Singing In Tongues
by Kyle Gann
Some composers astonish musicians by brilliantly defining new compositional problems. Other zap the audience with displays of raw emotion. For a composer to do both at the same time is a rare epiphany, a sign that he or she has received gifts from two of the gods at once. The audience that saw Joshua Fried's new
at La MaMa October 27 was treated to a kaleidoscope of emotions, frightening, cathartically sad, and funny, often abrupt succession. While I laughed and squirmed with everyone else, underneath I kept thinking what a varied list of formal inspirations Fried had sparked from his bizarre performance setup.
I've mentioned Fried's Travelogue here before, a work in which a singer listens through headphones to a tape he or she has never heard, and then has to vocally replicate all sounds heard as immediately as possible. The babble that results from someone imitating English words without time to think is a wild effect, and the composition has a good joke where the singer has to mouth a golden oldie without knowing where it will end. Travelogue seemed like a good one-idea piece that I didn't see how Fried could build on. But he has. WORK-IN-PROGRESS subjects six singers to the process, an expansion which, as Fried proved, multiplies the possibilities exponentially. In addition, the tape gave them directions as to where to look, how to move their arms, and so on. The singers I heard--Paula Cole, Mary Christopher, Gretchen Krich, Randolph Curtis Rand, Laurence Rawlins and Susan Thompson--were fluently expressive, and, due to the surprise-dependent nature of the piece, can never perform it again.
It's an amazingly original ploy: you put on tape the piece you want to create, calculating how it will be filtered through the split-second reactions of your mimicking performers. What never occurred to me with Travelogue was how the tape could function as an unseen conductor, a determiner of complex rhythms. Conlon Nancarrow talks about creating a video conductor to get live performers to play different tempos at once, and some composers have made musicians follow click tracks, but most such methods render a performance somewhat mechanical. In this instance, though, since all the performers' reactions had to be as spontaneous as possible, Fried could play with time-and tempo-structuring with no loss of passion.
The first movement was an 8/9 tempo canon in which two singers babbled at different speeds, one eventually catching up with the other. In another canon, people started and stopped jabbering in exact unison though mutually unaware of each other. This would have been a cute enough trick in abstract instrumental music, but since the performers were speaking, dancing, and waving their arms, they seemed driven by some weirdly synchronized glossolalia. When they all stopped babbling at once, the effect was as sudden as the cool minimalist cadence of Philip Glass, but even more electric because the singers hadn't known themselves that they were going to stop.
In WORK-IN-PROGRESS Fried has borrowed an element of suspense from top-shelf Hitchcock: we know something the people we're watching don't. We don't know what they'll do next, and neither do they, but we know how the actions and vocalizations of different singers relate to each other. The music achieves the feel of the craziest improvisation, and yet Fried has set up the ultimate composer-as-dictator strategy, ruling out any intentional performer contribution whatever. You could score this music out, train six extremely uninhibited singers to rehearse it, and they might reach the same energy level. But it would never look as scary, and the audience wouldn't be in on the fun.