Space-making Immersive vocal improvisation

Laura Halligan: Totally Huge New Music Festival, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang

Caption: Gentle steps with an open mouth, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Perth iMprov Collective

Caption: Gentle steps with an open mouth, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Perth iMprov Collective

Caption: Gentle steps with an open mouth, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Perth iMprov Collective

The audience is ushered into PICA’s main gallery space to witness Alice Hui-Sheng Chang’s Gentle steps with an open mouth. The upper gallery is dotted with members of the Perth iMprov Collective and other “local voice enthusiasts” (as the program puts it) overlooking us. The concert begins with short, sharp vocal bursts dispersed around the room and slowly transforming in waves over the ensemble into longer sounds.

The sound resonates within the space, creating a completely immersive experience. Vocalists take turns in directing their sound into the open space above the audience, then down and finally towards the walls and up to the ceiling. The resultant sound produced by the dozen or so vocalists, including Chang, is totally encapsulating. At times it feels like the sound itself iss coming out of the walls.

The vocalists are given palm cards by Chang with instructions to produce a range of sounds in order, using extended vocal techniques such as whispering, singing, talking, shouting, sighing, wheezing, tongue-clicking, and growling. At one point the ensemble erupts into a cacophony of cries, screams and manic chatter.

Halfway through the work, the ensemble moves down to the ground floor alongside the audience. The overall sound of the ensemble changes once at ear level. Individual sounds become directional and highly distinguishable, producing fascinating spatialisation as the performers move about. Some members of the ensemble lie on the floor or stand very close to particular audience members, speaking or singing into the walls or up the wall towards the ceiling, changing the way the sound resonated around the space. Two members of the ensemble even seem to have a ‘conversation’ involving quick bursts of air through taught lips while covering parts of their mouth. At times the ensemble sing long rounded tones that settle into a warm consonant sound.

Gentle steps with an open mouth, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Perth iMprov Collective

Gentle steps with an open mouth, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Perth iMprov Collective

Gentle steps with an open mouth, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Perth iMprov Collective

Gentle steps with an open mouth ends with the ensemble dividing themselves on either side of the gallery and standing under the edges of the hanging installation exhibited across with width of the room. They then each fade out separately and sit down until the entire space fills with silence.

Gentle steps with an open mouth is an incredibly engaging work, aided by being performed in such an incredibly reverberant space such as the PICA main gallery. Introducing a physical dimension to the improvisation, the ensemble frames the sounds being made, adding a visual layer to the enchanting noise filling the room.

The second half of the concert features Chang in a solo improvisation. She takes the bare stage before a microphone, lit only by a spotlight and proceeds to make eye contact with every member of the audience before making any sound, in a way that is reassuring and not interfering. Chang’s particular style of extended vocal technique focuses on tension and the control of air, as a way to both make and also affect sound. She controls airflow both with her mouth and throat, which produces anguished, muted sounds. Chang moves around the performance space while improvising; walking behind the curtain and out of sight, and sitting in the audience. Her improvising is introspective; it feels as if she is considering and reflecting on her motives for making particular sounds—the result is concise and holistic. Many solo improvisers attempt to do everything all at once whereas Chang regularly focuses on and develops a single extended technique at a time, and will sometimes cycle through ideas while still remaining grounded, producing a well-rounded improvisation.

9 June 2015