Moments of lovely vocalizing amid some too-casual indulgence at Resonant Bodies Festival

Thu Sep 13, 2018 at 12:00 pm
Caroline Shaw performed at the Resonant Bodies Festival Wednesday night at Roulette.

Caroline Shaw performed at the Resonant Bodies Festival Wednesday night at Roulette.

The Resonant Bodies festival is a showcase for singers that is nothing like a classical vocal recital. The artists bring their own music to the stage, most of it new, and the performances are far more physically involved than someone standing and belting it out in front of an audience.

Wednesday night at Roulette was the second concert in this year’s festival, and the feeI was closer to a rock club show than anything else, with three distinct sets from Jen Shyu, Nathalie Joachim, and Caroline Shaw. All were heavily engaged with the audience and entertained as much as they performed.

The relationship between performer and audience at Resonant Bodies is one of the essential features, but a casual familiarity that works amongst friends and colleagues can harm the relationship with strangers who come to learn about the performers through what they do on stage. Intimacy between familiars excludes all others present, and can feel alienating (if not dull) to the interested listener. This was a problem for the first two-thirds of the evening.

The depth of talent on display was remarkable. Shyu, Joachim, and Shaw not only sang their own material, but played instruments as well. In the case of Shyu, who delivered excerpts from her 2017 piece Nine Doors for the first set, this meant koto, piano, Taiwanese moon lute, and percussion, among others. She also choreographed her own dance as part of the performance.

There was also her voice, which is clear, smooth, substantial and absolutely lovely. A musician who exist at the interstices of several genres—new music, jazz, international traditions—Shyu sang in the idiomatic style of several countries, including Indonesia and Japan, and mixed performing styles from those cultures with a modern and avant-garde sense for theater.

Nine Doors is a personal meditation on the death of her friend, Javanese shadow puppeteer Sri Joko Raharjo, in an auto accident. In it, via song and story, she explores her reactions through what she imagines as the perspective of Rahrajo’s surviving six-year-old daughter. The music, and her performance, communicated this generously and strongly, and at moments was utterly mesmerizing.

But Shyu’s engagement with the audience often frustrated the experience. In a rambling, often awkward introduction, she set out the story of the piece, which was not only described in the program book but was clear from the performance itself. Near the start a landline phone onstage rang; when she picked it up her pre-recorded voice came over the speakers, narrating almost the exact same story she had just told the audience. Beyond that, she interrupted the flow of the piece with informal joking with the crowd, which in itself was not a problem but it was the exact opposite of the quality she was creating through music.

Joachim displayed a quietly magnetic stage presence in the second set, which offered excerpts from her Fanm d’Ayiti, a song/story-telling work that digs into her origins and cultural position as a Haitian-American woman. She sang and played the flute, accompanied by electronic arrangements of music that, as she explained, is usually played live by a string quartet. The songs were mostly hers, but also included one each from Toto Bissainthe and Emerante de Pradines.

Like Shyu, Joachim has an exceptionally refined, transparent, and exact voice, and as with the first set simply hearing her sing, her phrasing and her charm, was tremendously enjoyable. Her storytelling-about singing with her grandmother and recording a church choir—was informative and ingratiating, but there was far too much of it, nearly as much as the music. Despite the pleasures of her performance, Joachim’s set took on an increasing sense of torpor.

Shaw also spoke with the audience as she performed, but her conversation was not only far more concise but her talking was integrated into the music and the overall flow of her performance. She sang old and new songs, including “Stars in My Crown” and “I’ll Fly Away,” two of the folk song rearrangements she made for her piece By and By (on these she was accompanied by cellist Andrew Yee) and sang the premiere of a tiny new song, “Other Song.”

There was a stream-of-consciousness flow to her set that was both informal and focused, with an expressive quality that was personal but never broke down the invisible and essential barrier between stage and audience. This was so even when she looked at her notes and said that she wrote, “if nervous, lead a round.” And so she did, but with her instructing and leading the audience from the stage, she helped everyone enjoy that experience of making music without relinquishing her stature as a performer.

The Resonant Bodies Festival concludes 8 p.m. Thursdayat Roulette, with performances by Sarah Maria Sun, Gelsey Bell, and Pamela Z.

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