Vocal virtuosity and imagination open Resonant Bodies Festival

Sat Apr 07, 2018 at 4:46 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Nina Dante performed at the Resonant Bodies Festival Friday night at Constellation. Photo: Marc Perlish

The Resonant Bodies Festival opened Friday night at Constellation in its first Chicago iteration. As is often the case with experimental music festivals of this type, the fare varied wildly in quality and inspiration. But at its best, the performers conveyed the goal, stated by festival founder and director Lucy Dhegrae, of presenting “as wide a snapshot of the voice” as possible and what it can accomplish in contemporary works.

While the Resonant Bodies Festival is based in New York, this weekend’s Constellation concerts have a local connection in that many of the artists, like Dhegrae, either attended school in Chicago and/or are former or present Chicago residents.

Jenna Lyle was up first and she and her colleagues took the honors for most imaginative presentation. Lyle’s Louise, presented in its world premiere, was inspired by the extraordinary work of Abstract Expressionist sculptor Louise Nevelson (1899-1988). In Lyle’s words, Louise explores “the sound of sculptural movement and the sonic properties of textiles.”

From standing still against an industrial electronic barrage, Lyle slowly unwinds her athletic body, swaying, bending and stretching in Tai-Chi-like movements. She is surrounded by a vast circular garment on the floor, which she eventually dons. The principal element is that the dress material is outfitted with “sonic fabric” (designed by Scarlet Le and Alyce Santoro), which produces electronic sounds in real time by the fabric and Lyle’s movements.

Jenna Lyle. Photo: Marc Perlish.

The conceit sounds gimmicky but in fact the results were striking and often captivating—a contrasted blend of electronic effects produced by the plugged-in garment and Lyle’s graceful movements, as she appeared to be “playing” the dress, coaxing sounds with her movements, like a full-body theremin.

The centerpiece of Friday evening was Nina Dante’s set of three works, which offered an effective showcase for her impressive, often remarkable vocal capabilities.

AGGELOI III a 6 by Stratis Minakakis is a setting of the messenger’s amazed description of Oedipus’s death and godlike descent to Hades from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. The work is a kind of hyper-intense miniature vocal scena with six text lines running at once.

Dante’s performance was an a capella tour de force. She wielded her light, bell-like voice with staggering bravura, scaling huge vocal leaps easily and theatrically conveying in split-second syllables a vast range of emotions, from anger, fear, anxiety, and wariness to solace and awe in a truly virtuosic piece of vocal theater.

Dante’s other two works were world premieres. In Pablo Chin’s Si Chavela met Matta, the composer has taken recordings of the Costa Rican singer Chavela Vargas and manipulated them via computer; Dante then painstakingly transcribed them into a notated score. The result centers on a plaintive vocal line with a folk-like Latin cancion flavor. The legato phrases are consistently broken up by sudden high notes, steep epiglottal drops, and guttural rasps. Yet for all the vocal acrobatics the effect is always musical and strangely endearing due to Dante’s lovely voice and charismatic presence.

Dante’s own El canto mio es un grito (My song is a cry) concluded her set. Adapted from an earlier improvisation, this theatrical work begins with what sounds like painful swallowing, moving to halting, gestural speech, whistling, and moaning. In the middle is a lightning-fast torrent of speech and sound that was simply astounding; one didn’t think it was possible for any human to produce vocalization as fast as this with such clarity and precision. An amazing performance of vocal versatility by a uniquely gifted young artist.

Alejandro T. Acierto. Photo: Marc Perlish.

The closing set by Alejandro T. Acierto proved more mixed. Cavities I-IV was a showcase for “circular inhalation and amplification” that seemed to reflect a major dental procedure. Acierto produced an array of amplified sounds, from suction noises and dental tapping to anesthetized deep breathing and an occasional terrified scream. While it offered an arresting display of oral virtuosity, the performance also proved unsettling for one currently dealing with a failed root canal.

Acierto’s Transmit 4.x was heard in its world premiere. The tolling bells and ebb and flow of the pulsing electronic waves from speakers around the room offered a striking sonic effect. The rest of Acierto’s act–half standup comedy and half improv theater–proved less successful. Acierto portrayed a halting one-sided cell phone conversation in which he can only attempt staccato interjections to the unheard logorrheic flow coming from the other side. This eventually devolved into a fusillade of unintelligible words and rapid-fire nonsense babble that was impressive in vocal dexterity but interminable in duration, going on far too long for its minimal rewards.

The Resonant Bodies Festival continues 7:30 p.m. Saturday with Tony Arnold, Sophia Burgos, and Amanda DeBoer Bartlett. resonantbodiesfestival.org

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment