Voiceless voices: Jason Kahn & Antoine Läng, Biliana Voutchkova

Thursday 13 May 2021

To uncultured ears such as mine, avant-garde vocal performance often falls into a sort of uncanny valley; the moments in which it resembles human expression without reaching verbalisation are when it seems most alien to human experience. I’m listening again to Jason Kahn & Antoine Läng’s Insub release Paratopia, which pairs two improvisations by the duo using their voices as the sound source. The first piece documents a recent performance, made in a forest during lockdown last year. The only technological interventions made to their voices is through the use of megaphones; these amplify small, incidental mouth sounds over vocal content. More importantly, they act as filters which thin out the voice, hollowing out the vocalisations for greater prominence on aspirations and fricatives. For a long time, the voice is not identifiable and the piece sounds like an improvisation for found objects and abraded percussion. Long swatches of varying grain and textures, verging on sound sculpture. This could be detrimental to a recorded percussion performance but the use of voice adds more than novelty, adding different details that would never arise otherwise. The forest ambience adds it own subtle complexity. Once the piece passes twenty minutes more recognisable vocalisations start to emerge, but for me the effect was less transformative and more left me wondering where the track could have been truncated to have kept the sounds in a different realm, outside of human measurement. The second track captures one of the duo’s first performances, with voices weaving in and out of the greay zone between man and nature with that restless urge to make more of a show which has been almost tamed in the later recording.

Last year I reviewed Biliana Voutchkova’s recordings of Ernstalbrecht Stiebler’s violin pieces dedicated to her. Her Takuroku recording Seed of Songs presents her as composer as well as performer. As with many Takuroku releases, it documents her response to forced inactivity in the year of Coronavirus. Unexpectedly, it doesn’t depict the artist at work, or even in a prolonged moment of quiescent contemplation. Seed of Songs was born out of attentiveness, from time without motivation to create. Late in the year she responded to this existential act of listening by recording small sounds – violin, her voice, objects, environmental sounds. Early in the new year she created this collage which is both empty and full, an excercise in receptiveness to what might become. Voutchkova’s voice is present throughout, even if mostly through its absence, as an intermittent thread. In repeated listenings it sounds different each time. One time I was surprised that it was much emptier than I remembered it; this last time I just realised that the violin appears much earlier than I had thought and small sounds teem throughout. Things that Voutchkova might recognise of herself – voice, violin, handmade sounds – remain faintly distinguishable from the surrounding environment. Like Dürer’s Melencolia I, it depicts an impasse which has conditioned the mind to a heightened state of perception, ready to make things new.