SoHo; Winter of 2009

The fundamental tool of music making is the human body, and the fundamental instrument is the human voice. We all have one, and although we can’t all sing well we all sing, we all have that experience, and song in music has a unique power; it’s why we have pop music and opera.

And to repeat a personal trope, musical knowledge accretes in the same way as scientific knowledge, and so singers learn that there is more than can do with song, with singing and with the fundamentals of the voice. Just as with other instruments, the 20th century saw an explosion of advanced techniques, of possibilities of how the voice could be used to express music. A great deal of this exploration happened at the edge of popular music, through musicians as varied as Ken Nordine, Shelley Hirsch, David Moss and Diamanda Galas.

Experimentation in classical music pretty much starts with Schoenberg’s attempts to make atonal song in Pierrot Lunaire, where he asked singers to do something essentially artificial, and proceeded through ground-breaking pieces like Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III for voice, premiered by Cathy Berberian, herself a singer dedicated to exploring what can be done with the voice (that tradition is embodied by Buckner and contemporaries like Joan LaBarbera). Pierrot Lunaire sets itself an extreme musical challenge which I don’t feel it solves, which is that of making atonal music that is still idiomatic for the voice, and thus musically successful – it can be done, which is why I find Alban Berg’s music attractive and powerful, and Schoenberg’s interesting to study. However, regardless of the degree or lack of pleasure in hearing the singing, it is the voice which conveys madness, and there is an inescapable intimacy to that. Of course, I think that is a further problem with that work; it is an expression of the heights of German Expressionism, an aesthetic that is increasingly dated and alien to us. Madness being in part cultural, it’s not that we do not understand or find interest in madness, it’s just that kind of madness can’t truly connect with us.

But a great deal can, when it comes to us in some sort of song, and the veteran experimental singer Thomas Buckner conveyed a great deal of wonder at his warm and evocative recital at Roulette last Thursday, another event in the rich Interpretations series. Buckner is an excellent singer and musician – not always the same thing – who has been a collaborating with many notable composers and musicians over the past 30 years; Robert Ashley, Roscoe Mitchell, David Wessel, Tom Hamilton and the like. That brief list conveys his musical versatility, ranging from contemporary spoken-word opera, through improvisation, to electro-acoustic music. He is a particularly musical performer; every phrase and inflection makes sense and seems to be the right choice, and his light baritone, with it’s center often at the upper part of the palette, is almost conversational and confiding in its intimacy. Perhaps it has to do with it sounding in the same place where much of our own conversation is felt and generated – in some ways he sounds like us talking, except he is singing, and singing wonderfully.

The three pieces on the program showed off his technical and expressive range, but not in a gratuitous way. They each were well-made, successful works. Reversing the printed order of the program, Buckner and Tom Hamilton began the performance with an improvised duet, T-language, with Hamilton processing Buckner’s voice and producing the results over speakers. It was splendid. The fertile elision between voice and electronics is in timbres, and both musicians demonstrated taste and imagination in producing and manipulating intriguing, surprising sounds, Buckner vocalizing and Hamilton producing accompanying choirs and rhythms. The challenge is shaping these attractive elements, on the fly, into a work. Buckner and Hamilton are experienced improvisers, close-listening, fast-reacting and light on their feet. They spent some time exploring the possibilities of sound, adding on to each other’s ideas and tossing them into the mix, and then Buckner found his way to a modest and satisfying modal melody, made his way through it, and then both men heard a moment in which to end, and took it – a highly underrated and incredibly important skill in improvising.

The two other pre-formed, or composed, works on the program were Beats, settings of Kerouac and Whitman for voice, piano – Joseph Kubera – and pots and pans, by Stuart Saunders Smith, and The Somewhere Songs from “Blue” Gene Tyranny, where Buckner sang solo, backed by a pre-recorded electronic track. Both works explored different aspects of what can best be described as the dream life of American culture, and both works were excellent. Saunders Smith set the text to intoned speech, at which Buckner excels, with an extremely fine piano accompaniment, which is no small feat. It is far easier, though hard enough, to set words to song, but to write appropriate and accompanying music to the spoken word is a task that usually produces stiff, self-conscious results. This music was quiet, sensitive to and evocative of the text, without ever drawing too much attention to itself. It truly set the tone. The spoken sections were divided by wordless, melodic vocalizations, while an interlude had the musicians using the cooking instruments to beat out rhythms. This ritualistic aspect of the work was further promoted by the means of first the singer, then the pianist, leaving the stage, while continuing the performance. Beats is very much about presenting ideas in a gently declamatory yet forceful way, and it succeeds completely. That these ideas are well-chosen and intriguing makes the work truly fine.

The Somewhere Songs is an evocation of the other, weird America, the secret country that may be all around us and rarely glimpsed, the prophetic, apocalyptic country that alway seems to be on the brink of euphoria or ruin. This is a stream-of-consciousness work in words and music. It emphasizes intoned speech as much as singing, while the sung lines are well-made settings of the words, which interweave a (apocryphal?) memory, elicited under hypnosis, of a military officer being presented evidence that aliens have visited America with (imagined?) rumors and myths about Pope Sylvester II‘s possible origins in sorcery. Tyranny’s sound world is made up of pianos, organs, pop music style false cadences and a processed, industrial quality. The effect of this, along with Buckner’s dynamic performance, was like discovering the transmission of a secret radio station at some spot between the points on the dial, or like reading Philip K. Dick novels, or like the terrifying dream-transmissions from the future in John Carpenter’s “Prince of Darkness.” Buckner was some kind of prophet, excited but clear-thinking, gently urging us to share his vision. Music as an art has the power to, at least briefly, convince us of absurd and irrational things, that is the content, no matter how strange and as long as it is honest and sincere, can take us into its confidence if its rhetoric seduces us, if the voice fascinates and whispers and cajoles, if it sells itself to us. Thomas Buckner’s power as a singer and performer is that he does convince us, and without any second thoughts we thank him for it.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.