BY LAURA BIEMMI
When the APRA AMCOS/Australian Music Centre Art Music Fund recipients were announced in April this year, it was noted that two thirds of the funding pool had been awarded to women.
Of these female recipients, vocalist, composer, academic and sound artist Eve Klein was awarded funding to produce her work Vocal Womb. The work is an operatic performance installation where audiences can physically enter a dome and alter video and audio feeds in real time – all drawn from within Eve’s singing body.
We speak to Eve about this extraordinary project ahead of its Mofo performance.
Firstly, congratulations on winning an APRA AMCOS/ Australian Music Centre Art Music Fund commission! This commission has been utilised to create Vocal Womb. What can you tell us this work?
Thanks Laura, it’s great to have the chance to chat with CutCommon about the project! Vocal Womb is an operatic multimedia performance externalising the hidden, fleshy, and deeply personal workings of the voice from inside a singer’s body. Audiences are able to manipulate real-time audio and video feeds taken from inside the body of a singer (my body!) revealing the vibration of vocal chords, the inhalation and exhalation of lungs, the beating heart, the gurgling digestive system. By externalising these intimate, internal mechanisms of my voice in an exaggerated and overwhelming sonic and visual experience, I’m asking my audience to reflect on the contradictions of our voices: who gets to wield them and what that means for our humanity.
How does the inspiration for such an interesting concept come about?
I have a background as a professional mezzo soprano and have been training and working as an opera singer for the last 15 years. Opera singers train for a minimum of 10 years and, unlike other musicians, our instruments are hidden from view inside our bodies. At its best, opera is able to transport its audiences to the sublime heights and depths of human emotions, but only if the voice is perfectly rendered. For singers, performance can be a fight against the agency of our own bodies which are fallible, volatile, and highly responsive to our inner emotional state. By performing opera, we seek to control our bodies and conceal our own self in service to the music we sing — but there are many times when our human fragility is involuntarily asserted in the cracked note, the quaver and the glitch.
My relationship with my voice, while perhaps exaggerated by my profession, is symbolic of the struggle of many who are seeking to find or assert their literal or metaphorical voices against forces beyond their control. Vocal Womb was inspired by these reflections and a question: how would our understanding of ‘voice’ change if rather than emanating from within, its quivering mechanisms were exposed to view?
What is it about the voice that evokes such vivid artistic exploration?
Most people possess a voice, and our voices have been the bedrock of human communication across cultures. Even without language, our voices reveal so much about our inner lives and well-being. Voice is a medium most of us have access to but it is not a site without politics or context. Where we are born, to whom, the physical structures and limitation of our bodies, and the ways our lives progress all shape the kinds of voices we have, and our ability to express ourselves to the world both individually and collectively. For those without voices, or with different kinds of voices or vocal expressions, their experiences are negotiated in relationship to the context of voices around them. It’s this collective negotiation of voice that makes vocal music so compelling.
The fact that certain kinds of voices and vocal expressions – say, the extremities of voice deployed by Diamanda Galás, or heavy metal growling or rapping or opera – are still confronting to some of us, while being celebrated by others, shows how contested a space voice remains. And it’s these challenges and affinities of voice that enable it to be such an evocative and vivid part of our cultural expression. These are the kinds of ideas that are underpinning my thinking around the piece at the moment.
Your impressive career as a performer has involved principal roles with Opera Australia and Pacific Opera. How much has your career as a vocalist influenced Vocal Womb, and your career as a sound artist and composer at large?
Vocal Womb has come about because of my career as an opera singer which has encouraged me to confront and to try and exceed the limitations of my vocal ‘instrument’, but I wouldn’t be pursuing a work like this if I wasn’t also an experimental sound artist and composer. My career focus as a full-time operatic repertory artist shifted at the end of 2012 after sustaining a back injury. Being a composer and sound artist, I had an alternate way of thinking about and approaching music available to me. Singing repertory works by Mozart, Humperdinck, or Bizet requires your voice to be trained so that it will have the appropriate timbre and expressive qualities. I’m able to be much bolder and experimental in my approach to the works I’m singing and writing because I’m focused on realising the outcomes of new work. By wearing medical devices during a performance, I’m both revealing the way I produce my voice from within my body and at the same time changing it. My vocal tone will be different because the medical scopes will intervene in its internal production. As a composer, I’m intrigued by how this changes the qualities of my voice and the ways in which my audience will receive it. One of the exciting parts of this process is experimenting with what new textures and relationships will come about as a consequence of these interventions and unveilings!
The idea of the ‘womb’, combined with the presence of a mezzo-soprano singer, suggests an element of the female experience within your work. To what extent does the concept of gender influence this work?
I’m deliberately evoking the idea of a ‘womb’ in the title of the work for a few reasons. Firstly, my body is sexed female and my voice has been encultured to possess certain ‘feminine’ qualities. This has been reinforced by my operatic training, which directed me towards specific repertoire deemed suitable for my mezzo-soprano vocal range and timbre. In writing the work I’m engaging with my experience of possessing a female voice by using my female body as the site of the performance.
Secondly, the sonic and visual experience of this work is designed to be overwhelming, positioning the audience in a resonant space where vocal and bodily sounds enfold them – similar to the experience of being inside a body, a womb.
Somewhat more esoterically, there are thinkers like Adriana Cavarero who argue that the history of operatic song is a place where the gendered tensions of masculine ‘semantics’, such as speech and reason, encounter the feminine voice as ‘phonic’ emotion. In this encounter, the sensual sublime of the operatic vocal triumphs, but at the expense of the physical feminine body. By revealing the functions of my body as I sing operatically, I’m asking the audience to engage with the reality of a female body which is viscerally present – not an idealised abstraction which points to transcendent qualities and experiences outside or beyond the body which is generating it.
Audiences who come to experience Vocal Womb will of course be able to interact with the work itself. What is the significance of such an integrated approach to the audience experience?
I want the audience to be able to know that the video and sounds they are experiencing are real and generated live so that they can be present with my body during the performance. There is also an element of handing over control to the audience as well – how they interact with my voice will change the sound of the performance. This points to the kinds of power relationships present in our broader society: who gets to possess a voice and what happens to our individual and collective voices when they are challenged, manipulated, or removed by circumstances beyond our control.
What do you hope audiences will take away from their experience with the Vocal Womb?
I want each audience member to have an individual encounter with my body and my voice. If audiences reflect on some of the themes that have been shaping the way I’m developing the work then that’s a bonus. In particular, I’m hoping that audiences will confront the contradictions of our voices — who gets to wield them and what that means for our humanity. But you can never predict how an audience will interpret a work, and in allowing the audience access to manipulating the outputs of my body I’m placing my trust in them and their own ways of making meaning from the experience.
Eve has also been writing the performance score to words from All the Beginnings: A Queer Autobiography of the Body by Quinn Eades (2015), and Mouth House Panic Cathedral by Virginia Barratt (2017). You can experience Vocal Womb at Mofo on January 21.
Eve Klein acknowledges that the work has been assisted by the APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund, the University of Queensland’s School of Music, and the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body. Vocal Womb was conceived through the SITUATE: Art in Festivals professional development program and SITUATE are providing ongoing administrative support.
Images supplied. Credit: Ravi Glasser-Vora.