cd review: “Conspiracy: Art Songs for Improvisers” by Kate Hammett-Vaughan KHV003

©Laurence Svirchev

Art song can stretch over a wide range but it is not usually considered a terrain for modern improvisation. Look in any standard musical reference and art song is described as poetry set to music, typically for one singer and one piano. In other words, a valid art form based on staid, older thinking.

Few have treated the art song form as modern creative music. Perhaps its leading contemporary proponent was Steve Lacy (1934-2004). Lacy was constantly inspired by other artists, contemporary and ancient. His great works included music composed to display the works of poets as disparate as Judith Malina and Julian Beck, Taslima Nasrin, and Blaga Dimitrova. Lacy wrote idiosyncratic melodies and harmonies to the poetry and typically his vocalist matched him note for note in singing the words at the beginning of the composition and as the coda. In between the poetry was the time for instrumental interpretation and improvisation. His vocalist of choice was Irène Aebi, her highly stylized voice unerring when it came to articulating Lacy’s music. The stunning results can be heard especially on “The Cry” and “Vespers” (Soul Note) and “Cliches” and “Two, Five, Six Blinks” (hatArt).

Kate Hammett-Vaughan goes at the form a different way, taking the bold decision to use it as an improvising medium for voice. She invited a series of composers to submit music and text with only one proviso: the composers had some intimate connection with Vancouver, Canada.  It was up to her and the other instrumentalists to improvise around the written material.

On “Shattered Mind”, Kate Hammett-Vaughan verbalizes from Jane Bowles’ last letters to her husband Paul Bowles (author of The Sheltering Sky). Jane Bowles had been considered during her productive years as a major new fiction writer, some considering her work of more literary value than Paul’s. But in 1957 her career ended with a stroke, a medical condition caused by a blood clot blocking an artery that leads to the brain. The cell structures that regulate speech, coordinate movement, and memory begin to die from oxygen deprivation. Jane Bowles lived for sixteen more years under conditions of increasing hospitalization. By the force of her will, she kept notebooks and wrote letters, but published very little new work.

The letters open simply, and Hammett-Vaughan articulates them as such: “Dear Paul, I miss you very much…” but then she begins the slow train of thought that becomes slower as the words collapse into fragments. “I wonder if…I d- d- don’t know what I was going t- t- to ask you…but I miss you.” In each subsequent letter, the words become increasingly disrupted as the neurons attempt to transmit their impulses through the detritus of dead tissue. The tracks that guided her thoughts become progressively more wobbly and the train arrives at the station unintelligently skewed. The letters to Paul become not the literature Jane Bowles had been known for, but the most basic cries for human companionship to a husband who was never there to support her.

Hammett-Vaughan articulates those words as if she herself were suffering the shattered mind, as if she were stumbling through molasses, pronouncing individual words as if the handwriting had degenerated into an inscrutable scribble, the tongue, the motion of the throat, and the swallow mechanism unable to shape the saliva-clogged sound into a human language. Plenished by her wordless vocabulary, she does not emphasize those sounds, but diminishes them into a morass of suffering. Hammett-Vaughan’s rendition sounds exactly like that of a stroke victim trying to give wind to what the mind wants to exhaust.

Now that is exceedingly hard to do, the effort requiries an extreme control of the voice, something not many singers would want to attempt, and fewer would even dare. The final words of “Shattered Mind” are not those one would identify with a shattered mind, but with a rendered heart: “I want so badly to go home.” The music composed by François Houle is one of appropriately dark, long tones from clarinet (Mike Braverman) and violin (Cam Wilson), and a piano Chris Gestrin) that clocks off a time of doom.

Not all the songs on Conspiracy are as illuminatingly dispirited as “Shattered Mind,” but each has a life-like semblance to reality. There are songs about bones that plump like moistened wood with the discovery of love, a moldy moldy man, a really bad habit, and some dialectic philosophy.

 Mark Nodwell’s contribution “The Moon on the Thirteenth day of the Ninth Month” has the longest title but the shortest text and duration. It consists of violin rendered pizzicato and voice expressing a hokku by 15th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. It contains seemingly enormous stretches of silence and may be a perfect way to enjoy Hammett-Vaughan’s voice: the word “worm” stretched into a sine wave, “moonlight” as a soft fire that draws the ear into its’ warmth, and a double take with changing emphasis on the final letter in the word “chestnut.”

 A third way is the lovely “Botanical Garden” (music Mark Armanini, words Carolyn Zonailo).  The pace is slow, the subject is the music-making by monarch butterflies. The atmosphere is dreamy, the kind of fantasy that can occur in a sun-lit summer garden isolated from the sounds of human activity.

Kate Hammett-Vaughan demonstrates that improvisation for vocalists need not dwell in the domains of (re)interpretation of jazz standards or copping off pop tunes. (I’ve said it before that in addition to being one of the rare breed of contemporary  art song improvisers, Kate Hammett-Vaughan is one of the great contemporary standards singers). The CD grew on me with each listening. Conspiracy, Art Songs for Improvisers, is sterling, a unique example of the high artistic plane a contemporary singer with imagination can reach.

 first published September 2007

Comments are closed.