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.

Outsound 2011, #1: Face Music

The Outsound New Music Summit takes place July 17-23, 2011, at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp St., San Francisco.

The first concert in this year’s Outsound New Music Summit is “Face Music“(Weds., July 20), devoted to vocals. The program describes the larynx as the world’s oldest musical instrument, but the sounds you’ll hear in these four solo sets will be steeped in 20th- and 21st-century technology.

I remember seeing bran(…)pos, a.k.a. Jake Rodriguez, in the late ’90s, back when he was The Bran (Another Plight of Medics) POS. Hence, the ellipsis. He was kneeling on the floor, screaming into a mic and sending the distorted sound through electronics to produce an enormous, blunted roar. I have to admit, I chuckled a bit inside when I thought about him practicing this stuff at home as a teenager. I don’t know if he ever did, but I found myself imagining his parents’ reaction.

His electronics work has become more textured and varied, and his hair has become more gone. Here’s a sampling of what to expect. It’s hard to tell what the volume level is, but I’m guessing it’s quite high.

Aurora Josephson has been a big part of the Bay Area scene for several years, although she’s been less active lately. It’s good to see her back on a bill.  She uses a wide range of extended vocal styles from the operatic to the cartoonish. You can hear her playing around with lyrics, singing them straight and in all sorts of tweaked-out ways, on Healing Force, the Albert Ayler tribute that includes Henry Kaiser and Weasel Walter. I’ve also seen her in a more straight, spacious format, as the vocalist with two saxophonists in a performance of Steve Lacy’s “Tips,” and she’s been the female lead (all babbling and insane) in Gino Robair’s I, Norton. (See here.)

Whatever she does for this performance, it’ll likely be done with drama and style. Find out more — and see the good work she did photo-blogging the local scene for a few years — at aurorarising.com.

I’m not as familiar with Joseph Rosenzweig, but he’s been involved in some interesting sound-based projects, including an installation called “Books on Tape” where a prerecorded vocal loop moves a pencil on a page. His Web site is the amusingly named rosenklang.com.

Theresa Wong, another familiar name on the local scene, rounds things out. This performance will focus on vocal improvisation, but Wong seems to be best known as a cellist who combines vocals with her playing. I have to admit, I’ve had only one chance to hear her, and that was in an improvising duo with Erick Glick Rieman (below). She’s worked with Carla Kihlstedt on the Necessary Monsters project, and Kihlstedt has worked with her, on Wong’s upcoming album on Tzadik.  She’s at theresawong.org.

Dina Emerson and Bees

Dina Emerson‘s latest project is a song cycle based on the lives of bees, and when coupled with some video of bees, it makes for a drifting, other-worldly experience.

She performed it Wednesday at Meridian Gallery, to a healthy sized crowd. Emerson was in touch with a few of the local arts scenes while she lived here.  She’s now in Vegas, singing for Cirque du Soleil — a tidbit that pretty much every writeup has to include, because it’s cool.

I know her best for her avant-garde work in different contexts. I’ve written about her improv work with Jonathan Segel as Chaos Butterfly. And she’s been the vocalist on countless CDs we received at KZSU — especially one favorite of ours, “The Most Unwanted Song,” created scientifically (and tongue-in-cheek) to appeal to as few people as possible. Naturally, it’s 1,000 times better than “The Most Wanted Song.” Emerson does opera rap about country lifestyles (combining the three most hated types of music), and kids sing about holidays. The best part is when they start running out of the usual “song” holidays and start doing Arbor Day and Ramadan.


Emerson’s setup consisted of her voice, tuned wine glasses, and an iPhone to trigger samples. Using an echo delay on the mic, she clinked the wine glasses, hit them softly with a mallet, or rubbed the rims, creating ghostly sound effects.

Her singing was mostly in long tones, with a stillness to the music, as if the songs were meant to be images themselves, built from pitch and timbre. The bee video behind her unfolded slowly, starting off with images of kids running through fields under an achingly blue sky, but spending most of its time on the bees themselves in the hive, buzzing around their cells, tending to larvae, doing the things bees do.

