The annual New York Festival of Song has, in recent years, made room for contemporary work under the NYFOS Next banner. This year’s installment – a salon-style evening in the warm and intimate Mary Flager Cary Hall in Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Hell’s Kitchen building – focused on compositions for voice and electronics as programmed by composer/soprano Kate Soper.

Charlotte Mundy © Cherylynn Tsushima
Charlotte Mundy
© Cherylynn Tsushima

Soper bookended the program with her own works, old and new. The opener, The Understanding of All Things, used text (translated into English) from Kafka’s short story The Top. She described it as being about “living in hope for discovery”, likening that to the life of an artist. Against a backing track sourced recordings of her voice and a top spinning in an iron skillet (both subjected to heavy electronic processing), she blurred words and phrases, clipping them, holding them in sustained tones and subjecting them to harmonic distortion. The text all but disappeared, occasionally arising in the faint distance of the prerecorded track. It seemed as if she were losing her own words – or Kafka’s words – much like the children in the story robbed of their toys.

The 2013 piece (revised in 2015) felt academic compared to her more recent work. She closed the evening with a pair of arias from her in-the-works opera The Romance of the Rose. The excerpts cast shame and reason into human form. In Shame’s Triple Aria Transformation, soprano Devony Smith’s voice was electronically processed and pitted against heavy electric guitar, leaving the verses – taken from poets Marianne Moore, Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton – all but indiscernible (texts were provided in the program). In dark lipstick and red leather, the singer seemed more intent on casting shame than feeling it. For the third section, she dropped the leather jacket and (literally) let her hair down for a more subdued but no less anxious reading, finding a #metoo relevance and strength in Rich’s 1978 Splittings.

Lady Reason’s Collapsing Sestina used the composer’s own text and voice against piano, electric keyboard and electronics to build a case against Lady Shame. It was a dizzying collision of art song and processed cheese. Soper pushed through with flawless pitch and articulation. If the argument wasn’t entirely clear in the case of reason over shame, the fragments made for an effective tease for the work-in-progress.

Soper is a member of the wonderful Wet Ink Ensemble, and included her bandmate Sam Pluta on the program in an improvisation with Charmaine Lee, who explores the extreme ends of vocalization with multiple microphones, including one affixed to her throat. In a brief, onstage conversation before their performance, Lee referred to the collaboration as “live problem solving” and Pluta described it as a “debate”. It was decidedly noisier than the pieces that preceded it, providing an animated respite of “spontaneous composition”.

Soprano Charlotte Mundy sang works by Natacha Diels, Alvin Lucier and Kaija Saariaho, providing the evening with both its high point and its most troublesome.

For Diels’ 2012 Bahnhof, she donned wired gloves to trigger sharp percussive snaps and voice samples. The two voices and instrusive clicks worked together quite well when they worked, creating a disorienting effect with shapeshifting mirrored and disembodied voices and the amplified and visual cues of Mundy’s fingers tapping together. Unfortunately, the wired connection repeatedly gave out, causing an unintentional layer of distraction.

She next sang three sections of Lucier’s 1998 Wave Songs, in which she was called upon to vacillate between the wavering of dissonant oscillator tones. In excerpted form, it felt too brief, not leaving her time to explore the tonality. But when she came to Saariaho’s 1996 Lonh (the longest piece of the night), she was in her element. Singing in English and modern and medieval French, Mundy opened up with the warmth of emotion (even if the emotive import of the piece is of memory and melancholic longing). The joy that read on her face didn’t seem to be her character’s alone. A melody of slow, small waves delivered against pre-recorded chimes, acoustic drones and even ocean sounds was delivered through wonderfully subtle shifts in mood and language.

Mundy’s set midpoint in the evening unintentionally underscored a difficulty built in to Soper’s curatorial thesis and a crucial difference between fixed and interactive media. The always expanding potential of electronic music can create no end of alien and dreamlike atmospheres, but pose an added level of risk to the performer. There are things that can go wrong with a cello, for example, but rarely so abruptly as to leave the performer smiling nervously on a silent stage.

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