Back to Basics

[Finally getting around, more than a year after my last blog entry, to posting something again…and this entry has been sitting on my desktop for more than a month! Enjoy!]

“Back to basics:” a typical fall slogan, as we dig into real life again, refreshed from summer travels, with a renewed focus on our work… (Oh, and how quickly that gets out of hand! Another entry entirely.)

The past several weeks have reminded me of what my “basic” is, and where I need to go when I’m feeling confused/overwhelmed/unsure: my “basic,” my “baseline” as an artist, is sound. I’m in this for the sound, folks.

Case in point: I had the great fortune (thanks, Jeff!) of being asked to write a book review for a new handbook on contemporary extended vocal technique—the review will be out in the January 2016 issue of the Cambridge University Press’s TEMPO. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous writing a book review on such a serious and detailed manual. For one, I didn’t know how far I could (or should) go critically. I mean, who am I? I’m just one singer. But after my first draft was little more than summarizing what is in the volume, I was asked to add more critical material. So I did. And it became clear to me in writing this review that, as much as I love working on technique and exploring new ones (which I do LOVE), there isn’t much to it for me if there isn’t a truly audible result from a new technique, and a result that can be used aesthetically.

(The experience writing the book review also reminded me that my brain has more or less become a mash of English and German, and English grammar, or even the ability to think quickly in English, has become…at times, rather weak. For instance, I was spelling something to an American colleague over the phone the other day and instead of saying “F, as in ‘Frank,’” like any normal person, I couldn’t think fast enough and said “F…as in ‘fish’.” FISH?! Are you kidding me, Finn? Argh…)

Anyway, last month, I also had a conversation with a friend that ended up on the topic of sound. He’s a composer who admitted to me (I say he admitted it to me, but for him it was not really an “admission”) that he is not interested in the sound that his scores produced—just the cognitive process of the performers. I was startled. He tried to make the case that Cage was also interested in the process, and not the sound…but I am somehow sure that Cage cared about the sound. Another conversation altogether. It made me realize again that my “basic,” my foundation, is really: sound.

Sound is transporting for me. Words on a page/screen also transport me (and much more when read or performed), and theater as well, but…sound. It’s so mysterious. It’s so pregnant with meaning without saying ANYTHING. I’m currently obsessed with the Blues Roots playlist on Spotify: these songs, the range of sounds that the performers find in their voices and instruments: the way that they transport me is unique. I am suddenly, physically in another place. My emotions can do a 180. Maybe it’s crazy that I am still amazed what sound can do—I mean, I am a professional musician, hello—but it really is astounding.

And my work with the Hampsong Foundation (i.e. my other life) is also devoted to this idea: that the actual sound of a song, that listening to the song itself physically transports you. You are somewhere else, in another moment in time, in another place, empathizing with the problems and challenges that people faced at that time, in that place. Like time travel. Like teleportation. Music—sound—does that like nothing else for me, and I know that many others agree.

I had to laugh when I read this article about being obsessed with podcasts. I’m on that very dangerous road; I listen to a lot of podcasts as well, and consume information much more easily by listening. But it still annoys me to death when people talk about music (this coming from someone involved in writing two radio series about the history of culture told through music). Just play the music. Just…listen.

My students used to have so much trouble with this (“Just listen!”) back when I taught Music Appreciation for non-music majors (during my other other life…in Texas…) It was great when they had a YouTube video to accompany the music, but without a visual, many were lost and couldn’t pay attention. I don’t want to open the Pandora’s box of “we don’t know how to listen anymore,” but would rather say that this is confusing for those of us whose lifeblood is listening. It was very hard for me to relate to that.

OK, this is a somewhat rambling entry, but here’s the point: I hope you can also take a moment, in your busy life, in the tsunami of emails and endless to-do lists, to think about what your “basic” is. And then, get back to it.