Saturday, August 12, 2017

Vocal Improvisations at Adobe Books

Fridays tend to be one of the busier days on my schedule. However, last night offered a break in my usual routines; so I used the occasion to check out the monthly music series that Ben Tinker is currently curating at Adobe Books. The new location for Adobe on 24th Street is much smaller than the original space on 16th Street, but 24th Street tends to be as lively a venue in the Mission as 16th Street is. The result was that it did not take long for the shop to fill up with those who knew what they were going to get and those who were curious. Furthermore, the size of the crowd meant that the front door was left open. On the one hand this provided another tactic to attracting the curious; and, at the same time, the ambience of street sounds had its own role to play in contributing to music-making activities.

That latter factor was clearly evident in last night’s first set, which consisted of different approaches to solo and duo vocal improvisation taken by Ron Heglin, Kattt Atchley, and Loren Benedict. Each performer had a microphone; but, for the most part, the dynamics were on the soft and subtle side, providing any number of opportunities for the street sounds to add to the mix. The result amounted to an engaging exercise in an aesthetic approach championed by composers such as John Cage and Pauline Oliveros, based on the precept that wanting what you have tends to be more beneficial than striving to have what you want.

To some extent that aesthetic also characterized the approaches taken by the three vocalists. Atchley’s was the most “traditional” (bearing in mind the use of scare quotes). Her preference was for sustained pitches, frequently accompanied by hand gestures that seemed to recall the ancient practice of cheironomy, through which the collective singing of chant was regulated by hand signals representing pitch contours, as well as tempo. Both Heglin and Benedict, on the other hand, tended to work almost entirely with phonemes, alternating between spoken and sung. Heglin’s preference for speaking complemented Benedict’s preference for singing.

Each of the vocalists took a solo turn to establish his/her particular approach to technique. In addition, over the course of set, Heglin gave duo performances with both Atchley and Benedict (in that order). One thus came to accept that each of these three musicians commanded a unique “language” of performances, which could be served by both “oratory” and “conversation.”

From a personal point of view, I was most drawn to the phonemic pursuits of both Heglin and Benedict. Heglin’s approach, because so much of it was grounded in speaking, had the strongest linguistic connotations. His delivery could establish the illusion that he was communicating in some rare language known only to a scholarly few. Nevertheless, the performance gave a convincing account that his outpouring of phonemes was guided by syntax, semantics, and most likely rhetoric.

While Benedict was more inclined to add pitch to his delivery, his own approach to shaping phonemes captured much of that same spirit behind Heglin’s work. However, he tipped his hand when he stated that his solo had been inspired by Irving Berlin. If Heglin was motivated by oratory, Benedict’s inspiration came from crooning. The result was to evoke an Irving Berlin song composed in an alternative universe in which Berlin spoke some highly obscure language (not to be confused with Yiddish).

Heglin had his own source from the past, but this time that source was situated in the same universe as our own. That source was Kurt Schwitters, one of the pioneers of what came to be called sound poetry. He created the poem Ursonate between 1922 and 1932, and through that creation he demonstrated that one could apply classical sonata form to a gamut of phonemes as readily as one could apply it to the chromatic scale. Schwitters could engage powerful rhetorical devices in reciting this poem and could draw rapt attention to a text that, deliberately, did not mean anything. It is no surprise that the Nazis saw him as a threat, since his recitation technique suggested that the sounds coming from Adolf Hitler’s mouth were no more than gibberish.

Heglin is much more low-key than Schwitters ever was. He is also less interested in constraints such as sonata form. Thinking again of the sorts of convictions that Cage espoused, one might say that Heglin’s approach demonstrates that discourse can be an art form unto itself (percussion music by other means, if you wish). This puts him in a class by himself, finding his way along new paths that neither Schwitters nor Cage had considered.

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