The songs carried a reverence for the bees’ endless toil. One song was about the new queen arriving, the old queen stepping down. Another was about the dance bees do to direct their cohorts to a source of pollen. Emerson also lifted some text from an old educational movie about bees that describes the drone, which “doesn’t do anything.” That made for a nice refrain on one song.

I don’t think Emerson actually used the sound of bees, but she did vocalize some “Zzzz”s for one song.

Emerson’s next Bay Area appearance appears to be July 21, when she’ll be the guest vocalist with Tri-Cornered Tent Show as part of the Outsound New Music Summit.


KihnouaUnauthorized Caprices (Not Two, 2010)

Performs Friday, Sept. 24, at the Community Music Center, San Francisco, along with the Marco Eneidi & Vinny Golia Quartet.

Vocals are a weak area for me, by which I mean, I sometimes have trouble getting into avant-garde vocalizing. The swoops and screeches and groans just don’t click with me sometimes; they’ve got an artificial feel next to the music.

Kihnoua is a trio where you can’t miss Dohee Lee on crazed vocals: babbling, wordless singing, the patter of spoken nonsense syllables. But with this group, the vocal sounds seem to mix well with the whole. That concept of voice-as-instrument works, as Lee does indeed treat her vocal chords as an instrument, often a backing one.

Lee knows when to get subtle and when to solo. And Larry Ochs‘ sax, sticking mostly to conventional playing, becomes a soothing, jazz-infused balm next to Lee’s raspier or pricklier playing.

On top of that, these are some nicely crafted pieces — probably improvisations guided by frameworks provided by Ochs.

For instance: The ending of the 19-minute “Nothing Stopped But a Future” is a glorious long tail, a group work that sustains its dark intensity as a climax, then tails off to make way for a Lee solo — it’s a terrific group effort, if it wasn’t all planned — and an all-out tumult as a finale.

I also like the gray-skied tumble of “Weightless,” which actually carries some of the more extreme vocalizing on the record — starting with whispery, raspy sounds and culminating in a mad babble delivered with froth against Amendola’s intense drums. That’s a well crafted passage — Lee eventually drops out, leaving the drums to continue the solo.

Ochs has convened different versions of Kihnoua over the years for one-off performances, always with a guest instrument added to the usual trio (Ochs on sax, Lee, and Scott Amendola on drums). Cellists Joan Jenrenaud and Okkyung Lee were there for the two performances I’ve seen, one of which was played under rather adverse conditions — I wrote it up back in 2008.

On this record, Kihnoua becomes even more of a party. The trio is joined by Liz Allbee on trumpet most of the time — man, I wish I’d seen her perform with the punk-instrumental Mute Socialite — and adds Jeanrenaud, Fred Frith, and Carla Kihlstedt for the aforementioned “Nothing Stopped.”

Amy X. Neuburg After-Hours

Any show by Amy X. Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet is a treat, but seeing them play Davies Symphony Hall was irresistible.

They weren’t in the symphony pit, but upstairs, in the second-tier lounge as part of the Davies After Hours series.  There’s a resemblance to an after-hours jazz club: People milling around, buying drinks, and talking over the music.

The motivation for the series, apparently, is the fact that a few hundred people stick around after the symphony for a drink. The crowd was thick, and once the band started playing, the sound drew everyone to that end of the lounge for a look. Click the picture at right, and you can baaarely see Neuburg’s head next to the speaker.

It’s well known that the classical-music crowd is aging, so of the few hundred who started the night, only several dozen were still around after the half-hour mark.  By the end of the band’s 70-minute set, maybe 10 or 20 diehards were still there, including those of us who’d come to the symphony to see Neuburg.

The ChiXtet was created for Neuburg’s song cycle, The Secret Language of Subways.  The songs captivated me back in 2006, as I’d written here and was thrilled when a CD of the songs (including a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis cover they’d been using as an encore) came out last year.

The songs follow the avant-pop formula of Neuburg’s past work, maybe with a dash more intensity given that some of the songs come from staying in New York circa 2001.  The serious songs, like the amazing “One Lie” that opens the cycle, are deeply powerful.  Happier ones, like “Hey” (which opened last night’s set) and “The Gooseneck” are poppy fun. And “Someone Else’s Sleep” has rapidly become one of my favorite songs, possibly of all time. After four years, it still bowls me over.

