Lucy Dhegrae: The Art and Science Behind the Voice
Urgency is an important ingredient in everything Lucy Dhegrae does—whether singing music by Eve Beglarian, Joanna Newsom, Jason Eckardt, Gabrielle Herbst, and many others, or curating Resonant Bodies, a three-day festival of contemporary vocal music that takes place annually in New York City and which has now had iterations in Chicago as well as in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. Urgency is also what fuels her life’s mission: to be empowered as a singer and to empower other singers which, aside from a desire to make musical experiences fairer, yields better performances.
In most of the world’s musical genres, the distinction between creating something anew and interpreting something that already exists is somewhat blurry. And in many folk traditions, there is a further blur between performers and audiences—in some societies, making music is just part of living and it is participatory and often non-hierarchical. Yet in Western classical music, there is a very precise delineation between the roles of composers, interpreters, and the audience and, for better or worse, this is a paradigm that most practitioners of new music have inherited. But just as distinctions between genres continue to erode in the second decade of our new millennium, there has also been a shift in our perception of what the particular roles could be for making music now and in the future.
“The best composers know what it’s like to be a performer and the best performers know how to improvise,” says vocalist Lucy Dhegrae, who is the founder and director of Resonant Bodies, a three-day festival of contemporary vocal music that takes place annually in New York City and which has now had iterations in Chicago as well as in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. “Maybe those delineations were important for the time and maybe they’re helpful for some people, but now what I see in myself and Resonant Bodies artists and people I work with all over the place is that we just don’t care about all of those delineations anymore. … At what point did we start to structure it this way and start to exclude people, except that we were trying I guess to exclude people for financial reasons somehow? It’s not all necessarily nefarious, but it can have this exclusive idea to it.”
As far as exclusivity goes, calling Dhegrae the “director” of Resonant Bodies is somewhat misleading, because although she carefully curates the vocalists who perform on each of the concerts, she gives each of them full reign in determining what music they present to an audience.
I was so shocked by how singers as a whole were treated like this other species.
Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
Bodies retain memory, history, experience, and emotion; they’re history books and maps of who we are.
Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
I wanted to be a laryngologist.
Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
My voice is nothing like Montserrat Caballé’s, but in high school I was trying to channel her.
Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
I played my composition and he was mildly tolerant.
Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
I struggled as an undergraduate. My voice did not fit into anything.
Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
I think a lot of composers feel intimidated to write for the voice.
Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
Not many people know how to do text well as a singer.
Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
It’s really beautiful when you have that melding ... and we see a really special part of the performer and ... the composer.
Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
What I love about new vocal music is that we have access to this amazing range of expression.
Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
This is really important for any artist: Who are you as an artist when you’re not for sale?
Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
I want us all to evolve to find that next step. What’s the next innovative, interesting thing?
Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
“What I love in an experience with people is to know what they’re passionate about,” she gushes with contagious enthusiasm in a conversation at her Manhattan apartment only an hour after she flew in from St. Louis. “I would never dream of telling a singer, ‘Hey, you should do this specific piece. I want to hear you do that piece.’ Because you’re only going to get the second best thing from a singer that way, I think. But if you ask a singer, ‘What do you love to sing? What lights you up? Right now?’ Because it has to align with their life moment. Then things feel urgent. I want to hear your urgent music.”
Urgency is an important ingredient not only for Resonant Bodies, but all of the music that Dhegrae performs as a vocalist herself, whether it’s a something by singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, high modernist composer Jason Eckardt, or composer-performer Gabrielle Herbst, whom she sang alongside for the premiere of Herbst’s dreamy opera Bodiless. Urgency is also what fuels her life’s mission: to be empowered as a singer and to empower other singers which, aside from a desire to make musical experiences fairer (“in Resonant Bodies we … always talk about being treated as singers versus musicians versus artists”), yields better performances, as she points out:
It’s really beautiful when you have that melding, where you’re coming halfway, and we see a really special part of the performer and a really special part of the composer. That to me is the best part of creating a new piece.
Curiously, in her childhood, long before she ever considered singing as a profession, Dhegrae wrote music and even won a contest for it. But she quickly got turned off when a teacher attempted to make her do a rudimentary composition exercise instead of trying to nurture her creative impulses. Perhaps an even more significant background for Dhegrae, however, was her pursuit of a pre-med degree simultaneously with studying singing as an undergrad. Though she ultimately did not become a laryngologist, which is the career path she wanted to pursue at the time, her deep study of the acoustic, physical, and medical science of the voice informs her approach to making music to this day.
“There’s one particular nerve that people talk about for the voice, the recurrent laryngeal nerve,” Dhegrae explains, “which starts in your brain, goes down, wraps through your heart, and then goes into your vocal chords. So literally your voice has to go through your heart first before it comes out. It has to come from your brain, through your heart, and then come out of your mouth. … I think that’s really an important metaphor, because your heart is naturally a part of how you sing. And we can’t deny that. That is a physical reality. So it’s not a metaphor anymore!”
Read the Full Transcript
Photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: Considering that so much of your career as a vocalist, as well as the platform you’ve created for other vocalists through the Resonant Bodies Festival, has been about empowering vocalists, I thought a good place for our conversation to begin would be to dispel some of the misconceptions that people have about singers. For example, some people—including instrumentalists and even singers sometimes—say “musicians and singers,” which implies that singers aren’t musicians. We ran an article by the composer and conductor Dominick DiOrio about this frustrating phenomenon earlier this year. I know you have a lot of thoughts about this based on your own experiences.
Lucy Dhegrae: Yes. So I started as a singer, I would say, kind of late to the game. I started as a pianist and as a composer. Then as an undergrad, I was splitting my time between pre-med classes and the music school. I wasn’t fully committed to being a singer until age 20, 21. But I noticed this phenomenon kind of from afar. And I was so shocked by how singers as a whole were treated like this other species within the music school world. That didn’t really change once you got out of it, but it was kind of bred into the environment. And it’s something that in Resonant Bodies we talk about all the time. We always talk about being treated as singers versus musicians versus artists.“I was so shocked by how singers as a whole were treated like this other species…”
This is something that Dawn Upshaw talked a lot about also in her program which I did as a master’s student. What she really hones in on is we’re all artists. You’re not an entertainer necessarily. You’re not a trick pony. You’re an artist. And I think someone like Dawn commands that kind of respect and attention. The environment at Bard was completely different from the environment in my undergraduate years. And yet, as a singer, I will admit there’s something that is completely different about singing from violin, piano, composition. There’s a different skill that you have to access.
