My first exposure to “experimental” vocal music was hearing French singer Tamia Valmont’s 1978 recording of First Polyphony. It became a late night staple on the radio show I hosted at UBC in the 80s. It was otherworldly to me at the time. Valmont was a jazz vocalist combining studio tape manipulation and effects with extended vocal techniques and ritual vocal traditions from around the world to forge something new, something powerful and chilling.
Then came Greek-American singer Diamanda Galas whose Plague Mass was a searing and theatrical exploration of the torments and ecstasies of the soul during the AIDS crisis. I was taken by a show at San Francisco’s Kennel Club in 1990 where she performed topless, splattered with blood and only a mic and small processing unit between her and the standing room only crowd. She melted the place with her voice, setting, for me the benchmark for an artist directly connecting with a live audience with the most fundamental means; her voice.
More recently, Canadians with their ear to the ground cannot have missed the flourishing career of Tanya Tagaq whose visceral and transcendent singing stems from the rich ancient heritage of Inuit throat singing, brought forward with the aid of a superb cast of collaborators and excellent production.
But there is another voice emerging from the wilderness that is not only deeply aware of these singers’ contributions to this rarified field, but aims to strike out in entirely new ways, embracing some powerful technological tools. Her name is Andrea Young.
Andrea hails from Armstrong BC, a north Okanagan town that Wikipedia search will tell you is best known for mass produced cheddar, a Nickleback-y rock band called Cold Driven, a Curling Gold Medalist Paralympian, and a porn actress named Shyla. Well, Wikipedia is going to need an update on that soon.
Vancouver New Music brought Andrea to town in November of 2016 to present EXO/ENDO, a multi-media work centred around Andrea’s voice and involving a mix of American and local improvising musicians including Vancouver-based cellist Marina Hasselberg and bassist Braden Diotte.
What is EXO/ENDO? To quote Young: “the piece focuses on the release and absorption of sound – where sound is a furnace and fuel for the expression of internal desire, external rage and temper – internalized and externalized in the progression of vibrations produced from the voice that exit through the machine and into the body of the receiving audience members.” Well, that description certainly piqued my interest.
We had the opportunity to chat during rehearsals on the day of the performance and follow-up via e-mail.
MM: Can you tell me about the technology you use to process your voice? What does it do and how is it different from tools singers used to use?
Andrea: I use a software/hardware sound design environment made by Symbolic Sound. The digital signal processor is called a Pacarana and produces a distinct, high-quality sound with extensive real-time processing capabilities. The hardware is controlled by software called Kyma which includes unique algorithms with unlimited, individualized live sound design possibilities.
I’ve developed a personalized voice interface – a live analysis of voice which extracts individual features that can control any parameter of electronic sound. Combined with more common concepts of vocal signal processing, and spectral analysis, the voice becomes an amplified, processed and re-synthesized voice, as well as a re-purposed sound-controlling voice enabled through feature extraction and data-driven live electronics. The combination of all of this with the highly nuanced art of singing completes the instrument.
I can’t speak for others as I don’t model my work on anyone else’s relationship to technology. But for me, the depth of this interface offers me years of experimentation, and I’m interested in this depth rather than a more common approach to voice and electronics which largely results in “effects”.
MM: Arriving here (at the CBC rehearsal space) it’s clear the group assembled represented a diversity of influences and experience.
Andrea: EXO/ENDO is 100 percent about working with people who contribute with a great diversity of musical backgrounds. Our training ranges from contemporary classical, rock, (and roll), noise bands and things like that. We are all as expressive and nuanced in our respective backgrounds as classical musicians so we’re trying to fuse these forces by offering our interpretive skills to a similar variety of composers. The absolute peak of any concert music lay in the subtleties you can achieve live. And it’s great to have conceptual art inclusive of people who are trained in different genres. So while I’m more of an academic, my impulse and passions are in line with those of any musicians working in any genre.
MM: What’s it about for you personally, outside of the formal aspects of making this kind of music?
Andrea: I love making sound that is extreme, expressive and immediate and surprising to myself. And I get to learn how to make highly crafted sounds that come to express things I never knew about myself. The thing about being a singer is that you often battle a presence of yourself in the music. I’m interested in being taken away. So when I approach electronics you don’t hear much of me singing. It’s completely infused in the whole.
MM: Can you give me an example of how you meld the visual presentation with the music?
Andrea: There’s a part in EXO/ENDO that is about heat and fire, a blaze where you have to claw your way out of a forest. It’s both literal and metaphorical and the visual designers have made a grove of trees by hanging screens at different depths on the stage so the images hit my face and the screens ahead of and behind me so I look like I’m in among the trees. At other times the whole surface looks like embers aglow after a fire. The visuals are there to help immerse you completely as you go down into the sound hole.
