Tag: contemporary vocal music

Lucy Dhegrae: The Art and Science Behind the Voice

A woman with pink hair sitting and her reflection in the mirror.

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 and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • Bodies retain memory, history, experience, and emotion; they’re history books and maps of who we are.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • I wanted to be a laryngologist.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • My voice is nothing like Montserrat Caballé’s, but in high school I was trying to channel her.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • I played my composition and he was mildly tolerant.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • I struggled as an undergraduate. My voice did not fit into anything.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • I think a lot of composers feel intimidated to write for the voice.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • Not many people know how to do text well as a singer.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    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 and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • What I love about new vocal music is that we have access to this amazing range of expression.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • This is really important for any artist: Who are you as an artist when you’re not for sale?

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • I want us all to evolve to find that next step. What’s the next innovative, interesting thing?

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    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!”

Frank. J. Oteri in conversation with Lucy Dhegrae in her Manhattan apartment
August 19, 2019, 2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan