by Liquid Music Blog contributor Patrick Marschke
“Accessibility” is a slippery word in 2019, particularly when referring to music. It seems to imply some sort of dichotomy, but it isn’t always clear with what exactly. Is the opposite of “accessible” music, “inaccessible” music? Is anyone really passionate about “inaccessible” music, or does that just imply that it isn’t accessible to the frustrated listener because of their lack of context, training, pedigree, or privilege? This process of othering, whether intentional or simply an inadvertent societal byproduct, continues to be a huge barrier for arts organizations and art makers, especially regarding audience development and maintaining relevance in an exponentially hastening cultural climate.
But there is a generation of creators that have been on every side of this othering and have built careers out of completely transcending it. Composer, multi-instrumentalist, educator, advocate, and technologist (to name a few) Angélica Negrón epitomizes this:
“For me, access is all about communicating. It could be with an ensemble but mostly with the audience and listeners: there are different ways that you can approach that relationship so that it's more accessible. And I'm not talking only about style or stylistic decisions or choices. I'm talking about where the music gets presented, how it's advertised, the people that are on stage, how they look, that the people in the audience can feel like they are seen, or that they are represented by the people that are onstage or behind the stage writing the music as well. That's really important to me.”
I spoke with Angélica in preparation for the upcoming premiere of her jointly commissioned work for ModernMedieval, and in our conversation we explored some key examples that exemplify the utility of accessibility.
Why Do They Sing Like That?
The technique that operatic vocalist utilize is sometimes referred to as “Bel Canto,” which translates to “Beautiful Singing” from the original Italian. One can imagine its colloquial use during the time of Opera’s origin being mostly used as a qualifier, only to be distilled over the decades into a rigorous formalized institution. Opera singer’s technique had a utility during its time — singers had to sing really loud to be heard over the orchestra while somehow maintaining a “beautiful sound.” So techniques were developed to utilize the full potential of the diaphragm and resonance of the mouth. It is easy to point out how “unnatural” the result of this technique can be, but that’s true of any extreme human feat — there isn’t anything particularly “natural” about running a 4-minute mile or walking on the moon either.
The disconnect comes when the technical optimization outlives its practical utility and starts to take on more of a symbolic role — particularly when that symbolism is preserving and pedestalizing a time and place such as 16th and 17th century Europe. In comes ModernMedevial who specialize in early music that mostly utilizes “Straight Tone” singing (vibrato-less) in addition to regularly working with contemporary composers like Angélica.
I asked Angélica about her experience writing a new work for ModernMedevial:
Angélica Negrón: I love chant and pure voices with no vibrato. I'm a little bit put off by vibrato in voices. That's something that has just never been my thing. And so immediately, ModernMedieval's voices, because of the nature of a lot of the work that they sing, it's closer to this more pure and straight tone, which works a lot better with the music I write. So this piece has moments of kind of echoing minimalist gestures and at the same time, it's very pop-driven too.
In my piece it's kind of a combination of the things I love to hear in the voice, like tiny gestures, a lot of glissandi, and kind of echoing melodies, and at the same time combining it with the things that I heard from them that they do best and that they sound really good at.
Patrick Marschke: Do you find that you prefer straight tone singing for aesthetic reasons, or is it more of an aversion to opera-ish singing due to its cultural baggage?
AN: That's a really good question. I think a little bit of both, actually. I think, for me, it's definitely at a sonic level, like more of a timbral and textural element that I think just blends much better with my aesthetic — when it's *not* with vibrato. But I also feel like whenever I hear vibrato there is this kind of cultural baggage and all the associations that we have with that type of voice. It's very distancing for me as an audience member or as a listener. So I'm immediately like, okay, I'm watching this "virtuosic display" of the voice and I just can't get into the narrative or into the story or into the mood as much.
What Do All Those Knobs And Wires Do?
Electronic Music, though only having been around since electricity came along, has also found itself prone to “distancing” the audience in a similar fashion to classical voice. any of the earliest experiments in electronic sound came out of Bell Labs, where a leading team of research scientists was tasked with improving Alexander Graham Bell’s revolutionary telephone technology. These were highly trained electrical and mechanical engineers designing cutting edge tools for other highly trained engineers. This ethos of technicality was embraced by early composers of electronic music as if the technicality somehow legitimized and made “serious” their music. The not so subtle implication being that non-technical uses of electronic sound should be reserved for cellphone ringtones and muzak.
In her work, Angelica has actively tried to find ways to break down the mystique of electronic performance, and bring the audience more directly into what is happening on stage.
AN: A lot of my work is preoccupied with demystifying electronic music performance and hoping that it's more accessible and engaging to the audience. That the action behind the sound is very visible and clear and that it is not about like all these "fancy things that you would never understand." It is about bringing out the more playful and visceral aspect of it so that it connects to people and it's not about the technology behind it but about your connection to it and what it adds to the work itself.
