Tag Archives: Miller Puckette

BIFEM: Juliana Snapper and Miller Puckette, Illud Etiam

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 ILLUD ETIAM_MG_9814
Juliana Snapper in Illud Etiam. Jason Tavener photography.

Review by Joel Roberts

On Sunday afternoon at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, the sounds of murmuring electronics gently eclipsed the noises of an expectant audience at the performance of Illud Etiam. Named after a work by Philippe Manoury, four works were performed by soprano Juliana Snapper and composer Miller Puckette. At this point in the festival, I was uncertain of what to expect next.

The question that had derailed my expectations was simply “what should one expect at an exploratory music festival?” Would there be New Music; Experimental music; Other Music; the Avant Garde; Wacky Shit? My experience at the Festival successfully shifted my sense of cultural framing. Another shift in this area was as a result of witnessing Snapper and Puckette’s staging of You who will emerge from the flood. Described as an opera, this hybrid work included a soprano who sang underwater, an electronic score, a glass-walled dunking tank and a pair of large projector screens and was the sort of work that could have been placed within the worlds of theatre, opera or visual art.

Illud Etiam was presented in a simple and direct manner in the Bendigo Bank Theatre, an ornate rectangular room that had originally housed masonic meetings. A single microphone pointed directly across a pair of music stands which had been arranged like a dais or news-desk giving the impression that we were about to witness a sermon or news conference. Snapper’s appearance in a simple black dress reinforced the unencumbered nature of this performance, a stark contrast to the metre-long merkin worn in You who will emerge. The room’s simplicity and a simple lighting set-up only emphasised the program’s more dramatic moments. The dry acoustic of the room also enabled the audio processes to be completely controlled within the electronic environment. Together, these elements intensified the focus on Snapper’s performance and Puckette’s electronic soundscape.

A flash of light marked the beginning of selections from Manoury’s song cycle, En Écho. The songs sounded like poetic matter of fact accounts and stories in the manner of recitative. Manoury’s approach to the vocal writing was engaging while remaining within the realm of the conventional. Early into the performance, it was clear that Snapper’s ability to communicate as a singer completely eclipsed the fact that I had no understanding of the French text. Completely engaged in her performance, I also had a growing awareness of the richness of the electronics. More accurately described as orchestration, Manoury’s sweeping electronic landscape evolved and developed with the richness of any conventional orchestration.

The principal timbre of the electronics, a “hybrid keyboard”, was a blend of piano, bell, and organ-like sounds that provided a strong musical presence throughout the work. In places a “scribbling” sound was transformed into a whimpering. In another, excited gestures of electronic sounds would overflow in response to the singer’s sounds. At other times, quiet “voices” could be heard within the musical texture. I began to wonder if I was hearing pre-recorded sounds, or spontaneous electronic responses to the singer? All these elements contributed to the excitement of this performance. In places, Snapper appeared to be waiting for an electronic response to her singing. This human-machine improvisation further enhanced the sense of excitement in the performance.

 After the performance, Puckette explained to me that he had created the electronic platform for the work, which he then taught to Manoury, who realised the work’s orchestration. I discovered that Puckette was officially listed as a collaborator on the work, an element that would have been worthwhile to add to a program. The improvisation that I had heard was a result of the programming. The computer “knew” the score and followed the singer, anticipating events and responding to them in real time. To me, this represented an aspect of artificial intelligence which emulated the skills of great musicians from any style.

Snapper’s own composition, Double Voiced, provided a different approach to singer-electronics interaction that sounded more like an ensemble. An array of electronic textures provided richly harmonised choral accompaniment, counterpoint and immediate responses to the vocalist, sometimes in the manner of a duet. The use of a huge digital reverb, in contrast to the room’s acoustics, was an auditory pleasure. In places, the electronics’ timbre resembled the sounds of extended techniques on acoustic instruments.

At other times the electronics sounded like hysterical laughing. Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish the live vocal from the processed sound, a feature particular to this work. One of the difficulties as an audience member at this festival was the omission of program notes for all performances. I think this is problematic because it is hard to frame and contextualise works without some background. It could be suggested that this is an elitist approach that is not interested in cultivating audiences from outside the new-music scene.

For example, the text to Illud Etiam, another Australian premiere by Manoury, had been impenetrable to me until after the performance. It was clear that the piece had a religious context and some parts of the text were in latin. The religious connotations were reinforced by the sounds of electronic bells which permeate the work like a Yamaha dx-7 on steroids! By looking online I discovered that the work was inspired by scenes from Bergman’s film Seventh Seal, which deals with issues around sorcery. The text is a blend of an original medieval text and a poem by Louise Labe. While the singer plays the dual roles of inquisitor and victim, the dynamic intensity of her voice triggers “sound flames”. In this case, the greater the volume, the greater the degree of instability in the electronics. According to Manoury, the fire represents both punishment and the woman’s desire to be consumed.

