Music is more than just melodies and rhythm. It has a guttural level, and contains sound that is free from symbolic meanings. The singer Audrey Chen is obsessed with these acoustic materialities and creates a sonic language with her voice.
The composer Dieter Schnebel posited: if music contains musical sound and musical sense, it should be freed from this sense and its dependence scoring a meaning, it should be dissolved from the sound of words and find its «material structure». This thought is also firmly installed in today’s academic and artistic discourse Sonic Turn – exploring the sonic materiality and embodiment of sound. This inspired the event series Untraining The Ear: Listening Sessions at Savvy Contemporary, that covered the performance of the Chinese-American composer and musician Audrey Chen.
At her performance, Chen shows that there are a million more sounds a human voice can create than the ideal of a clear tone. She is breathing, humming, clicking with her tongue, hissing, snorting, screaming and cackling, ardently and seemingly easily gliding from throat to overtone singing and making up a myriad of sounds in between. Her work is neither a slapstick comedy nor a straight classical experiment. Her vocal and instrumental performance merges contemporary music with electronica. It creates a unique feeling of intimacy and ecstasy at the same time.
Fooling Around With the Voice
Chen separated the sounds a human mouth can create from the semantic meaning of the words and experiments with them. The material structure Dieter Schnebel mentions shows up as a complex anatomy in her performance. She seems to develop a language through vocal sounds and builds dramatic, even concrete or sensitive moments accompanied by minimal cello or drum machine textures. The voice is used as an instrument, as an autonomous sound machine, freed from the symbolic implement of language. Chen explored these sounds mainly while fooling around with her son when he was little. In the talk after the show, she reminds the listeners: «The voice is everybody’s first instrument». This personal approach might give her the freedom to develop something unique and allow her voice to experiment in every direction. Her outburst and ecstasy of vocal expression, sounding like a highly trained classical voice in one moment and raw and unfiltered in the other, is strictly composed on moment and then improvised another. «Through sound I can get it all out and not getting it wrong», she says.
Chen’s vocal pieces are a cathartic relief, neither a concept nor an idea. Listeners can feel this catharsis, too. Listening to a human voice allows us to resonate with it and feel it within our own bodies, as everyone has a «muscle memory» of it. If the voice is the most intimate instrument, then this is certainly true for Audrey Chen’s performance. In times of political and social defragmentation, it is a pleasure to listen to a voice that synthesizes musical influences into one story that is not to there to be deciphered, but to offer a personal relief.