What is a voice performance? (1)


When Alfred Wolfsohn returned to teaching voice after the Second World War (this time in London) in his circle of students a number of voices quickly developed to an extraordinary vocal range. With this development the question has arisen as to how and in what context these extended voices can be used artistically. Wolfsohn hoped for composers who would write parts for the extended voices, which encompassed all the classical vocal ranges*. Roy Hart, his early student and predecessor, collaborated with a number of contemporary composers** and invited authors to write pieces for him and the Roy Hart Theatre***. In the 1960s and 1970s theatre was particularly suitable as a platform for radical artistic experimentation.

The question of which artistic possibilities the liberated voice offers is still relevant today and must be asked anew again and again. Besides my work in the field of music and theatre, my preoccupation with this question has led me into the direction of performance art. This is not necessarily an obvious consequence and I would like to present here a few experiences and reflections that I have encountered along the way. 

An important reason why I turned to performance art is that I realised how much and exclusively the voice has a serving function in theatrical contexts, in recitations and in music - however unconventional the forms may be. The voice serves the purpose of introducing a text, a piece, a character, a melody or an improvisational phrase, a composition or whatever****. I was instead interested in the idea of giving the voice the leading role in an artistic setting. In other words, I want to find out what meaning and effect the sound of the voice itself can develop, independently of text and music. 

So what remains of the voice when it is freed from all its serving functions? What is the voice in itself?

Performance art offers me a framework in which I can pursue this question in a way that I can't find anywhere else. 

*In the 1950s this did not go beyond a few attempts. One composition by the German composer Dieter Schnebel deserves special attention. In the score of his work "Für Stimmen (...missa est) dt. 31,6" he speaks of Wolfsohnian  voices, referring to the voices he heard in a radio programme about Wolfsohn. Unfortunately, however, he never tried to contact Wolfsohn, as he told me in a telephone conversation.

 **With Karlheinz Stockhausen and Peter Maxwell Davies, among others.

 ***One of the authors was Paul Pörtner, who also included Roy Hart in radiophonic radio plays.

****This seems to be a kind of fate of the voice, which was already reduced by Plato to its serving function. Cf. on this from me: Wege zur Stimme, p.23ff.

Die deutsche Version dieses Textes ist erschienen in meinem Buch: In Gedanken: singen


Außerdem gibt es eine deutschsprachige Version auf einem anderem Blog:


Hasenapotheke Performance 2021 (photo Marita Loosen-Fox)

Performance Art today

Through my involvement with Performance Art, a tendency has developed in my artistic work to search for the possible role of the human voice in the visual arts in general. Does the human voice, which no longer moves within the framework of predefined aesthetic parameters but examines all its vocal possibilities for artistic use, have a place in the space of visual art? What could this be, a vocal sculpture or installation? Or indeed: What is a vocal performance? In this last question, I start from an understanding of performance art that does not assign this art form to the performing arts, but sees the roots of performance art in painting and sculpture. Today, the concept of performance has become much more extended than it was originally intended to be*, and perhaps it is time to find a more appropriate and, above all, less exhausted term for one's own work**. But for the time being I will stick to the term and try to position my work as a voice artist within the framework of performance art. 

Hardly any other term has become so widespread in the scene of the last twenty years, encompassing all disciplines of art, as performance. Strangely enough, something very similar has happened in parallel in the business world***. This cannot be pure coincidence. The cultural theorist Christoph Bartmann makes the appropriate claim that performance is the art form of advanced capitalism. The manager and the performance artist (of both sexes) are the brotherly/sisterly prototypes for the "entrepreneurial self". For both, working with processes plays a major role. For both, what used to be called self-realisation is an important component. Become who you are! Nietzsche said, and today this is one of the great calls to all those who want to act halfway successfully in this system. According to Bartmann, the performance artist shows what this could mean. "Only in performance do we prove that we have a self at all and that we are reliably different from others. That we are ourselves when we work, and not merely recipients of instructions. (...) Artistic performances, no matter how radically unconventional they may be, contribute significantly to the modelling of our new, entrepreneurial subjectivity.“**** 

The criticism that performance art is a model for the agents of neoliberal capitalism cannot simply be ignored by art. On the other hand, it must not let itself be fooled by this. For there remains (at least) one crucial difference: while neoliberalism believes it has found in the entrepreneurial self an image of humanity that serves the purposes and needs of the late capitalist system most effectively, performance art is an art form that uses its means to radically question what it can mean to be human at all today. Incidentally, this is a task that vocal art in the tradition of Alfred Wolfsohn and Roy Hart has also undertaken since its beginnings. 

