By Mike Greenberg
SAN ANTONIO – Instruments to alter the sound of the human voice have been a part of music for hundreds – maybe thousands – of years. Think of the horn mirlitons of Africa, the kazoo, the electronic filters Edgard Varèse used in his Poème électronique. Think of Auto-Tune. Well, maybe you’d rather not think of Auto-Tune.
Clarice Assad, the adventurous Brazilian-American composer and vocalist, has spent much of her career expanding the sonic palette of her own voice without external assistance. She explores electronic alterations for the first time in a delightful and sometimes bizarre new piece that was given its world premiere by Assad and the SOLI Chamber Ensemble on March 31 in the basement music club Jazz TX. (The concert was repeated on April 2 in the more button-down setting of Trinity University’s Ruth Taylor Recital Hall.)
The four-movement Synthetico is scored for clarinet (Stephanie Key), violin (Ertan Torgul), cello (David Mollenauer), piano (Carolyn True), and voice – Assad’s, as altered by a TC Helicon Voicelive Touch, a sort of Swiss-Army knife for electronic vocal processing. Sifting through the device’s hundreds of possibilities, she assembled a different group of sounds for each movement and summoned them on the fly in performance.
The first movement, “Echoes,” passes the voice through reverb and delay effects after the acoustic instruments have set the scene with minimalist repetition patterns. The second part, “Intergalactic Rodeo,” reflects its name with deep bass sounds recalling a didgeridoo, some lively instrumental music worthy of a hoedown, a brief evocation of the Rivingtons’ “Papa Oom-Mow-Mow,” and a few bars of close vocal harmony suggestive of the Andrews Sisters. Assad used the electronics to turn her voice into a woo-wooing theremin in the third movement, “Creepy Little Doll’s House,” with spare, icy contributions by the acoustic instruments. The finale, “Too Simple for Words,” features harmonized scat singing in a context that, to my ears, recalls traditions of South Africa and the rural American South.
In other hands, the electronically altered sounds might be dismissed as a gimmick, but Assad is like one of those cooks who can turn any four random foodstuffs into a feast. Synthetico is consistent with Assad’s propensity to absorb and recombine musical ingredients from just about anywhere.
This concert presented a slew of other examples from Assad’s oeuvre.
She and SOLI revisited two movements from a 2016 commission, Elementos. In one, Assad sang elaborate coloratura lines against a breezy instrumental backdrop; the other, the concert’s encore, was a wistful ballad. Assad’s 2014 suite Godai for solo piano was represented by two tornadic movements – “Between Earth and Sky” and “Azure,” the latter in a version for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Particularly beautiful, with its long, searching melodic lines and its approach-avoidance relationship to conventional tonality, was The Last Song (2010), originally for piano solo but heard here in an arrangement for cello and piano. The suite Back to Our Roots (2010) was composed jointly by Clarice Assad and her father, the illustrious guitarist and composer Sérgio Assad, as a bridge between the musical traditions of their native Brazil and the Lebanon of their ancestors; it occasioned some hauntingly lovely vocal work.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.