Female singers in the warping planes of tone (Part 1)
(note about Youtube*)
Originally, this was going to be posted as a playlist with a few additional notes, but as a task it quickly took on its own dimension – involving questions that arise from listening to the songs of some extraordinary female singers from the world at large. All of which followed an amazing conversation at a friend’s house, which was about a shared sense over the necessity to explore the female voice in music.
There are songs and voices here about which I felt certain stories could be told, while not to forget that there are always other stories which can also be told. This is the form that these things took this time, so please forgive any obvious ommissions.
I couldn’t say when it began, but I remember one day being aware that for some time I’d been listening primarily to female singers and voices in music. It was a moment of unknowing lightness that found out. There are amazing voices on all spaces of the gender spectrum/wing, but the notion was there that there may be expression specific to the voices of women, with the potential that is always carried by powerful expression, for connection and dreaming, transformation and becoming (and the potential for what Deleuze called Lines of flight).
It was already clear that dance music has vanguarded female voices, bringing them to the forefront of developments where rhythm is concerned (and also giving vocal spaces of dance a predominantly female sound), but also bringing a palette of transformative potential to those voices and what they can be in expression with.
I guess a feeling was crystalised among other things after seeing John Cale play at the Barbican in London in September 2015. Something had stood out in the sonic heaviness, a song that featured a repeated female vocal sample (there were no female musicians on stage) looped and processed, but so much immediately lighter and brighter as an affect in the space of hearing… it felt like a move was being made towards that form of music production whose energetic position in the sub-culture is pre-eminent (the world of cutting edge electronic and beat music production). As and then it seemed clear, the use of transformed female voices in this beat music context represents a musical futurity. Although I actually suspected that it was simply something of the female voices themselves, this sense of a brightly expressive and communicative dimensionality, whose directions in the form of expression gave the sense of something more becoming and more able perhaps to be in becoming.
It needs to be said that none of this is to objectify or fetishize the female voice, because it is simultaneously not The Female Voice and these are merely thoughts and instances collected together to form an impression from some brilliant individuals and groups and in some cases – traditions (involving some males as well as females). In this sense, any wonder must be retained in understanding of the tiny personal reality of each moment where a female voice is breaking free, as it would be under its own circumstances with the voices of males.
It felt correct almost immediately that when I had found an upload of Nur Ceylan’s understated snippet of the traditional song Böyle olur mu (how can it be like this?) from the film about Istanbul/Turkish music Crossing the Bridge, that it would get things rolling. Having seen the film some years ago the depth of Turkish musical tradition and forms is amazing and there are powerful performances as part of the film, but I couldn’t help feeling that the simple voice/saz rendition of this street performance was sharply alive. Nur Ceylan’s unembellished delivery, an impeccable accompaniment and despite the song’s heavy emotional tone and its dropping ranges, a real spark in the voice left a lasting impression. A shame it is only half the song, but even at that it felt like the way to kick things off. Istanbul is also one of the places where the ‘West’ has traditionally been seen as bridging into the neighbouring worlds outside – of the East and to those other directions and their own forms of the world. In some senses of the cultural hegemony of its own image, beyond the West are merely things that it can or cannot use (at any point in time) in terms of saleable assimilation, this is the position of the capital-cultural-production zone of the art assemblage, not the position of the artist or the fascinated-traveller.
Mount Kimbie’s Carbonated (2011) is exceptional as tonally minimal pop, pitched into a quietly wild space of reverberant hiss, bright keys and popping beats, but ignited with a glittening vocal lead line made up of cut and clipped phonemes from a hyper-musical female vocal harmony. Words and phrases may or may not be real, just beneath a threshold of recognition, but are always music. The voice comes in with a deeper kick drum and is a dynamic rhythmic combinant, where the clipped harmonies sing word-cores and edges out in the quick open, giving a bright charge to the gaps, lined up rhythmically to full effect. The result is a glitch-esque approach to a vocal which ends up being both an alien-lightness and completely still resonant as singing. There’s that subtle human half-wolf sound lurking around too.