*Cf. the graphic that Boris Nieslony and Gerhard Dirmoser have developed on the subject of performance art, which is itself artistic again: http://gerhard_dirmoser.public1.linz.at/A0/Perform_Basis06_A0.pdf

**The American artist Terry Fox was one of the pioneers of performance art in the 60s and 70s of the last century. He and his work had a great influence on me. In a conversation with him, Terry Fox told me that he, like many other pioneers of performance art, stopped performing at the end of the 70s at the latest. They all had the feeling that the time for this kind of art was over, that the basic social conditions no longer allowed them to make subversive art in this way. Performance was about to fail because of its success, which has been growing ever since. He avoided the term performance and called his actions, which, incidentally, often had a sonic character, situations. I borrow that term from him from time to time!

***The term emerged more or less simultaneously in three areas in the USA in the 1950s, when Peter Drucker began to write his management concepts, Paul Austin introduced the performative turn in philosophy with the idea of the speech act, and indeed artists began to place the process of creating art on an equal basis with the so-called result.

****Christoph Bartmann, Leben im Büro, München 2012, p. 2016. More about this subject in my Essay: Künstler sein im Kapitalismus, S.44ff.

Voice in the arts

The extended voice can be used and found in all performing arts. There are voice artists who expand the framework of what is commonly understood by singing in the various disciplines: in Jazz and Improvised Music, in New Music, into which it has found its way partly through Roy Hart, but also in modern and especially in the so-called post-dramatic theatre - where the Roy Hart Theatre has also done pioneering work. In addition, the extended voice can be found in literature and poetry, in connection with dance and in performance art.

But what is the difference between the use of the extended voice in the classical vocal arts and in performance, leaving aside the question of the servant function of the voice?

Before I can start to define this difference more precisely, I have to talk about what a performance is for me in general. As I said, this is an overused term; nevertheless, it is possible to give a few conditions that at least capture my understanding of performance art more precisely. My suggestion is:

Performance is an artistic process with a more or less open result,

- in which the performer is part of the process as a physically (vocally) existing human being,

- which has a relationship of some kind to the public, i.e. can be followed more or less directly by people (I avoid the term audience!*),

- which takes place within a well-defined framework of self-imposed rules and found or installed conditions, within which the unpredictable may and should happen,

- into which external factors can intervene, such as real time or location-dependent features, 

- in which coincidences can intervene,

- in which decisions can be made during the process that influence the course in a previously indeterminable way.

*I also don't want to exclude the possibility that there are performances where no one but the performers are present and which are not documented in order to show them later as a video.

following  Performance Köln 2018 (Kunstraum Dorissa Lem)

Performance as experiment

Performance art has the character of an experiment. The situation created in a performance is an experimental set-up, but one that has a few crucial differences from a scientific experiment. The scientist will make every effort not to have any direct influence on the course of the experiment. In a scientific experiment, the researcher sets up the experiment, but afterwards remains entirely in the position of an observer, in order, as is said, not to falsify the result. This is quite different in performance art. Performance artists make themselves part of the experiment. They enter the experimental set-up and let the events of the process initiated by the situation have an effect on them. In performance, I am both a researcher and a research object. 

An artistic experiment also differs from a scientific one in that the execution of the experiment in the performance already represents the result. In science, the result consists of the data provided by the experiment and the conclusions to be drawn from it. That is not what art is about. The action is already the result. Artistic research in performance art does not collect data; it explores the world not as an object but as the world into which I am born as a human being and to which I belong in every way. Both scientists and artists are researchers. They both want to understand something about the world, but the understanding they seek, the way they want to understand, is entirely different*.

*Here another fundamental difference between the manager who sees himself as a performer and a performance artist becomes apparent. The manager's activities are aimed at good performance, which - similar to and yet different from science - will be reflected in figures. It is about success in entrepreneurial action, which always points beyond the concrete activity to the economic consequences of the actions. The performance artist would reject this means-purpose logic for her art actions. the performance is the result. Both in the sense of the success of the planned action and in relation to the reaction of the audience, success or failure are secondary aspects, albeit possibly ones that are longed-for.

Grundgesetz-Performance  Köln 2019 Galerie Koppelmann, 

Voice performance?

Which special conditions are added to the idea of performance art as outlined here when it is a voice performance? 

Of course, the voice can in principle be present in any performance, without therefore already being a voice performance. I distinguish for this reason between performances in which the voice appears as one aspect alongside other equally important elements, themes or ideas and, on the other hand, the actual voice performance, which is designed from the voice and its possibilities and in which the voice is at the centre. All other aspects of the performance, such as the space, the temporal structure, the rules and conditions of the situation, subordinate themselves to the voice or arrange themselves around the voice as the central moment. 

In voice performance, the performer is not only and not primarily present with the body, but with the voice. This changes the whole concept of space in which the performance takes place. With the eyes - which usually perceive the performer's body - I can focus on one area of the space and block out the other actions that may be going on at the same time. This is not so easy with voices and sounds. Every vocal sound is equally present in the room, only differentiated by its tonal qualities. In principle, I always hear everything that happens sonically in a room at the same time. Especially for group performances, this results in the necessity to consider in vocal actions that the simultaneity of events is reflected in the auditory perception of the audience and the performers. In body-oriented performances, I as an artist can move relatively independently of other performers acting in the same space. My voice, on the other hand, is always experienced immediately by myself and by everyone else in the space in connection with the sound events taking place at the same time. 

