Composer/performer Kate Soper talks about her favorite music to sing and the “strange and wonderful world of electronics and the voice” in advance of her NYFOS Next evening on March 28 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music.
As you are especially known for performing your own work, I imagine that you have very specific ideas of what you’d like from other singers. How do you react when you hear others’ interpretations of pieces so intimately connected to your own voice?
I’m absolutely thrilled that other singers have begun to perform my work, although it can occasionally be disorienting to hear it, especially if it’s a piece I’ve done myself many times! (I recall a sort of embarrassing early experience where I unintentionally traumatized a singer by mouthing all the words from the front row while she performed, without even realizing I was doing it.) My vocal music can be idiosyncratic, with elements of improvisation and extended techniques along with plain speech, which I hope encourages every new take to be extremely personalized not just in terms of vocal sound, but in terms of a singer’s background and style and way of communicating in general. Sometimes another person’s performance will reveal things about a work that I didn’t even know were there as the composer, which is always exciting. Ultimately, my interpretation is only one interpretation.
What is your favorite music to sing that isn’t your own?
I like singing the works of my fellow composers in the Wet Ink ensemble (Alex Mincek, Sam Pluta, and Eric Wubbels) because they take such a different approach to the voice than I do: it’s very instrumental and not “expressive” in the way we normally think of vocal music, so it keeps my chops up and lets me focus on ensemble work without having to carry the foregrounded. I also adore singing older music: I’ve done a couple of Machaut arrangements with friends, and I recently sang an arrangement of a piece by the 12th century composer Hildegard of Bingen with the Longleash trio. On that program we also did a little Caccini, and it was really fun for me to play around with the language of vocal ornamentation that was developing in the early 17th century.
You are curating and performing on our NYFOS Next evening on March 28; how did you decide what to feature?
When I was asked to curate a NYFOS show, my mind immediately went to the strange and wonderful world of electronics and the voice. This is probably because I’m currently deep in the process of writing a new opera, and have been loving the protean possibilities for storytelling, character creation, and spectacle that electronics have opened up to me as a composer and librettist. Electronics have so much to offer to the singing voice, whether it’s to bump up its sensual beauty, to provide a surreal landscape for it to play in, or to catapult it into the realm of pure, bewitching noise. I wanted to showcase the aesthetic and stylistic range of this combination, so we’ll have some concert pieces for voice and fixed media by established and young composers like Natacha Diehls, Alvin Lucier, and Kaija Saariaho (performed by the fantastic Charlotte Mundy) as well as a set of improvisations by the magnificent Charmaine Lee and Sam Pluta, who use realtime manipulation to push the limits of what vocal sounds can be. Finally, I’m excited to premiere a couple of excerpts from my aforementioned opera-in-progress, featuring two allegorical characters and their respective electronic manipulations!
What is the last music you sang before answering these questions?
The last music I sang was a work by Anthony Braxton, which I performed with three other members of Wet Ink as part of a residency at the Boston Conservatory. Braxton has an extensive collection of structured improvisations for open instrumentation that can be collaged and layered together in many ways to form all kinds of fascinating sets. Performers of these works have a lot of freedom to make collective decisions about creating shapes and structures from the material, decisions that can be made both in rehearsal and during the actual performance. I find it a really interesting challenge to fit into this world as a vocalist—it encourages me to be open, receptive and flexible onstage, and gives me the opportunity to really listen to and enjoy what my fellow performers are doing.
NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. Is there anything about this particular form that is significant to you?
I think the thing I like best about ‘song’ as a form is some idea of storytelling. Storytelling has always been an essential element of my creative life, and I find that song in all its guises is the best ways to tell a story—because of its infinite expressive possibilities, the ease at which it enraptures, and its prismlike ability to simultaneously present many points of view.