The vocal Swedish cattle call (Kulning) is a surviving musical-communication form between humans and the animals of a live-stock herd. I do not agree that reverb needed to be added to this (the tail of the reverb is too long to be natural in the space it feels like) however, more than making up for this is being able to hear and notice how brilliant the form of this Kulning is. The call predominantly falls downward tonally and yet the very end of most phrases flick back upward for only a moment, but it is significant, fast and brightens the space of the tone. It seems to me there is a sense of mystery in that final melodic twist, its location at the end of the phrase, the sudden acceleration and almost immediate disappearance. It seems also that in the attention of animals and humans (some at least) is something which can be caught or transfixed by expressions or reflections of brightness and motion, whether this is a sun-trance in the trees, or a specific rhythm, or a particular song or melody that can take one away, it can only be advisable to find out about where one might be headed under such circumstances.
Time Travel Undone by SZA breaks out around an uncanny looped beat, and feels like its working seamlessly with the sweep motion of music, where sounds sweep in and things (and to an extent people) are swept away. The song tells you recurrently that it is of/around water, the sound of it drips and at one stage rushes as accompaniment to the sounds-as-waves motion throughout, turning the body of the song like a sea swell. SZA’s voice is foreground and back, taking on forms and layers as phrases move gradually to the distance (horizon) echoing along like waves, surfing within the larger scale wash of the main synth – a dramatic string shimmer periodically supercharged from the sub-bass pulse that’s held back so impeccably… they help bring the motion as the tone and feeling of the song (and its sounds). Solana Rowe ‘Take me to reality and drag me to the truth’ as an exhortation, carried along in expressive intent sung, is to move toward the will to continue learning more and more deeply of the moment and its trapdoor in respect of reality (that ‘reality’ fades in intensity, along valleys and ridges of possibility, and with hidden passage to the truth) and when in fact ‘sometimes only a lie can save you’ (Clarice! ). Listening to music is taking in a sonic emissary of a whole world of feeling and compounded intent that might be relative to yourself as either a past or a future, with a corresponding level of openness and intensity, but always experienced at a certain point as a form of the moment.
Stereolab have always been about the future (although there was a tinge of retro-futurism too). At their best, their celestial hyper-lounge transforms to the stunning and sublime. They found allies in Jan St. Werner and Andi Thoma from Mouse on Mars, who along with John McEntire from Tortoise, aided Stereolab and their producer Sean O’Hagan as they moved from a heavier drone / rock-pop outlook of earlier recordings towards more nuanced rhythmic interplay and the exploration of softer, intricate electronic contiguities. This was arguably at the expense of the explicit drone, though this seems always to have been in their direction its fair to say. For me in this timeframe of Stereolab, there is a balance in the impressive smooth depth to the sound (the introduction to Parsec remains breathtaking after many years of listening) while carrying a melodic edge that can still bite through with its precision and feeling of purpose. The voices of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen in a becoming with each other, French and English the tools of phonic attack on the repressive control modes of the State and of individual bodies (among other things), while new words and sounds are also created, giving the quality of real play. Stereolab placed their sound and its image in the context of de-territorialisations of the everyday and arrivals toward wider cosmic space, album titles around then for example are ‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’ (1996) and ‘Cobras and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night’ (1999). Their song Cybele’s Reverie contains a counterpointed vocal which catches brilliantly a sing-song brightness of childhood (as we seem to know it). From the French:
‘Childhood is the most real
The garden of new visions
The house, the house, of other times
The house, the house that we have left
And the silence
That penetrates me’
The house of the song, the house of other times is not just the lost house of the past, but also of futures and if one considers children as dreamers, players and explorers, for the connectedness and transformative power of immanence and realisation, then children are in some ways already in a futural position to adults. It took four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child according to Picasso, while Arthur Russell calling all kids tells them ‘Grown Ups are Crazy’. Though as Laetitia says ‘we have left the house,’ like the brother and sister in Cortázar’s short story ‘House Taken Over’ – now the rooms of the house and its doors, passages and windows have been lost and must be re-dreamed again in new ways as necessary, as with the lightness of children, or of women’s voices and their outermost tendencies to transport us to the edges of memory and of the forgotten places of our lives, time and its dissolution in song.
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- Youtube is often a shityard of adverts now. I’ve noticed that on mobile devices a playlist can be played through a webpage embed (like this one) and often doesn’t attract ads, also, some adblockers / scriptblockers still appear to have some effectiveness. Still Youtube is an incredible resource and can lead to some amazing discoveries.