FJO: For starters, the instrument is inside you and is a part of you. There are people who treasure their flutes or their violins. Maybe they have access to a Stradivarius worth millions of dollars and that’s the only instrument they’ll play. But if something happened and they had to play another violin, you know, they’d ultimately play another violin even if it maybe wouldn’t be as good. You can’t sing someone else’s voice. It’s unique to you.
FJO: But because it’s unique to you, and it’s something that’s invisible, I wonder if somehow that’s part of why some people don’t think it’s as important; it’s not a physical object we can look at even though it is totally physical, because it’s part of you.
LD: Yeah. So, we all have a body. And this is something that I know lots of singers have written about. Having a body is the first part of recognizing your voice and being a singer. That’s something actually that comes secondary in some other instruments. I think maybe we’re all coming to a kind of societal awakening about bodies and how bodies retain memory, history, experience, and emotion; they’re history books and maps of who we are. And not only who you are, but your family and your ancestry. There’s so much that we actually are just beginning to understand about what the body actually contains as far as information.“Bodies retain memory, history, experience, and emotion; they’re history books and maps of who we are.”
For singers, you are in constant contact with the reality of your body. And you start to notice, because you’re singing every day. You wake up and you start singing, and you can’t hit a note that you could hit yesterday. Or you hit it in a totally different way. Or it feels funny and then you have to run through your list: Why does my voice feel bad today? Why isn’t it doing that thing? It could be a million things. So you have to do a body scan. Or you have to do an emotional scan. You’re constantly learning to check in with your body because you have to be a team with your body. Whereas, with some training instrumentally—and singers can do this, too—you’re kind of going against your body. A good teacher of course is always going to teach you to listen, and singers have to do that in a really deep way. You could become a little hypochondriac about it, frankly, but you do become this guardian almost, the monk in the temple of your own body. You’re trying to listen and you’re trying to hear what it’s saying.
FJO: So for you, what does that regimen mean?
LD: Obviously I have to take really good care of my body. What you put into it: what you drink, what you eat, what you breathe. I remember stepping off the plane into New Orleans and just feeling this joy of the humidity as it hit my throat. I was like, “This is where I’m meant to sing,” versus somewhere like Michigan where I grew up and where in the winters, it’s just bone dry. So there’s that level. There’s the health level for sure. But then there’s the emotional level, which is something that we don’t recognize enough, and as a society, we don’t talk about it. We don’t really talk about how we’re feeling. Someone says, “How are you?” And in America we say, “Great!” In Russia though, you say something else. [laughs] But in American culture, we’re taught to hide emotions and to smooth them over and be very pleasant and charming. I love being a pleasant, charming American, but there’s an emotional reality that of course you have to connect with the voice. To talk about the metaphor of the voice: this is your brain [point to her head], this is your heart [points to her chest], and this is your voice [points to her throat]. There’s one particular nerve that people talk about for the voice, the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which starts in your brain, goes down, wraps through your heart, and then goes into your vocal chords. So literally your voice has to go through your heart first before it comes out. It has to come from your brain, through your heart, and then come out of your mouth.
FJO: Through your heart as opposed to through your lungs?
LD: Or as opposed to another [nerve]. That’s the left side. On the other side, the right side, it just goes brain to vocal chords. So you have two totally different wirings. I think that’s really an important metaphor, because your heart is naturally a part of how you sing. And we can’t deny that. That is a physical reality. So it’s not a metaphor anymore!
FJO: Now what’s so interesting hearing you say all this stuff is the intensity of the medical details, which I imagine comes from being in a pre-med program.“I wanted to be a laryngologist.”
LD: Yeah, and I wanted to be a laryngologist.
FJO: There are people pursuing the pre-med thing who would really rather be doing music, but their parents want them to become doctors, so they do the pre-med thing and wish they did the music thing, never imagining the relationship between the two disciplines. You turned around and did the music thing, but somehow the pre-med stuff helped shape who you are as an artist.
LD: It helped in so many ways. First of all, University of Michigan was my last choice school. Not to throw any shade on the University of Michigan, but my entire family went there and it was an hour from where I lived. So I wanted nothing more than to sail the pathless seas and go to the East Coast or West Coast, anywhere; I wanted to get out of Michigan. I’d even go to Ohio. So I was looking at Oberlin, too. Just anywhere where I could get out of where I grew up, just doing what was expected and what my family wanted. But I also wanted to do this dual degree track, and I had a scholarship from the University of Michigan, plus my parents had paid the tuition before I was born. I think it was eight thousand dollars.
I was going around auditioning for schools super last minute. I remember filling out the U of M application literally the night before it was due because my voice teacher was like, “You should apply to the University of Michigan Music School, too, not just the regular school.” And I was like, “Oh, when’s it due?” I remember it was October 13th, and he was like, “It’s due October 14th.” So I went home and filled out an application, didn’t think about it, and sent it in. But I really liked my teacher there, when I met her, more than the other teachers that I met. And it was already paid for and I knew something about it—my sister was actually enrolled there; she was on the medical track as well. So I went there. And because my sister was pre-med (she was in her fifth year), I had access to the medical school library. I already knew that I wanted to go into laryngology at that time. I always thought if I was going to be a doctor, it was going to be laryngology. So I spent that first summer, pre-freshman year, checking out the Journal of Voice, the medical journal for ENTs and laryngologists, and reading articles.
I remember a big question that I, as a young woman, had at the time, as many women do and did, especially then, was birth control. Is birth control going to affect my voice? I had crazy menstrual cycles and blah-blah-blah. I wanted to be on it so that it could be more stable and so a week of my life wasn’t destroyed every month. I was voraciously reading about hormones and how they affected the voice, and, of course, it got into all these other articles. There was a fair amount of terminology, so I emailed the head of the laryngology department at University of Michigan, Norman Hogikyan, who authored some of them, and I asked him if I could meet with him. He was so kind. He met with me and explained these medical terms: jitter, shimmer. These were things that they talk about, and that allowed me to read further into the articles. And I never stopped doing that.
