My listening habits have changed a lot in the last year — and, oddly, the change had nothing to do with the pandemic. Leaving an academic program and beginning full-time (non-music) work meant that how I found new music (and what that music was) was based totally on my own research and not what classmates or professors were introducing to me. In that process, I’ve gotten totally sucked into the world of experimental vocal technique and today’s astonishing practitioners.
There’s a history, maybe spotted, of extended vocal technique in experimental music. While Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King is a common point of departure, despite criticisms of its presentation of “madness”, vocalists like Joan La Barbara, Jaap Blonk, Meredith Monk, Phil Minton, and Uta Wasserman have made careers out of their practice-based improvisatory vocal work. Today, a bevy of new artists are foregrounding these experimental vocal techniques as a primary medium. The artists on this list don’t just “sing their own pieces”, but embrace an exploration of sounds or identity or space that’s exciting and innovative.
This list is not an exhaustive selection of the musicians working with their voices in exciting ways; hopefully, though, it’s a useful place to start.
Gelsey Bell boasts a multi-pronged career as vocalist, composer, improviser, and writer. Her projects range from her own compositions to a feature role in Dave Malloy’s musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 to membership in experimental performance group ThingNY (alongside, among others, the incredible vocalist/composer Paul Pinto). Regardless of situation, Bell brings a disarming intimacy to her vocal work; her folksy This is Not a Land of Kings packs as much a punch as her breathy rendition of Robert Ashley’s “Love is a Good Example.” While there’s no bad place to start with her work, Bell’s vocal and musical capabilities are on full display with her band The Chutneys, as she flies between somber melodic lines and piercing multiphonic screams.
In December of 2018, I was at a Christmas Party in Cork, IE with one good friend and a few new friends. Late into the night my good friend scrawled some names on a piece of paper, gave it to me, and said, “You need to listen to all these badass women.” Topping that list was Holly Herndon, a composer, vocalist, and electronic musician who’s since become one of my favorite artists. Her 2019 release, PROTO, featured collaboration with her A.I. Spawn, developed in collaboration with other vocalists like Jlin and trained on recordings of Shape Note singing. This album is, legitimately, an interrogation of the intersection of technology and art (shoutout to your composer bio), and the results are totally breathtaking and catchy as hell.
Amirtha Kidambi’s bio reads as a veritable who’s who of NYC-based experimental musicians and improvisers. Kidambi herself spearheads a number of projects, including her quartet Elder Ones and her vocal quartet Lines of Light. In all of her projects she brings a fearless vocal practice that blends and compliments the practitioners around her — she’s rarely without a cohort of similarly minded collaborators. She’s released a few things in the past year or so, including two recordings with electronic musician Lea Bertucci; for a more raucous exchange, check out the album From Untruth by her band Elder Ones.
Charmaine Lee has managed to keep a busy schedule throughout quarantine. Besides regular improvisation appearances on virtual concert programs, her pieces have been included on Spektral Quartet’s Experiments In Living (“Spinals”) and Wet Ink Ensemble’s Smoke, Airs, which is named after her composition for the ensemble. Lee’s improvisation practice is playful and frenetic, oscillating between plosive mouth pops and noisy vocal fry combinations with a dusting of electronic processing to top off the texture. Her technique is formidable and her sensitivity deep, and I’ve loved getting to know her and her work over the last few months.
anaïs maviel’s in the garden is the most intimate selection on the list. Performed at the 2018 OBEY Convention, the recording features maviel’s reflective vocalizations hover over a meditative instrumental backdrop — a relatively narrow sonic scope compared to my other selections. What she accomplishes with this material is stunning. While her accompanying instruments intone a reliable harmonic and rhythmic foundation, her vocal lines balance intimacy with extraordinary technical subversions of tuning and technique. She invites listeners into her questioning world while demonstrating remarkable control, ebbing between microtonal drones and flickering melismas with hints of noise. The whole of this release, and her other work, encourages us to join her in pushing at the edges of our expectations. Much interest in the vocal techniques I explore in this list come from a fascination with the sonic; maviel reminds us that this practice offers profound emotional depth as well.
Tanya Tagaq is a multi-disciplinary artist, whose work ranges from experimental vocal work based on the practices of her Indigenous Inuit heritage to visual art and novels (her book Split Tooth is published by Penguin Canada). Tagaq maintains an international profile as a musician, her vocal technique blending Inuit throat singing with the energy of industrial punk to create a personal and political statement. There’s no bad place to start with her work — however, this improvisation is an astonishing and sophisticated place to acquaint yourself with her practice.
White Boy Scream (a.k.a. Micaela Tobin)
White Boy Scream’s operatic album, Bakunawa, was one of my favorite Bandcamp surprises of the summer. It’s an expansive recording, moving from recitation to industrial, processed vocals, to ambient field recordings with gentle guitar. Undergirding the work is creator Micaela Tobin, a soprano and sound artist who’s been featured at Edinburgh Fringe Festival and performed in Raven Chacon and Du Yun’s Sweet Land, directed by Yuval Sharon and Canuppa Luger. Bakunawa is “an homage to the pre-colonial mythology of her motherland, the Philippines. Part sonic ritual, part diasporic storytelling.” The album totally gripped me on first hearing as a wholly original approach to long-form storytelling by way of exploratory vocalization. While it’s easy to get lost in the sonic characteristics of experimental vocal technique, Tobin leverages the emotional narratives latent in her practice: her final declarations of “they can’t erase me” pack a powerful punch.