What does it mean to sing? Body Music, the opera that UCLA musicology professor and singer Nina Eidsheim is creating with composer Alba Triana, looks beyond the notes that come out of the musician’s mouth. It asks instead that we listen to the astonishing medley of sound involved in the seemingly simple act of vocalizing.
As Eidsheim writes, “each one of us is an entire orchestra made of a host of moving, internal instruments.” But what if we could see and hear “the diaphragm rising, the larynx mutating…the shoulders lifting, the breath entering and exiting?” With the help of a fashion designer and a dramaturge as well as digital artists, a programmer and an electrical engineer, Eidsheim and Triana will lead audiences on an exploration of this usually invisible and inaudible landscape.
To make the anatomical processes loud (enough) and clear, Body Music relies on electronic bio-sensors originally developed to monitor pre-mature babies. When the opera premiers in Bogotá this summer, the sensors attached to the singer will amplify the sounds of breath’s journey though the body as a result of the singer’s shifting postures and almost dance-like motions. The electronic data will be transmitted to the digital and visual artists Carole Kim and Jesse Gilbert. who will use it to generate real time sound and lightscapes.
Body Music relies not only on technology but on Eidsheim’s and Triana’s ongoing study of the motions—muscular and skeletal, deliberate or involuntary—that produce the sounds of singing. They describe the work—begun in 2007, when they were both living in Bogotá—similar to Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th century photographs of walking men and galloping horses.
After isolating each step of the voice’s bodily mechanics, the pair began to formulate categories. There were movements like inhalation and exhalation that passed breath in and out of the body, and others that shaped the cavities—chest, throat, nose, mouth—that the breath passed through.
As a trained singer, Eidsheim was aware of the effects even small facial motions—a forced smile for example—can have on timbre and overtones. She and Triana also considered the effects of various kinds of breathing and stance. From these formulations they began to assemble a “vocabulary of gesture” to produce the sounds that make up Body Music’s score.
One of Eidsheim’s aims in this project and the two that preceded it is to cut the cord (so to speak!) that ties the verb “to sing” so exclusively to the larynx and the vibrating folds it contains. (“Vocal cords”, she notes, “take all the attention.”) What are also cut in the process are performers’ expectations of what notes and actions are proper to singing.
In Eidsheim’s 2000 project Noisy Clothes, (a collaboration with designer Elodie Blanchard who is also creating costumes and sets for Body Music), the costumes themselves contained sound-makers. With “playing an instrument” redefined as “moving in what you are wearing” the Cal Arts performers were free to listen without judgment to the sounds that arose rather than trying to match a pre-conceived tone. Most important, Eidsheim writes, “there was no fear of failure.” Music making was returned to a practice of play and discovery.
In bringing a similar liberation to the voice, Eidsheim sees Body Music not only as a performance but as a teaching tool for singers. As a product of membrane and muscle, the voice is subject to the same constraints as the rest of the body. Trying to achieve vocal ideals, Eidsheim writes “physically shapes the vocal apparatus (and) slowly encapsulates our voices within.” By breaking habitual patterns, she hopes to return singing—and thinking about singing—to a fresher and more flexible state.
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