The voice changes things. Texts, when they’re uttered, shift with their speaker; songs, given the chance, will sway with a singer. At hcmf// 2018, Juliet Fraser performed Yes, an 80-minute filibuster of bombast that composer Rebecca Saunders had disguised as music. The suggestive musical movements of Ensemble Musikfabrik steered the piece in a universe of directions, while Fraser stood in the middle, a voice to coalesce and collapse. The text of Saunders’ piece, taken from James Joyce’s literary masterpiece Uylsses – and namely its ending, where the word ‘yes’ is manifested in so many different ways it confounds all meaning – blew up. Fraser took its words and ran with them, scrambling up iteration and incident until the whole thing ended in the way that the final word of Joyce’s book, yes, did: from within everything that had come before it.
These are the kind of big occasions that Fraser loves to make happen. She was instrumental in founding EXAUDI, an ensemble who have gone to the cliff edge of contemporary music. They’ve taken on ‘maximal complexity, microtonality and experimental aesthetics’, and live in vivacious pursuit of the present. Singing at various octaves, Fraser has squared up to new music like an opponent in the ring, joining EXAUDI in tackling music well above their station. At hcmf// 2018, the group performed Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s new work Carnaval – Fraser on a very high soprano, approaching the volatile silence of his music with the kind of grace it requires. It is the kind of large-scale project Fraser loves to walk into, head-first and blindfolded. The bigger a challenge, the better.
Fraser is the kind of artist who works on – and commits to – special projects, seeing ideas out to their resolute end. At hcmf// 2019, she delves into a new collaboration with Huddersfield composer Naomi Pinnock. It is the perfect combination: Pinnock, an artist who opens up space, offers an evocative sonic map for her performers to express themselves on. Fraser, on the other hand, is an artist who finds herself in the music, colouring the music she’s playing with her own emotional response. Joined by Sonar Quartett, Fraser’s voice will be a guide through the cloud of Pinnock’s typically ambiguous I am, I am. She faces a different challenge in Pinnock’s work: interpreting something less forceful in its narrative, more about what the listener feels than anything.
EXAUDI is made up of musicians who like to push themselves past obstacles, whether technical or emotional. Co-founder James Weeks notes that they have previously put themselves in ‘tense, pressurised’ positions, performing repertoire they might be ‘inexperienced’ in. Not only does this no-boundaries approach level up the artists, it can serve the piece. Fraser is an example of this: as a solo artist, she has pushed herself into positions that seem impossible. One of them is Three Voices, a rare vocal work by Morton Feldman, a personal treasure that Fraser has pried open for new audiences.
For Fraser, a lot of what made Three Voices so attractive was how difficult it was. Feldman didn’t necessarily write the piece with a long life in mind, nor people outside of his initial circle of friends. Grieving for his friends Philip Guston and Frank O’Hara, he positioned the voices as a sort of funeral communication, the central vocal of the piece communicating with two other voices on loudspeaker. The piece’s outwardly emotional nature comes bleeding out of its score. As Fraser says, it contains essential notation, but misses any other direction completely, eschewing musical specifics: ‘there is, for example, no tempo indication, no vowel specified for the many lengthy passages without text, no dynamics bar an initial ppp, and no guidance as to which voice should be the ‘live’ one.’ The question for Fraser, recording and performing the piece, is twofold: how do you actually play the thing, for one, but also, how do you regenerate its humanity, its meaning, now that it doesn’t belong to the people it used to?
Perceptive to these kinds of questions, Fraser makes for an ideal performer, one who can build personal relationships to material while building on its histories. Interpreting a musician’s work is as much about listening to it as it is performing it; there’s something in being able to feel its gravity, to understand it as more than a score with notes. There’s no better composer to learn this lesson from than Naomi Pinnock – a composer who cares most of all about inexpressible feelings and specific experiences. Fraser is the singer, with the voice, that can make those things happen. She can take a piece of music’s context and wrap it up in that singular moment when it’s performed.
Photo: Juliet Fraser © Dimitri Djuric