ADVANCED CONCEPTS IN THE VOCAL ETHER
by David St.-Lascaux
Quince Vocal Ensemble and Parias Ensemble
Avant-garde music continues to be a source of delight, especially when performed by talented new voices. In the Contagious Sound Series, curated by Vicky Chow and presented by Neke Carson at the Gershwin Hotel, a recent program of vocal music by Quince Vocal Ensemble, a quintet of female singers, and a non-vocal performance by Parias Ensemble, a Latin jazz–informed instrumental group, provided several thrilling examples.
Ohio-based Quince, comprising founder and soprano Amanda Deboer, soprano Liz Pearse, and mezzo-sopranos Kaleigh Butcher and Aubrey VonAlmen, with guest artist Delea Shand, sang a breathtaking program of mostly new music by mostly younger composers, opening with Laura Steenberge’s atmospherically penetrating, improvisational “Elevator Music.” This strange and hypnotic piece featured tone clusters that arose from one of the singers leading with a note that the others “clustered” around, followed by what appeared to be follow-the-leader echolalic modularities, which is to say that when the leader changed notes and sang combinations of notes, the others followed in slightly off-register (clustered) mimicry. The result was humorous and intriguing. Adding to the novelty of “Elevator Music,” Deboer said that lip-reading was an additional technique employed in its performance. When this piece closed, it was clear that Quince had arrived as a new force of vocal excellence and innovation. As the evening progressed and Quince sang wonder after wonder, the audience awaited each of them with Pavlovian anticipation.
Quince’s second piece was a New York premiere of the ironically visually oriented “Ars Videndi” (“The Art of Seeing”), by Christina Butera, whose text is a poem by Patrick Phillips. This poem’s subjunctive, ominous opening, and Chien Andalou-esque Dalían closing lines are:
Let us allow the swan its swanliness,
The beaded eye its glance
let us recollect imagination’s palimpsest:
the swan, the swan’s eye black with ants.
Like the poem, Butera’s vocal representation strives, she says, to contrast the grotesque image of a swan that Phillips presents with the graceful image of a swan that is conventionally presented in literature and art. In execution, Quince evoked an aviary of sound, complete with ornithological chirps and calls. With astounding deftness, Quince sang “Ars Videndi” in such a manner that the words seemed not to be in English, or any human language, recalling Steven Schick’s recent performance of Kurt Schwitters’s sound poem “Ursonate” (1922–1932) at the New York Armory. In this performance, Quince demonstrated itself to be to vocal music what Joseph Cornell is to boxes, as each consecutive measure brought a new and unexpected sound collage—not your standard barbershop quartet, but rather a series of twittered anharmonic perturbances that directly stimulated the pleasure centers of listeners’ brains.
Quince next sang the expectant, 10-year-old “I lie” (2001) by David Lang, Pulitzer Prize–winning composer of The Little Match Girl Passion and Bang on a Can co-founder. Lang described the piece as music for an SAA (soprano-alto-alto, i.e., three-voice) chorus. Its lyrics, from an old Yiddish song by Joseph Rolnick (here provided by Lang from a translation by Kristina Boerger), begin:
I lie down in bed alone
And snuff out my candle.
Today he will come to me
Who is my treasure.
The trains run twice a day.
One comes at night.
I hear them clanging—glin, glin, glon.
Yes, now he is near.
In this perfect-for-female-voices composition, Lang introduced the singers sequentially, increasing the intensity and complexity of the piece, low nocturnal sounds delivered by two, then three, then four singers. Lang’s technique, delivered to tranquilizing effect by Quince, was to have the first two singers function as continuo, the night train’s monotonous soundwaves underlying the delicacy of the other singers’ melodic parts.
In the middle of the program, Quince performed the oldest piece in the evening’s repertoire—John Cage’s “Living Room Music” (1940), with lyrics from Gertrude Stein’s then brand-new The World Is Round (1939) adult children’s book, in which the protagonists Rose and Willie sang. Rendered by Quince, “The World is Round” began at Stein’s beginning:
Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around.
Everywhere there was somewhere and everywhere there were men women children dogs cows wild pigs little rabbits cats lizards and animals. That is the way it was.
Cage’s selection of Stein’s musical narrative may have seemed entirely natural at the time to him as a composer; Quince’s performance of this seminal work revealed a very young ensemble fearlessly taking on advanced concepts whose sophistication and content they may not yet have grasped, which made their perhaps “naïve” performance all the more fresh and impressive.
