The Exploded Voice

An excerpt from Evan Johnson's "General Interrupter"

The consonant staff

I’m looking right now at a piece by Evan Johnson for solo voice called A general interrupter to ongoing activity. The composer describes it in the performance notes as being “comprised of overlapping, mutually imbricated, sometimes self-canceling structures laid out over a landscape of several different independently treated types of more or less vocal, muscular action…”

A sample from Evan Johnson's "General Interrupter"

An example of the rhythmic structure of the pitch staff

The notation for the piece parses the voice into its component parts – a staff for breath, one for fricative and consonant sounds, teeth clicks, whistles, tongue (pressure and clicks), voicing and vowels, and finally pitch. The amount of information on the page is mind-boggling – add to these concerns a rhythmic language involving tuplets nested 3 or 4 deep, and an extreme degree of specification in dynamics and articulation. Traditional vocal notation involves a staff with the pitches on it, words below, dynamics above, and occasionally articulation markings. This traditional notation is a kind of shorthand, in that it assumes the singer is coming to the score with an understanding of language, phrasing, idiom, style, and a myriad of other historical assumptions. In a way, General interrupter is technically totally prescriptive; an alien musician wouldn’t need to know these traditions to interpret the score. However, the mere quantity of information here demands a kind of interpretation, a filtering of the demands of the score through the ability and body of the performer.

A sparse page from "General Interrupter"

A sparse page from "General Interrupter"

Aside from the idea of the voice expressing manifold levels of often physically self-contradictory musical information, what interests me most in the piece may be the notation itself. While some pages are dense with ink and high prime number tuplets, others are reduced down to a single staff, with rhythm notated proportionally and graceful slurs arcing across the page.

I see in this kind of writing the voice exploded, its infinite variables found so intriguing that it becomes impossible to choose a single possibility. In contrast with say, the string quartets of Aaron Cassidy, whose decoupled instrumental actions create a dramatically physical choreography that produces an explosive music, exploding the voice creates dramatically physical, extremely small inner conflicts, invisible to the audience. I think this distinction is important to note, and that using the voice in this way is a departure on a journey inward – maybe this is really the implosion of the voice – a new hermeticism.

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