Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Diverse Vocal Techniques at ROOM Series

Last night at the Royce Gallery, Pamela Z presented her final ROOM Series concert for 2017, departing from her usual convention of offering these concerts only during the summer months. The title of the program was Tongue Teeth Lips, which meant to convey the different parts of the head that contribute to vocalizing. The selections presented a rich survey of non-standard approaches to the vocal genre. To offer as broad a survey as she could, Z invited as guest artists seven other pioneers in such non-standard techniques: Aurora Josephson, Amy Foote, Lorin Benedict, Richard Mix, Amy X Neuburg, Julie Queen, and Ron Heglin.

The result was about as broad a review of the full extent of vocalization as one could possibly desire. Indeed, I must confess that, since every selection was its own journey of discovery, I felt somewhat saturated by the time the intermission took place, which was after the first ten (of twenty) selections on the program. I chose to leave at that point, simply because I felt that I would not be able to keep any more in my head (and, for as long as I have been at this work, I have scrupulously followed D. T. Suzuki’s teachings, as passed on by John Cage, that prohibit taking notes).

The evening got off to a stimulating start with Z’s “Light on the Subject,” which was performed by the entire ensemble. Each of the invited vocalists stood beneath a bare electric light bulb. Z stood at a control panel at the rear beside a lamp with a single bulb. The control panel determined when which lights would go on and off. Each vocalist performed only when his/her bulb was lit (probably improvising). The piece began with single voices and gradually evolved into more elaborate fabrics when multiple lights were lit at the same time. The result evoked memories of the earliest emergence of counterpoint, but the execution itself was firmly fixed in the immediate present. Z then followed this with her own “Quatre Couches,” one of her pieces that integrates electronic response to gestures (for both control and synthesis) into her vocal delivery.

Of the ten selections in the first half, the most compelling was a solo taken by Lorin Benedict. I first encountered Benedict this past August when he performed in Ben Tinker’s concert series at Adobe Books. On that occasion he improvised on a tune by Irving Berlin to which he set a prodigious diversity of phonemes that could not be associated with any known language (not even Yiddish). Last night he gave a similar treatment to Jerome Kern’s “Nobody Else But Me;” and I began to appreciate the extent to which he had escalated scat singing far beyond its roots in jazz. Once again, any resemblance to any known language was purely coincidental; but Benedict’s melodic line could easily have been one of Charlie Parker’s most adventurous improvisations, so far out that even the most knowledgable listener would have trouble identifying the tune behind it. Equally compelling, but with no connotations of bebop, was Richard Mix’ performance of Giacinto Scelsi’s “Wo Ma,” also rooted in syllabic content but delivered through the warm tones of a deep bass voice.

Heglin’s performance also reflected on that same evening at Adobe, which he shared with Benedict. However, Heglin’s approach is purely spoken, resulting in what is sometimes called sound poetry. Simply put, Heglin composes his work strictly with phonemes, to the entire elimination of semantics and syntax. Nevertheless, there is a strong connotation of language in his performance, suggesting that a keen sense of rhetoric can be applied just as easily to “pure” phonemes as to the concepts behind logical argumentation. The result is that the attentive listener hangs on every word that Heglin utters, even when those “words” are no more than strings of nonsense syllables.

Two of the pieces were conceived more as ritual than as “music performance.” Amy Foote presented Danny Clay’s “no more darkness, no more night.” The program described this as “a ritual for the calling of the spirit of the beloved artist Hiram King ‘Hank’ Williams, who left this world in New Years Day, 1953.” The performance involved both a tape recorder (presumably playing a Williams track) and a stroked wine glass; but it was clear that the act of vocalizing was secondary (if not tertiary). The same could be said for Aurora Josephson’s “New Moon Intentions: a ritual,” which involved a far more diverse collection of objects, so numerous that the piece as a whole amounted to little more than setting them out and then putting them back.

The remaining selections on the first half tended to prioritize the theatrical. These included two Amy X Neuburg pieces, one of which brought together all of the vocalists, each presenting a different perspective on the same verbal phrase (“Today a Man”), and Julie Queen’s “Hatred of Sound,” which involved her trying to keep Josephson, Foote, and Neuburg quiet through gestures, each of which was noisy in its own silent way. These were all “idea” pieces whose cleverness tended to sustain beyond the attention span.

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