Vocal music and extended techniques

Exploring the range of music produced by the voice has been an ongoing focus of New Music New College since our first performances of the John Cage Song Books and Pauline Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations. Beyond straightforward singing the human voice is capable of a wide range of sounds, and producing these involves what are called “extended techniques.” (It should be noted that there are similar extended techniques for most instruments as well, and NMNC has presented may concerts that employ these.)

Video of Stephen Miles performing his piece LTG in 2000

In November of 2000 NMNC presented an ambitious two-hour concert entitled “Speech Acts” that featured a range of vocal music reliant in some way upon speech. In addition to several compositions by New College students Jason Rosenberg and Kartina Amin there were established works like Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III (performed brilliantly by Cynthia Heininger), Roger Marsh’s Dum, and Kenneth Gaburo’s Lingua II: Maledetto. Both Sequenza III and Dum use poetic texts as points of departure, cutting them up and reassembling them, and asking performers at times to gasp, yell, sob, and yes, sing. NMNC’s R. L. Silver and Stephen Miles also contributed pieces: Silver’s Time used precisely notated rhythms to control each of three performer’s speech, and Miles’s LTG (for Lips, Tongue, Glottis) broke human speech down into its component parts, creating a percussive exploration of sounds produced by the mouth and body.

Video of R. L. Silver performing Roger Marsh’s Dum

The entire second half of the concert was Maledetto, a sprawling piece for seven speakers (Miles, Silver, and New College students Kartina Amin, Lisa Pokorski, Jason Rosenberg, Steven Jones, and Nadia Stegman) where the “tempo” of the various (and sometimes simultaneous) parts is delineated in words-per-minute.

Audio of NMNC's performance of Stimmung (still photos only)

In April of 2002 NMNC presented Karlheinz Stickhausen’s Stimmung, an hour-long piece for six vocalists (Miles, Silver, Gail Kennedy Broxon, Paul Lewis, and New College students Maya Lily and Kartina Amin). Although Stimmung involves texts—including poetry, names of gods of various cultures, and days of the week—that become incorporated into the singing, the majority of the piece is sung using an extended technique called reinforced vocal harmonics, also known as throat-singing.

By careful shaping of the mouth a singer can emphasize a single harmonic (a pitch that is an arithmetic multiple of the frequency of the note being sung, and is actually contained within the timbre of that note). As any note contains many harmonics, a singer can produce melodies without changing the root note. In Stimmung each singer has only three to six root notes to sing over the entire length of the piece but produces many upper pitches that comprise extensive melodies.

Several of NMNC’s visiting artists over the years have specialized in unusual vocal techniques. Jacqueline Bobak (2007), in a concert that used numerous texts written by American poets, sang in a variety of vernacular vocal styles and used electronics and audio and video playback. Pamela Z (2010 and 2015) uses electronics to loop her voice (record short phrases, sing over them, and continue this process) and build entire pieces dense with texture. She also uses electronics to manipulate the timbre of her voice, as in the improvised piece she performed here at Club Sudakoff in January of 2015 (shown here on video).

Video of Pamela Z performing Improvisation in 2015

Toby Twining Music gave a concert here in 2013 that explored extended use of voice as an ensemble instrument, with the six members (one also playing cello) creating detailed soundscapes. In 2014 the New College Chorus (comprised of New College student singers and directed by Virginia Bray) performed as part of NMNC, and in addition to more straightforward modern choral works presented experimental works by Meredith Monk (Return to Earth) and R. Murray Schafer (Epitaph for Moonlight, which uses a graphically notated score).

Video of Ekmeles performing Aaron Cassidy’s A Painter of Figures in Rooms in 2015

And most recently, Ekmeles was here in April of 2015 with eight vocalists using many extended techniques including unusual tunings to showcase the range of the voice. The final piece in their concert was Aaron Cassidy’s A Painter of Figures in Rooms, which uses non-standard notation to direct each singer precisely how to form each sound the composer calls for.

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