The CD is great, but you have to see the ChiXtet performing live.  They’re truly enjoying the music, and the visual cues among them help you appreciate the precision in these songs and the work that’s gone into them.  Davies was a high-profile gig for them, and I’m glad for that, but it wasn’t ideal due to the noise.  A lot of the songs’ depth comes from the live looping Neuburg does, of her voice and the cellos, and that was sometimes difficult to hear. And the wordplay in the lyrics — like the similar vowel patterns on different verses in “Shrapnel,” was lost in the din.

It was still a fun set, though, and we even got to hear two newly commissioned songs. Both were based on that night’s symphony program.  One called “Soundproof” took from the main theme of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto No. 1, making for a more somber sound than the group usually has.  Another patterned itself after Berg’s “Lulu Suite,” using a lot of 12-tone rows and some samples from a recorded performance of the suite. And because the “Lulu” opera that Berg was writing has a palindromic structure to the plot, Neuburg wrote this song as a palindrome, including the lyrics. The overall sound was interesting and complicated.

The symphony, by the way, was good.  Guest violinist James Ehnes nailed the violin concerto, not just the fast part sbut the pillowy, soft trilled notes that seemed to come up a lot. His first-movement cadenza was a showcase, as Ehnes played both the main theme and a bass line, creating the illusion of two or even three violinists playing at once. Lots of fireworks, and the music was easy on the ears — the audience loved it.

Here’s Neuburg and the ChiXtet performing “The Gooseneck,” a video taken from the 2006 premiere of the complete song cycle.

A New Jazz Song

The Holly Martinsno. no. yes. no. (Edgetone, 2010)

Appearing at The Jazzschool, Berkeley, on Sunday, May 9, at 4:30 p.m.  They’re listed in the promo materials as UVG.

Here’s a different kind of improv.  It sounds like jazz standards sung into a comforting but stark white room.

“Stairway to the Mezzanine” opens the album with acoustic guitar work from Eric Vogler that sounds like the windup to a gypsy jazz piece. Then Lorin Benedict‘s velvety voice comes in — OK, it’s a more modern jazziness.  Then, by the time Kasey Knudsen‘s sax is on board, it’s apparent they’re not going to do the jazz standard thing at all. The sax and guitar follow a minimal set of lines while Benedict solos, gently piping his improvised syllables.

The trio keeps to a calm demeanor, drawing frequently from jazz harmonies but herding the overall song to stay outside the usual boundaries.  The recording has a warm sound, both in the sound and in the inviting warmth of the sax and guitar. Without drums or bass, there’s a nice stillness that quilts the music in an intimate mood.

“Schu-Schu” is one of the spikier pieces, with Benedict showing a bit more assertiveness and silliness in his singing, and Knudsen and Vogler poking through in stacatto form. It wraps up with some good, coordinated action-packed composing. “Post-Meridian” treads into alien territory with a duet of vocal and very dry sax, then gets into some nice wandering trio improv.

But the band keeps standards close to its heart. “Embraceable You” opens with four minutes of straight, fireside sax and guitar, comforting stuff. Then Benedict arrives for a segment of tense, pulsing improvising with Vogler, before shifting into some impressively fast club-jazz scatting.  “The Best Thing for You Is Me” stays closer to the original but includes some nifty Vogler soloing.

Knudsen is the only one of the musicians I’m familiar with, and she doesn’t strike me as an avant-gardist. Even so, there’s a lot of twisty creativity to this album, next to some very good jazz work from all three players. It’s an inside-out sound that’s heavy on the inside half but sets itself apart from staid, retro jazz.

The only complaint I’d have is that the band sometimes shifts moods too suddenly, as if announcing a change of phases in the song. It doesn’t happen suddenly enough to create an ear-grabbing contrast; rather, it’s like one part of the song grinds down and a whole new song is slowly pushed into motion.  (“Embraceable You” and “Post-Meridian” being the tracks I have in mind.)  I do appreciate that they’re preventing the songs from being monochrome statements of mood, though, and maybe I’ll come to accept these songs’ patterns as I get more familiar with them.

The track I don’t have in mind is the closer, “RN, But Not the Nurse,” which winds down to its conclusion and then adds a few extra seconds as a surprise bonus. It’ll put a smile on your face.