For this piece, I will use a synthesizer called Ototo that makes it so that anything that conducts enough electricity can act as a trigger for a sound. So I have sounds that I have recorded, mostly phone sounds, mapped on my computer. With this interface, I use alligator clips to map out notes to objects that are conductive. So then when I touched those objects, that triggers the sound. So instead of playing a keyboard or synthesizer, I could be playing vegetables or plants or in this case, most likely water. It adds another visual layer to the piece. For me, it is another kind of interesting way to bring to life the electronics in a piece that would otherwise be pre-recorded or playing an instrument that's a more traditional like a standard keyboard.
PM: So it is more tactile?
AN: Yeah, it has a tactile component. It's also really important to find like the precise material and object that I'll use. It all has to do with the text of the piece and the concept of the piece. Like for example, with the water in this piece, I'll most likely color the water with certain colors that I feel match the textures and sounds of the piece. It's very much like another essential component of the work itself.
PM: Do you find that audiences and listeners end up being more curious about what you are doing when you use your Vegetable Synth or using water as a trigger?
AN: Yeah, well, that's my hope. And definitely after concerts, I get a lot more people curious about what I'm doing then when I used to use other more conventional tools like a sampling pad or things like that. It came out of my wanting to see that in other performances of live electronic music. A lot of my music is about trying to find ways to make the sounds more visible to the audience so that they can connect with them on a deeper level. So my approach is trying to try to think of this in the same way as a string quartet: there's something very satisfying and visceral about like just the bow on the string that you hear that but you also feel it. I want electronic music to at least try to get closer to an experience like that.
I'm oftentimes disappointed [with electronic music performances] I think it's because I come from a Puerto Rican tradition, not only thinking of classical music but just like the two main kinds of music that I heard when I was growing up. I was studying classical music because I grew up as a violinist, but I was also hearing a lot of folk music being played around me in Puerto Rico. There's this physicality behind the sound that for me kind of almost... It's impossible for me to separate but I also really love electronic music. So a lot of my music is kind of trying to reconcile those two things. Seeing what else can I add to the meaning of the piece by making my own custom made instruments and also having this as a bridge for the audience to be more connected to it and to spark their curiosity to look at a vegetable or water in a different way and start looking and listening to the world around them differently. Hopefully.
PM: What was your first experience with electronic music?
AN: I had this old tape recorder from Radio Shack, like a compact portable one that I recorded things with. Even though I grew up playing violin, I had no idea that composing was a possibility, they never played music by living composers so I never saw myself or even, I'm not even talking about as Latina woman, just like someone living and breathing writing music. So before I realized that I was very interested in other instruments.I was studying violin, but I was also teaching myself the accordion and taking cello and harp lessons.
At the conservatory in Puerto Rico there was this harp room I could spend a lot of time in because no one else that needed it to practice harp. I was *not* practicing harp that much. I was just there with my tape recorder recording a bunch of sounds in the harp and spending a lot of time on the soundboard and trying different objects to play the strings with and just experimenting with sounds and recording those sounds and then going home and then kind of editing those sounds with, I think at that moment it was like, Cool Edit Pro. It was like very simple software to edit. And then I was using at the time, Fruity Loops. Do you know about that?
PM: Oh yeah! That was the first music software I ever used. It still exists! I think a lot of current Top 40 producers use it…
AN: Well in Puerto Rico, a Fruity Loops was very popular and still is because a lot of Reggaeton is made using it. So I remember if you would go to a music store they would sell you the computer with Fruity Loops, like "Reggaton kit" ready. So that's how I heard about Fruity Loops and I didn't really like the sounds that came with it, but I did realize that you could load your own samples. So after editing those sounds from the harp or of me playing violin I started isolating those sounds and loading them in Fruity Loops and using it mostly as a sequencer. And that's how I started making a lot of the first music I wrote, mostly using Fruity Loops. That started kind of I started developing an aesthetic that was very much ambient driven and kind of low-fi ambient because of the nature of the technology I was using. I loved having the sounds that were very beautiful, sounds like harp, but then they were recorded at not the best quality. There was some kind of grit and character to them. Even now, if I'm recording with higher quality technology I am really drawn to kind of sound.
PM: Having worked with some of the most talented young music makers in the country, what do you think the future of new music will look like?
AN: Big question! I would say, and this is more of my hope, more like the world around us, and that it sounds like the world around us, and that it doesn't feel exclusive to spaces or looking certain way or writing in this specific style in order to be taken seriously. I think my hope is that there comes a point that those things don't even matter and it's just about music and at the same time all voices are represented in a way that feels like something that is accessible to everyone and that it's more inviting and not exclusive to only a few.
PM: What is the biggest non-musical influence on your work?
AN: I would say comedy. I love stand up comedy, comedy podcasts and just comedy in general. But also in term of things that have infiltrated my work I would say there are young artists in Puerto Rico that are doing like comic books or zines through a comedy lens, digging into very important and social themes that we need to take a look at — all from a very DIY mentality.
