1.5.4 The vocal performance art scene

Early inspiration and the genre of vocal performance art

Looking back, I find that many of the singers who have inspired me outside the field of jazz, belong to what musicologist Theda Weber-Lucks (Weber-Lucks, 2003[1]) calls the ‘genre of vocal performance art’. What they have in common, and what has had an impact on me, is their experimental and instrumental approach. Widening my perception of what could be thought of as musical voice sound, singers like Cathy Berberian (Italy) , Jaap Blonk (Holland) , Shainko Namtchylac (Russia/Austria) , Meredith Monk, (USA)  and Diamanda Galás (USA) among others, opened up for me a new world of possibilities and freedom of expression in the 90s. The improvising vocal a cappella group Kvitretten[2], of which I was a member for the 11 years that the group existed, was an important arena for this type of approach to voice sound making. We were exploring (to us) new vocal possibilities as a part of a musical expression, especially in collective improvisations, and I think we all had been listening to these types of singers.  (Voices, Curling Legs 1996, Women)

At the same time, the use of electronics by Laurie Anderson was one important reason for my going further into the live electronics. Hearing  “O Superman” made me realise that I was deeply attracted to the sound of the electronically processed voice. Her use of speech as a natural and strong integrated part of her performances was groundbreaking.

These artists were presented to me by other singers or musicians, or discovered in other ways (before the Internet, Google, MySpace and YouTube…) After already having been introduced to the aforementioned freedom in experimental jazz, the sprechgesang in the music of Arnold Schönberg and other techniques in more experimental contemporary vocal music, this new interest seemed like a natural further step. But where did these artists come from, and how are they related? There has been little research in this field, but German musicologist Theda Weber-Lucks has examined the history and aesthetics of what she calls the “genre of vocal performance art”. I find her article “Electroacoustic voices in vocal performance art ‒ a gender issue?” [3] very useful and informative when trying to understand more about what has been going on in this field. I will not, due to the nature of my writing, discuss her article compared to other writers and findings, but rather use it as a source of information in addition to my own experiences. The genre ‘vocal performance art’ is in this article described as follows:

From a historical perspective, this genre evolved in the context of Fluxus, happening, dance-performance, and body art. It bears stylistic relationship to expressionistic monodramas and theatre, as well as to folk-song traditions, ancient ethnic vocal styles and new extended vocal techniques. A central aesthetic component is the use of the voice as emotional or abstract language. (Weber-Lucks 2003)

She continues to describe a genre that is difficult to define, constituted by performers and works that had something in common, but who worked quite independently of each other. This is still the case, according to Weber-Lucks, even in our time. In her opinion, the relatively new Institute For Living Voice, where artists such as David Moss and Jaap Blonk are central, …‟provide only a loose feeling of community”… – compared to more defined genres like earlier avant-garde artists, referring to the voice-experimenting sound poets within the Dadaist and Futurist movements.


In fact, the suggested term “vocal performance art” simply functions as a construct to help illustrate possible forms of coherence within these developments” (ibid).


The genre started, according to Weber-Lucks, in North America in the 70s. Voice experimenting as such was already going on, as mentioned in the sound poetry movement, and also in contemporary vocal music, in both Europe and America. She also sees the genre as a result of the turn in American art history from the activist collectives in the 60s towards a more individual and professional focus. The performers were mostly women; Meredith Monk, Joan La Barbara, Diamanda Galás and Laurie Anderson are mentioned as being among the most important. It is also important, according to her views, that vocal performance art evolved not only in music, but came from several other artistic genres.

Weber-Lucks has a gender perspective in her research. She suggests that the new freedom in music, influenced especially by John Cage, together with new developments in electronic sound technology, opened up for a new aesthetic approach. This approach made way for several female composers, and also for what she calls “vocal composer-performers”, which seems like a good description of many of the artists I have been listening to.


Sound poetry

Weber-Lucks points out that vocal performance art was initially separated from the sound poetry movement, but that sound poetry later on became an important part of the picture. As the influences of the North American vocal performance scene grew in Europe in the 1980s, featuring performers like Sainkho Namtchylac and Fatima Miranda, the male-dominated sound poet tradition and the female vocal performance art tradition began to intermingle. This is exemplified by important performers such as Jaap Blonk and later David Moss, clearly operating with a mix of these genres.


Sound poetry is an artistic form bridging between literary and musical composition, in which the phonetic aspects of human speech are foregrounded instead of more conventional semantic and syntactic values; “verse without words”. By definition, sound poetry is intended primarily for performance. (Wikipedia)


In the book “Playing with words ‒ the spoken word in artistic practice”, editor Cathy Lane has collected interesting articles from artists, scholars and others concerning use of the spoken word in music, art and related fields (Lane, 2008[4]).  In this book, Clive Graham presents a brief overview of the history and the different developments of sound poetry, based on his work with a three-year radio program on the field. (Graham, in Lane, 2008, pp. 26-30). Sound poetry emerged from Dadaism and Futurism and represented a movement in both literature and the visual arts. The movement was steering away from traditional writing in poetry, and also represented a more graphic and typographical liberation of the poem in visual art. This is a genre that developed in several directions and with a lot of performers over the years. Early important works are Italian F. T. Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tumb  (1914) and Kurt Schwitter’s Ursonate (1922-32, “Primal Sonata”).  For me, later works in this genre have been inspiring, and include performers such as Jaap Blonk and David Moss. I also experience a link from sound poetry to Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody, (1966) ‒ an important work for me. I recall a childhood memory of Norwegian Karin Krog, from a performance (in black and white) on Norwegian Television. This made a tremendous impression on me. She was making cartoon-like sounds, and the “text” was shown as subtitles. It might have been Stripsody, but I am unable to confirm this.

