Part 3: The 180º Voice

Learning, Unlearning and the Poet/Musician.

Jim Denley and Nick Ashwood interview Amanda Stewart. Recorded 24/03/2019, Hobart. Photo of Amanda Stewart by Heidrun Lohr
Photo of AS: Heidrun Löhr

JD: The way you’ve trained yourself to be making sound in the world has this huge implication on the end result. Like if you’re really trained as a musician within a well-tempered system of tonal organisation it’s extremely hard to hear pitches outside of that

NA: and quite limiting.

JD: These systems operate like software on our brain — they control the way we perceive and so they then control the way we produce

AS+NA: yes, yeah

JD: and as a disciplined poet you have a really different training

AS: totally different

JD: to a disciplined classical singer like Sonya Holowell

NA: whose now incorporating texts slowly as well

JD: yeah, she got a little bit annoyed [laughing] coz i wrote about her recently and said her classical background is evident in the end product, and she gave me 5-10 mins to listen to of audio of the performance i was talking about, where she was using a lot of phonemes and words and using the noise of that stuff. But i still hear incredible interest in pitch relationships that comes from her training and her remarkable abilities. It’s incredibly hard to unlearn disciplines, (not that she would need or want to, coz what she’s doing is fantastic). You may think that you’re going outside of your tradition, but if it’s so embodied it’s incredibly difficult to do.

AS: Yes, and that would be the case no matter what tradition or tuning system one has embodied, I imagine. I often think i’m unconscious of it, but as I mentioned earlier, I think a lot of my vocal technique comes from my childhood – learning to speak, sing and whistle through mimicry. Sometimes i find these sounds and i don’t know where they’ve come from. I think our earliest experiences with language and music are very profound and inhabit us all, remaining latent within us always.

JD: Something a bit horrible’s happened in Western Art Music with the specialisation that’s gone on — you’re a pianist or a guitarist or violinist, a composer, a conductor, a laptop artist — so now ‘musician’ tends to mean someone who plays material that we think of as music, which doesn’t have very much to do with language. Whereas the older tradition of the troubadour or the singer songwriter, i mean i’ve just been looking at my record collection and thinking about the stuff that i think is amazing and there’s an awful lot of poet/musicians in there, whether they’re from Burundi or whether it’s Bob Dylan

AS: Beefheart

JD: the poet/musician [pause] i think is something that you are, and that that’s an incredibly strong and natural thing throughout human history – it seems a tragedy that there’s a whole bunch of singers who don’t really have much relationship to language, it seems to be one of oddest things you could ever think of — in every traditional culture, if you sing you have to have an interest in language.

AS: I’m totally with you there and i think it’s a really fundamental human thing. The way children learn language is not that dissimilar from learning a musical instrument in some ways — it’s absolutely virtuosic. You’re hearing these incredibly complex vocal sounds, you’ve got to develop the musculature within your own internal organs. You’ve gotta somehow have the ability to distinguish the sounds and then reproduce them in the body — let alone learning words and how to order and structure them grammatically. It takes most humans quite a few years to be able to develop phonemic and linguistic control and, as you say, in so many cultures it’s a fundamental thing, the relationship between song and language and also dance and movement and it’s something that all of us have.

What is music, what is language? It’s really hard to answer those questions, they’re incredibly complex. Ok, superficially you can, but if we think deeply or try and abandon a lot of our cultural assumptions, it’s the most wondrous thing. Hollis Taylor has done amazing research about whether birds are the basis of music it’s fascinating. But what i find fabulous about Sonya’s work, and her trajectory is very disciplined, and well-studied, is that she’s found her own path through different modes of vocal tradition. In the performances that i’ve seen her do recently i felt she completely undermined the sort-of um| one of my problems when i come to hear an extended vocalist (and it’s my problem i guess) is i go, ‘Ok here we go, it’s C21st art music’ and then that somehow then reduces what that vocalist’s doing to a series of either gymnastics or fabulous essentialist sounds that rock the body. Then the critical part of me goes, ‘Ok what’s the function of this?’ It’s decorative. Is that enough for me? How am i gonna be transformed through this? But Sonya manages to sidestep that and create either an intimacy or a magical dreaming space where i’m fascinated, beguiled, amazed. Some of the young vocalists who are doing stuff that i’ve heard recently in Australia i’ve found very exciting. We were at a concert in Melbourne recently and there was Sage Pbbbt, who was amazing, and the incredible Carolyn Connors, of course, and

JD: Karina Utomo

AS: and each of those had a real integrity and direction in what was happening it was absolutely fascinating. I do have this perhaps unfair prejudice that if the bag of tricks starts to come out and if the vocalist is dominating with a virtuosic solo i tend to have an antipathy to that — it has something to do with my own particular interests, it’s highly subjective.

JD: All those other vocalists that night were fantastic, but it did strike me that the only really radical voice that night was you

AS: ah! I don’t know about that [laughs] I was playing a duo with the brilliant Birgit Uhler so it’s probably got more to do with her – she’s extraordinary

JD: everyone else kinda fitted into [pause] very high quality versions of certain idioms of voice

NA: yeah

JD: but you stand out as being [pause] one-off, i don’t hear any voice anywhere in the world that’s doing what your’e doing and i would then sorta imagine there to be traditions that then spring from that.

AS: Ha! (laughs) i dunno about that –

JD: but that is extremely difficult because the disciplines you’ve gone through are quite unique. We send singers off to learn in conservatoriums, where they’re trained, generation after generation in the same old rote notions, and the world’s moved on — they should be finding their training in new ways.

AS: Yes. And i think that’s happening… it’s exciting — like the vocalists we’ve been discussing.

To be continued…