Sound Portraits by Cyborg Artist Reveal Facial Similarities Between Leonardo DiCaprio and Macaulay Culkin

neil harbisson - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Neil Harbisson

neil harbisson - Publicity - H 2016

Artist/composer Neil Harbisson uses surgically implanted antenna to "hear" the color of famous faces.

If you want to know what Leonardo DiCaprio’s face sounds like, you can ask Neil Harbisson, composer of sound portraits made with the use of a surgically implanted antenna attached to his skull.

“If we could hear the frequency of the color red, we would hear a note, and that’s the note I am hearing,” explains Harbisson, 34, co-founder of the Cyborg Foundation, an organization promoting cyborgism, cyborg rights and cyborg art like his avant-garde compositions as well as audio portraits of DiCaprio, Woody Allen, Macaulay Culkin, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Judi Dench, James Cameron, Alfonso Cuaron, Gael Garcia-Bernal and Daniel Radcliffe, along with numerous artists and heads of state.

“Each person has their own peculiar sound. Woody Allen sounds very unsaturated, very soft sounds,” the Belfast-born, Spain-raised Harbisson explains by phone from New York. “Macaulay Culkin sounds C-major, which is very unusual to find major chords in a face. Al Gore has different notes in his eyes cause he has different shades of turquoise. Each eye sounds slightly different. Leonardo DiCaprio, he sounds almost like a major chord as well. He sounds G, E, and the shade of the eyes are similar to the color combinations of Macaulay Culkin.”

Born colorblind, Harbisson had an antenna implanted (a rudimentary headphone setup over a decade ago that has been replaced with increasingly sophisticated technology) to allow him to feel and hear notes and vibrations based on color saturation in the objects and people around him. His transformation serves to advance the foundation’s goal to extend human senses through the use of surgically implanted technology. Coming this fall is North Sense, a chip that will allow aspiring cyborgs to identify magnetic north, available for roughly $300.

The foundation’s first step is to extend human senses, and then create art from the reconfiguration. Cyborg Foundation co-founder Moon Ribas has an implant that wirelessly connects her to a worldwide network of seismographs, allowing her to feel earthquakes wherever they occur. Her dance piece, Waiting For Earthquakes, is based on movements she feels happening in real time.

For his audio portraits, some are clients that approach him, others are people he meets at various science or music events, but Harbisson never works from photographs. It's essential to have the subject in front of him as he runs his antenna over their face, recording shades and tones. But if you’re expecting the Sissy Spacek Symphony you might be a little disappointed. The audio portraits generally consist of only five notes — two eyes, skin, lips and hair.

“What really surprised me is that skin color sounds the same even if you’re black or white. People who say they’re black, they’re not actually black. They’re very, very dark orange. And people who say they’re white, they’re not actually white. They’re very, very light orange, which is different shades of F sharp — reddish orange or yellowish orange but it’s never ever black or white. So the skin is the only thing that actually sounds very, very similar to everyone of us.”

Subjects don’t have to be famous to have their portrait done by Harbisson, who often performs what he calls “face concerts” where people line up for a quick sketch that is amplified for an audience. And if you’re not as handsome as Leonardo, take heart. At least you might sound better. “The notes of beauty are by shape, not by color combinations,” he explains. “Someone might look very beautiful but sound not as harmonious as they look and sometimes it’s the opposite.”