The Voice Alone 3: Vocal Folds at Gertrude Contemporary Art Space

Vocal Folds
Gertrude Contemporary Art Space
22 June–20 July 2013
Performance: Jenny Barnes, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang and Carolyn Connors, 27 June

Rarely do the worlds of contemporary art and music come together in so detailed a discussion within their own media as in Vocal Folds at Gertrude Contemporary Art Space. Each artwork inhabits a corner of the contemporary conceptual map of the voice, at times conflicting with the show’s curatorial rationale and the series of musical performances associated with the exhibition.

Marcus Coates Dawn Chorus (video still) 2007 14/7 screen high definition video installation Commissioned and produced by Picture This, Bristol Funded by Wellcome Trust Courtesy of Kate MacGarry Gallery, London
Marcus Coates, Dawn Chorus (video still) 2007, 14/7 screen high definition video installation, Commissioned and produced by Picture This, Bristol, Funded by Wellcome Trust, Courtesy of Kate MacGarry Gallery, London

In Dawn Chorus by Marcus Coates, a forest of screens depicts individuals caught in the midst of their morning rituals. One is lying in bed, another in a bathtub, yet another paused in a stationary car. Their faces twitch and their mouths open and close rapidly as they emit high-pitched chirps and whistles. The sped-up videos of people imitating slowed-down birdcalls recreates the dawn chorus of birds, reinterpreting our most mundane moments as a social ritual that ties us to the animal life outside our windows. This simple technique also provides a comment on the relationship of music and the voice. The voice is musical not in its everyday mode, but when it strives to be something else, when it is removed from its everyday linguistic register and the fleshly sounds it is usually condemned to make. This is the essence of song, in particular the bel canto tradition of operatic singing, which has been lovingly described as “beautiful screaming.”

Manon de Boer one, two, many (video still) 2012 16mm film transferred to HD video Courtesy of Jan Mot Gallery, Brussels
Manon de Boer, one, two, many (video still) 2012, 16mm film transferred to HD video, Courtesy of Jan Mot Gallery, Brussels

In Manon de Boer’s one, two, many, three video works alternate on two screens, creating a spatial and rhythmic phase in the darkened front gallery. The work’s conceit is the relationship between the voice and the listener and the embodiedness of breath. It may also be read as a duplication of some shaky arguments about music’s coded and uncoded relationships with the human body. In one video, Michael Schmid performs an intensely-focused circular breathing solo on the flute. In another, an ensemble sing Giacinto Scelsi’s Tre Canto Popolari to a mobile audience. In the third, the artist recounts the experience of listening to the voice of Roland Barthes to a ceiling cornice. The artist’s words are an improvisation or a variation on Barthes’ “The Grain of the Voice” from 1977, itself a rhapsody on Julia Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic and the symbolic best expounded in relation to music in Revolution in Poetic Language. So the argument goes, language consists of libidinal urges originating in a pre-symbolic, unreified sphere (the “chora”), which are then given form through the limitations of the physical body and the symbolic forms of language. Kristeva’s distinction between the pre-symbolic “semiotic” and the “symbolic” is sometimes put into critical practice by finding traces of this pre-symbolic energy in the prosody of text or with appeal to seemingly-nonsignifying music. These traces, however, are always-already symbolic, caught up in the media and the symbolic networks we perceive them through. Nowhere is this more evident than in music. To Kristeva, music represents the semiotic to the symbolic of language, while to Barthes music itself is divided into the “pheno-song” of language and musical writing and the “geno-song” of a particular performer’s tone and interpretation of dynamics, tempo and articulation. Playing every classical music enthusiast’s favourite game, Barthes compares the technically perfect German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Charles Panzéra, whose idiosyncratic voice and performance style moves him more profoundly. If only singers hadn’t been discussing precisely these characteristics in a highly technical manner for thousands of years, Barthes might have been on to something. One need look no further than the first Vocal Folds concert by Jenny Barnes, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang and Carolyn Connors to find a group of performers who, apparently inverting the supposed division between the semiotic and the symbolic in music, have developed a unique culture of principally timbral vocal performance.

Jenny Barnes, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang and Carrolyn Connors. Photo by Elizabeth Bell
Jenny Barnes, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang and Carrolyn Connors. Photo by Elizabeth Bell

There is a simplicity and an intimacy to improvised vocal performance that made Gertrude Contemporary Arts Space feel more like a living room than a performance venue. The audience made themselves comfortable as Barnes found a central space in the room. At first a barely-audible twittering filled the gallery. Eyes shut, Barnes slowly raised a hand that convulsed along with a texture of rapid squeaks, fleeting bilabial stops (“m”, “n”) and unvoiced plosives (“p,” “b”). With utmost control, the pointillistic texture slowly opened out into a fuller-voiced ensemble of groans and glottal stops articulated with the back of the mouth and throat. The rapid change between these two families of sounds produces a polyphonic effect, as though there were two or three voices in the room. Then, in an incredible display of vocal stamina Barnes began to channel animal calls. A sound like a small dog’s bark ripped through the controlled vocal tapestry and a series of rapidly articulated high tones built to a chorus of birdsong. Only at the end of the performance did this rapid rhythmic improvisation become a full-bodied roar.

By contrast, Hui-Sheng Chang slowly modified the overtones of long, sustained pitches. Over half a minute or more, Hui-Sheng Cheng moved between humming, open, nasal and rasping timbres. Hui-Sheng Chang moved around the room, kneeling amongst the audience to experiment with the sound of her breathing and wandering off to shout in a distant room.

As a performer, mentor and teacher, Carolyn Connors continues to initiate students into the craft of vocal improvisation. Connors’ Gertrude St set reprised some of the material from her recent performance at James Rushford and Joe Talia’s Manhunter launch, but with a greater emphasis on the augmentation of the voice with found objects. The performance was a study in multitasking, as Connors struggled to keep an accordion bouncing on her knee, strike it with brushes, produce a tone through a book pursed between her lips and wrap her head in aluminium foil.

The literature around Vocal Folds is a good example of what Alain Badiou calls “democratic materialism,” the belief that there are only bodies and languages. Because curator Jacqueline Doughty wants to move away from the voice’s coded, symbolic functions (namely language and music) she appeals to the voice’s physicality in the “lungs, vocal chords, tongue and lips.” But what if music were not subsumed into linguistic function of the voice? Might music fit just as awkwardly with the voice’s embodiedness? Considering the relationship that singers and other musical practitioners maintain with the voice implies a third manner of articulation consisting of technique and musical-conceptual axes like pitch, duration and timbre.

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