As the evening progressed, the common thread of Quince’s selections seemed to be the intentional incorporation of aleatoric (chance) and improvisational elements. Sung, chance music and accompanying lyrics were at first disconcerting, though soon, when the trope was grasped, exhilarating. One example was the world premiere of “The Body Electric,” for female vocal quartet, by Jamie Leigh Sampson. As the title indicated, this piece was based on reconfigurations of a snippet of text from “I Sing the Body Electric” by Walt Whitman, specifically the section on “the female.” Sampson took the text:
I am drawn by its breath as if I am no more than a helpless vapor—all falls aside but myself and it.
and, as she says, “disrupted” it into such reordered Steinian nonsense (think Tender Buttons) as:
I vapor breath drawn were am helpless more its no than by as if a.
The individual singers’ simultaneous delivery rendered the text chorally incomprehensible in any event, so the impression was impressionistic, enabling the listener to focus on the beauty, timbre, and nuance of the singing. This, sounding like feline quarks in an echo chamber, sung to a spasmodic time signature, and evoking György Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame, was alternatingly eerie and vaporous—an ultimate complement to Sampson’s interpretation of the text. Whether Sampson (or Whitman, for that matter) captured the female essence or soul, on the other hand, was debatable, unless the female was, say, a resident of Area 51, and the message telepathic. Whitman as wordman might be rolling over in his grave. On its own merits, “The Body Electric” was transcendentally moving.
As implied above, listening to “The Body Electric,” and indeed, any of Quince’s pieces, doesn’t require understanding of the words (the composers essentially make this impossible by stretching and overlapping them) or their provenance, which does present a bit of a conundrum to the critical listener. Why not just Raoul Hausmann’s gibberish “fmsbw”? Or a page from a dictionary? Whether this is an interesting question or not, a libretto would have enhanced the listening and cultural experience. As it was, too many questions were left unanswered about the lyrical content; too large an archaeological dig was required to conjure them.
Quince next performed the New York premiere of Daniel Dehaan’s typographically impossible “tristese” for three singers and cello (Brian Snow). The piece was a subtle, contemplative composition in which the cello functioned percussively, with sometimes open strings, while the singers “hispered,” pianissimo.
Quince closed with a second world premiere, of “Decantation for 5 Voices” by Ravi Kittappa, who was the composer common to Quince and Parias, the evening’s other ensemble. “Decantation,” which featured a rainstick and two shruti boxes, was “decanted” into separate syllables, evolving into ritual droning like the chanting of “Om,” perhaps a Native American choir, and increasingly complex harmonies.
The second part of the evening’s program was a performance by the Parias Ensemble, an eclectically influenced group not easily categorized, comprising leaders Daniel Reyes Llinas on electric guitar and Luis Ianes on electric guitar, shruti box, and samples; Carlos Cordeiro on clarinet; Mariel Roberts on cello; James Ilgenfritz on bass; and Jude Traxler on percussion. Parias’s influences and sound incorporated classical chamber music, improvisational jazz, and contemporary Latino (i.e., Cuban) music.
Parias’s program included “Tres” and “La misma, otra gente, zorong” (“The same, other people, [foobar]”) by Ianes, “Cinco imagenes” by Reyes Llinas, and “Homage to Leo Brouwer: Simple Etudes” by both composers.
It was a big leap from Quince to Parias, which made “Tres” a “warming up” of the warming-to kind. Still, when this conventional jazz club soundtrack wound down-tempo, the drumsticks went to brushes, and the guitars to vibrato, it was a satisfying wrap.
Parias’s most avant-garde piece was Kittappa’s weird and wonderful, minor-keyed “Decantations,” previously sung by Quince, in which Traxler bowed a cymbal and the ensemble conveyed a dinnish orchestral presence. That’s not to say that the etudes in “Homage to Leo Brouwer” were uninteresting. Cordiero set up otherworldly soundwaves with his clarinet; Ianes and Reyes Llinas played their guitars like yogic chants; Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats met Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring; and the incorporation of glockenspiel, maracas, and a rain stick provided another sphere of experience.
Still, after Quince, Parias seemed a letdown, simply because Quince’s strangely attractive, elevating cosmic energy was on a completely different plane from Parias’s conventional assumptions; one patiently waited for the performance to end, despite the musicians’ virtuosity and scope. This wasn’t the fault of Parias, but rather the programming: although it might have, the pairing didn’t jibe. Chalk it up to bad luck. It would be good to see Parias in a more favorable Latin/jazz milieu.
Quince has before it a world of possibilities, including mashup collaborations with experimental musicians, exploration of material old and new—from partsong to e.e. cummings to indeterminacy to Gysin to noise, and collaborations with emerging new composers who fear neither the indifference of the masses nor the probable oblivion that innovation risks. One hopes they stay away from conventional material, that they continue to stimulate heretofore unexplored cortical combinations, and that they will persist.
DAVID ST.-LASCAUX is a poet and author of the upcoming memoir My Adventures with la Belle Jeune Fille; L'Oubliette, or Plan A; and e*sequiturs. Website: Interrupting Infinity-davidstlascaux.com.