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Three Voices’ Harder Than One

Above: UCSD graduate student Jessica Aszodi rehearses in the theater where she'll perform one of the toughest vocal works in contemporary music.

Aired 2/21/12 on KPBS News.

Imagine singing for an hour straight with only a few seconds to take a breath. That’s what a soprano at UCSD is doing, as she attempts to perform one of the hardest vocal works in contemporary music. KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone visited her at rehearsal.

Aszodi rehearses Morton Feldman's "Three Voices," accompanied by two speakers playing prerecorded versions of herself.
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Above: Aszodi rehearses Morton Feldman's "Three Voices," accompanied by two speakers playing prerecorded versions of herself.

Soprano Jessica Aszodi stands alone on a black stage, facing rows of empty orange seats. She’s flanked by two raised speakers, which in this case, offer more than amplification.

The 25-year-old Australian cues an audio engineer up in the rafters and suddenly two different pre-recorded versions of Aszodi emanate from the speakers. She, as the live performer, sings along with the voices from the speakers, and the result is a trio ensemble made up entirely of Jessica Aszodi's voice. She exclaims, “It’s like three whole me’s singing at the audience!”

Aszodi is a graduate student in the music department at UCSD and she’s rehearsing her thesis project.

She chose a famously difficult piece of music called “Three Voices,” by composer Morton Feldman. (Feldman originally wrote "Three Voices" for Joan La Barbara).

Susan Narucki is a professor in the music department at UCSD and she’s Aszodi’s advisor. “It’s rare for people to do ‘Three Voices’ because it takes an enormous amount of time to prepare it.”

Aszodi can testify to that. Lately, she’s been spending the majority of her afternoons in this state-of-the-art theater, located in the Conrad Prebys Music Center at UCSD. “Mentally, it’s a strange thing to sing along with yourself for hours on end. “ She adds: “Very few artists like to listen to themselves for hours and that’s what I’m doing right now.”

Aszodi has the bobbed haircut of silent film star Louise Brooks. She wears red lipstick, and the two together lend her an air of old-fashioned glamour. She trained as a classical opera singer and performed with the Victorian Opera Company in Melbourne, Australia.

She left opera to study under Narucki, who’s one of the foremost new music vocalists in the country.

Composer Morton Feldman.
Enlarge this image

Above: Composer Morton Feldman.

Narucki says to perform “Three Voices,” you have to be ready to sing for an hour (some versions are 90 minutes) straight. “It’s a stamina test. There are times when Feldman wants you to sing a word continuously for about three or four minutes and he doesn’t give you much of a chance to take a breath.”

Aszodi is good-humored about the challenges. “So if I were to perform what was exactly on the page, I wouldn’t breathe for seven minutes. And we would have dead soprano.”

As she sings, Aszodi has to decide where in the composition she can sacrifice the rhythm, just to take a breath. She’s even noted on the score where to swallow. “I am practicing at which points I will swallow my saliva or else I’ll forget and get to a point of no return. “

Performing “Three Voices” is also giving Aszodi a chance to exercise a different kind of performance muscle than the one she’s used in opera. “Nobody gets to throw a hissy fit like a diva on the stage. That’s a way for some of us with big personalities to exorcise those demons.”

Aszodi says she tries to show no emotion or expression when performing “Three Voices.” “It places demands on the performer that make it almost impossible for us to show off at any point.”

Feldman’s composition is meditative, and the interwoven textures of Aszodi’s three voices have a lulling effect. Narucki says, “There’s a lot of repetition of pattern and even though it’s very long in terms of duration, it’s contemplative and very soothing."

Mid-century poet Frank O'Hara, whose poem "Wind" was the basis of Morton Feldman's composition "Three Voices."

Above: Mid-century poet Frank O'Hara, whose poem "Wind" was the basis of Morton Feldman's composition "Three Voices."

Feldman composed “Three Voices” late in his career, in the early 80s. It's inspired by a poem by Frank O'Hara called "Wind." His music set the stage for minimalism and the work of composers like Philip Glass. Once you’ve heard Feldman’s quiet, subtle music, it’s hard to match that with his persona. Aszodi has read as much she can about he composer. “He was enormous. He was tall. He was loud. He was brash.” Narucki agrees. “Morton Feldman, for a guy who played with delicate textures and long durations was a man with an immense laugh who liked to smoke cigars. He was a very big personality.”

Back in the rehearsal space, Aszodi walks over to the piano, which has been silent until now. She plays the same key over and over again and matches the note with her voice. “I don’t have perfect pitch and this piece goes on for a long time, sometimes without much reference for me. So at times, I’m running back and forth to the piano just to tell me whether or not I was doing the right pitches.”

Aszodi says she’s rehearsed the entire piece only twice. Both experiences left her spent. “I just sort of wandered, staggered, lost, over to the chairs and sat down. I’m going to be so exhausted when this is over.”

Exhausted, but proud.

Aszodi says she wanted to tackle “Three Voices” now, before she graduates, because she may never have the time or resources to do it again. The challenge of the piece seduced her and now she can’t let it go.

Jessica Aszodi will perform “Three Voices” on Wednesday night at 8pm at the Conrad Prebys Music Center at UCSD.

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