Sound poetry introduced a new vocabulary of sounds for practitioners in the field of vocal performance. This included, as an example, different types of onomatopoetic sounds and vocal sounds like breathing, sighing, shouting and throat-clearing, etc, and later a deep dive into, and an extension of, international phonetic language  ‒ as found in the works of Jaap Blonk. Listening to the work of many contemporary vocal performers, it is obvious that sound poetry, through introducing this new vocabulary, must have been important for the development of new vocal expressions in vocal performance art. Another significant and influential aspect of this genre is the focus on text and language as sound material and sound structure, rather than meaning.


The singer’s role extended

The “individual aesthetics and poetics” of the vocal performance art genre is emphasised throughout Weber-Lucks’s article (Weber-Lucks, 2003). This is also what I find most important. I experience these performers’ freedom in expression as being derived from their very individual and personal choices of expression. What connects them then, besides being vocal artists, is perhaps the approach more than the musical expression. By removing themselves in different ways from the traditional role of the singer, they can explore the voice more freely as an instrument. Some of them have also explored voice sound in connection to a visual expression or/and to bodily movements, and vocal performance as an integrated part of a visual, sometimes theatrical, expression as a whole.


Vocal sound sculpting

Weber- Lucks’s research includes an analysis of the use of sounds produced by the actual performers, finding categories like “pitch glissandos”, “bird cries”, “rough screams” and “biphonic sounds”, etc. in the group of female vocal art performers, while the sound poets Blonk and Chopin focus on speech sounds including “sounds from tongue” and “upper larynx”, etc. (Weber-Lucks, 2003). I have experienced a need for a term to describe these very varied kinds of vocal activities in a more general way. For a long time I have been thinking about vocal sounds that are not melody, rhythm or words as just “sounds”, “sound-focused”, or “sound- oriented”. I realise that these terms leave out an essential part of the activity: the forming, or sculpting, of the sound. A sound, made by the vocal performer in a performance, has a particular volume and timbral quality, but the sound also has an intended form or characteristic “shape” that has (or at least usually is intended to have) a musical meaning. I have chosen to call this part of vocal performing, where the main focus is on voice and mouth sounds rather than traditional text and melody, sound sculpting, as a very wide and general term.


Voice performance art and electronics

The use of electronics, in different ways, seems to be a natural part of development for many of the artists involved in vocal performance art, or at least a means for experimenting along the way. As Weber-Lucks sums up:

One can also observe that: (i) electroacoustic sound-altering devices are used to expand or stretch vocal abilities according to individual poetics or aesthetics (La Barbara, Galás, Anderson, Blonk, Chopin); (ii) multiple -microphone speaker systems are used to structure and create the acoustic dimensions of the performance space according to individual aesthetics or poetics (Chopin, Galás, Anderson, Blonk); (iii) multitrack tape is used to combine the rich sounds, colours and noises of a vocal orchestra created by the voice (La Barbara, Namtchylak, Miranda, Chopin). (Weber-Lucks, p. 66)

This development and the use of electronics as an extension of the voice has continued in various directions and in different fields. The field of vocal performance art has also become more interconnected with the field of popular music, and I will return to this briefly later on. In retrospect this seems almost unavoidable due to new approaches in both vocal performance art and sound poetry. When searching for new expressions and ways of making music with the voice, new technology could do new things and open up radical new ways of creating for both composers and performers. Without going into the history of music technology, I will return to some of the most important techniques in Chapter 2.


To sum up, there are for me three important developments in the field of vocal performance art that are highly connected:


– The instrumental approach; the voice as a source of sounds, not as the bearer of  melody and lyrics.


– The experimental and individual approach: to seek out and implement new, unconventional sounds for vocal performance, in an individual expression.


– The use of text and language as sound and musical structure.


Next page  ➡

[1] Weber-Lucks, Theda: Electroacoustic Voices in Vocal Performance Art – A Gender Issue? Organized Sound: Vol. 8, no.1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 61-69.

[2] Kvitretten: Norwegian improvising a cappella group from 1992 – 2001, with Eldbjørg Raknes, Kristin Asbjørnsen and Solveig Slettahjell during the latter years. The former members were Kjersti Stubø, Hans Jørgen Støp and Anna Sundstrøm.



[4]  Lane, Cathy (ed.) Playing with words – the spoken word in artistic practice, CRiSAP/RGAP, London, 2008.


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