When I attended the recent screening of Radical Harmonies, someone asked if I was a musician. I instinctively said “no.” Then I immediately remembered my roughly fifteen years in various choral ensembles and countered aloud, “actually, yes I am. I’m a singer.” Duh, Alyx. You only argue the singer as musician on this blog all the time.
Indeed I am a singer. I started singing in my church choir when I was around ten. In the seventh grade, I worked up the nerve to audition for the junior high treble choir. I got in on the merit of my performance of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” which I swiped from the Forrest Gump soundtrack. Introduce him to the Monterrey Pop Festival crowd, Mama Cass.
By the end of the school year, the girl in the back of the alto section auditioned for the fall musical, The King And I. I was cast as Lady Thiang, an icky instance of yellow-facing. I got to sing “Something Wonderful,” one of musical theater’s many paeans to patriarchy. Things fared better at the end of eighth grade, when I played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz and had secured a spot in the varsity treble ensemble for fresh(wo)man year.
Throughout my teens, choir and musical theater were my life. I was in chamber choir from sophomore year on, and also served as an officer. I loved singing, but it didn’t mean success came easily to me. Basic music theory was hard to process, as was sight-reading. I lacked proper breath support and often went instinctively into my chest voice or put my voice in my nose. I never starred in the school musical, though I did garner two supporting roles. I bombed my Region Choir audition junior year, which broke my heart but also gave me a goal.
I started taking voice lessons with a family friend during the summer before senior year. I practiced scales, sight-reading, and built my repertoire. I logged about three hours of practice every day outside my duties as section leader during school rehearsal. You see, I was going to make All-State Choir my senior year. And I ended up being first chair to the Alto I section of the Treble Choir, who killed it at the concert performance. I had a wonderful choir director and voice coach, but there’s really no mystery to how it happened: I worked for it.
That said, these accolades don’t really matter. What counts is that I finally figured out how to read music and locked into my voice. It’s a full-bodied mezzo-soprano when I get it going, and I love how it feels when I do. I also love hearing my voice blend with an ensemble, bolstering chords and enriching my section’s tone, disappearing and reappearing when it needs to. It’s a strong thing, and it lives in my throat. I own it, though sometimes it owns me.
But I never seriously considered being a professional singer. I had fantasies of becoming a Broadway actress or a music journalist, but went to college with no real grasp on who I wanted to be when I grew up. People, I’m still working on it.
Being a singer seemed like a risky, unstable endeavor. Most people don’t get the chance and either train or compromise into becoming a voice teacher or choir director. And there’s nothing wrong with that. My mother decided to become a middle school choir director during my junior year of high school after decades of avoiding a professional career in music. She was happy to funnel her training in piano into being the church organist. I’ve dabbled with choir directing myself, conducting the odd sight-reading clinic for my mom when I’m back home. And I like teaching, but prefer getting up in front of a room or in a circle and breaking down hegemony.
I sang intermittently in college in UT’s Concert Chorale, conducted by the formidable Dr. Susan Pence. I had to quit during my junior year because I didn’t have the time for six hours of rehearsal each week with school, KVRX, and my emerging interests in feminist organizing. I got into Choral Arts Society some time during my senior year and kept that up until I started graduate school, as my screenings always seemed to conflict with Thursday rehearsal. In addition to that, I worked full-time until a month before I got my MA, so it’s not like I had the time anyway. Man, did I miss it.
I finally got back in an ensemble earlier this year as a member of the Austin Civic Chorus. Much to my surprise, my voice held up after years of neglect. But not to my surprise, I find that traditional choruses don’t possess the excitement they once did. I like singing in an ensemble, but my ambivalence toward the canonization of sacred music, the preponderance of male composers in that canon, the ingrained idea of needing to balance an ensemble’s sound so that the bass section is most audible, and the classed nature of concert attire and ticket prices has evolved into full-on discomfort.
So, I decided to pick up a guitar. It seemed overdue, you know? My partner’s father’s Mako was propped against a wall in its case, so I figured it should get some use. Plus it’s only fair that if I teach girls who are brave enough to learn how to play instruments and start bands, I could learn from them too. It’s time to practice what I preach.
Though I’m a singer, I’m embarrassed to not be proficient in any instruments. My dad forced me to take piano lessons one summer against my mother’s wishes, as she didn’t want me to feel that I had to follow in her footsteps. Thus the vast, boxy instrument became a burden, resulting in my rudimentary ability to poke melodies and fetch chords.
In addition, I never liked how a piano tends to disengage a musician from its audience. As Michel Chion points out in “Mute Music: Polanski’s The Pianist and Campion’s The Piano“, there are some interesting filmic elements in this removal and the artist’s inward focus in his assessment of The Pianist and The Piano. But I always liked singing to and at someone. This isn’t to say that a piano can’t be a performative instrument. We just haven’t found a rapport. I feel like I’m talking to a wall. Its physical heft only exacerbates matters.
But the Omnichord is a friend. It’s portable, light, and user-friendly. I’ve been playing with it and singing chords at it since my partner bought it for me two Christmases ago. But it has limitations too. It only has so many programmable functions and it’s too easy to play. Hence the guitar, which brings in tension. Like the voice, the sounds made on a guitar come from the player. Specifically, they come from their fingers, arms, shoulders, back, torso, and pelvis. Actually, it makes complete sense why singers often accompany themselves on guitar. With the two in tandem, you can embody your music. Once I acquire a theremin, I’ll be a continuous loop of sound.
Yet I never really considered the guitar until well into my 26th year. I sing. My mom’s a pianist. My stepbrother plays the bass, trumpet, guitar, and drums, but somehow I never thought about it. I know as a teen I was singing and rehearsing stage plays, but picking up a guitar never occurred to me. In fairness, I never really went through a guitar god phase. I never fell in love with the Jims (Page and Hendrix). I didn’t even notice Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s contributions to the instrument until I was well into college, after which point I fell in love with the conversational approach and harsh angularity of the post-punk guitar sound.
Since that time, I’ve grown to love electric guitar and listen for it exclusively. Recent offerings from The Dirty Projectors, Marnie Stern, and Noveller really opened me up to the possibilities of the guitar’s dexterity and tone.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve only completed three lessons with my neighbor, David (of DFI, RATKING, and Moonmen on the Moon, Man). In that time, I’ve learned the open A, C, D, E, and F chords. I’m starting to get chromatics and the C scale down. A and E barre chords are starting to make sense in my hands. I’m learning chord changes and alternate picking. Surprisingly, my hands and ears understand one another pretty well.
But let’s get ahead of ourselves again, because that’s how progress occurs. While I don’t want to be a professional musician, I want to play. I’m planning my summer project and it’s a musical one. I’d like to do it with someone, but may have to get things started on my own. I won’t reveal the name, but basically it’s going to be scary dance music. In my head, it would sound somewhere in between John Carpenter’s film scores and Erase Errata, with the space of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” and the minimalist dread of Suicide’s “Johnny” and ESG’s “UFO.” Ever the choirgirl, there would be room for cacophonous spurts of female voices. Ultimately, I’d like to record and make some music videos and play some shows.
But in the present, I’m still figuring out my guitar. I’m not sold on the sound of my Mako yet. But I’m not discouraged by this process of becoming. Indeed, all of life is that process. I remember that when I feel my age and realize that I’ll be 30 before I’m really good at playing. In truth, a large part of why I’m involved with GRCA and Cinemakids is to heal the psychic wounds of not engaging with media-making as an adolescent and thus spending my adulthood writing criticism upon others’ artistic endeavors.
That doesn’t mean I can’t make music and write about it as both evolve. Strumming a guitar, syncing it to my voice, and typing it out is a start.
My friend Susan gets the credit for turning me on (Christ, another pun!) to the Tenori-On. It’s a neat, little hand-held electronic instrument that’s easy to use and lets you create entire soundscapes with just a few inspired clicks of the right switches. And if you add the LED light system at the bottom, it’s kinda like you’re playing a Lite Brite.
This brings me to Victoria Hesketh, who performs under the name Little Boots, a British electronic-based singer-songwriter, whose primary instrument is the Tenori-On. Maybe you also know that Joe Goddard of Hot Chip and Greg Kurstin of The Bird and the Bee serve as her producers. Maybe you heard her single “Stuck on Repeat” (it was one Pitchfork’s Top 100 Singles of 2008).
But I don’t wanna suggest that Little Boots needs the guidance and approval of primarily male producers and music press to get ahead. Like many electro female recording artists at the moment (yes, including Lady Gaga), Little Boots is reconfiguring 80s synth pop. And this new little gadget is helping her do just that. Here she is covering Hot Chip’s “Ready for the Floor.”
For one, I like how immediate playing the Tenori-On seems. I don’t wanna be condescending and suggest that it’s simple and thus only dummy amateurs can pick it up, but to me there’s something sorta punk about how anybody could poke around on it to create songs and that it isn’t available only to trained instrumentalists and virtuosos.
(As an aside, the Tenori-On, which made its debut at SIGGRAPH in 2005, is still pretty expensive — a new one’ll set you back a grand, a used one’s starting price averages at $500 — so perhaps only art-school, trust-fund punks can afford it for now. Maybe as the instrument becomes more popular and widely-used, the asking price will decrease.)
For another, unlike punk, which tends to rely on three chords, I like how limitless the compositional possibilities are to the Tenori-On. It seems like you could start in one musical direction and then, with a few clicks and pushes, go through several musical tangents and end up somewhere completely unexpected.
I also like that the Tenori-On makes music composition seem accessible and efficient for the user, which is great for female instrumentalists like Little Boots who can be their own backing band, as well as a tremendous opportunity for women and girls to become more comfortable and savvy with technology. Add to that its compact, lightweight design and it seems like easy to transport from bedroom to backpack to bus stop to backseat to gig.
Incidentally, I have an Omnichord. If any ladies wanna jam, let me know.