MM: You speak of the “gendering of the voice” and I think I know what you’re getting at. Something to do with how we have an incredible ability to transform male or female voices with technology so that gender becomes indistinguishable and fluid. I’m sure there are people writing essays on this that move far away from discussing the actual music being made and there are certainly examples in popular music where there’s some “gender play” with singing styles but how do you approach this?
Andrea: There are quite a few bands that use formant shifting (electronically changing the brightness of the vowels, basically without changing the pitch). There are quick techniques to do that but what you get are these cartoonish sounds that we’re so attuned to hearing. These are the “effects” I referred to before. So I work hard to build a voice that’s neither feminine nor masculine and I also use a lot of noise with the voice. You can vocode noise mixed with a formant shifter and combine about 4 layers to get something outside of a clichéd sound, which is very important for me. But you don’t want to sound like a monster…or a man or a woman. It’s like becoming a being or a beast. That’s how it sounds to me so I really find there’s a gorgeous feeling when you can sing in a range and manner that your physical body can’t manage. Its freedom for me and I love it.
MM: Do you know when you’re on the edge of the voice becoming too abstract?
Andrea: I’ve pushed that boundary in my music From the last four years of experimentation I’ve found my experiments have gone either too far or not far enough nothing that found the perfect balance nobody can tell I’m singing if it goes too far and then it lapses into cliché if it doesn’t go far enough. Now I can achieve fluid motion where, in one phrase, I go all the way across the fence and back again so that you can hear the voice clear as day then transforming until you can’t recognize it anymore. Then I bring it back again so in one breath I can cross the whole terrain. I’m at that point now and I’m ready to get this music going. I think I’ve found that voice.
MM: Are you fond of Armstrong? Can you see people in rural BC embracing what you do?
Andrea: I am fond of Armstrong! I love the Okanagan and particularly the farmland. The communities in rural BC are intelligent and creative, and I’ve been part of a few productions which quickly made me realize that these audiences are tough! While I would expect that audiences would be interested, I am not sure if it would be “embraced”. I am still working on warming up my tone, so to speak. I would hope that in time, my music will be embraced by communities in rural BC.
Stand by, Wikipedia!
This past year a local webzine publisher with direct ties to Christy Clark’s chief fundraiser chided me for daring to compare Trump to Her Majesty in the course of a Facebook thread. And although I was merely quoting that hard left publication The Financial Post http://business.financialpost.com/fp-comment/terence-corcoran-christy-clark-channels-trump-with-her-misleading-misguided-anti-foreigner-housing-tax, that awesome online nose tweak got me to thinking whether it really was fair to mention Clark and Trump in the same sentence. Well yes. Yes it is. At least in terms of duplicity, evasion, attitudes towards ethics in government, democracy and…real estate. Other than that, thankfully, not so much.
But I want you to take in the image here. This was the decorative hoarding outside the construction site of Trump Tower on Georgia Street in Vancouver in 2015. I initially thought it might be an installation by a Vancouver photo conceptualist prankster like Rodney Graham. It was funny…at first. Then I made the Trump connection and the gaudy tableaux before me suddenly turned dark, sickening. It represents Orange Mussolini’s entire value system plunked down in our little corner of rain forest: obscenely rich arrogant white people living the highlife in a fresh, natural environment hitherto unvanquished by the forces of the kind of unfettered turbo capitalism so favoured by the Short Fingered Vulgarian. It should cause locals to upchuck.
If you’ll look around town at the luxury townhomes and condos being built in place of the rows of 1950s bungalows along Oak Street and elsewhere you’ll see some fairly nice developments that, in theory, add much needed density to the city’s housing stock. But the problem is that it’s all “high end”, “luxury”, “exclusive”, “boutique”. And it’s everywhere…and out of reach of the majority. It is all part of a conscious campaign of division. The ad campaigns, the graphics and the language being used to promote these developments are only a shade under the image above. And the BC Liberals, more than anybody, have been allowing the city’s homes and real estate to be devoured by global capital, speculators, the 1% without any concern. In fact, until they realized the election was coming up, they openly sneered at those who dared complain. At the end of the day, this image very much does reflect the values and aspirations of many among us. Sad.
Lalo Espejo weighs in on the foreign corporate donations so beloved by the BC Liberals. It’s interesting to see our local media once again taking up the rear after The New York times rightfully made this a story. But it’s typical, just as it took the excellent work of Ian Young for the South China Morning Post to kick the ass of the local media to get seriously reporting on the real estate crisis. We actually recorded this over a week prior to the New York Times piece being published.
Next to the catastrophic, “End Times”-like scenario predicted for the closure of Point Grey Road for the purpose of encouraging cycling/boosting property values of well connected citizens/turning Fourth Avenue into a rush hour death chute, the remodeling of the Burrard Street Bridge was going to be the most anticipated act of civic vandalism to take place in 2016. Pre-construction mock-up images of the dreaded “suicide barrier” had heritage advocates up in arms because it was a) ugly and b) not likely going to be effective.