Then in my freshman year, I took an amazing class called Stradivarius as Biologist. It was about the acoustics of the singing voice and it was taught by three professors. First, it was taught by Gregory Wakefield, who was in the acoustic engineering department, and he taught you all about the acoustics of the voice and the acoustics of sound also. What are a singer’s formants? And what are overtones? How do overtones happen? And why in the voice is it different and how do different resonating tracks change that? My mind was just blown. Also I will say that Gregory Wakefield was as a professor getting an undergraduate voice degree simultaneously, so he sang in the choir; he was a fabulous tenor. Then the second part of it was Freda Herseth, who was on the voice faculty. She was teaching the pedagogy. How do singers sing? How do we think about breathing? How does singing work from a singer’s point of view? But she was very medically knowledgeable, of course. I’m pretty sure she worked as a voice therapist as well, in tandem with the hospital. The third part was the anatomy, and that was Dr. Hogikyan teaching that. We got real nitty-gritty about the arytenoids and muscles, and the layers of the vocal folds. I had to know all of that. That was fall of my freshman year and it lit up all those parts of me; I was so excited to know the science behind the voice.
FJO: So your interest in getting into the scientific and medical stuff came from already being a singer?
FJO: But, I’m curious how you got to that point, especially since you said you started late as a singer. You were a pianist. I know part of this story, which I find fascinating. You played the piano for about a decade and nobody could figure out that you couldn’t read music; you played everything from memory. People thought that was a bad thing. But all I can think about this is how fantastic it was that you had such a great memory. You should have been encouraged to keep learning music that way, I think. How and why did you transition from the piano to the voice?
LD: My body was the culprit. I started with piano when I was three. My sister was doing it and I wanted to do it. I would reach up on the piano keys or I would sit at her piano lessons and watch. I don’t quite remember these things. But I’m pretty sure I was dyslexic as a child. I’m pretty sure as an adult I’m dyslexic. You don’t notice that as a kid, so maybe you can get away with it for a while. I was in a Montessori school and I don’t know if anyone noticed. We were not taking the same kinds of tests. I was a very fast learner, and I could always get things to performance quality. So I kind of skated by without reading music. Then when the music got harder to learn, and the practicing required more—I think I was about 14 or 15—something else happened where I started to get this really sharp pain in my shoulder. I would put my hands at the piano, and after five minutes, it was just like a knife was in my trapezius. It was very painful.“I’m pretty sure I was dyslexic as a child.”
At the time, I remember telling my mom my back really hurt, and she was like, “You just need to practice. Quit making excuses.” And I was like, “Mom, I think I have a back problem.” But she was like, “Go practice.” But I couldn’t practice and so I wasn’t practicing and my piano lessons just went phwoo. I was already not the best student, and I just became the worst. I was that kind of student that as a teacher you dread showing up to lessons with, but there was really nothing I could do. And I was overscheduled as a kid. Then they tried to put me in jazz piano lessons for a while, so I switched to jazz piano. I went to a fantastic high school for jazz—oh my gosh! Sexton High School in Lansing, Michigan, has an amazing jazz program. We got to play with Wycliffe Gordon, Wynton Marsalis, and Victor Wooten. I think about it now, and I’m like, “This was insane—Lansing, Michigan.” But that’s because Michigan State University has this amazing jazz program, and they would come through, and my jazz teacher, Tom Jones, knew all of them, and we had an amazing band. My sister had been the pianist before me, so I kind of came in like a mini-my sister. I was like, “I don’t really know how to do jazz piano.” So I got into jazz piano lessons and wasn’t doing super well. I could play by ear and that was fun, but there were still all the problems of every time I sat down at the piano, this pain. Eventually my classical teacher kicked me out of lessons and so did my jazz teacher. They were like. “We can’t teach you anymore. Sorry.” And they sat my parents down, too. This is like age 16 or 17, and my parents just informed me that they had signed me up for classical voice lessons with my choir director at my church, because I wasn’t not going to take classical music lessons. I remember at the time being a little ticked off that there was no checking with me. It was like this was just a part of your life; this is what you do. But also I was curious. Everyone in my church choir was really amazing. Lots of people went on to be professional musicians, which I think is really kind of incredible—in Lansing! Stephen Lange was an amazing mentor.
So I started taking classical voice. I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember my teacher giving me a song and my taking it home and being like, “What am I supposed to do with this?” As soon as he played it through, I’d learned it because I learn so quickly by ear, especially with singing. So I was like, “What do I practice?” I didn’t understand what practicing was for singing. I got that more in college. I read lots of books about practicing, and what practicing is, and needing to do it. But when I first started, I had no clue. I was literally just copying opera stuff from the internet, downloading things and not knowing which opera singer I was imitating. I found this out several years later—it turns out that I was imitating Montserrat Caballé. My voice is nothing like Montserrat Caballé’s, but in high school I was trying to channel her.“My voice is nothing like Montserrat Caballé’s, but in high school I was trying to channel her.”
FJO: Given what we were talking about earlier vis-à-vis the individuality of everyone’s voice, it’s ironic that the uniqueness of your voice wasn’t something that you necessarily realized or aspired to yet. But the other thing that’s weird to me about this story is how your the family insisted you take music lessons as opposed to having a family mildly tolerate musical interest and hope you’ll get a real job one day.
LD: Well, my parents were definitely hoping that I would be a doctor.
FJO: So they weren’t hoping that you’d be a musician.
FJO: They just wanted you to take music because it’s good for you.
LD: Yeah, it’s good for you. It was a very Midwestern, WASPy, middle-class family. It’s like you do this and that, you know. It was like my vegetables. Also in my family, for better or for worse, when you start something you finish it, so if you started doing classical music, you’re going to finish it.
FJO: But jazz was okay.
LD: Jazz was okay, but it was like an extra to the classical. But I loved the jazz, and I got really into jazz. I mean really into jazz. I was going to two or three jazz camps a summer as a high school student. I never went to a classical camp ever.
