AMN Reviews: Wendy Richman: vox/viola [Tundra tun008]

For vox/viola, her debut solo album featuring recent work for viola and voice, violist/vocalist Wendy Richman has chosen a most appropriate duet partner: herself. Richman, a founding member of the International Chamber Ensemble who specializes in new performance techniques, is an accomplished performer on voice as well as viola, as she amply demonstrates on this collection of engaging works engagingly performed.

The works appearing on the album were commissioned by Richman as part of an ongoing effort to build a substantial contemporary repertoire for vocalist/violist. Modern work for singing violist traces back to Giacinto Scelsi’s Manto III of 1957, an inventive composition that joined extended string performance techniques to a sung text drawn from the Delphic oracles. Composer Lou Bunk’s (b. 1972) Scelsi Frammenti (2010) self-awarely carries Scelsi’s work forward by setting a text of broken consonants and vowels over a viola part based on Bunk’s improvisations on a homemade bowed instrument made of Styrofoam and cardboard. The piece captures and refracts the radicalism of Scelsi’s vocabulary with a series of scratches, creaks, and harmonics on the one side, and sustained vowels and stuttering consonants on the other.

Also inspired by Manto III is “to be held…” by Jason Eckardt (b. 1971) a work composed in 2012 for viola, voice, and prerecorded media. The title is taken from poet Charles Olson’s manifesto Projective Verse, which articulated a notion of measuring the poetic line by the length of a breath; the sung text derives from poet Robert Creeley’s The Language. The piece comprises a slow, microtonal counterpoint made up of elongated sung, played and played-back tones that approach, meet and diverge in slowly moving sound masses that build and sustain tension before culminating in an extreme upper register fadeout. The first part of Extraordinary Rendition (2010) by David Smooke (b. 1969) also uses long-period microtonal movements, but then turns dramatically to staccato phrasing for bow and hard consonants. José-Luis Hurtado’s Palabras en alto exploits changes in dynamic range as a way to frame and throw into sharp relief the color contrasts and expressive force inherent in a mobile series of extended gestures for strings and voice.

The above works represent just some of the highlights of the album; the other compositions, by Christian Carey, Stephen Gorbos, Arlene Sierra, Everette Minchew, and Ken Ueno, exhibit a wide and stimulating range of creative approaches to having voice and viola interact through a single performer. All are certainly worth hearing.

Daniel Barbiero