Singers Curate Themselves in a Vocal Wonderland

United StatesUnited States Resonant Bodies Festival, Nights II and III: Soloists, Roulette, Brooklyn, NY. 6-7.9.2017. (BH)

Hai-Ting Chinn in 'Science Project' at the Resonant Bodies Festival (Photo: Gretchen Robinette)
Hai-Ting Chinn in ‘Science Project: An Opera with Experiments’ at the Resonant Bodies Festival
(c) Gretchen Robinette

6 September
Hai-Ting Chinn
Joan La Barbara
Odeya Nini

7 September
Mary Bonhag
Kamala Sankaram
Kayleigh Butcher

According to Merriam-Webster, the word “resonant” means “continuing to sound.” (It also means “marked by grandiloquence,” but that definition has little in common with the subject at hand.) This is what makes the Resonant Bodies Festival, “continuing to sound” in its fifth year, so essential: each night artists use their voices, but test the range of human creativity in how they do so. Lucy Dhegrae, the festival’s director, gives each vocalist 45 minutes to curate a set, and the results—this year at Roulette in Brooklyn—were almost always intriguing.

Who could have predicted that a singer would combine her talent with astronomy, but in excerpts from Science Project: An Opera with Experiments, Hai-Ting Chinn’s humor began with a large screen above the stage, used like a classroom chalkboard. With music by Reneé Favand-See, Matthew Schickele, and Stefan Weisman, Chinn offered a merrily conceived parade of scientific antics, as pianist Erika Switzer occasionally deployed props herself. At one point Chinn donned a hoop skirt hosting small replicas of planets. A diminutive volcano model belched a mix of household chemicals. But the most moving sequence came with texts by Carl Sagan, who described Earth seen from space as a “pale blue dot,” as Chinn’s whimsy yielded to a twinge of sadness.

Joan La Barbara, fresh from a triumph with Morton Subotnick at the Lincoln Center Festival, offered a glimpse of her own work in progress, The River Also Changes (2017), inspired by artist Joseph Cornell and writer Virginia Woolf. Using pre-recorded “sonic atmosphere” created from voices, instruments, electronics, and natural sounds, La Barbara added her own subtle vocalism. Sometimes she matched some of those pitches, drawing a line through the luminous sonic clouds; at others her voice seemed to submerge, becoming another component of the mix. She will present the version for two voices, chamber ensemble, and “sonic atmosphere” on 17 September at Klangspuren Schwaz in Austria.

Based in Los Angeles, Odeya Nini explored movement in A Solo Voice (2017), incorporating her latest experiences of motherhood. As she galloped around the stage, Nini showed an arresting blend of vocal sounds (sputtering, chanting, whispering), combined with her own choreography. Nini (who also teaches yoga) made the strongest case for the voice as a part of the entire body, like the prow of a ship making its way across unfamiliar waters.

On the third night, Mary Bonhag’s set also made a strong case for singers venturing down less-trodden paths. In Kaija Saariaho’s Changing Light (2002), Bonhag and violinist Anna Elashvili intertwined in luminous synergy. Pianist Liza Stepanova joined the singer for Joseph Schwantner’s restless Two Poems of Agueda Pizarro (1980). Some humor and wisdom came from Lembit Beecher, in excerpts from Looking at Spring: Meditations on Aging (2014). In “Nobody Dies Anymore,” the text—derived from interviews with senior citizens—offers an amusing take on contemporary euphemisms. A woman “lost her husband”: “How? Through carelessness? Or was it deliberate?”

If anyone still doubted the festival’s range, Kamala Sankaram grabbed an accordion to perform with her tight Yma Sumac cover band called Bombay Rickey (Brian Adler on percussion, Drew Fleming on guitar, Jeff Hudgins on alto saxophone, and Gil Smuskovitz on bass). Infectious versions of “Gopher Mambo,” “Bombay 5-0,” and “Tuco’s Last Stand” (the latter, a nod to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) showed Sankaram at her most playful—and her soprano at its most stratospheric.

But there were other pleasures, such as the singer’s own Ololyga (2017), a striking exploration of madness and witchcraft that made one ponder a version of Macbeth. Cellist Pat Muchmore joined Sankaram for the syllabic hail of BABEL(maya) from 2012, and two works by Gilda Lyons only confirmed the singer’s virtuosity.

As director of the Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, soprano Kayleigh Butcher is well-acquainted with experimental vocal techniques. She also combined sound with movement, such as in LJ White’s Space (2011), and showed prowess on a didgeridoo and a table of small metal bowls. But along with well-worth-hearing premieres by Cara Haxo, Sivan Cohen Elias, and Andrew Tham, perhaps the most striking was the oldest, from 1969: Giacinto Scelsi’s Ogloudoglou. Sitting barefoot on the floor, Butcher’s voice leaped from softly purring microtones to more guttural utterances.

Dhegrae mentioned the festival’s recent appearance in Melbourne, Australia, with Sydney scheduled for 2018, and additional festivals planned in Los Angeles and Chicago—all in addition to the New York presence. Buoyed by waves of energy and creativity, this bold and impressive festival will likely continue to sound for years to come.

Bruce Hodges

2 thoughts on “Singers Curate Themselves in a Vocal Wonderland”

  1. Dear Mr Hodges,

    Thank you for the lovely mention. It was truly an honor to be part of Resonant Bodies, and I’m glad that you enjoyed the festival as much as we did!

    For the record, I wanted to correct the title of my show, which was originally produced by HERE center for the arts through their HERE Artist Residence Program. The title is “Science Fair,” and in its full incarnation, it bears the subtitle “An Opera With Experiments.”

    This is only a small detail, but since I am hoping to book touring dates, I thought I would send along the correct title for future internet searchers.

    Thanks again, and all the best to you,


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