Fragmentary Thoughts on Kate Soper’s “Voices from the Killing Jar” at NUNC

At an event like the Northwestern New Music Conference (NUNC!) one finds oneself asking the question “what is music?” every 5 minutes or so.  Though I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, that Ensemble Dal Niente will perform excerpts from Kate Soper’s Voices from the Killing Jar at the end of our residency on the conference seems fitting: this is a work that has a lot to say about what music is, and, as it should be, it’s complicated.

Kate says the following about her work: "A killing jar is a tool used by entomologists to kill butterflies and other insects without damaging their bodies: a hermetically sealable glass container, lined with poison, in which the specimen will quickly suffocate. Voices from the Killing Jar is a seven-movement work for vocalist and ensemble which depicts a series of female protagonists who are caught in their own kinds of killing jars: hopeless situations, inescapable fates, impossible fantasies, and other unlucky circumstances."  

This is an ambitious, striking conception, one that invites imaginative analogies and connections between characters both historical and fictional from widely varying cultures and times.  The notion of a killing jar, though, also has a deeply immediate, visceral sense -- the music and the musicians are implicated as well.  The composition is only rarely constructed to accompany the soprano.  More often, it mimics or mirrors or expands upon her pitches and rhythms -- as if to amplify or comment on something she is singing, as if to inflect this or that thought or feeling in a way that gives it a heightened significance, emphasizing the extent to which the very mode of expression is part of whatever trap she is caught in.  The music and the musicians can never simply let the soprano "be;" rather, they're always invading her voice, changing it, distorting it.  (In some cases the distortion is quite literal -- electronic processing changes the vocal timbre into something artificial, alien, disembodied.)   They force her into a musical situation that is not a product of her body, but an encounter between her subjectivity and an other whose will seems mysterious and capricious.  Even the very instrumentation of the piece -- featuring the triangle, crotales, and piccolo above her register, and the saxophone, violin, and piano often below -- find her put in an uncomfortable middle.

Musical style sometimes comes across as a vehicle for expression; sometimes it seems political; sometimes it seems otherwise polemical.  We’ve seen all of the above at NUNC.  In Kate’s piece, it is at least partially a menace, a prison, an enactment of forces of repression.  For instance, in the movement entitled Mad Scene: Emma Bovary the soprano performs operatic fragments and vocal warm-ups with a mechanistic repetition.  These aren’t innocently deployed musical gestures that are merely conventional: they come across as brutally preparing the soprano to be the object of desire -- indicting you as an audience member just while you are one.  What to say about the fact that these gestures become increasingly frenzied?  Is that liberating?  Or is the narrative subject just being driven crazy by things beyond her control?

In the The Owl and the Wren: Lady MacDuff the style of an ostensibly straightforward Renaissance dance is used to cover up and paper over the brutal murder of the title character and her children.  Of course, it the dance is not simple and straightforward.  It’s metrically unstable and written in the soprano’s low register (so she that her music is occasionally covered up).  The seeming period-appropriate addition of the recorder becomes sinister as the overblown timbre becomes frantic, inviting speculations as to whether it is mimetic of children screaming, be they the Wren’s chicks or Lady MacDuff’s children.  The music seems to say that style, as manifestation of culture, is what allows such barbarity to be normalized.  (Feel free to contemplate, in this context, the ironies in my use of the word “barbarity,” and its fabled etymology.)

Mostly strikingly ambiguous is the last movement: Her Voice is Full of Money (A Deathless Song): Daisy Buchanan.  The soprano both is and is not the famously shallow and self-centered character from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby -- on the one hand, the singer speaks Daisy’s lines, surrounded by sounds that may initially seem reminiscent of the “romantic outdoors” that cause her to be “paralyzed with happiness.”  To end the work, though, the very same soprano flatly states that “her voice is full of money” (referring to the character she once portrayed), making the open’s metallic triangle, bells, crotales, and inside-the-piano sounds seem like the jangle of coins.  

It would be woefully oversimplified to read soprano of Voices from the Killing Jar simply as a victim.  This is a work by a female composer who was also, initially, the singer.  Thus, there is a very literal and multi-layered assertion of control by the artist over the the materials, tradition, and history she has inherited.  The soprano is not straightforwardly a powerless figure who is merely put upon; but neither is the work self-deceptively confident about its possible achievements.  The history of culture is too complicated for that.

I was not struck until afterwards by a change Kate made in our rehearsal the other day -- she altered the writing of some voice-accompanimental violin octaves to be, instead, a single line in the instrument’s very high register.  The texture, I only later realized, reminded me of Richard Strauss’s solo violin writing in his tone poems when he patronizingly and misogynistically attempts to portray women.  I doubt this invocation was intentional on Kate’s part (though I could be wrong).  But sometimes culture does that to you, and that Kate’s piece does not make facile claims, but rather manipulates inherited musical material in sophisticated ways is precisely the work’s strength.  The music that closes the work continually returns to an open 5th: C-G, as if making an attempt at or a reference to C major, history’s most optimistic key.  But there is no third of the chord, and there are too many problematizing pitches in the highly figurative piano, flute and saxophone parts that create the sense that a minor mode lurks around the corner.  Thus, the music remains in an untranscended state; indeed, as does our whole, continually developing artform.

Finally: I haven’t run any of these theories by Kate, and I could be wrong about everything.  I guess, though, I don’t mind being wrong if it prompts someone to think and feel this piece a little bit deeper.

-- Michael Lewanski