Of all musical instruments, the human voice is the both the most accessible - we all have one - and the most challenging to execute. In the right hands, there is no sound more transporting; when laden with unnecessary ornament or affectation, few things are more off-putting. As such, I approached last week's Resonant Bodies Festival, devoted exclusively to contemporary vocal performance, with no small amount of hesitation.
It didn't help when I arrived at JACK in Clinton Hill on Tuesday to find a boxy performance space that someone decided to line in Reynolds Wrap. Whatever the acoustic or aesthetic intentions, the place looked like the inside of a Jiffy Pop pan.
Still, I was drawn by the festival's unique design, inviting nine singers over three nights to curate their own 45 minute set - often comprised of their own music - regardless of format or style. Tuesday's program in particular was Teflon-strong, featuring a pair modern masterpieces sung by two of today's most talented young singers, alongside a wide-ranging performance that seamlessly blended classical, avant-garde and indie-folk. It didn't hurt that all three vocalists were women in their early 30's, approaching the peak of their vocal power.
Mellissa Hughes has long been one of New York's leading new music singers, known for the heightened theatricality of her performances. So, it made sense that Melly invited director Kelvin Chan to develop a narrative staging of György Kurtág's Kafka Fragments (1987), illuminating Kafka's 19 absurdist texts with a series of gestures and movements that had all the horror and wonder of Greek drama. Melly, who sang the 45 minute work from memory, circled around the stage barefoot, often coming to rest in the immediate shadow of violinist Caroline Chin, who provided the sole musical accompaniment.
But, the evening's most startling performance came from Gelsey Bell: a composer-singer with Tori Amos-style roots in the indie-folk community but who has clearly found a home for herself in the world of experimental vocal music. She began her set by sitting in the middle of the audience to perform her campfire song "Cradle" (2013), accompanying herself on the metallophone (basically, a handheld xylophone.) She followed that with Robert Ashley's spoken word classic "Love is a Good Example" (1991), using two standing microphones to bring out the work's wry schizophrenia. Personally, I'm not the biggest Ashley fan, but Bell's performance - she performed in Ashley's final opera, CRASH and helped arrange his classic TV opera Private Lives for the stage - was as authentic as it gets.
Returning to her own music, she performed a neat trick on her song "The Scientists Say" (2011), playing the piano backwards so she could continue to face the audience. Towards the end, she unleashed a series of barbaric yawps that sounded like a cross between a swamp frog and an elephant seal. The same screeches appeared on Dave Malloy's "The Photograph" from Ghost Quartet (2014), which is intended to be performed in near-darkness. Clearly, we were experiencing something altogether different, made all the more astonishing by Bell's slight, gamine appearance.
Bell ended her set with "Odysseus", the closing scene from fellow singer-composer Kate Soper's 2013 opera Here Be Sirens. Playing the roles of mythical sea creatures, Gelsey sang and played piano while Soper sang into the wires, creating otherworldly echoes and overtones meant to spin sailors into a trance that would leave them crashed on the rocks. (Soper and Bell are currently performing in a revival of Here Be Sirens at Dixon Place, with final performances this weekend.) After spending an extended evening in close quarters with such fearless female singers, I was relieved to find myself on terra firma at the end of the night.