Voice Electric

18 October 2023, 9:30pm - 10:30pm

Please click here to download the programme for this event, and scroll down to read Lotte Betts-Dean's reflection on the programme and further programme notes. 

Lotte Betts-Dean is fast establishing herself as one of today’s most creative and exciting voices. Together with video artist Purple Taiko, Lotte developed this show for solo voice, electronics and vintage CRT monitors for Britten Pears Arts’ Festival of New last year. VOICE ELECTRIC includes groundbreaking works by Luigi Nono and Kurt Schwitters alongside newer works by Kaija Saariaho, Erin Gee, Stuart MacRae and Mathis Saunier. Using analogue processing and effects to create a visual collage of lo-fi imagery, textures and colour, Purple Taiko’s visuals complete a thrilling evening.

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  • Kaija Saariaho (1952)
  • II. from From The Grammar of Dreams
  • IV. from From The Grammar of Dreams
  • Giacinto Scelsi (1905 - 1988)
  • Hô I (1960)
  • Morton Feldman (1926 - 1987)
  • Only (1946)
Notes on the Programme

Voice Electric - Artist Reflection

I’ve been interested in the electronic soundworld for as long as I can remember. I was very lucky to be raised in 1990s Berlin; a wonderful city to grow up in, and also the city that was fuelling the ‘techno revolution’ at that time. In celebration of the city’s newfound freedom and reunification, a strong underground art and electronic music scene emerged which grew to permeate the city, day and night. At home, albums by pioneering British trip-hop groups Portishead and Massive Attack were on high rotation, as my viola-playing father Brett was starting to experiment with electronic music composition under the auspices of Frame Cut Frame, his duo with fellow Australian expat, Simon Hunt. With my formative years of music appreciation containing a fairly healthy dose of electronic music and sounds – an interest which I carried into my teen years and adulthood – it’s surprising, really, that it took me until last year to curate a recital that combines my interests in electronic music and contemporary classical vocal performance.

This programme, originally developed with the support of Britten Pears Arts for the 2022 Aldeburgh Festival, is in part a tribute to my own lifelong fascination with electronic music, as well as a reflection and celebration of the medium of solo voice and fixed electronic audio in modern composition. I have incorporated a focus on new repertoire, including two works for voice and fixed media works written especially for this project, by French sound artist Mathis Saunier, and Scottish composer Stuart Macrae, setting text by British writer and performer Alwynne Pritchard. As a nod to the Berlin of my childhood, I am also delighted to be presenting a new voice and ‘tape’ version of a track from Frame Cut Frame’s 1994 album, Night Of Short Lives. Other voice and electronics works come from American vocalist-composer Caroline Shaw, Irish composer Linda Buckley, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, and the Italian legend of the avant-garde, Luigi Nono. Unaccompanied solo voice works are also interspersed through the programme, with short pieces by fellow Italian avant-garde composer Giacinto Scelsi, American vocalist-composer Erin Gee, and the American indeterminate-music pioneer Morton Feldman, as well as excerpts of interdisciplinary Dada artist Kurt Schwitters’ legendary sound-poem Ursonate.

As well as the music, I am thrilled to be presenting the vivid and arresting work of British video artist Ursula Hansen, aka Purple Taiko, projected behind me. We developed this visual version of the show together for the 2022 Britten Pears Festival of New, slowly filming and developing her signature lo-fi imagery, textures and colour to match the musical soundscape using analogue processing and effects.

explores the vivid colours of the amplified human voice as it oscillates between ambience and stillness, words and sound, light and dark, wild and calm — echoed and refracted by Purple Taiko’s charismatic video work. I would like to sincerely thank Sholto Kynoch and the entire Oxford Song team for presenting this project, Juliet Fraser and Loré Lixenberg for their wisdom and advice; Ursula and Vincent Hansen, Stuart MacRae and Mathis Saunier for their newer works; Caroline Shaw, Erin Gee, Linda Buckley, Brett Dean and Simon Hunt for their support of this performance; Sub Rosa Label, Chester Music, Universal Edition and Editions Salabert; Britten Pears Arts and Synergy Audio.