FJO: Another interesting transition that I want to talk with you about is going from an interpretative experience of music toward the creative side of making music. I didn’t know until we walked in here this afternoon and began talking that you had a background as a composer. But now, hearing your story, it seems obvious that playing by ear was probably helpful toward finding your own voice and having it fit in with what the other voices were doing in the jazz bands you were part of. Also, a gateway to creating music that others perform is improvisation and playing your own things. But I’m not sure how you started composing and why you didn’t continue with it.
LD: It’s interesting how a young composer can fall off if you don’t have the right support system. I think I’m just one of those many examples. I went to a Montessori school which was the best, and they were like my family. I loved that school. We had so much flexibility with what we wanted to do with our little schedules. Of course, you want to screw around with your friends in the gym. We would make up plays or dances and these needed music. I didn’t think about it, but it’s like Purcell. Our little play needed some music. We were making a dance and I was like, “Oh, I want to make a song that people act out.” I think this was my first notated composition. It was definitely inspired by the NPR theme, which was on the radio every morning [sings: doo-do-do-doo do-do-doo]—a sus4 chord going to a major chord, in C major. It was called The Hero. My best friend, Haley, was the hero, and my other friends kind of danced around. Then there was a villain that came in. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was programmatic. So that was the first one that I did.
My piano teacher—it was just funny. I was supposed to prepare the gigue from some Bach suite that week, and instead I worked more on my song. She was like, “Okay, show me that song.” And then she said, “Oh, this is nice. Do you know how to write that down?” hoping to get a little theory lesson going, and I was like, “Of course.” But I was basically illiterate still, after playing piano for six, seven years. So I still had no idea what I was doing. But she helped me write it out. Then we had a neighbor who was a choral director, and he had some software where I could play on a MIDI keyboard and it would notate it for me. I remember going to his house with my mom, and going to his little studio, and playing my song, and trying not to mess up because if I messed up, it would create all these funny notes in what was probably Finale. I remember it popping out this music and looking at it and being like, “Wow, I wrote that!” I didn’t even know what the rhythms were before, and so it was this amazing learning moment: that’s a dotted eighth note with a sixteenth note. I get it now. So that was that first piece, and then I composed another piece after that called Moods, which won an early composition contest actually.
FJO: Ooh.“I played my composition and he was mildly tolerant.”
LD: I was about nine years old, and I won this contest. After that, my piano teacher, my parents of course, and this guy who had helped me notate the thing, said, “Well, obviously, now she needs composition lessons,” which seemed like the next natural step. And it’s Lansing, Michigan, so there weren’t many people around. I don’t remember this guy’s name. I remember having two lessons. I went to the first lesson. I played my composition and he was mildly tolerant. He was like, “That’s lovely. I see that you’ve composed some things. So come in next week and make a new song in the key of C major.” And I remember being so offended as this young composer. “That is not how my inspiration comes to me. I do not perceive it in a key first, sir.” Then going home and sitting at the piano and being like, “Okay, C major.” I’m trying to play something. I just hated this. I hated composing. Then coming in the next week completely empty handed. And that was that. That was my last composition lesson. I kept writing things, but—Kate Soper has talked about this—it kind of went into the singer-songwriter Tori Amos-vibe. Fiona Apple was also big on the scene at the time and I was like, “I can make some Fiona Apple songs.”
FJO: This is another one of my pet peeves, which is as bad as the musician vs. vocalist one, the singer-songwriter vs. composer thing. If you’re a songwriter and you created the music and also the words for it, you’re not only a composer, you’re a lyricist, too. So you’re actually more than a composer, not less than a composer.
FJO: And yet there’s this stigma that if you’re writing something that’s only for yourself to perform and if it’s only a certain duration—
LD: —then you’re not a composer. And that’s just false. The composer versus performer versus improviser is something that was created well before you and I were on the scene. Well, before anyone was on the scene. Maybe those delineations were important for the time and maybe they’re helpful for some people, but now what I see in myself and Resonant Bodies artists and people I work with all over the place is that we just don’t care about all of those delineations anymore. The best composers know what it’s like to be a performer. And the best performers know how to improvise. And the best composers also improvise. Everyone’s doing everything. And it’s like the way it always was. At what point did we start to structure it this way and start to exclude people, except that we were trying I guess to exclude people for financial reasons somehow? It’s not all necessarily nefarious, but it can have this exclusive idea to it.
FJO: Even though you stopped composing music yourself, you ultimately wound up pursuing an artistic path that has been all about nurturing new work, so I’m curious to hear about the things that led you, as an interpretive musician, to be focused on that. I want to get to where the new music bug bit you!
LD: Okay. So every artist is formed by this pressure system that kind of squeezes you out and then, like a mountain or any geography, you get formed. The pressure system that was around me as a young singer was a bunch of things. One was that I was in this giant program with literally a hundred other singers and I was not at the top. When I graduated high school, I won the top award for singing that you can get in the state of Michigan. So I went in feeling good. And then as an undergrad there were just talented people all around me. I wasn’t anywhere near the best singer and I didn’t have any success, if that makes sense. I wasn’t winning any auditions; I wasn’t getting any roles in any operas. I remember other singers in my studio were all singing the same repertoire. We were all singing “Ach, ich fühl’s” from Magic Flute. It became this American Idol of “Ach, ich fühl’s” with the undergraduates and master’s students! You’re looking at where you are in the line-up, and you’re feeling pretty bad about yourself. So that was one side. On the other side, I don’t want anyone to copy what I’m doing; I need my own space. University of Michigan has this amazing library. So with my teacher’s blessing, I went to the library very early on and started picking out my own pieces. I would go to the library and spend hours pulling books out and looking at the score and being like, “That looks cool! Is there a recording of this?” because I’m still basically illiterate in college. So I started checking out CDs. I started finding all my own repertoire, and that made me feel good. But I was finding my own Debussy repertoire, my own Fauré, my own German songs, and things like that.
