–which is the sound of their egos escaping from their bodies….”
Let me back up just a little.
While Berklee Valencia is the reason we’re in Spain, and its campus, classes, students, faculty and general universe of musical prodigies fill up a lot of el Guapo’s waking thoughts, I’m just at the edges of it most of the time. I visit periodically, attend a concert here and there, and go to the Friday yoga class.
For the past couple of weeks, though, I’ve been more involved, singing in Ben Houge’s App Choir. He does a lot of avant-garde things that are a challenge to explain,* but because I’ve experienced this one, I’ll try to give you a sense of it.
The App Choir appeared at a concert on Thursday at the Universitat Politècnica de València, performing “Ornithological Blogpoem for voices and audience mobile devices.”
The song is a setting of a poem by Elisa Gabbert. Ben wrote sparse musical notation–a melody for each line, each word given a pitch but not a specified duration. The printed description called for voices to be “Loud and Irregular, Authoritative and Insistent.”
Here’s a sketch of how it was to go: Ben would begin singing the first line, at which point we’d each tap our device’s screen. The app would produce a line to sing, we would tap to get the next line, and the app would randomly determine how long the wait would be, and whether we’d get a new line or a repeat of the last.
Ben had also recorded each of us singing each line, and those recordings were part of the app that the audience would access during the performance. I think some of those lines played as originally recorded, and others were played back at a speed that made them sound like birds chirping.
At the concert, choir members were seated among the audience around the hall, in cognito. Ben announced the first number, stood in the middle aisle with his phone, and began to sing, “You will be woken by the chirping of the birds,” at which point there was a pause, and then at different times each of us stood up and sang out the same line.
Our voices built in layers, repeating lines as the app required, while audience members heard us in their midst as well as singing out of their phones. Many were also simultaneously using those phones to snap pictures or take video of us.
There isn’t yet a sharable recording of the concert, but el Guapo and I made a short recording to give you an idea.
Here (with permission) are the lines from the poem as we sang them.
You will be woken by the chirping of the birds,
which is the sound of their egos escaping from their bodies
in loud and irregular streams.
They are acupuncture birds;
where the chirps fall on your eardrums corresponds to where you experience the pain.
The birds have PhDs.
They chirp out chapters from their dissertations.
The birds do not agree that irony is dead.
One of the birds has tried repeatedly to fall to its death
but always starts flying at the last second.
The birds are excessively vain about their wings.
They have been known to assemble themselves into bridges and other structures.
An obelisk of feathers.
Do not feed the birds;
they are following a strict high-protein diet.
The birds are control freaks.
Do not, under any circumstances, try to touch their beaks.
One of the birds has assumed a leadership role.
Another bird is plotting to assassinate it.
Some items have gone missing from the kitchen.
The birds are capable of eating almost anything but are far too discriminating.
If you are lucky one morning the birds may chirp selections from your favorite opera.
The birds are especially fond of Wagner.
What would you like to hear?
They have a very long waiting list and are nepotistic.
Do not be afraid of angering the birds.
What angers the birds is fear.
*Happily, someone has met the challenge. Here’s an NPR piece on the Food Opera Ben wrote.