In New York, revealing resonance in the human Voice

United StatesUnited States Resonant Bodies [3]: Stephanie Blythe, Arooj Aftab, Erin Gee (vocalists), The Fluffers (rock band); Shahzad Ismaily (Moog and bass), Vijay Iyer (electronics and piano); Colin Gee (vocalist), Stephanie Griffin (viola), Tristan Kasten-Krause (bass), Margaret Lancaster (bass flute), Doori Na (violin), Sean Statser (percussion), Michel Galante (conductor). Roulette, Brooklyn, New York. 5.9.2019. (BH)

Vijay Iyer (piano), Arooj Aftab (voice), and Shahzad Ismaily (bass guitar)
(c) Gretchen Robinette

Stephanie Blythe (as Blythely Oratonio) – Blythely Ever After (2018)
Arooj AftabShams Never Wants to Leave Me But Keeps Doing It, to the Point Where I Dont Even Know Anymore: Post-Minimal Improvised Music to the Themes of Nostalgia, Departure, Waiting, and the Intoxication of Love (2019)
Erin GeeMouthpiece 29 (2016); Yamaguchi Nouthpiece (2005); John (2019); Mouthpiece: Segment of the 3rd Letter (2007)

Among instruments, the human voice is unique. Some call the cello its closest mimic, but neither it, nor other strings, woodwinds, brasses, or percussion, are actually a part of the body — they are an extension of it.

Since 2013, the Resonant Bodies festival has explored the outer limits of the capabilities of the voice, encouraged by founder/vocalist Lucy Dhegrae to follow sometimes surprising and uninhibited paths. On the final night of this year’s festival, the three artists—each curating their own 30-minute sets — could not have been more different from one another.

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe has been seen on opera stages and in concert halls around the world. In Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Metropolitan Opera, her portrayal of Baba the Turk was hands-down, the funniest interpretation of any role I have ever seen in the genre. A 2013 Carnegie Hall appearance with a memorable Cole Porter set was a model of technique, presence—and humor.

She took the Roulette stage dressed in an extravagant black fantasy — part motorcycle outlaw, part harem pants, topped with mohawk headgear of onyx-colored feathers. As the imaginary tenor, Blythely Oratonio (yes, the ‘n’ is correct), regaled the audience with tales (and grave doubts) about the opera world, combined with a longstanding ache to be a rock star.

Her virtuosity meant that ‘Nessun dorma’ eventually gave way to ‘Jessie’s Girl’, and ‘We Are the Champions’, all fused together with the adroit work of The Fluffers — Drew Wutke (piano), Jimmy Coleman (drums), Pete Andreev (guitar), and Andrew Nelson (bass). Co-written and directed by John Jarboe, with musical arrangements by Daniel Kazemi, the nonstop hilarity had the eager audience howling with laughter.

Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, Arooj Aftab is now based in New York City, and frequently collaborates with other artists, such as the two experts here: Vijay Iyer on electronics and piano, and Shahzad Ismaily on Moog and bass. As she has described her work, ‘It is very much about the feeling that (Sufi poetry) leaves you with: calmness, peace, patience, simplicity.’

With an expansive title (see above) she offered an improvised mantra — an equally spacious, meditative exhalation, in contrast to Blythe’s inspired raucousness. Starting from silence — with tones from Iyer’s laptop so quiet that an impatient woman behind me complained, ‘That’s just the static from the electronic equipment’ — Aftab eased into a long drone that wouldn’t have been out of place in a religious ceremony.

Against sustained tones from Iyer and Ismaily, she floated equally long-breathed phrases, delicately adorned with the melismas of Sufi mysticism. The result invited contemplation, perhaps pondering the state of the world, and encouraging focus on inner transcendence.

The final set, by Erin Gee, was worlds apart from the other two. (In 2006, I wrote about her appearance at the Look & Listen Festival.) Gee sees the voice as an instrument with infinite possibilities—replicating percussion, winds, or instruments imagined but not yet conceived. In her words, ‘The contruction of the vocal text is often based on linguistic structure — vowel-consonant formation and the principle of the allophone [literally “other sound” in Greek] — and is relatively quiet, with a high percentage of breath.’

If this background sounds technical or esoteric, Gee’s results are anything but. As her own soloist, she creates an astonishing range of aural effects — sighing, cooing, popping, smacking, loud inhalations and exhalations, and even the occasional moment that resembles ‘traditional’ singing. Her solo works — like Yamaguchi Mouthpiece — are virtuosic enough. But when she adds other creative partners — here, Michel Galante conducting the superb Argento New Music Project in Mouthpiece 29 and Mouthpiece: Segment of the 3rd Letter — the results blossomed into what she terms a ‘super-mouth’, as if the audience were eavesdropping on an alien conversation.

As an unusual detour, her brother, Colin Gee — who explores writing, narrative, and choreography — performed John (2019), with a stance that David Byrne might envy. The brief, halting monologue was accompanied by movements that evoked an uncertain marionette, creating an ambiguous emotional state — as compelling as it was disorienting.

Bruce Hodges

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