A friend of mine, Mary Bonhag—who I’ll shout out to—was working more with composers, and she was singing with the contemporary music ensemble. I remember asking her, “How did you get involved?” And she was like, “Oh, I just asked the conductor if I could sing with them.” And I was like, “All this time I just had to ask someone if I could sing with them!” So I asked the conductor, Andrew George at the time, “Can I sing with you guys?” And he said yes. I think the first composer I worked with was Robert Beaser from Juilliard. I sang these impossible songs. They were way too high for me, but when you’re an undergrad you don’t know any better. Then Martin Katz, the pianist, really encouraged me. I started bringing in more thorny contemporary stuff. There’s something actually maybe about being dyslexic and looking at a really complex score where you have to just slow down and really look at all of it—no one is just going to look at that and be like, “Oh, it goes like this [sings]: Rrrh-rrrh-rrrh.” Sorry, this is violin [laughs]. So I took out this thornier music, and I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to mark where all of the beats are.” I was also sitting in on the conducting class, so I started to learn how conductors mark their scores. I started learning how to just really look at the music and follow along note by note, which again, my eyes don’t really just go left to right, so I had to really train myself to do that with the score. That was great, and I loved the fact that it combined the science-y, math-y part. There’s something complex here that’s mathematical that I need to break apart. There’s something that no other singer seems to be willing to put in the time to do, and I am super willing to do that. And no one else is going to be singing it, so I’m not instantly going to be compared to Susie over here whose high notes are better than mine.“I struggled as an undergraduate. My voice did not fit into anything.”
I struggled as an undergraduate. My voice did not fit into anything. You know, my other friends around me were finding their aria package. I just have to eye roll. This is a thing as a singer where you’re trying to find your Fach. Fach is the word for “type” in German. Actually you’re trying to find your bar code. What can people scan you in as in the opera house? Are you a dramatic soprano? Are you a Heldentenor? Of course, no one in undergraduate is either of those things, but these are Fachs. And people want to know what type you are so that you can exist in the economy of opera, which is great; it was made for a reason. It’s not all bad. But I was just struggling and singing repertoire that felt horrible, and I was unhappy. So finding the contemporary pieces where I could pick it out myself, and I could find a range that worked for me, was a blessing. After undergraduate, I decided very much on a whim to move to Vienna, Austria. I didn’t want to apply for grad school yet. My voice was not ready. I didn’t have good recordings. I didn’t have my aria package. So I thought, “Hey, I should probably live in Europe.” This is just something that popped into my brain. And I should probably learn a language. I’d heard so much about Vienna. It’s kind of mythologized in musicology classes.
So I moved to Vienna, and I didn’t speak any German. Someone had told me about Klangforum Wien, which is the new music ensemble of Austria essentially. There are other ones, but that’s the well-funded, big one. So I found them, and I started going to all their concerts, which were about four euro to attend. I would sit in the same seat in the third row, and just look up at them. I had no idea what I was listening to. I couldn’t read the program notes. I just was absorbing it. Then I went to the Wien Modern for, I think, 40 euro. I bought a student pass which is not only an entire month of concerts, but it is multiple concerts a day. I went to as much of that as I possibly could. That was my baptism by fire in contemporary music, and a specific kind of contemporary music at that time—2008, Vienna. I think I saw a very complicated Peter Ablinger piece. It was an hour long, and I had no idea what I was watching. I was just a little put off, but I was also really into metal as a kid and so there’s something about me that just loved this gritty, ugly chrrrr. There’s something awesome about that.
FJO: That’s quite an elaborate story, but you didn’t mention something that you said to Susan Scheid several years back in an interview she did with you, which was how appealing it was that someone could write a piece for you that didn’t exist before and that the piece could fit your voice rather than you trying to make your voice fit in this other package. When I read that I immediately thought about the difference in comfort between wearing tailor-made clothes and the clothing you buy in stores that there’s always something wrong with. Thanks to my in-laws, I once experienced the luxury of having a suit made for me and nothing fits better. So I can only imagine what that would be like for a piece of music someone wrote for you.
LD: Exactly. A composer could make a piece for you, and ask you in advance, not just what’s your voice type, but: What do you like to do with your voice? What notes sound good? They’re going to go back and listen to old recordings of you and say, “I actually like how this sounds in this part of your voice, and I’m going to borrow from that.” That someone would be purposefully trying to make a piece that sounded good [for me], rather than me having to work to sound good in a piece. When I realized that, it blew my mind. Of course you want as many pieces like that as you can get as a singer, and it’s such a gift when you get any of them. So I was lucky to have a few early on. That was a formative experience, and it also taught me that my voice is not broken or worthless. That actually what I have to offer is this special, unique thing that someone else can work with. And they’re not just working with your voice, they’re also working with who you are and what you have to give on stage. So they’re going to give you a text that they think that you can do well. If they’ve seen you do something funny, maybe they’ll give you a funny text because they know that you can pull it off really well. Or they know that you can be focused in that way and they like your vibe. So it’s not even just writing for your voice, which is very special and very challenging. I think a lot of composers feel intimidated to write for the voice because it is so bespoke for each person. I totally understand how that’s intimidating.“I think a lot of composers feel intimidated to write for the voice…”
I’m really interested for singing to change. One thing that I think would totally revolutionize how we’re thinking about singers is to get rid of the Fach system and to replace it with a 3D picture of the voice, which is possible; people have done some work on this. You can sing through your range. You can sing through at all the different dynamics and vowels, and you can come up with a map that looks like your voice, and it’ll show you where you have ability and color. I think that if we can learn to read these as singers, as composers, as people together, working with the voice, I think that that would just change the frustrating end of things. We would almost start to intuit; knowing different maps of different singers’ voices, you can then have a map for a piece, also. These are all the notes that are involved. These are all the dynamics you need, and you can just put one on top of the other and know what it is. But we need something. Our time needs to come up to date with where we’re at as far as describing the voice. We don’t have the right resources.
FJO: I don’t know if you saw a very interesting series of articles by Aiden Feltkamp that we published back in January, including one about rethinking Fach in order to be inclusive of transgender and non-binary singers.
LD: Yeah, I did. I read those.
FJO: It’s funny to hear you describing people getting assigned the designation of Heldentenor as undergrads. What does that even mean for the repertoire that’s being created nowadays?
LD: Nothing. It means nothing when the repertoire’s being created, unless you really know voices quite well. Someone like Thomas Adès, I think, really does understand those voice types. He’s living in an operatic world, and he is conceiving potentially a piece for that voice type. But that’s not always the case, of course.
