A Trio of Adventurers, Exploring the Voice’s Outer Regions

United StatesUnited States Resonant Bodies III: Rachel Calloway, Jeffrey Gavett, Kate Soper: Roulette, Brooklyn, NY, 11.9.2015 (BH)

Duo Cortona
Rachel Calloway, soprano
Ari Streisfeld, violin
David Reminick (b. 1979): Shoshana (2014)
Forrest Pierce (b. 1968): Selections from Canticle Variations (2014)
Amadeus Regucera (b. 1984): If only after you then me (or, Litanies) (2015)
Kamala Sankaram: Kivalina (2014)

Jeffrey Gavett, baritone
Chaya Czernowin: Adiantum Capillus-Veneris (1) [Maidenhair Fern (1)] Etudes in fragility for voice and breath (2015, American premiere)
Joan Arnau Pàmies: constrained semantic trajectory (the supposedly neutral, supposedly bold, thesupposedly neural architecture of non-linear yet steady arrays) (2014, world premiere)
Martin Iddon: Ampelos (2015, world premiere)
Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf: Esé apie vandenis (2015, world premiere)
Timothy McCormack: excerpt from panic around death (2015, world premiere)

The Wet Ink Ensemble
Kate Soper, voice
Erin Lesser, flute
Josh Modney, violin
Ian Antonio, percussion

Kate Soper: Selections from Ipsa Dixit (2010- )
I. Poetics (2015, text by Aristotle (abbr./adapted Soper) and Sophocles)
II. Excerpt from Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say (2010-11, text by Lydia Davis)
III. Rhetoric (text by Aristotle, abbr./adapted Soper, world premiere)
IV. Excerpt from The Crito (2012, text by Robert Duncan and Plato (abbr./adapted Soper))
V. Excerpt from Cipher (2011-12, various texts): iii. “Introducing Sigmund Freud”; iv. “Guido d’Arezzo presents Sarah Teasdale (feat. Jenny Holzer)”

Any vocalist—whether singing opera, lieder or something else—is assuming a role as actors do in a play. During the final night of the Resonant Bodies Festival at Roulette, a trio of singers—wildly divergent in their approaches—were united in a strong theatrical bent.

Mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway has sung with ensembles all over the world, and husband Ari Streisfeld is a violinist in the JACK Quartet, but here they appeared as Duo Cortona,  dedicated to new repertoire for voice and violin. And their real-life relationship often gave an unsettling dimension to the restless menu. Calloway began alone in David Reminick’s Shoshana, its texts reflecting relationships’ polarities, including a healthy dose of anxiety. Increasing the tension, Calloway executed lightning-fast switches between singing and whistling.

In Canticle Variations for voice and violin, composer Forrest Pierce uses St. Francis of Assisi’s texts on love. The sixth variation, “Allegro furioso,” even evoked Rossini, albeit combined with gritty scratches. Though Calloway and Streisfeld often intertwined, they were also separated in solitude—perhaps a comment on how couples spend time together. Later they emerged, as from corners of a boxing ring, for the stark, often angry If only after you then me by Amadeus Regucera, using a raw assemblage compiled from William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, George Bataille, and Antonin Artaud. As the two musicians stood facing each other, in front of lamps that evoked a police interrogation, their outbursts bore the harshness of unresolvable pain.

In a radical mood shift, the duo ended with Kivalina by Kamala Sankaram, a mournful tribute to an Alaskan village threatened with oblivion by climate change. Both Calloway and Streisfeld adopted a gentler, melancholy tone to make the sad circumstances all too clear.

Jeff Gavett is a consummate explorer, always armed with a strangely compelling map. The adventurous baritone directs the cutting-edge vocal group Ekmeles (a Greek reference to “tones not appropriate for musical usage”) and his choices here were bravely curated. Chaya Czernowin’s Adiantum Capillus-Veneris (1) [Maidenhair Fern (1)] Etudes in fragility for voice and breath is a remarkably delicate assemblage of tiny sounds, some just at the edge of audibility. The simple act of breathing also figured prominently in constrained semantic trajectory (the supposedly neutral, supposedly bold, the supposedly neural architecture of non-linear yet steady arrays) by Joan Arnau Pàmies (b. 1988), a composer currently studying for his doctorate at Northwestern University. A tense study of inhalations and exhalations, it shares Czernowin’s fascination with the voice’s textural capabilities—while melody has all but evaporated.

Similarly, Esé apie vandenis (“Essay on the waters”) by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf begins with a poem by Anja Kampmann, then adds flutter-tonguing and falsetto to contemplate the idea of water—in dozens of languages. One could only watch in awe at Gavett’s precision and concentration, enunciating the composer’s carefully-assembled syllables—a winged Mercury bearing unknown messages.

Martin Iddon’s Ampelos (2015) uses a motif of ascending and descending scales, but the difficulty quickly increases as pre-recorded tracks are added in staggered entrances—an ever-more-complex vocal fugue. Gavett’s agile hands created a hall of mirrors of multiple personae. For the finale, he chose a portion of panic around death by Timothy McCormack, incorporating small percussion instruments (often rubbing sandpaper with his hands) and crudely effective film noir lighting. I found the low groans and stifled roars almost primally disturbing.

Vocalist and composer Kate Soper needs to add “director” to her resume—at least, based on this intricately choreographed set of selections from Ipsa Dixit, which she has been writing from 2010 to the present. Soper’s wide-ranging interests encompass history and literature, which combine with her intriguing music for uniquely mesmerizing results. For texts, she draws on sources ranging from Plato to Freud, from Wittgenstein to visual artist Jenny Holzer, fusing their words with her eclectically conceived music.

Working with members of the Wet Ink Ensemble (of which she is a founder), perhaps the most immediately engaging segment was Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say, a tartly entertaining dialogue for vocalist and flute. For this often amusing, often profound exercise to succeed, both musicians must summon their inner comedians, and Soper and flutist Erin Lesser lunged and parried with admirable control.

In The Crito (2012), Soper and percussionist Ian Antonio hovered around a vibraphone, the composer sometimes joining in to draw a bow over the surface herself. Later she frolicked with violinist Joshua Modney in Cipher, as Modney engaged with her (or sometimes disengaged, wandering offstage while playing). If the word gesamkunstwerk seems hyperbolic, so be it; Soper’s opus covers an enormous range. Her taut control of the  material—and shrewd use of her voice—were consistently impressive and entertaining.

Bruce Hodges

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