The junctions and disjunctions that bind and divide language and what we try to mean with it: this is an old and perennial problem for philosophy and one that provides the subject of Ipsa Dixit, composer/vocalist Kate Soper’s six-movement work for soprano and small chamber ensemble.
The work, which was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in music, was initially written as separate pieces between 2010 and 2016; as a unified work it was premiered in Troy, New York in December 2016. As presented here on two discs, Ipsa Dixit is a 90-minute fusion of classical and contemporary texts, spoken and sung, underscored by flute, violin and percussion.
Soper’s voice provides the dramatic center around which the various parts cohere; she speaks, lectures, recites, questions, and above all sings in a beautiful, precise soprano. As she does all this, the Wet Ink Ensemble’s flutist Erin Lesser, violinist Josh Modney, and percussionist Ian Antonio play a score that tends toward a sparse, modernist vocabulary of fragmented chromaticism and timbral interplay. The passages for voice and flute, and voice and violin in movements II and VI respectively, balance on the subtle gradations of tone within comparable ranges and, as duets, bring out a certain paradoxical sensuousness implicated in austerity. It’s one irony in a work built on ironies, starting with the title, a feminization of “ipse dixit,” the legal term for an unsupported claim. Soper is quoted in the liner note as saying that Ipsa Dixit is about the difficulties of conveying human experience in language. But despite its ambiguities and inevitable lapses, language still allows us to make ourselves understood, and that may be the fundamental conclusion Soper’s work draws us to. Let Guido d’Arezzo, whom Soper quotes in the final movement, have the last words: “Just as everything that can be spoken can be written, so everything can be made into song that can be written. Therefore everything can be made into song that can be spoken.”