The Resonant Bodies Festival, founded by Lucy Dhegrae, spent six years (2013–2019) showing the world what the human voice can be. A prolific series, Resonant Bodies brought over 250 vocal works to over 2,500 audience members, showcasing a range of practitioners from noisy improvisers to contemporary classical virtuosos to philosophical experimentalists.
New Focus Recordings recently released Resonant Bodies, the first recording from the festival’s performance archives. These tracks demonstrate the myriad ways vocal practitioners navigate their instrument, sharing their bodies as much as their music. It’s a broad spectrum of style, of practice, of philosophy, and of sound, as was the festival. If you’re new to avant-garde vocal music, one could not ask for a more comprehensive introduction to the contemporary voice and a stepping stone into the scene. If you’re already steeped in the manifold ways musicians are using the voice, then it’s thrilling to have such an accessible summation of the wonderful practitioners active today.
Charmaine Lee’s Littorals for voice and electronics is the perfect opening track to discard preconceptions about vocality. Lee’s intricate improvisatory practice is an immediate demonstration of the boundary-breaking curatorial focus of the festival. Over seven-and-a-half minutes, she spits out sibilants over distorted phonations with astonishing dexterity, pops and trills bursting while she ekes out subtle timbral variations hidden amidst her breathy pulsations. A simple electronics setup shades depth and hazy ambience into her chaotic vocalizations, creating an aura equal parts assertive and introspective.
Listeners familiar with the scene will recognize many names featured on Resonant Bodies. Pamela Z’s Quatre Couches/Badagada demonstrates her pioneering work with extended technique and electronic processing. The folkish stylings of Caroline Shaw are on tuneful display in Rise/Other Song. Tony Arnold flies through Jason Eckardt’s exacting Dithyramb, as though responding to Sarah Marie Sun and Campbell MacDonald’s brilliant dramatic performance of Die Flamme by Thierry Tidrow one track prior.
The most exciting performances, though, step away from the recognizable offshoots of contemporary classical music and explore new aesthetics of vocalizing. Arooj Aftab leads a ruminative, melodic improvisation entitled en route to unfriending, singing through text by Pakistani poet Mirzah Ghalib while accompanied by veteran performers Vijay Iyer (piano) and Shahzad Ismaily (bass). Gelsey Bell invites us to contemplate her presence through a provoking performance of Feedback Belly, abstracting her physicality into clouds of gritty feedback. Anaïs Maviel’s In the Garden record was one of my favorites of 2019; this performance captures the same aching vulnerability as she explores nuanced timbral and harmonic pathways.
Not every piece translated so successfully, particularly among the composed works. Cage’s She is Asleep, performed beautifully by Julia Bullock and Milena Gligić, felt surprisingly out of place. Despite its status as an early exploration of vocal possibilities (the voice part has no vowel or consonant directions), its form and aesthetic make it feel outdated. Kamala Sankaram’s Ololyga traces the evolution of vocalizing through swirls of electronics and discordant screams, but could have lasted longer and dwelt more on the sounds at play. If only after you then me by Amadeus Regucera flagged under a developmental blockiness, and Susan Botti’s Listen, my heart was more meandering than meditative. The committed performances by Duo Cortona (Rachel Calloway, voice, and Ari Streisfeld, violin) and Lucy Shelton were wholly dedicated to the ethos of these pieces, but couldn’t make up for structural issues.
Fortunately, the album is extraordinarily well-curated, expertly pacing the progression of aesthetics and forms for its immense 1 hour 44-minute runtime. If, on an individual level, certain tracks are not as strong as others, they nonetheless fit expertly into the flow of sounds. Bristling distortions flow into droning hums, while free improvisations and specialized notation practices serve as foils, each track complementing those surrounding it.
Nothing, however, could quite prepare me for the album closer — Sofia Jernberg’s One Pitch: Birds for Distortion and Mouth Synthesizers. Jernberg was one of few names I didn’t recognize on this tracklist, and her improvisatory performance absolutely floored me. Opening with a proud, commanding melodic line, she quickly and expertly devolves into multiphonic squeaks and vocal fry. Her bodily microadjustments draw forth increasingly focused sounds, prying open spaces of palpable timbral complexity as she navigates from squealing ululations to buzzing growls. Here is not just a world of sound, but the world of the body, delicately negotiated by Jernberg (and every other artist) to create astonishing acoustic phenomena. If Lee’s opener set the tone for what the voice can do, Jernberg’s closer suggests that this is only the beginning.