In performance, as I understand it, the extended voice has a different function or characteristic than in other art forms. In music or theatre, the voice is in the extended sense a tool that I as a voice artist can use/play as skillfully as possible. In a performance things are different for me. Here I do not simply have my (whole) voice at my disposal, but I provide my voice with a framework or a field in which it can act as freely as possible. Free here also means free of my ideas, thoughts, concepts. The "entrepreneurial self" has to hold back here in favour of the openness of the voice, which can thus act in ways that are unforeseen, even for me. These are all aspects that can also appear with the voice in other artistic contexts, but here they are at the very centre. Through the auditory access to the performatively designed world that shows itself to me, my perception of the world as a whole becomes different. Nietzsche says: "The ear hears the sound! A completely different wonderful conception of the same world“*. The subject that dominates the world is constituted in the eye. In hearing, I am integrated into the space of sound. The things seen are within my reach. Hearing, I am within the reach of sound and thus of the world. Seeing I construct my world, hearing I am exposed (in) it and become part of it. 

*F. Nietzsche: Nachgelassene Fragmente 1869-74, Bd. 7, ed. by V. Colli-Montinari, p. 440

Voice performance and improvisation

How does the idea of vocal performance relate to improvisation as an artistic form? In our work with vocal group performances (with the ensemble KörperSchafftKlang), we try to look at and use both forms separately, although there is of course overlap. But improvisation is first and foremost a musical form, and the way in which improvisation sounds together follows musical principles of listening and responding to each other. In vocal performance, as I understand it, something else happens. On the one hand, we try to be as open as possible with our ears to the vocal events that occur in the space. But the voices remain largely active within the framework of what I have chosen to do with my voice. As a result, unforeseen and unheard sounds happen, whose musical character arises at the earliest during listening and not already through the way I react (just improvising) to another sound. This does not prevent voices from sounding together and the performers from exploring these moments with each other. The free play of the voices with each other also has its space here. But what is more interesting here is that the often very strict guidelines given to the voices in the performance lead to sonic events that would be very unlikely in a musical or improvisational approach*.

*Together with my partner Agnes Pollner, I experimented with these ideas on the CD Wellen Laenge. On the one hand, there are very strict rules of breathing and the way we let a vocal sound begin or end; at the same time, we listened in a very concentrated way to our two voices, but then gave the voices the freedom to act and react within this framework independently of our musical ideas, so to speak. A sound example can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/hoerfeld/expansion-1.

following, Performance Sokolovsko/Poland 2017

Aspects of my vocal performances

In my solo vocal performances, a few preferences and patterns have developed over time. I work relatively rarely with sound amplification and microphone, because this changes the space and the feeling of the space very much. The microphone and speakers create their own sound space that is added to the original space where people are present together. This is often confusing and detracts from the effect of the original space that is chosen in a performance for a reason. Listening to a voice, in a performative context, means sharing a common space with the person who is showing his or her voice. Electronic amplification of voices represents an artificial alteration of this space. This can of course be very appealing, but in my work it has turned out that it is often better to let the space itself resonate. Only then can a vocal performance interact with place and space. 

In my vocal performances, the audience is usually invited to come and leave the place whenever they want. The relationship with the audience is one of the central and often difficult aspects in the installation of a performative situation. For me, it is important to invite the audience to listen to what kind of sound event emerges in the space with my voice, without thinking too much about music. That also means pushing the idea of a concert as far into the background as possible. Instead, I have in mind the idea of a vocal sculpture that you listen to for a while and then decide how long you want to spend with it. You might just walk past it for a moment, or you might get curious, sit down and try to establish contact with the vocal sculpture. Because of the freedom of choice I give the audience, they become part of the situation and the atmosphere in a very strong way. This in turn also has an effect on my voice and its movements. 

In a voice performance I try to be in deep contact with the different dimensions of my being: with my body, the inner situation, my reactions to the outer situation and the changes that happen in it. At the same time, I let my voice act as freely as possible from myself. Although I try to follow the rules I give my voice in advance, I don't want to express my feelings, thoughts or pain directly vocally during the performative process. Rather, I try to give my voice the space to move freely as I enter into close contact with everything that is happening internally and externally. Strong connection and great freedom. 

So what is a voice performance? Every artist can only find an answer to this question for him or herself. But by trying to circumscribe the idea of voice performance for me, it is intended to make clear that voice performance is an artistic form that differs from other forms of performing art and possibly offers completely new approaches to acting with the voice within the artistic sphere. 

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