The human voice is arguably the most versatile of all musical instruments. It is perhaps the only one capable, whether coupled with words or not, of both expressing and eliciting all emotions–ones for which we have names and ones beyond language. It is also perhaps the most astonishing sound-making device on the planet, able to mimic most of the animate and inanimate sounds of our world. Yet even if we stretch our ears past the myriad offerings of readily available Western music and open them to the music of other cultures, we are unlikely to encounter vocal music that uses that aspect of the voice’s astounding capabilities. For that we have to turn to some avant-garde composers and performers who are broadening the boundaries of vocal music by using extended vocal techniques.
Local singer Jennifer Goltz’s range, both vocal and stylistic, is considerable: the young soprano has sung Yiddish klezmer songs, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and most things between, but she has a special expertise and affection for new music. She is, she says laughingly, “the local voice that does crazy things.” When she performs on May 7 as part of “Other Voices: A Night with Unclassifiable Singers” at Kerrytown Concert House, she will sing John Berens’ “Study on Peter.” Goltz and Berens met when they were grad students at U-M, and Berens, with input from Goltz, composed this piece for her in 2013. The twenty-five-minute tour de force composition is based on the New Testament passage in which Peter denies knowing Jesus. The only text of the piece, “I do not know what you are talking about. I do not even know the man!,” is deconstructed and reshaped in many inventive, dramatic, and comic ways. So, “do not know what” becomes, alternately, “Donut?” and “Noah?” And “you are talking” becomes “You are tall” and “tall king.” The extremely demanding score–it’s all notated and mostly not improvised, though it sometimes feels like it must be–demands every note of Goltz’s range and asks her to produce a whole host of unconventional sounds with her lips and throat and even with her breath. And like the lyrics, the musical lines and phrases are also fragmented and reconstituted. The combination creates a powerful portrayal and examination of Peter’s agonizing night; the effect is relentless, cumulative, and compelling, and Goltz is totally up to it, vocally and theatrically.
“Other Voices”–really more mini-festival than concert–also showcases Jen Shyu, Mary Redhouse with John Lindberg, and Thomas Buckner, all leading practitioners of this new vocal music. KCH founder Deanna Relyea, the organizer of the event, says of all the performers, “The voice is not an external instrument. What comes out of a singer reflects who they are, and these are all incredible people.”