But then this happened. Basically, it’s all pretty A-OK and they’ve even upped the ante by putting in some gorgeous, period-style lighting standards. The only thing they could have done better was to revive the stairway shortcut on the south end that was sealed off sometime in the 1930s. Vancouver? Time to direct your rage in different, more useful directions!
You may have caught wind that affordable artists’ spaces in Vancouver are not just at a premium, but virtually extinct. Recent news about The Secret Lantern Society’s space being redeveloped once again casts a light on the effects of relentless pressures on urban space. You may also know of Alan Storey’s public art works. Among many installations around town, Alan is responsible for the giant pendulum in the atrium of the HSBC building downtown as well as the magnificent “Password” piece that discreetly engages attentive pedestrians along Pacific Avenue. VR did a profile of Alan a few years ago and I photographed him at his studio. Unfortunately, Alan has recently had to vacate his waterfront studio in the 300 block of Railway. It was once a fascinating area full of working artists. And while we still have the Ironworks building nearby to this stretch, it seems that photos like these may be some of the last documents of an era.
Whenever I’m downtown I like to wander past some of the older buildings that have evaded the wrecker’s ball for one reason or another. There aren’t many left. My earliest memory of an old downtown heritage building was the one at 804 Pender Street where my mother began Spectrum Players’ Lunch Hour Theatre in 1969. That spot is now a pizza outlet (Sciué) at the base of an office tower. Across the street once stood the Alhambra Theatre. But generally speaking, outside of Gastown and its periphery, nearly everything made of brick or stone has vanished or been treated to lethal doses of “façadism”.
Once the Expo lands were cleared (and a few old buildings on the periphery suffered convenient blazes), the north shore of False Creek was pretty much Berlin, 1945. Flattened. A blank slate. Now it’s a big, soulless grey slate, albeit with wonderful waterfront access and a single dominant cultural centre in the form of the excellent Roundhouse Community Centre. But our mayor at the time had no real plan and refused to consider one, preferring instead to rely on zoning practices that allowed developers to shape the area into a potential JG Ballard novella. Give it 20 years. You’ll see.
Then there’s the strip along Hastings, the 100 block. During the post-Expo 80s and into the 90s it came to host after hours clubs, micro theatre spaces and galleries. Most were shabby, makeshift affairs that at least afforded creative use while awaiting gentrification. One of those spaces, for a time, was the Or Gallery.
Further west, into the core, the post office remains (likely to serve as pediment for more condos) as does one highly conspicuous, narrow old structure at 555 Hamilton Street better known as the Del Mar Hotel. Since 2008 it’s also been home to the Or Gallery after it was forced from the 100 block of Hastings. 555 has a long gallery affiliation, as the Bau Xi began there in 1965. The CAG also did time beneath the rooms. And in the 90s, the owner resisted development pressure from BC Hydro so that the low income hotel and street front gallery space remains.
The text intervention work “Unlimited Growth Increases the Divide” by Kathryn Walter greets all who enter on the slate above the entrance. And the alley to the north has served me well whenever I’ve had need of a sheltered space to do a portrait or two. I recall shooting George Vergette for the Straight there. In any event, I recently noticed a new text piece on the wall high up on the side of the building. It was difficult to find an angle to view or photograph so I cast down to see this image. I was immediately struck by its resemblance to a whale (I’ve done a series of “Abject Orcas”, photos of awful, painted or sculptural renderings of “the killer whale” in public spaces). It also looked like a painting by Robert Linsley. I’ve no idea whether this is an intentional work. Perhaps it’s simply how a series of graffiti tags were covered over. Or not.
112 West Hastings. Photo by Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun. 1994.
This is an 8mm home movie shot on the set of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller by Wes Taylor and Wayne Robson (both RIP) in the fall of 1970. Wes was my stepfather and I visited the set as a boy. It was a magical place to explore as you can imagine! That it turned out to be a classic “anti-western” was icing on the cake!
In the footage you’ll see Rene Auborjonois, Wayne Grace, Wes Taylor, Wayne Robson, Jack Riley, Jackie Crossland, Jace Van Der Veen, Manfred Shulz and others from the cast. The snowball fight is a fun touch given that the weather played havoc with the shooting schedule! And Criterion has finally released a superb Blu-ray version of the film that I’d advise fans to check out.
The B&W photo at the end is of a cast party held in the basement of someone’s home in West Van. My mum, Jane Shaddy, is top right, looking at the camera. The photo was taken by Glenn Baglo in the fall of 1970 for the Vancouver Sun. I had the pleasure of meeting Glenn while shooting a documentary on Vancouver in the ’70s for Telus. Kate Bird, retired PacPress photo librarian who’s just released the book Vancouver in the Seventies, was instrumental in sourcing a good copy of the image. If you have any additional info or stories, please get in touch!
Here’s a little sample of an upcoming video on painter Val Nelson’s exploration of self-portraiture in the “Old Masters” style! Alternately known in the current age as the “Slow Selfie” …