Electric music and music-theatre – Nicholas Isherwood


Nicholas Isherwood (voice), Michael Norris (sound diffusion)

Isaac Schankler: Mouthfeel / Lissa Meridan: shafts of shadow
Jean-Claude Risset: Otro / Michael Norris: Deep Field
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Capricorn

Adam Concert Room

Thursday, 21 August 2013, 7.30 pm

The Adam Concert Room darkens. Electronic sound wells up like a rushing wind. After several minutes, a tall, gaunt figure mounts a platform at the back. The lights fade up to reveal the futuristically silver-clad spaceman from the Dog Star.

So began Stockhausen’s Capricorn, an adapted segment of his longer work SIRIUS. Low electronic sounds underlying Nicholas Isherwood’s voice gradually rose in pitch over the half-hour (or so) of the piece, with a few exceptions, such as when the bass frequencies returned, heavily amplified (perhaps over amplified) to eclipse the voice at the point of climax. Near the end, a hauntingly naïve tune emerged out of the abstract texture, and Isherwood produced ethereal vocal harmonics (especially written for him by Stockhausen).

In 2009, Isherwood had performed Havona, part of Stockhausen’s last composition, in the same venue. Again, incongruously, I was reminded of Harry Partch. In Havona, it was chintzy synth-sounds that suggested the Partch chromelodion. In the mid-period Capricorn, it was the stylised poses (futuristic here, rather than antique) assumed by the actor-singer.

Isherwood has worked with Stockhausen, and with an impressive list of other 20th and 21st century composers, including Iannis Xenakis, whose La Deesse Athena (“The Goddess Athena”) and Kassandra, he will be performing with Stroma in their “Goddess and Storyteller” concert on Sunday (1 September 2013, VUW Hunter Council Chamber, at 4 pm). Isherwood is also the author of the forthcoming The Techniques of Singing, chapters of which will cover (among other things) extended vocal techniques, and the twelve-odd gradations between the whisper and the scream (yes, he can do them all!).

The first half of the concert consisted of world premieres of four of the six pieces for voice and electronics, that will make up The Electric Voice (the remaining two, I understand, have not yet been completed). As programmes had run out when I arrived (more had been printed by half time), I listened to the first half “blind”, knowing only that there were two New Zealand works (by Michael Norris and Lissa Meridan), and two by unfamiliar international composers (and I had no idea of the order).

The first piece was a tour de force of Isherwood’s extended techniques, such as mouth-sounds, isolated abstract phonemes, deconstructed words (“prrrrroduct”), along with the occasional vocalise. I thought: Swedish sound-text poets, Bob Cobbing, Ernst Jandl, and other sound poets, and Berio’s treatment of e. e. cummings’ poems in Circles. I thought it was not New Zealand, and I was right. Mouthfeel, by US composer Isaac Schankler, was a sort of anti-advertisement for a brand of taco.

The second composition also had something of sound poetry about it, but here there was more vowel content, and some beautiful falsetto singing that was chorused through the electronics. I thought that this, too, was not New Zealand, but I was wrong. It was Lissa Meridan’s shafts of shadow, in which the singer listened to a track through headphones and translated what he heard, vocally.

The third piece made extensive (and effective) use of panning the sound around the loudspeaker array. I thought this might have been Meridan: the bell-like chimes near the beginning reminded me of the gamelan, which Meridan would have heard when she was director of the NZSM Electronic Music Studio, and the French words could have resulted from her now living in France. But no, it was Otre by international composer Jean-Claude Risset (the only piece in this Electric Voice group not a full premiere, apparently being a version of a previous composition).

The fourth work impressed me immediately, even without my knowing that it was by Michael Norris. Deep Field I sets ancient and historical astronomy texts, with Isherwood’s voice weaving freely over sustained, elongated syllables in the live electronic part. The effect is reminiscent of the twelfth century free organum of Leonin, that moment in history when western music stood poised to develop as a single melodic line of rhythmic suppleness and intonational subtlety, over slowly changing drone notes (akin to, although still different from, middle-eastern and Indian classical music). Then Leonin’s successor Perotin added the third voice, setting western music on its path to the forty-part motet and the Symphony of a Thousand.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *