Over Labor Day weekend, the New Yorker announced that this year’s edition of its eponymous festival lineup would include Steve Bannon, the notorious former strategist for President Donald J. Trump. The magazine couched Bannon’s inclusion as “a serious and even combative conversation” with its editor, David Remnick, who once described Bannon’s brand of press as “the purveyor of constant lies, propaganda, and conspiracy theories that Trump used as the oxygen of his campaign.”
The level of outcry against this programming choice led to the New Yorker Festival disinviting Bannon less than 24 hours after the initial announcement. While the initial intent of the conversation had been to hold Bannon accountable to the conversation Remnick wished to have – a live audience makes it harder to toggle between on- and off-record – pushback from other festival headliners suggested that this was not the forum for having a conversation that would meet both participants and audience on their level.
Spending three nights this week holed up in Roulette for the Resonant Bodies Festival, in which nine vocal musicians each were given 45-minute carte-blanche sets, I noticed the shadow of the New Yorker Festival fracas still kicking about in the back of my head. We use music as a means of communication, especially when we feel the words themselves aren’t enough to convey the essence of meaning—as Hans Christian Andersen famously posited, “Where words fail, music speaks.” As the music we hear breaks down into sound waves that operate at various and variable frequencies, our sensory experience can become more porous and we can engage in a bilateral form of communication versus a hierarchy of speaking and listening.
This isn’t a novel theory: Pauline Oliveros’s practice of Deep Listening is rooted in the understanding that it’s on us to actively engage with attention and intention to the sounds constantly forming our environment. Case in point: In Pamela Z’s “Syrinx,” performed as part of the closing set at Resonant Bodies, the electronic performance artist manipulated a recording of her vocal swoops into increasingly higher pitches and speeds until we began to hear in it the twittering bird calls that opened the song. The more we listen, the more we notice. Is it even possible in America, in 2018, to come together in that state of listening?
Let’s go back a few centuries: The verb “to notice,” along with the verbal forms of “progress” and “advocate,” were, as Ben Franklin noticed, popularized in America during the course of the Revolutionary War. Franklin wasn’t a fan, and complained about all three verbalized forms to Noah Webster. Yet all three verbs became central themes – and necessary as actions versus objects – in this year’s Resonant Bodies lineup, which also featured sets from Paul Pinto, Helga Davis, festival founder Lucy Dhegrae, Jen Shyu, Nathalie Joachim, Caroline Shaw, Sarah Maria Sun, and Gelsey Bell.
On Tuesday night, the 17th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Davis’s deconstruction of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” gained added reverberation when she got to the word “bombs.” She turned the word around in her mouth, as though discovering in that moment (as I myself did) that our national anthem contains the word, before bringing it to climax by singing the word to the tune of the Queen of the Night’s vengeance aria from The Magic Flute.
The date wasn’t lost on Davis, who paused to ask the audience how we were doing, actively taking an interest in what we did that day. “I know, it’s weird,” she said. “You’ll be fine. I promise.”
The world premiere of the set-length work, titled An action, taken (which also featured Derrick Belcham, Tariq Al-Sabir, and Reggie “Regg Roc” Gray), also included an invitation for the audience to sing to strangers, which dovetailed with Paul Pinto’s opening premiere, 15 Photos. Before going into the work for voice and drones, Pinto began with the suggestion of a group shoulder-rub chain, and delivering a recap of Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the 1999 Antonio Banderas movie The 13th Warrior that in itself warranted the moniker gesamtkunstwerk.
Interaction between performers and spectators carried across all three nights. “If nervous, do round,” was a note Pulitzer-winning composer Caroline Shaw left for herself on Wednesday evening’s last set and read aloud before leading the audience in an excerpt from her “Winter Carol.” This followed Brooklyn-born, Haitian-American Nathalie Joachim’s call-and-response in “Alléluia,” which spoke to Haiti’s communal roots in music, which was layered with a field recording she made of a church service in her late grandmother’s village as part of the larger work, Suite pou Les Cayes.
Jen Shyu’s excerpts from Nine Doors, which opened Wednesday’s lineup, considered how we communicate with those we’ve lost in our lives, weaving the personal story of a friend’s six-year-old daughter who lost both of her parents and her infant brother in a car crash in with the stories of female warriors. Shyu presents the mythic figures as guides for the young girl on how to survive, before concluding that “life has no boundaries when any place can be home.”
With an intensity that increased both vertically and horizontally through the three nights, the notion that Shaw described as “breaking the lyrics down into a liquified world” progressed. For those who made it through all three nights, there were plenty of opportunities to notice the connections between the overtones of common themes like prayers, hymns, and incantations as their meanings began to become a little more porous, a little more fluid in their sonic explorations, whether these came in the form of Shaw’s reworking of bluegrass hymns or Pamela Z’s remix of Meredith Monk’s “Scared Song” (which thrived in the face of the evening’s technical setbacks).
Gelsey Bell’s new songs, newly released as an EP via Bandcamp, fused Monk’s spirituality with the folkish benediction of mid-century protest songs. A line from Bell’s “This is Not a Land of Kings” rang especially potent on an election night in New York: “The only voice that sings over the static… is a many-throated choir. The louder it grows, the grander the fire.”
All of this brought me back, once again, to thinking about how we listen—and what we’re willing to listen to. The rage against the New Yorker Festival this year wasn’t that a bad guest was chosen, but that the festival chose a bad communicator: one whose voice has been calibrated to resonate with a deliberately limited section of the public, and remains steadfast against modulating itself to reach those not already attuned to the frequency. Such voices are the ones that enable the one-leader-speaking-for-all nature of fascism.
But amid a highly charged week for New York – which included the anniversary of a terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 people, and a primary election that culminated with an incendiary flyer and a damp squib of an apology – what New York’s 2018 installment of Resonant Bodies reminded us of was the road map for finding a common frequency through listening. It’s a map that’s often charted and re-charted, from the Syriac polyphonic chants that sparked Greek tragedy (which later fueled opera) to the liturgical music traditions that continue to feed faith in an often faithless world.
But the power in this sort of map is in constantly reiterating the path. Across three nights, across nine headliners and manifold guest performers (including frequent calls on the audience to become performers themselves), we were reminded that in order to rise above the static, we need to progress and advocate. We need to become the collective voice of a many-throated choir.
Olivia Giovetti has covered music and arts for Paper, the Washington Post, NPR, VAN, and beyond. She’s previously served on staff at Time Out New York and WQXR/Q2 Music, and her writing has been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival. She combines her love of the arts and meditation practice on The Meditation of Art.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.