Provocative Vocals, Signalling the Future

11/09/2014

United StatesUnited States Resonant Bodies Festival, Night II: Jane Sheldon (soprano), Ben Hjertmann (tenor), Ariadne Greif (soprano). JACK, Brooklyn, New York. 3.9.2014 (BH)

Set I: Jane Sheldon
Scelsi: (1960)
Furrer: Invocation VI (2003)
Scelsi: Sauh I (“Liturgia”) (1973)
Neuwirth: Nova/Minraud (1998)
Scelsi: Sauh IV (1973)

Set II: Grant Wallace Band
Ben Hjertmann, voice & mandolin
Luke Gullickson, voice & piano
Chris Fisher-Lochhead, voice & viola

Set III: Ariadne Greif
Dreams and Nightmares (2014) – works by Elliot Cole, Erol Gurol, Albert Behar, Shawn Jaeger, Caroline Park, Ryan Chase, Aleksandra Vrebalov, and Ariadne Greif

It is telling that Lucy Shelton and Dawn Upshaw, both veteran sopranos who are strongly committed to new music, were in the audience for the second night of the Resonant Bodies Festival at JACK, the new-ish arts venue in Brooklyn. (Both singers are on the festival’s Artistic Advisory Board.) Founded just last year, the festival is the brainchild of singer Lucy Dhegrae, whose engaging, light-handed intelligence was in evidence the entire evening. Artists curated their own sets, each about 45 minutes long, resulting in a trio of provocative, disparate esthetics.

Jane Sheldon chose three works by the mysterious recluse, Giacinto Scelsi (1905-88) as her program spine. An excerpt from was mesmerizing, with vowels turned into quivering melismas. In Sauh I (“Liturgia”) and Sauh IV, Sheldon intertwined with her own taped voices, creating intense, micro-intervallic choruses.

In between came Beat Furrer’s Invocation VI, with Sheldon’s vocal staccato meshing with bass flutist Roberta Michel’s hissing utterances—an exploration of the power and expressivity of breath—and intertwining in impish counterpoint. Sheldon also did virtuoso work with Olga Neuwirth’s Nova/Minraud, based on William S. Burroughs’s Nova Express. Using Burroughs’s technique of cutting and pasting texts, the singer layers her voice with one electronically distorted, as if recorded underwater.

Hailing from North Carolina, New York, and Chicago, the three members of the Grant Wallace Band sing, play instruments, and compose. Ben Hjertmann’s light, rosy tenor fuses appealingly with Luke Gullickson’s piano lines and Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s viola. The skeletal hybrid has just a whiff of some of the folk-oriented vocals popularized decades ago like the Kingston Trio or the Limelighters, but with subtle harmonic stings, especially from Fisher-Lochhead’s wiry viola, that remind you it’s 50 years later.

I was most struck by “A Message from Beyond,” taken from a larger work written for the Chicago-based new music collective Ensemble Dal Niente, and ending with a gentle exhortation to “look farther.” Gullickson’s “Litany” had the echo of chant, and Hjertmann’s “Hengs” ends with a haunting chorus, “like a dead man walking.”

Perhaps the most ambitious set came last, Dreams & Nightmares by soprano Ariadne Greif, who created a sort of “sleep suite” by stringing together eight new works by herself and others, often using electronics—all linked by taped interludes of slumbering breathing and the occasional cat meow. Interestingly, it was not always clear which dream-or-nightmare choice was made. Shawn Jaeger’s gentle Träumerei starts Greif on a scooter, and ends with the singer curled up on the floor as the familiar Schumann piano strains enter—seems peaceful enough, or is it? Ryan Chase’s Only a Dream… includes plaintive whistling (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat”) before a nearby teacup on the floor abruptly flies away. The entire sequence had an air of nocturnal unease, until a raspy alarm clock broke the spell.

Bruce Hodges

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