From the Grammar of Dreams

This past season, Sotto Voce Artistic Director and soprano Jessie Downs and founding member and soprano Julia Anne Cordani were thrilled to present two of the movements from Kaija Saariaho’s song cycle “From the Grammar of Dreams.” Both sopranos are classically trained vocalists with a passion for new music, and they agree that Saariaho’s work creates an ideal environment for applying their classical techniques in creative ways. It was thus a true pleasure to take on the challenge of interpreting these works together.

Julia (left) and Jessie (right) catch the unsuspecting and still settling audience off-guard as they begin the program with Saariaho’s breathless forth movement of FtGoD.

On a technical level, the pieces require both a high level of vocal agility from each performer – grappling with known tasks like controlling rates of trills, managing stark registral leaps, and affecting clear dynamic and timbral shifts – as well as attentive musicianship as a duo. For example, in Movement IV, the singers are nearly always filling in the spaces between the others notes with notes of their own (or ‘hocketing’), requiring the two to find a almost biological non-synchronous synchronicity. In Movement V, the dense coloratura of both voices is notated in a somewhat open rhythmic fashion, suggesting something like different temporal worlds that nonetheless need to interlock in a compelling way. As Julia puts it, “Interpreting the scores was really challenging and required a meticulous approach, but I think in the end it was really fruitful. It taught me a lot about pieces that are notated very specifically and very densely. I really had to try hard to pay attention to everything on the page.”

Not only are the pieces technically challenging, but they also require a great deal of emotional investment. Set to fragments of texts by Sylvia Plath, each movement examines a different aspect of the claustrophobia of institutionalized disability. The particular movements chosen to bookend the “Living Voices” program focused on a panic-stricken suicidal episode, and a grotesquely floating state of detached bliss respectively. Jessie notes, “I love Plath’s texts and think that Saariaho’s music interacts with them in a special way. Both women have a subtlety to the way they convey emotion, whilst still being absolutely dramatic. As a singer, I want the sounds I make to express that same thing – a drama which is powerful in its subtlety. Too often I think drama and melodrama are confused, especially in vocal music.” As these are the last two pieces in the cycle, the rest of the “Living Voices” program could be understood as an opening up of that space between crisis and resignation.

Exemplary recordings of the two pieces were posted earlier this summer on Sotto Voce’s soundcloud page (see the Living Voices playlist), but videos from the premier performances in Buffalo are now available as well.

Jessie (left) and Julia (right) conclude the program with the intertwining coloratura in the final movement of Saariaho’s FtGoD.

In addition to capturing the faces of Plath and Saariaho’s haunted persons-within-a-person, these videos also demonstrate the artistic partnership that Jessie and Julia have developed over the past two years. Jessie – currently a PhD candidate in Composition – originally met Julia – an undergraduate voice major – as a student in her Aural Skills class. “When Sotto Voce was founded, Julia’s advanced listening and musicianship skills, as well as her fearless passion for performance, seemed a perfect fit for the ensemble,” says Jessie, “She’s like a sister to me. We’re very different singers but our different strengths and styles challenge one another to be the best and most complete musicians we can be. These duets really allowed us to play to our strengths as a duo. I’m so lucky to have such a good friend and colleague.” Julia says, “I really enjoy the experience of working with another singer like Jessie whose approach is very thoughtful, because it makes me look at a lot of the complex elements of pieces in a new way. I find that to be a common experience with Sotto Voce – we really dig deep into the composers’ intentions and motivations and ask ‘why’ and ‘how.’ ”

As September rolls around, Julia and Jessie – as well as all the Voces – are looking forward to kicking off a new season of unique contemporary vocal music programming. Stay tuned for more documentation from the past year and for news about the upcoming “Science and Spirit” program!

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