Review: Festival brings music back to school
There is a feeling of back to school at the Festival of Resonating Bodies, immersion in the new vocal music that arrives every year just after Labor Day. This week, singers, songwriters and musicians have flocked to the lobby and aisles of Roulette in Brooklyn to discuss where they’ve played this summer and what’s to come this fall.
The event has a serious and relaxed charm: concerts inevitably start late; intermissions drag on; Lucy Dhegrae, Founder and Director, casually gives unscripted speeches; this year, a duo crisscrossed the theater during breaks, breaking into impromptu close harmonies. Even the performances, however skillful they may be, convey a sense of work in progress, of shared explorations in a spirit of generosity and intimacy.
The formula is simple: three evenings, three performers per evening, 30 minutes per set. (It used to be 45 minutes, which is a nice change.) Artists can fill that half hour as they see fit. There was more range than usual this week, even for an event that prides itself on variety.
[Read more about how this year’s artists planned their sets.]
This year, two real stars of opera: countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, Tuesday, and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, Thursday. Well, a mezzo-soprano in her day job; Here, Ms. Blythe appeared as her drag alter ego, the bearded and over-the-top tenor Blythely Oratonio, encircling – beautifully – mixes of Italian tunes and pop hits. (Think of a baroque “Jessie’s Girl.”) Mr. Costanzo sang six pieces, five of which were written for her sensually floating, moonstone voice.
That they fit in so naturally with other performances speaks to wide ears of the festival and its audience, even if these other sets were more overtly experimental. But even here there were divergent approaches.
Charmaine Lee (Tuesday) and Erin Gee (Thursday) shared a wordless vocabulary of pops, whistles, croaks, exhalations, loud scribbles. But while Ms. Lee’s music – partly evoked alongside Conrad Tao, on piano and electronics – had a strong, violent expressionist charge, Ms. Gee’s was whispered and precise, both solo and with musicians from the Argento New Music Project, in examples from his ongoing series “Bouches”.
On Wednesday, Kate Soper’s voice was sent ricocheting through the theater by Sam Pluta’s explosive electronic manipulations; the text, as usual with Mrs. Soper, was a dense work of ancient philosophy, with a lively but serious twist. She then plays the piano for “Les fragments de Parmenides”, Oscillating between words and song as she played with the conventions of the singer-songwriter cabaret.
On Wednesday, in the only entirely solo set, Anaïs Maviel accompanied herself on the kamale ngoni harp, picking a fluid background around which her soft voice was sinuous. At the end of an elegant improvised set Thursday with pianist Vijay Iyer and bassist Shahzad Ismaily, both of whom doubled on electronics, Arooj Aftab sang a soft yet reverberating vocals over a low, soaring, pulsating drone. (“Neo-Sufi,” she aptly describes herself.)
Accompanied on Wednesday by a group mixing rich strings and rock amplitude, Ted Hearne’s voice went from baritone belt to aerial falsetto in a series of poems by Dorothea Lasky that emphasizes their sullen emotivity. more than their ironic humor. For a drier dissection of a poetic text, Tuesday brought in Jane Sheldon and her adaptation of “Dunt: A Poem for a Dry River” by Alice Oswald. A captivating study on the breath, it was heavy with rhythmic exhalations as a whole, quietly evoked a summer night: the low blow of a conch, a soft sound of a bell, soft sounds of sliding.
Ms Sheldon crawled on a wet clay strip as she sang, then stayed on stage after the house lights went out for intermission. With a shy smile, she said that Roulette wouldn’t want her to leave with so dirty feet.
“But it’s over,” she said, laughing at the audience. In its simplicity, the moment captured Resonant Bodies.
Festival of Resonating Bodies
Tuesday through Thursday at Roulette, Brooklyn.