Early into the performance it surprised me to realise that this concert was essentially a traditional vocal recital. A freshness and excitement (the experimental) was added to this through the use of a distinctive timbral palette, computer indeterminacy and improvisational elements. Despite the incredible volume and quality of audio production, there is not the same sense of deep immersion that one feels when an orchestra is accompanying a soloist. For example, Snapper maintained a sense of character throughout the performance, except in moments where she was waiting for a response from the electronics. However, I’m sure this is something that could be developed, if it needed to be Is it the result of the piece having an improvisational aspect to it and the artist simply needing to tune in to a spontaneous electronic response? Snapper and Puckette’s use of experimental music making within the context of traditional staging and presentation contributed to a successful and deeply engaging performance.

Juliana Snapper and Miller Puckette
Illud Etiam
Bendigo Bank Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
3 September 2017

En Écho, Philippe Manoury; Double Voiced, Juliana Snapper; Illud Etiam, Philippe Manoury.

BIFEM: Juliana Snapper, You Who Will Emerge From the Flood

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 YOU WHO WILL EMERGE FROM THE FLOOD_MG_9460
Juliana Snapper, You Who Will Emerge From the Flood. Jason Tavener photography

Review by Lewis Ingham

Bathed in blue light, the metal and glass dunk-tank sits wedged between two projector screens, cold and foreboding against the warm red interior of Bendigo’s Capital Theatre. You Who Will Emerge From the Flood, an underwater opera composed by Juliana Snapper with Andrew Infanti, explores themes of violence, gender, and sexuality in a captivating performance on the opening night of 2017 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music.

The work commences with a pre-recorded piano track. The loose rhythms and harsh timbres of the gently out of tune piano dissolve into a subtle layer of synthesised sounds. A pencil-drawn animation of a lonely and naked figure emerging from a body of water flashes across the projector screens. The figure appears androgynous until its breasts emerge from the water. This sequence of images repeats, but with each viewing you feel there are subtle changes to the shading and details of the animation, much like the subtly expanding piano melody.

Snapper emerges from behind one of the screens, climbing onto the dunk-tank and allowing her costume to be taken in by the audience. She wears a dress with blonde wig hair spouting from beneath the hem, like a vast mane of pubic hair. Holding herself on the outer rim of the tank, a new part in the electronic track takes off, this time an artificial choir dominating the sonic palette. Accompanying this new section are projected images of motionless bodies floating in water, this imagery adding a sinister feeling to the water on stage and suggesting why Snapper has not yet touched the water.

A strong moment of silence follows, which is broken by Snapper singing a solo passage of German text. There is no translation for the text, but the nineteenth-century expressionist quality of the music evokes a carnivalesque, ritualistic quality to the way Snapper has displayed herself so far.

Snapper lowers herself into the water slowly and deliberately, the microphones placed around the tank amplifying the sounds of the water and her body against the container. As a key moment in this opera, there is an innate theatricality to Snapper’s first plunge into the water. At first I feel she has no control and resents the water, her costume ungracefully floating through the water and exposing her crotchless outfit. The dunk-tank itself is a machine of ritual humiliation and it’s quite confronting to see the performer force herself beneath the surface whether intentional or not. Eventually Snapper wrestles control of her movements, pulling herself from the water and onto a metal swing suspended just above the liquid’s surface.

There is a sense of the performer exploring the distance between herself and the water as she emits sharp melodic inhalations and exhalations centimetres above the surface. This is further enhanced by a close-up live camera feed, which is projected onto the two screens, magnifying Snapper’s interactions with the water. The camera also allows Snapper to add nuances to her presence in the tank, magnifying her physical efforts to stare into the camera or press her body against the glass. The water in the tank frames the performance and Snapper’s interplay with this voyeuristic frame may be perceived as sexualised or distressing.

The sound of underwater singing isn’t entirely unexpected; a torrent of bubbles with muffled, yet discernible, pitch. More affecting is Snapper’s strong accentuation and treatment of her breathing. When transitioning between singing above and below water, Snapper’s breaths are deep, shallow, melodic, or a frightening gasp. I catch myself holding my breath as I watch Snapper move through the water. This sense of empathy is enhanced by the heavy amplification of her breathing and the sudden loud bangs as she brushes against the tank.

Elements suggest repressive violence: the volume of her underwater singing fading with the depth of her submersion, or the fact that Snapper’s vocal passages from within her watery cell are purely syllabic with the removal of full words. Between the screens and the tank, the audience can watch the performer drown in full sight, even though there is uncertainty as to whether this is forced or not. While Snapper dives alone in the tank, the screens display a video of Snapper being violently dunked and held under the water by two men.

The electronic tracks operate like interludes in the latter stages of the work, Snapper adding drama to these interludes by fully submerging herself. Normally the electronic tracks feature synthesised sounds rather than recorded samples, however, the final electronic section features an eerie vocal duet between a real male and female voice. The uncertain fluidity of the melody begs a final question, are they singing with or against each other?

The stage plunges into darkness, not allowing the audience to witness Snapper exit the tank. Only her faint splashing is heard in the blackness of the theatre. You Who Will Emerge From the Flood is as confronting as it is captivating with Snapper demonstrating her ability to expand vocal technique and performance. With the reemergence of the lights the soprano takes her well deserved bow whilst towelling herself off.

You Who Will Emerge From the Flood
Juliana Snapper and Miller Puckette
Bendigo Capital Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
1 September 2017