BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Allison Bell is a terrifying beauty.
The Tasmanian-born soprano’s haunting voice has been heard by audiences across Australia and Europe, awarding the young singer with scholarships, prizes, and places in masterclasses with some of the great vocal musicians of our time. Her takes on the music of Schoenberg and Ligeti have contributed to her image as a leading contemporary classical performer. Allison chats with CutCommon about what it means to be a singer of the avant-garde.
What is it about the music of more recent centuries you’ve been so drawn to?
I really enjoy discovering and inhabiting new and unexpected sound worlds that contemporary composers can create. Also, the challenges of using the voice in ways additional to singing – from purely instrumental to creating highly unusual, sometimes almost non-human sounds. I find it liberating that I’m often called on to make really harsh, ugly sounds after being told for so many years in the classical world that the highest aim is to produce only sounds that are very beautiful. I also think it’s necessary to feel a little fear in most things I do in life, and much contemporary music definitely tests your physical, mental and emotional limits. But being outside my comfort zone on a daily basis is vital for my growth as a artist and person.
What have you found are the challenges of performing more recent works, which are often without the restraints of tonality and simple rhythmic structures?
You have to find ways to produce often extreme and intense, non-sung sounds in a way that keeps the larynx healthy, and also in many cases find ways to transition between those sounds – anything from ululation, sirening, and gasping, to something that I was called on to do recently, ‘make a gulping sound like pigeon being strangled’, and regular, operatic singing. And sometimes in very quick succession. Even though many sounds that are called for are not sung, the bottom line is you need a really solid, healthy vocal technique grounded in the fundamentals of bel canto singing before you attempt these extended vocal techniques, so your voice is always supported and larynx can remained as relaxed as possible. I’d approach a piece of music that calls for stuttering or choking sounds with the same physical support and as I would singing some Mozart.
Avant-garde music has quite a reputation for being inaccessible to the masses. Why do you think this is? And is it really an acquired taste?
I don’t think it’s important that any type of music or art be appealing to the masses. Actually, I think all genres of classical music, including the contemporary, or avant-garde, should be stranger and more unique – not more appealing or easier for the masses. It should be intriguing to people who seek creativity and entertainment that is different from our generally homogenised, controlled entertainment landscape and uncompromising and unashamed in not wanting to find ways to make it easier for the mass consumer to digest. In my opinion, it should exist as an unique alternative, a reminder of an empowering cultural and cerebral creative heritage. It has to make a virtue of the fact it clashes with prevailing cultural tastes and connect with those people who are unconvinced by the Google, Fox, and Apple dominance of our lives.
Have you found some countries more receptive to contemporary classical than others, and do you think the musical heritage of each place is an influence on current tastes?
No, I haven’t found that to be the case – if pieces are programmed intelligently and performed well. I think audiences that come to see a program which includes contemporary music are generally culturally curious, up for a challenge and open to new experiences and the non-traditional, whether it be in Hobart or Paris. I think it’s great that festivals such as Synaesthesia at Mona and Dark Mofo have enabled me to perform seminal works from Schoenberg through to those written by some of our greatest living composers, and that the audiences at those festivals really seemed to enjoy and embrace this music.
Allison Bell will perform works by Vivier, Chin, and Sciarrino with members of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra this Saturday 20 June, 6pm at the Farrall Centre, Friends School as part of the Dark Mofo festival. More info darkmofo.net.au.