Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) presented a program entitled The Voice and The Machine, jointly curated by soprano Amy Foote and composers Aaron Gervais and Dennis Aman. All five of the selections were vocal works composed by Laura Steenberge and Isaac Schankler, as well as Gervais and Aman. The vocalists were Foote, mezzo Melinda Becker, tenor David Katz, and bass Sidney Chen, as well as Helen Newby, who sang in one selection and played cello in two others. Gervais also contributed live electronics and conducted one of his own pieces.
The program’s title referred to how each of the pieces performed explored some aspect of how a lifeworld that has become so heavily dominated by technology encroaches upon primal aspects of humanity, such as personal expression through the voice. The world premiere selection on the program provided the most elaborate account of this dialectical opposition and managed to have an inordinate amount of fun in doing so. Aman’s Jelly Choruses is a collection of four four-part settings of poems by Martin Azevedo sung with an obbligato cello part. However, each vocalist is also required to play two Jellyphones, handmade instruments that Aman himself designed and built.
The Jellyphone may be the ne plus ultra instrument for musicians who like to play with their food. The instrument was inspired by an electronic memory game that required repeating longer and longer patterns by tapping on colored buttons on a single surface. As in the game, the buttons light up. However, each triggers a MIDI signal; and colors are provided by placing individual chunks of Jell-O on each button. The performer creates patterns of sound by slapping the different chunks, meaning that each vocalist is responsible for choreographing the patterns for playing two of these instruments through hands getting increasingly messy.
Azevedo’s texts offer a blithely witty account of the erosion of human qualities in an age of technology. Foote served as the protagonist in this account, while the other three vocalists and all eight of the Jellyphone’s emerged as some kind of primal oracle. As the one performer of a “human” instrument, Newby eventually left her post to wander among the vocalists while nibbling at the Jello-O pieces they had been slapping. Whether the protagonist recovered her humanity by the end of the cycle of choruses is left for the listener/viewer to decide. (I have now reached an age at which I associate Jell-O only with hospital procedures.)
Wit pervaded much of the other four selections on the program. It was probably most evident in Schankler’s “Mouthfeel,” a setting of a marketing pitch for Doritos Locos Tacos for tenor solo with the voice processed by electronics. Schankler’s setting alternated between the words themselves and their phonemic elements, the latter summoning up some of the musical qualities of Kurt Schwitter’s “Ursonate.” Similarly, his approach to repetition and permutation of a few key words recalled the poetry of Gertrude Stein.
If Schankler was actually working from a transcript, then his choice was a fortuitious one. It required him to set the couplet:
people knew this ideawas going to be huge
These days, it is almost impossible to hear the adjective “huge” without thinking of Donald Trump. Thus, what probably began as a study in the absurdity of marketing techniques took on a much sharper edge in the context of our immediate present.
Gervais conducted his four-voice setting of a poem by Guillaume de Machaut, “Longuement me suit tenus” (a long time have I held myself back). Curiously, Machaut had his own interests in permutation, evident in this case in his final stanza. However, here, again, Gervais was more occupied with phonemic elements with particular attention to the distinctive pronunciation of French in the fourteenth century. Through the echoing effects of his electronics, Gervais created a sonorous cloud in which the more distinctive shapes of words would come and go. Nevertheless, his overall score was guided by an understanding of the poem that determined how structure would be defined through moments of climax.
“Louis CK am Spinnrade” was Gervais’ weaker contribution to the program. This amounted to a mashup of a song text that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote for the first part of his Faust drama and a recording of a monologue by Louis C.K. about texting while driving. Individual Goethe lines were pulled out of context to fit the monologue and set as a duo for mezzo and cello. While both Becker and Newby rose to the demands of the score, one came away with the feeling that the piece did not have very much to say beyond the oddity of its juxtaposition of sources.
The most fascinating (and probably most serious) work on the program was the first piece, “Lucretius, my Lucretius.” Steenberge set six excerpts from De rerum natura (on the nature of things). This is probably the most forward-looking of the major ancient Roman texts, since it deals with concepts such as the atomic nature of matter, human consciousness, and even the idea of infinity. Indeed, one of the passages that Steenberge set could have been written by Douglas Adams:
With infinite matter available, infinite space, and infinite lack of interference things certainly ought to happen.
“Lucretius, my Lucretius” is an a cappella setting for three female voices. (This was when Newby performed as vocalist.) Steenberge’s score explores an elaborate rhetoric of coming together and coming apart among these three voices. To some extent her composition constitutes a “musical cosmology” that reflects upon Lucretius’ worldview, rather than simply relating it. The composition was not so much a confrontation with the opposition of machine and humanity as much as it was a setting of one of the earliest documents of the human mind at its most systematic (but far from mechanistic).