FJO: You said something interesting when you were describing pieces composers could make for a specific singer that I don’t want to lose, so I’d like us to take a brief detour before we keep going: they’re going to give you a text that they think that you can do well.
FJO: With vocalists, it’s not just important to have musical training, but also linguistic training, acting, even literary criticism to some extent since it could help with interpreting texts, finding your own unique interpretations of them, and making those interpretations convincing to a listener.
LD: As a singer your text training is so important and, again, I’m so grateful that I had such a rich undergraduate experience because I took tons of writing courses. I studied so much poetry and writing. And I don’t know what I would be doing now without that. I also studied a ton of languages, which singers also have to do. When you’re constantly translating poems, you learn so much about what language means and how it’s created. Then you’re also taking acting classes and learning how actors approach sound and meaning and text. So you’re getting all these tools to apply to singing which is something entirely different.“Not many people know how to do text well as a singer.”
Not many people know how to do text well as a singer. There are two totally different kinds of texts. You have poems, and then you have characters on stage. Poetry is not being a character on stage. A lot of singers will try to do a poem as if they are a character, which is wrong. It’s just wrong. Or worse, they’ll do a character as if it’s a poem, which is just dead. You have to learn how as a singer to communicate. What makes a successful singer is the right combination of the right amounts of the right tools. So if you’re really good with text and your technique is okay, but you’re very charismatic on stage, you might have enough of the right stuff. Some singers are not talented with text. They have amazing voices and they do lots of other beautiful musical things. So everyone’s going to find the thing they love to do. I love using text and I gravitate towards text, especially in English, but I’ve sung in 32 languages or something like that. I love learning about language. Linguistics is another total nerdy area that I could, in a parallel universe, trail off into.
FJO: You don’t speak 32 languages?
LD: Heck no. No. I speak English and German, probably badly now.
FJO: So you did eventually learn German?
LD: I did eventually. I was an au pair. By hook or by crook, I was going to learn how to tell those little girls what to do and what not to do.
FJO: Now to take this back to people writing music for you. It’s a bit of double-edged sword because if someone’s writing music specifically for your voice, you have an obligation to keep this piece alive somehow. Otherwise it won’t have a life unless it’s something that theoretically another singer is going to be willing to make work—to wear the suit that was tailor-made for you.
FJO: So what were the first pieces written for you? What were their lives? I understand this can be sensitive, so I don’t expect you to name names if some of these pieces ultimately did not work for your voice for whatever reason.
LD: Yeah. I don’t remember exactly the first pieces written for me.
LD: Yeah, probably because I just did them once and then never did them again. Ruth Stone talked about writing a poem and you have to catch up to it. If you catch it, it all comes out. She was hearing the poem coming, and she had to run and get a pencil and hopefully she got to the page on time and hopefully she caught it. And if she didn’t catch it on time, she might catch it as it was leaving her and then write the poem backwards.
FJO: Oh, I love that.
LD: Working with a composer and a song, I think, is the same. The composer has to be catching the right wave with you, the right text, and the right moment. When all that happens and it works together, you come up with something that is undeniably right feeling. That’s an amazing moment. It happens really rarely in music in general, especially with new songs. I’ve done a lot of music of Shawn Jaeger, whom I have a very close working relationship with, but they weren’t necessarily written for me. But I think maybe they were written in the background with me in mind. I would field a lot of questions. How does it feel to sing an “e” vowel up here? How do you think it would sound in so-and-so’s voice? Maybe a more open vowel there would be better? And then later doing these pieces. So Shawn wrote a beautiful piece called Letters Made With Gold, which he wrote after we were married and that piece has a really special place in my heart, of course.“It’s really beautiful when you have that melding … and we see a really special part of the performer and … the composer.”
As far as other pieces written for me, it’s been a journey. Just like in any relationship, you learn how to communicate what your needs are. The better you get at doing that and working with someone else, the better of a relationship you can have. So I think the pieces that have been written for me recently have a lot of strength. And I’ve done a better job of letting them know this is really where I feel comfortable. Or this really needs a change. Eve Beglarian wrote a new piece for me called She Gets to Decide, which I’ll premiere in January at National Sawdust with this artist-in-residency project I’m bringing there called The Processing Series. That piece could not be more personal. It could not be more touching and beautiful. And I feel that it’s like a beautiful relationship where it’s just as much Eve as it is me. We really come together. She really got what I was giving her, and I’m able to take what she’s giving me. It’s a beautiful thing where neither of us gets erased. I think that’s an important thing, especially in vocal music when there’s text. I know there are some composers who are worried about being erased by the singer. You did make something. Let’s give it credit. You took the time to think of the notes and to put them on paper. As a performer, you don’t want to erase the composer’s voice. You don’t want to get your ego in the way of your performance so that we can’t see or hear the composer. So it’s really beautiful when you have that melding, where you’re coming halfway, and we see a really special part of the performer and a really special part of the composer. That to me is the best part of creating a new piece.
FJO: And the author of the text also shouldn’t be erased.
LD: Right, exactly. I just did a set of songs by André Previn. The text was by Toni Morrison. The pre-concert talk was about Toni Morrison. Obviously she’s an amazing writer, and thinker, and poet. So, yes, the author of the texts, the composer, the performer—all working together and not getting so precious where it can’t really be one person’s point of view. Because that is another beautiful thing that art does that not many other things do. It can be a point of view. And that is sacred. We should not try to get rid of that. When there’s a hierarchy and it’s not consensual, then it gets a little complicated. But it can be beautiful as a singer to help a composer bring something forward.
FJO: It’s interesting hearing you use the word beautiful because there’s another thing kind of stuck in my head in reading interviews people have done with you. You said that if you had a choice between choosing something that was beautiful or something that was original, you would go for the thing that was original.
FJO: I want to unpack that a bit. Beauty, of course, is totally subjective. To some people, that heavy metal crunch that you were talking about before is beautiful.
FJO: But I also think that two decades into the 21st century, it’s very hard to be objective about what’s original.
FJO: So what does this polarity between beauty and originality mean to you?
