am or what I do … and let them be a part of my music," Burgund said.
Burgund is certainly not the first musician to mix spoken word and song. Mainstream music artists from Eminem to Moby to Bobby McFerrin have experimented with the juxtaposition of speech and music for decades. What sets Burgund apart is his emphasis on tone of voice over more typical musical aspects.
The spoken word is the backbone of Burgund's compositions, serving as the melody as well as the rhythm.
His debut CD, "Words and Voices," features many clips from his years collecting strangers's musings on the weather, their weekend plans, or even their families and relationships. In these pieces, Burgund uses the sounds of voices in a variety of ways, from ambient waves to pulsing techno bursts to rhythmic indie rock.
"He sculpts sound using chortles and chuckles, monastic chants, loops of two very different voices repeating the same line," explains The Boston Phoenix's music critic Mike Miliard.
Burgund's voices become the piano chords and spiral of instruments in the background, as well as the melody and the harmony of his compositions.
His music is also unique in its connection to his listeners. Unlike much of today's mass-produced, remixed, and computerized sound, his songs bridge the gap between artist and audience.
"To me [decreasing the gap] provides a situation where I think the listeners can really get more of a visceral emotion out of listening to music," Burgund said. "So if there is a way that this project brings people who create art closer to the people who appreciate and listen to the art, I will have been successful."
For now, Burgund continues to relocate and record. His next and final stop on Dec. 10 will be at the The New ICA in his home town of Boston.
Once the "Bring Your Own Voice" tour finishes, his work will have only just begun, though.
He will spend the next weeks and months reviewing the material and selecting sounds before beginning the more time-consuming process of composing and mixing the tracks for his next album.
In Burgund's eyes, this project has less to do with the music than with the people behind it inspiring him.
"I'm not investigating facts at all, but people's feelings and people's thoughts and people's emotional responses," he said. "I like to hear what other people have to say."