SWINGING MODERN SOUNDS #23: The Tragedy of Consciousness

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Recently, I’ve been digging again through the wilds of the CD Baby site, where no print run is too small and no approach to music is too individual, and in this regard I have found a lot of great work recently, some of which I will deal with here soon, but none of it more interesting than an Italian exponent of extended vocal technique named Romina Daniele.

Daniele was born in Naples, but these days lives in Milan, where, I imagine, the climate for experimental singing is more receptive. The recording I happened on, entirely by chance, was her first, Diffrazioni Sonore (2005), which consists entirely of multi-tracked, and often entirely improvised vocal music, some of it treated digitally (radical EQ, echo, and a little reverb), but otherwise left well enough alone. Daniele’s approach has somewhat to do with the great exemplars of this sort of “vocality” (of whom more below), but it is also wholly singular in that the singer has never studied composition, and seems to come more from the wilds of literature, and particularly from the wilds of European philosophy, than from any rigorous background in music.

Her second album, Aisthanomai, Il Dramma Della Coscienza (2007), or The Tragedy of Consciousness, is even more uncompromising than the first, consisting of textual philosophizing more abundantly, and of more electronic sound in addition to her voice. Aisthanomai also has a thoroughly daunting booklet (available in English), that provides some theoretical support for the formal ideas expressed within.

From the above, you might get the idea that Daniele’s work is only complex, only demanding, only methodical, but, actually, though it has its challenges, it is also playful, sweet, sometimes funny, and, on occasion, rooted in an appreciation of vernacular music like jazz, blues, and pop, though these flavors are used much more expressionistically than we are used to. Because I liked these two albums so well—they have surprised me as few things have surprised me recently—I decided to try to track down Daniele and to ask her a few questions. As befits someone for whom the work is most personal when it is least confessional, Daniele will answer very few personal questions, except under duress, so I warn the reader in search of a conventional interview, that there is none of that here. This interview is as much a position paper as it is a confessional document. Because Daniele is a bit skeptical on the self-promotional part of her project, I will provide a few links for those who are curious for more. Her CD Baby page is here. Her MySpace page is here. A couple of very illuminating videos of her in her very rare performances (she will admit to having performed only twelve times) are available on YouTube, as in this case. And, for the record, this interview was conducted by e-mail in English and Italian, and translated back into English by Giorgi Testa, with some minor amendments by myself and Romina Daniele herself. (Her English is very strong.)

Rick Moody: Of the two albums available in the U.S. (on CD Baby), the first, Diffrazioni Sonore, seems to wear its influences more on its sleeve. I suppose, to my ears, these influences would include, most perceptibly, Meredith Monk and Diamanda Galás, but also, to some extent, Yoko Ono, Nina Hagen, Tim Buckley, and so on. In each case (and I’m thinking especially about Monk and Galás), you manage to transmute the influence by virtue of your essential Europeanness. That is, you sing extended vocal technique in a way that recalls some American composers, but in a way that is to me, much more Italian, or even pan-European. Can you talk a little bit about your vocal influences, how you came by this work, and what kind of impact it had on you? Is there a sense for you of performing this idiom in a way that is European?

Romina Daniele: Diffrazioni Sonore is a result of the research I have been conducting since 2000 in a number of areas: voice, composition by electronic means, philosophy applied to multimedia.

Studying film history and theory, art criticism and aesthetic analysis, I approached the fields of thought that my research is based on, which include Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy and Michel Chion’s theory applied to film, a multimedia art form. I am referring specifically to the linguistic and morphological foundations of my work, by virtue of the relationship between, and coexistence among, different languages, including voice, poetry, writing, music, electronics, art, thought, man.

I developed an interest in Meredith Monk’s music very early on. This came about through Auli Kokko, the Swedish vocalist of Neapolitan sax player Daniele Sepe’s popular jazz band. I studied with her for three years around 2001. During that time I was also studying the great jazz voices. I was particularly fond of blues and jazz-rock combinations. I was always listening to Demetrio Stratos.

Stratos is the foundation. I have often observed that my approach to voice stems from his boundless experience, which is unfortunately still very little known outside Italy and Europe. Even Diamanda Galás learned about Stratos when she came to receive her Demetrio Stratos International Prize for experimental music in 2005. That is where I met Diamanda Galás, since I was awarded a prize as a young talent on that occasion; I remember Meredith Monk also winning the same prize in 2007. I met her, too, for the same reason.

Just as Galás didn’t know Stratos, however, I didn’t know Galás when I started out. Later on, someone told me how much we had in common. Since then, I have been listening to her work and I believe it is beyond compare. Our similarities should be found in the attempt to look for an extended vocality and a voice freed from conventions, rather than on a stylistic level. Style is at most the way an individual artist deploys the results of his or her research. History must also be considered, as every experience has a historical background.

Historically, what today may be described as “extended vocality” is a concept and a dimension intrinsic to the “Euro-educated” development of music. Music gradually departed from traditional language forms, from the late nineteenth century harmonic complexity of Richard Wagner to the electro-acoustic experiences of the fifties. This development includes the vast and complex experiences of today’s history and its significant personalities. Let me mention one case: Schönberg’s “dodecaphonny.” Schönberg was the first artist to use the “Sprechgesang” style, where spoken and sung language are fused, in his Pierrot Lunaire (1899). Other similar experiences involved Schönberg’s students Berg and Webern and other artists from all over Europe and the world, up to today. One contemporary example: Visage by Luciano Berio (1960), a piece for electronic sounds on a magnetic tape, sung by Cathy Berberian. The song is based on the symbolic and representative charge of gestures and voice inflections, “from inarticulate sounds to syllables, from laughter to tears and singing, from aphasia to inflection patterns from specific languages: English and Italian, Hebrew, the Neapolitan dialect, etc.”[1]

A central idea of this approach is that of “material” – or “idea of constructing a timbre” (Chion) which designates what the composer works on initially. The term “material” appears as soon as Western music rejects classical elements such as notes, themes, chords, arpeggi. That is what defines “sound matter,” “voice matter,” and, therefore, “extended vocality.”

Diamanda Galás and Meredith Monk, being great musicians and composers, have also had to come to terms with this “Euro-educated” development, which they used to form their personal and unique vision of music.

Stratos, too, crossed known boundaries in working on his voice. However, in his case voice has an even more special role, as it is made independent of music composition. So my experience, inspired by Stratos, has been focused on the necessary realization of “being as voice.” Voice is recognized as a powerful expression of self, regardless of any conventional division or role. The idea is for voice to project toward stylistic undifferentiatedness for artistic and exploratory purposes, by focusing on the unconditioned, non-indifferent force of the desire to know oneself as a “voice that gives itself voice.” In this way, I reject practice, the idea of doctrine and indoctrination, and every kind of style: my style is no style, as I have sometimes said quoting Hegel. I consider indoctrination just a way for sterilized containers to be assigned a label.

Moody: Can you talk a little more about your education, how critical theory featured in it, and how an interest in philosophy expresses itself in what you do?


Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and most recently a volume of essays entitled ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. The Wingdale Community Singers, in which he plays and sings, have released three albums, of which the most recent is NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH (on Blue Chopsticks/Drag City). His new novel will be released in 2015. More from this author →