VOX Performers to Let Howl

We've all had moments when circumstances--arguments, bills, deadlines, plumbing debacles--pile on top of each other to the point that we feel like screaming. But we don't. Most of the time, we keep our voices level, contain our emotions, and pour ourselves another double shot of self-medication.

But what if we didn't? What if we let everything out, expressed ourselves with the full range of the human voice? What if we screamed, wailed, gurgled, cackled, roared, muttered, crooned, whispered, hissed, and keened?

We'd probably scare the neighbours, but we'd probably feel a bit better, too. And we might also sound like at least a few of the performers that Vancouver New Music has assembled for its VOX festival. Subtitled Full-Throttle Mouth Music, this 17-event celebration of unconventional singing runs at the Scotiabank Dance Centre until Saturday (October 23).

VOX snuck up on us with very little advance publicity, and so it's already too late to hear Torontonian Paul Dutton's spit-spackled, percussive poetics; the spur-of-the-moment songs of local improv veterans Kate Hammett-Vaughan and Ron Samworth; and the Tasmanian-devil outbursts of Japan's Koichi Makigami. Too bad. But each of the three remaining nights offers a wealth of otherworldly possibilities.

Tonight (October 21), Vancouver's Viviane Houle and Stefan Smulovitz present Theories of Beauty and Chaos: La Belle and La Bíƒ ªte, a "song collage" that draws on the former's extraordinary range--both in terms of the frequencies she can hit and the variety of styles she's mastered--and the latter's quicksilver ability to morph and manipulate sound via digital technology. They're followed by Quebec City's Pierre-André Arcand; judging by the small snippet of his work that I've heard, he likes to use the voice in collagelike multimedia pieces that also include invented instruments, spoken word, and computer-generated visuals. Japan's Sachiko M. and Ami Yoshida, performing as Cosmos, close the evening with what will likely be a study in quiet intensity: the studious M. is known for her subtle manipulation of pure electronic sound, while Yoshida works with small sounds, heavily amplified.

Former Vancouverite Christine Duncan, once known primarily as a jazz and gospel singer, has been reborn as full-on improviser since moving to Toronto a few years ago, and on Friday (October 22) she'll return to show off that side of her sonic palette as one-third of Idiolalla, which also includes drummer/sound artist Jean Martin and Western Front music curator DB Boyko. It's hard to say what this trio, which has not yet recorded, will offer, but as both Duncan and Boyko are extraordinarily flexible singers and Martin is both a sensitive accompanist and a raucous beat maker, it's fair to assume that anything goes. Likely to be somewhat more restrained, although no less inventive, is Marguerite Witvoet's Tongue Tied, a breakthrough solo performance for the former Standing Wave pianist that incorporates original songs, movement, and electroacoustic soundscapes. (For more on Witvoet's work, see the feature on page 58.) And for Friday's final show, Sainkho Namtchylak will perform her genre-bending fusion of traditional Tuvan singing and free jazz.

Sounds this idiosyncratic are bound to provoke equally idiosyncratic responses; this is experimental music, after all, and experimentation presupposes a certain amount of risk. But whether it's successful or not, the show I'm most looking forward to is the Saturday (October 23) appearance by the European team of singer Amelia Cuni and electronic performer Werner Durand. The Italian-born Cuni is one of a handful of western musicians to have mastered the Indian art of dhrupad, or devotional singing, but her take on it is anything but traditional. In this context, she retains the style's essentially contemplative nature but lets Durand surround her voice with a shimmering and constantly evolving digital halo. Considerably more confrontational is Norway's Maja Ratkje, who teams up with filmmaker H. C. Gilje in the festival's final performance. The SPUNK bandleader and Pippi Longstocking fan takes Yoko Ono's throat-shredding style several steps further.

Performance theorist and avant-garde theatre pioneer Roy Hart was fond of remarking that the voice is the muscle of the soul. If that's the case, then Ratkje and her fellow VOX participants are virtuoso athletes. Go hear them, and prepare to be astonished.