LD: Beauty as a singer in the singing world is very fraught for me. I think it is for a lot of women, and for all voices. In opera, there is such an emphasis on the sound of the voice. And for good reason. Acoustically, it needs to carry over an orchestra and through these huge halls, especially in America. For the Met, a 4,000-seat auditorium, you need to have a really solid instrument that can carry. The sound of a voice all by itself can be beautiful and moving. It can contain so much emotion without any text, without knowing the story, the plotline—just listening to someone sing. We all know what that’s like. However, as a singer, if you are cultured to only focus on the beautiful side of the voice, you are disregarding this whole other end of the spectrum. The voice has croaks and groans and cries and gritty air sounds. All that is part of human expression and part of our world. There’s also this transcendent, beautiful part.“What I love about new vocal music is that we have access to this amazing range of expression…”
What I want as a singer and what I want also as an audience member is for the performers on stage to access all of that. What I love about new music, especially new vocal music, is that we have access to this amazing range of expression and experience through sound, through the human voice. It hits you in a different way. Maybe because of mirror neurons, maybe because there’s a process that happens. You can feel what’s happening in my body on stage. So if I am doing my job, which is singing from a place that’s connected to my body, connected to my emotions, and connected to a real honesty, you will feel what I feel. That’s magical.
FJO: When I was looking up all this stuff about you last week, I also chanced upon this thing you created called the Contemporary Vocal Music Database, which is kind of the ultimate anti-tailored suit repertoire guide since it’s about all this repertoire that already exists.
FJO: So it seems to be completely contrary to everything we’ve been talking about, but it’s also a pretty amazing idea.
LD: Where do I start? Finding new vocal music is difficult, even being married to a composer. I had to kind of know from him how to get in touch with a composer. How do I know what songs they’ve written? How do I ask for a score? Is it okay to ask for a score? Do I need to pay to ask for a score? At what point do I pay? I had all these questions. If I had not been married to a composer or hadn’t known someone very well, I’d actually be embarrassed to ask. I should already know this. But I may not have known how to find vocal music. So thankfully I had that. But going around and looking at all these composers’ websites was just the most frustrating thing of all time. Everyone lists things in a different way. It’s very inconvenient. It takes a lot of time. And I love spreadsheets, so I was already keeping spreadsheets of vocal music that I knew. My friend Jeff Gavett was also keeping some of his own records, just pieces he knew about. So I thought, it’s the age of Google spreadsheets. Shouldn’t we just create a spreadsheet and invite everyone to it. I’m always trying to start a Google calendar of New York events that people should go to. It never took off. I think everyone was trying to start this at some point.
FJO: Oh yeah.
LD: I just wanted something that everyone could contribute to. Also people would ask me once they knew that I knew how to find vocal music, “How do I find new pieces?” And I thought, “Well, I’m only able to find pieces of composers I already know.” I have to know who Eliza Brown is to Google search “Eliza Brown composer” and find her website. Then I have to know where to go on her website. If I’m lucky, she lists her email, and I can email her and ask her, “Hey, is there a recording, or can you send me a MIDI of this piece, if there is no recording?” But I’m not accessing the thousands of composers that are out there who have written vocal music and don’t have a publisher, because who has a publisher now? Almost no one. So I just thought, “We can tag team this y’all; we can do this.” So I just started emailing composers saying, “Hey, would you mind adding your music to this.” It’s a very low energy, high yield resource. And so we started sharing through Resonant Bodies. Anyone can add music to it. There’s a form on the Res Bods website. You can just email and say, “Hey, I would like to add my music.” So many singers use this. You can look by poet. You can look by range. You can look by instrumentation. And we’re working on turning it into a real database that has a better search function. Right now, it’s a little Wild West, with anyone being able to edit it. So it’s an ongoing project. I hope that it has helped. It’s been a resource for me. I go and look at it when I’m looking for repertoire. I’ll see that it gets updated and then I’ll go listen to pieces. It’s a constant source of inspiration for me. So composers, please put your things on it!
FJO: To talk a bit more specifically about Resonant Bodies—your concept of curation is to hand over the keys to the castle; you curate the people who then actually curate the program.
FJO: There’s something wonderfully collaborative about the way this festival is put together. You’re not choosing repertoire; you’re choosing people who are going to then choose the repertoire they do. So how did this come about? What was the formula for this?
LD: When I moved here in 2012 after my master’s at Bard, New York was so alive. There was so much going on. I was working with Contemporaneous, an ensemble that I’ve sung with since 2010, and I was going to so many shows. I was seeing a lot of singers who I just fell in love with completely. And I’d heard of people, but had never really gotten to see them do their thing. As a singer myself, I was getting hired to do a specific thing. You’re starting your life as a freelance musician, which means being a hired gun, being paid to do something. You have to make your body believe the thing that you’re doing. Otherwise you’re singing a lie. So every piece that you do, you’re really trying to invest your being in getting 100% behind it. But I felt that the pieces that I was performing at that time were just a small sliver of what I wanted to express and the kind of music that I wanted to do. I frankly was doing a lot of what I would now call Minimalism or Downtown composers. I love that music. And I love pop music and I love metal; I love all these things. But I also really wanted to get into this thorny, complex stuff. The stuff of my Wien Modern days, my baptism in fire. I wanted to do that, too. I wanted to do it all, and I felt like there wasn’t a space for me to do that. And the thought of putting on a recital was daunting. One of my mentors, Lucy Shelton, said, “You need to do a recital in New York so that people know who you are,” so they know what you do when it’s your own time and your own money basically. This is really important for any artist: Who are you as an artist when you’re not for sale? This is such an important question!“This is really important for any artist: Who are you as an artist when you’re not for sale?”
So the economics of it popped into my head immediately. I didn’t want to just do a recital by myself. I wanted Charlotte Mundy to do a recital with me. I wanted Jeff Gavett to do a recital, too. I wanted to hear what Christie Finn is going to do. I wanted to hear what Amirtha Kidambi is going to do. I wanted to hear all these artists. Also, I knew that all those people didn’t necessarily know each other, and I wanted them to hear each other. I wanted us all to geek out, to get our musical science community together and hear stuff. And all of our friends could go to the concerts. We’ll make it very convenient. I love convenience, or a list or a spreadsheet. So that was the beginning of Resonant Bodies. I just needed to do this thing. I had a desire to let people know this is who I am as an artist. It’s all these things.
