Voice Electric

The Ertegun community made our way to Trinity College for our first cultural programme event of the year, VOICE ELECTRIC, a stimulating performance by Lotte Betts-Dean featuring video art by Purple Taiko and hosted by the Oxford International Song Festival. Betts-Dean entered the stage downhill from her audience, the Levine Building’s auditorium semi-basement positioning her not only beneath the large video projection of Purple Taiko’s visuals, but beneath the ground level of the college. Lit dimly by the score on the screen of her tablet, Betts-Dean delivered a sensory performance in which technology afforded a strikingly intermedial show. Electronic music and solo voice works came together with a college of lo-fi aesthetics in a long presentation that offered an engaging articulation of human vocality.

The concert began with selections from Kurt Schwitter’s legendary sound poem Ursonate (1922-1932) which takes fragments from two “Plakatgedichte” (“Poster Poems”) by Raoul Hausmann. As Betts-Dean carefully enounced Germanic sound-words like “Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu”—what Schwitter called “primordial sounds” in his sonata—, the video above her flitted among close-ups of Schwitter’s typewritten words on printed pages, and a recurring theme of the concert arose: the relation between sound and visual, here almost as voice and (visual) score, what Betts-Dean sees as “echoed and refracted” colours of the human voice. Though most obvious during the opening performance of Schwitter’s poem in which vocalised and written words came to the audience at once, the relationality of scoring—metaphorically—and performance continued as Betts-Dean moved through Caroline Shaw’s Rise (2018), selections from Kaija Saariaho’s From the Grammer of Dreams (2002), and Stuart MacRae’s elided compressed (2022) when visuals moved from text to human figure. Here, Betts-Dean sang live alongside pre-recorded voices: Caroline Shaw’s from the original recording of Rise, Swedish soprano Pia Freund’s, and Betts-Dean’s own, respectively. This polyphony envoiced a visual scape of the singer’s own projected visage, itself distorted by analogue effects.

Shorter pieces—Erin Gee’s short Mouthpiece I (2000), which engages with the voice’s non-linguistic capacities; Hô I (1960) by Giacinto Scelsi; Morton Feldman’s 1946 Only, on text by poet Rainer Maria Rilke; and Cannibal, a piece commissioned by Mathis Saunier specifically for VOICE ELECTRIC—punctuated a reimagined interpretation of a 1994 track by Frame Cut Frame (a duo featuring Betts-Dean’s father) and Luigi Nono’s notable La fabbrica illuminata (1964), an industrial piece whose factory noises were weaved with modular synthesis and pre-recorded chorus. The night ended with Linda Buckley’s 2011 revelavit, a meditative piece based on text after Léonin, a Medieval composer significant for his polyphonic work with organum, a plainchant melody.

Across such a spectrum of sonic and musical works, projections of staticked landscapes flowed through and with the soundscapes of electronics and voice. From nature to manufactured structures and back again to the human, we experienced compelling inversions of temporality among visuals themselves, Betts-Dean’s incantations, and pre-recorded sounds, not to mention the literal inversion of colors into their opposite hues (and recurring black-and-white). The night’s live vocal elements foregrounded human vocality across its spectrum, as Betts-Dean’s sighing, humming, popping, and growling showcased a variety of plosive and glottal sounds among the vibrations she offered her audience. Her sensorium was further engaged through her physical movements as she clicked her laptop to move between tracks or employed gestures in her brandishing of tuning forks. Indeed, among the performative web of live voice, recorded sound, visual projection, and physical movement, Betts-Dean embodied her exploration of the “amplified human voice as it oscillates.”

This night’s performance was different from any earlier iteration of VOICE ELECTRIC, as Betts-Dean, Purple Taiko, and the Oxford International Song Festival sought to curate a singular experience for the one-night-only performance. Purple Taiko has mentioned how her and Betts-Dean “were both shedding shadows” when they first created VOICE ELECTRIC during their 2022 residency at Britten Pears Arts. Perhaps we might think of the connectivity of the vocal and electric as an impetus for exploring the many ways our humanity is bound up with our personal experiences, inflected by technology. VOICE ELECTRIC begs us to consider: In enmeshing the voice and the electric, where do we locate the human amongst the technological? As scholars in the humanities, it is ever vital for us to consider such a pressing question, particularly one that arose for these artists from a collaboration at a time of personal transformation. A fitting beginning to Ertegun’s programme of cultural events, VOICE ELECTRIC reminds us to experience our voices and the apparatuses that enable, inflect, complicate, and reinvent their expression, and to think what it might mean to reach beyond linguistic frameworks and towards our embodied entanglements with the world around us.

Hermán Luis Chávez