  © Lotte Betts-Dean (2023)


Programme notes

Multidisciplinary artist Kurt Schwitters was born in Hannover in 1887. Refused by the Berlin Dadaists for being ‘insufficiently political’, he started a one-man Dada group in Hannover called Merz. Ursonate, or ‘sonata in primordial sounds’, is his most famous work, and is hailed as the greatest sound-poem of the 20th century. At the source of the work are ‘poster poems’ by fellow Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, which provide the sonata’s opening line of Germanic-sounding fragments: Fumms bö wö tää zää Uu, pögiff, kwii Ee. The work, developed over the course of a decade, was designed to provoke audiences at literary salons who expected traditional romantic poetry.

is a short, textless, semi-improvised work for amplified voice and synthesizer by American singer and composer Caroline Shaw, born in North Carolina in 1982. It was initially performed and recorded live by Caroline at Brooklyn’s Resonant Bodies Festival in 2018; the recorded synth loop in tonight’s performance is extracted from the live recording, with Caroline’s kind permission and support, and the live vocal line is inspired by Caroline’s own improvisation.

The texts used in From The Grammar of Dreams by prominent Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, born in Helsinki in 1952, come from Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and fragments of her poetry. Saariaho describes the texts as ‘strong, dealing with life and death, escaping into madness, self-destruction and the fight against it – the emotional context of these texts led me to look for strict rules of musical organisation to contrast the emotional power.’ Originally written for two voices in 1988, this rarely performed 2002 version has the live singer perform with a pre-recorded duo partner, sung by Pia Freund. The juxtaposition of live and pre-recorded voice in surround-sound further heightens Plath’s intense, fever-dream-like texts.

Born in Inverness in 1976, acclaimed composer Stuart MacRae writes of elided compressed: ‘Based on a selection of text pieces from composer-performer Alwynne Pritchard’s 2017 collection up without an insistent casting away, this piece draws on layers of meaning and sound to make connections between natural and electronically-manipulated voice. Every sound in this performance, live or pre-recorded, is derived from Lotte’s voice, and Pritchard’s provocations to engage sound, word and thought with ’this place’ give rise to music that is sometimes playful, sometimes pensive. elided compressed is part of an ongoing collaboration with Lotte Betts-Dean, to whom it is dedicated.’ Pre-recording and editing took place in Edinburgh in February 2022. This work was released on Delphian Records in July, as part of an all-MacRae album Lotte co-developed and featured on entitled ‘Earth, thy cold is keen’.

In 2014, Californian composer Erin Gee (born 1974) was shortlisted by Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, as one of the most influential composer-vocalists of the 21st century. Her series of compositions entitled Mouthpieces uses non-traditional vocal techniques, devoid of semantic language, to construct intricate and subtle patterns of a diverse array of vocal sounds. The construction of the vocal text is often based on linguistic structure — vowel-consonant formation and the principle of the allophone — and is relatively quiet, with a high percentage of breath, using the voice as an instrument of sound production rather than as a vehicle of identity. The series began in 2000 with the short solo voice piece in tonight’s programme, and has since grown to over 30 works for various instrumentations. 

Composed by Luigi Nono (1924–1990) for voice and 4-channel surround sound, La fabbrica illuminata (1964) was dedicated to the factory workers at the Italsider steel plant in Genoa-Cornigliano, with texts by Giuliano Scabia and a fragment of Due poesy a T. by Cesare Pavese. The motivating impulse behind the work was Nono’s view of the musical stage as a vehicle for social and political issues. Industrial noises and sounds of the men at work were recorded by Nono at the steel plant, while Scabia noted some of the words, orders and slang he heard. The tape entwines these recordings with pre-recorded chorus, improvisations sung by Carla Henius, and synthesized sounds. All this material was then combined and electronically modified, sometimes beyond recognition, and the live solo voice then intersects with the tape during performance to create a dialogue with the recorded text. Nono describes it thus: ‘No camouflage, no mirror images, no industrial arcadia, no popular or populist naturalism.’ Tonight, Lotte will perform Part 1 only.

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13 October 2023 | 11:00am

Art:Song - Images, Words, Music

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