On the first Resonant Bodies festival, I did a new piece by Doug Balliet. And I had Beat Furrer and Jason Eckardt and Shawn Jaeger. You have a bunch of different sounds there. And I’m always that way. I’m always hungry and grabby and eclectic. So Resonant Bodies evolved from that. What I love in an experience with people is to know what they’re passionate about, to know what lights them up. What are they on fire about? Every singer has a magic. Singers know when they are on fire on stage. And they know the pieces that really capture who they are. It might be a piece that’s written specifically for them. It might be a piece that was written for someone else that they love. I would never dream of telling a singer, “Hey, you should do this specific piece. I want to hear you do that piece.” Because you’re only going to get the second best thing from a singer that way, I think. But if you ask a singer, “What do you love to sing? What lights you up? Right now?” Because it has to align with their life moment. Then things feel urgent. I want to hear your urgent music. Again, I have to thank Dawn Upshaw, Kayo Iwama, and my other professors at Bard College for really instilling me with this—and frankly all my teachers in my undergrad. You do what you want to do. You follow your passion and your hunger. I’m so glad that I had so many mentors asking me to do that.
I remember programming something in my master’s recital. I thought I should learn how to do 12-tone music. I’d never done anything straight 12-tone. So I picked some Webern songs. And I learned them. I was performing them at this recital class and I got the same reaction from both Dawn and Kayo. They said, “Lucy, you’re doing these really well. And they fit your voice really well. Do you love them?” I remember thinking, “Of course I love them; it’s Webern and I’m a new music singer” and having this real crisis: “I’m a new music singer and I actually don’t love Webern.” So I took them off my recital, because I realized that it just wasn’t connecting with part of me. The text wasn’t urgent. The music wasn’t urgent. It was nice. Intellectually I connected with it. But on a spiritual, physical, emotional level, it wasn’t going on. That was a super important lesson for me early on. When it’s my time, I don’t program stuff that doesn’t move me on a deep layer.
FJO: And what’s so wonderful about you realizing that is there are people for whom it does resonate. And they do wonderfully with them. You don’t have to do everything. You don’t always have to eat all the vegetables. Instead you should be aiming for the musical equivalent of the tastiest meal you could possibly imagine, whatever is in it.
FJO: So is there stuff that isn’t fair game for a singer to choose when coming up with a Resonant Bodies program? I assume if a singer said, “I want to do six Bellini arias,” that’s not going to fly. But maybe it could, I don’t know, if they were sung backwards or something like that.
LD: Well, if Jen Walsh wanted to sing six Bellini arias, I would be curious. But if Peter Tantsits wants to sing six Bellini arias, he can sing them on a different concert series. For Resonant Bodies, we’re all part of an ecosystem. I’m not trying to duplicate what’s happening elsewhere. There are other vocal things happening. There’s lots of opera. There’s lots of art song. So we’re not necessarily covering art song. Art song may appear on Resonant Bodies, but it’s not necessarily that. We’re focused on singers as artists or people who identify as vocalists. Maybe they identify newly as vocalists, like Dennis Sullivan who was on our festival in 2014. He was like, “You want me to do what?” I had seen Dennis perform, and I’m like, “You’re a vocalist. Just accept it. You should start wearing that hat.” But some things aren’t appropriate, and I’ve tried to do a better job as a curator in making sure the flow is really excellent. So that means talking with artists in advance about what exactly they want to bring. Now when I’m contacting singers, I’m not just saying, “Don’t tell me what you’re doing until June. [I’m also saying] I need to know in advance what the top three things that you would want to do are.” Some of them only give me one. And they say this is the only thing I really want to do. And if I like that thing, then I say, “Great!”
FJO: It’s interesting, all the threes. You ask them for three things. You program three singers on a concert. And the festival lasts three nights.
LD: What does it mean? [laughs] Three is a great number for having a shape, right? If you have two dots, you have a line. If you have three dots, you have a geometric shape. I think the same thing is true in a concert experience. If you have two, it becomes this polarity. If you have three, it’s a journey.
FJO: And Resonant Bodies has become a journey in a very literal sense. This thing that began as a modest annual New York City event is also happening in different parts of the world. It was in Chicago. It was in Australia.
LD: Twice. Jess Aszodi and Jane Sheldon made it happen in Australia. We had Australian singers who were part of it early on and actually I met Jess Aszodi at the Aldeburgh Festival in England before I ever conceived Resonant Bodies. They saw the format that we had, which is basically let’s get local singers together and bring in a couple extra people and let singers program what they want to do. And they said this is a format that can work in Australia. Let’s give it a go. I remember Jane sitting down with me at lunch and being like, “Do you trust me?” And I was like, “Okay. Let’s try it. What do we have to lose?” So now we’ve done it in Chicago and technically we also did it in Canada. We did it in Melbourne and Sydney, and we’ll do it in Sydney again. My vision for Resonant Bodies is that we go all over the world. I want to connect this bandwidth of singer. I think it happens all over the place. I’m following that hunch. I see it happening. It’s happening in Indonesia. It’s happening in Brazil. It’s happening all over the world, and I want to connect these singers who are taking the thing that they do and they’re going just a little further with it. They want to experiment. They want to expand it. I want those people who are on the frontier of whatever they’re doing, or people who are at a crossroads of two things that have never been crossed before.“I want us all to evolve to find that next step. What’s the next innovative, interesting thing?”
The beautiful thing about a singer is that you contain this history of where you came from and the current moment, and you become this embodiment of colliding worlds. So that’s what I want to see. Then I want to put all of those people together and let them hear each other’s music, and be inspired. I remember the first time I heard a Meredith Monk piece, my mind was blown. But since then, I think I’ve heard a lot of people trying to recreate Meredith Monk because they actually haven’t heard Meredith Monk. So I want us all to evolve to find that next step. What’s the next innovative, interesting thing? What’s going to give us more tools to express? There’s so much human experience. The voice really can get at a lot of it with and without text. So the more tools that we have, the more expression we have. The more we can understand each other, the more we can connect. It’s just the most beautiful thing.