Quarter Tone Voices: Cory Smythe’s New Language

Cory SmytheAccelerate Every Voice (Pyroclastic, 2020)

Cory Smythe’s new album is inspired by Andrew Hill’s Lift Every Voice (Blue Note, 1970) which combined singers with a jazz quintet. This wasn’t jazz singing. It was a seven-person choir pulsing with ’60s energy, singing lines somewhere between classical song and soul music. On “Ghetto Lights,” the soprano shrieks threaten to go off the rails. It’s a fitting addition to Hill’s brilliant run of late-’60s albums.

Pianist Smythe advances the concept by making the vocalists his entire band. That includes percussion by Kari Francis, who also served as the album’s vocal director. The voices sing articulated wordless syllables — and it’s all in quarter-tone staves, so even the music itself is speaking an unfamiliar language. The polish of the professional vocalists is crucial, an atmosphere of clean precision, even during improvised solos. (I’m reminded of Bay Area vocalist Lorin Benedict, who performs silky scat singing with the deliberateness of a written language.) The voices form the body of the music, with Smyth adding bass flourishes and high-register sprinklings.

The voices often don’t glide as they do on, say, Einstein on the Beach. It’s a function of the syllables, which in some cases seem crafted to create bumps and textures. Like the quarter-tones, they fit together in non-obvious combinations awkward to the unacclimated ear, even as they sometimes dip into recognizably “jazz” motifs.

To play those quarter-tone notes-between-the-notes, Smythe usee a MIDI keyboard propped on his piano, and of course the singers had to learn to hit quarter tones as well. (I have no idea how easy or difficult this is.) The MIDI keyboard is a setup that Smythe devised while working on a project with Craig Taborn. It uses the piano’s frame as a resonating board, just as the piano’s strings do, which seems to help the tones combine and shimmer, enhancing that “spectral” effect.

Smythe, in a “listening party” webinar and interview held by Pyroclastic, was reluctant to “oversell” his quarter-tone inner ear, saying only that he’s been dabbling in the 24-note scale and is still building an intuition for it. That said, Accelerate Every Voice was not left to guesswork; the music is heavily scripted. Smythe told the vocalists precisely which vowel sounds to make and gave exacting instructions regarding tone durations and even soloing. Smythe and Francis worked out rhythmic patterns for vocal percussion, adjusting the lines to fit Francis’ style and strengths. This rigor is at the heart of the music, building a ghostly Alexander Calder effect on two “Kinetic Wind Sculpture” pieces, or grinding out the repetition of an organic clockwork near the end of “Knot Every Voice.” Songs tend to be short, two to five minutes — but they feel longer, as they’re dense with motion and alien information.

The closing track, “Piano and Ocean Waves for Relaxation,” is a departure. Its 19 minutes of dark ambience seem to come from the sounds of (and around) the piano: isolated, echoing notes, wooden clacks, the buzzing of a resonating low string. Eventually the piano disappears and we are left with a shimmering resonance, slowly surging and receding.

That track is inspired by Annea Lockwood’s “Southern Exposure,” a performance piece in which a piano is slowly dragged away by the ocean tide. Hill’s Lift Every Voice had a political bent, and so does Accelerate Every Voice; it’s Smythe’s meditation on climate change. In that light, “Piano and Ocean Waves” becomes less relaxing. It’s about gradual background changes that build until they become too obvious to ignore.

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