One is from Puerto Rico, it is this woman, her name is Mariela Pabón, she does this horoscope she puts up monthly that are hilarious and it's very specific to like Puerto Rican culture and slang. And then she also has this zine that she published a couple of years ago called "Turistas," (which translates to tourists) that I actually wrote a piece for the Bang On A Can All Stars inspired by it. It's illustrations based on her working in the lobby of a hotel in San Juan and it's all kind of accounts that she had with customers at the hotel. A lot of it has to do with like the ignorance of tourist, of knowing more about our relationship with the U.S. and that we're American citizens.
PM: Comedy! That’s surprising for some reason, perhaps because it is so antithetical to the vibe of a lot of the New Music world.
AN: That's kind of what got me really interested in Meredith Monk. Her work is incredibly rigorous and gorgeously crafted, but at the same time, it's not taking itself too seriously. And the work is so good that it's more than plenty — it's more than enough. It doesn't have to refer to itself or look at itself like "look at me, look how intricate I am" or "look how elevated or academic or rigorous I am." It has a lightness and a playfulness to it without it feeling childish. I'm not saying it's not serious, it's just there is that kind of a joy. There is almost a sense of irreverence that I really appreciate in art as well. She's a very big influence.
PM: When did you first start working on this specific project with ModernMedieval?
AN: About seven to eight months ago I met with Jacqueline from ModernMedieval. We talked about some ideas for text and a little bit about how they blend chant and the ancient and the new — that's a big part of what they do. And previous to that I'd been really curious about this Mexican poet and nun, her name is Juana Inés de la Cruz. She's from like the 17th century. And so I was like, okay, this sounds like the perfect project to set her words to music. So I remember at that meeting I remember we talked about this idea and then for the following month after that I started very much into digging into Juana Inés's poetry and trying to find the poem that would be the right fit for this project. Since then I've been writing the piece on and off for the past four months.
The piece is very atmospheric, very textural and kind of mysterious. And I would also say, at least to my ears, has kind of sensual vibe to it as well. For me that was like *the thing* that I wanted to capture from Juana Inés de la Cruz's words because it's very spiritual. A lot of her poems are about really intense friendships or relationships to other women. So a lot of the times she's kind of she's known as one of the first openly lesbian poets... Well, maybe not openly lesbian... But a lot of people feel like her poetry is very queer. Though some people disagree and think that she's just talking about friendships or that it is just a metaphor for something else. But a lot of her poems are directed to other women and they're very intense and sensual and have a lot with a kind of desire and disappointment and kind of being love sick. There's a lot of vivid imagery and it's kind intense too. So I kind of wanted to capture that with my music and find a way of writing a piece that would also kind of maintain that essence and that mystery while at the same time being a little provocative too.
PM: How did you come about her work in the first place?
AN: I don't remember exactly where I heard about her work. I remember that I'd been hearing about her work for a long time and because she's kind of this controversial figure of the 17th century and also that she was not only a nun, but also a poet and a self-taught scholar and philosopher and very well known in alot of Latinx feminist circles too. So she's a very important figure.
She has a very famous poem called, "Hombres Necios." I don't know exactly how that translates. Maybe like: "you dumb men" kind of... There might be might be a better translation, but it's all, it's a very aggressive and interesting poem kind of calling out men. Like "you complain about woman, but you did this, this, this and this." It is something that you could read it right now and it's still incredibly relevant. *And* she wrote it in the 17th century. Actually, that was the poem that I initially wanted to set, but it's one of her most well known poems. And then I happened to stumble upon this one when was looking deeper into her work and the title itself captivated me: "Letras Para Cantar", which translates to something like "Verses for Singing" And I was like, okay, this sounds like it's asking for it. As soon as I started reading it I knew I was going to use it. It's a pretty long poem so I use about half of the poem and took some liberties. There are some excerpts of other moments that I wanted to highlight but it was definitely one that I felt resonated with me particularly for the voices of the women in ModernMedieval.
Verses for singing
Narcisa’s lovely voice
gently pierced through the air.
And through the mouth of
its wounds, the air echoed in reply.
She stops celestial Axes
from spinning in their tracks.
And Elements call a truce
in their unrelenting discord.
Her lethal features
exert a mortal change.
The eyes dart harmony.
The lips spew lightning.
Do not dual-wield your weapons,
For death has no place
where there is no life.
Letras para cantar (excerpt)
Hirió blandamente el aire
Con su dulce voz Narcisa,
Y él le repitió los ecos
Por boca de las heridas.
De los celestiales Ejes
El rápido curso fija,
Y en los Elementos cesa
la discordia nunca unida.
Homicidas sus facciones
El mortal cambio ejercitan;
Voces, que alteran los ojos
Rayos que el labio fulmina.
No dupliques las armas,
que está ociosa la muerte
Donde no hay vida.